Road test shows gaps in plastic: Holidaymakers may be taking a risk by relying on credit and debit cards. Elizabeth Heathcote reports

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The Independent Online
MORE and more holidaymakers are relying on plastic abroad. According to a Barclaycard survey of its customers, 93 per cent took their cards on holiday last year, compared with 75 per cent who took foreign currency, 66 per cent travellers' cheques and 14 per cent Eurocheques. Nearly pounds 660m was spent with their cards, 88 per cent more than in 1987.

The increase is not limited to Barclaycard. The reason, according to the consensus, is convenience, flexibility, especially in emergencies, and security with an increased sense of crime against tourists. But just how much protection does standard card membership offer? If your card is lost or stolen abroad, how readily will the issuer provide assistance?

The answer varies widely between cards. Traditionally, the best has been American Express with 24-hour Global Assistance via 2,000 offices worldwide, offering emergency funds and a replacement card within a day if collected from the nearest office. General advice on local medical or legal services is also available, along with assistance in getting a new passport and contacting relatives at home.

If you have seen the Rowan Atkinson adverts on television, you will know that Barclaycard now has a similar service, International Rescue. Like Amex, it offers a cash advance up to pounds 500 and emergency assistance and includes direct delivery of a replacement card anywhere in the world within 24 hours.

People with cards issued by other banks or building societies may find themselves less well provided for, however.

The biggest card issuers apart from Barclays - Midland, Lloyds and National Westminster banks - provide an emergency number that accepts reverse charge calls and which appears on statements, but this is only to cancel stolen or lost cards. A new card will usually be issued, but normally to the holder's UK address and can take a week or more to arrive. There are no automatic emergency card replacement or formalised cash advance facilities on standard cards issued through these banks unless a premium is paid in advance.

That said, certain cardholders will now find their situation improved. MasterCard International, one of the two biggest credit card agencies, has launched its own service for international travellers. In a deal set up with Thomas Cook a year ago, but only now being put into action, MasterCard and Access cardholders, regardless of the issuing bank, can get emergency assistance at any one of 2,000 outlets owned by Thomas Cook in 120 countries.

This includes a replacement card within 24 hours in the United States and within two working days elsewhere. MasterCard is also in the process of organising cash advance facilities between pounds 100- pounds 1,000 worldwide; at present this is limited to France, India, the Czech and Slovak republics, the US and Canada. Thomas Cook will also help with emergency communications, although calls are charged for.

Visa, its competitor, also has a scheme, the Global Customer Assistance Service (GCAS), with emergency card replacement the next working day and cash advance up to dollars 5,000. GCAS is available automatically to gold and business Visa cardholders, but the arrangement for standard cards remains at the discretion of the issuing company. Clearly most do not take up this option for their customers.

But with the pressure of competition from Barclaycard, it seems only a matter of time before others follow. 'This is an area that will increasingly be offered,' a Visa official predicted. 'More and more people are using cards abroad and more members will offer help.'

Until cover becomes standard, cardholders should check with their issuing bank or building society exactly what assistance can be expected in an emergency. Assuming that possession of a card from a big name bank or credit company is enough assurance can be a recipe for becoming stranded.

And one more warning. Should you lose everything, do not expect to be bailed out by the local consulate. The services available are limited - and expensive. There is a call-out fee for rousing a consul out of hours; this is pounds 40 for a meeting at the consulate or pounds 65 elsewhere. Do not expect this to be waived if you happen to lose everything at night and are reduced to sleeping rough.

An emergency passport, valid only for the return journey into the UK, costs pounds 5.

The consulate will cash a British cheque up to the value shown on an accompanying cheque guarantee card - but it will charge pounds 15, which is a considerable chunk out of a pounds 50 or pounds 100 cheque. This is the same fee charged for forwarding money left on your behalf with the Foreign Office in the UK.

A repatriation loan is available only if there is no alternative. It involves surrendering your passport and paying the loan back within six months.

Don't travel light on financial precautions

THERE are a few measures you can take that may help you avoid having to turn to the British consulate.

Do not just rely on plastic. Carry other forms of funding - preferably travellers cheques from a company that guarantees to replace them within 24 hours if lost, such as American Express.

Keep a note of your card issuer's emergency telephone number and your card number, and report loss or theft. It is essential to do this, even if little help is going to be offered by the card company.

Carry different forms of funding and emergency numbers in as many separate places as possible.

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