What Happens When You Lose Your Money Abroad

Somewhere between Amsterdam airport security and the car rental desk in Barcelona, I lose my money clip containing my Bank of America debit card, BBK debit card, Chase Sapphire credit card, and Massachusetts ID. The only thing I have left in my pocket is €50 and my passport.

Luckily, I’m traveling with a friend, and we have enough cash between us for bus tickets back to the apartment where I’ve been living in Barcelona. We sit on the beach to wait for the bus, surrounded by dozens of topless women. But I’m distracted. I’m in Spain for a week, then headed to Thailand, the next leg of my adventure around the world.

I have €50, but that’s only going to last me about week. What am I going to do once I start traveling in Southeast Asia, where credits cards aren’t widely accepted? I don’t worry about much (or about anything really—ask my ex-girlfriends), but I start to worry about this.

When I get back to my apartment in Spain, I go into action mode: I log into my online account to see if anything unauthorized has been charged: nothing. I email the airport’s lost and found to see if anyone has found anything: nothing. I decide it’s time to cancel all of my cards.

My debit card with BBK, the Spanish bank, is the easiest to cancel. There are offices nearly every 500 meters in town. When I walk inside a local branch, I discover that my remaining balance is just over €100, I withdraw it all, close the account and give my best to the Spanish economy.

Next I call Chase about my credit card. I’m immediately connected to a person—no voice prompts at all. They rush me a card, which they say will arrive in three days or less. It arrives in three days, and I couldn’t be happier. I buy groceries, and go out to lunch that very day. I pay my credit card balance in full every month, so having the card feels like having like having cash.

The Bank of America debit card is the most important—most of my money is with BofA and access to this account is necessary. I call customer service and ask for a replacement card to be mailed to me in Spain. “Not a problem,” the service rep says, then after a long pause, “but it may take up to 16 business days.” This is a problem, because I’m leaving for Thailand in seven business days. I ask if they can rush it to me via UPS or Fedex, but am simply told, “No,” even after I offer to pay the shipping costs. I consider having the card sent to my parents in Massachusetts, who could then overnight me the card for $50, but BofA can’t guarantee the card will arrive by a specific time in the U.S. either. I tell them to mail it to me in Spain; maybe it will get there in time.

It doesn’t. A week later I check my mail one last time before leaving to go to the airport. I’m going to be in Southeast Asia for an unplanned amount of time without direct access to my cash. It’s not a perfect situation, but I have a hard time being worried. I’m going to Southeast Asia.

At the airport I email BofA and ask them to cancel the card they’re sending to Spain. I ask what my options are to get some cash, since I’m going to need some eventually. They respond quickly, while I’m still on the plane: “As a Visa customer, you have access to Visa 911 emergency cash access. You can get $150-$1,500 sent to you within 24 hours (after you’re approved).” This sounds promising, but as I read reviews online, I realize that it’s almost impossible to do while traveling: It takes 48 hours to be “approved” and then I need to know my address for the next five days. I don’t even know what my address is going to be for the next 24 hours, and I’m not even planning in staying in Thailand for five days.

Upon arriving in Thailand I convert my remaining Euros to Baht—€10 worth. I ask every currency trading kiosk I see if I can buy currency with a credit card. I can’t. At this point my friend and travel companion knows he is going to have to support me for all cash transactions and does so graciously. I can transfer him cash online, so it works out, and he serves as my ATM for the time being. I use my credit card when I can, but that’s rare, and it usually comes with a 2% fee. Even the 7-Elevens don’t take cards—they have the machines, but the always say “out of order”, or have tape over the slot, or a mini Thai flag jammed into the place where I would swipe my card.

Four days later, we head to Cambodia. I read in my travel guide that I can go to just about any bank in Cambodia buy currency with no surcharge. I go to the bank as soon as I arrive in Cambodia, but they don’t accept credit cards.

Foiled again, I call Chase and have them put a pin code on my credit card so I can use it at an ATM to withdraw money. These cash advances will come with hefty fees, but they’re my last option. My friend can’t support me for the whole trip.

Being with a friend saved me. If I’d been alone, I’d have been fucked (so fucked). I’m still traveling, but once I’m somewhere for the requisite 16 days, I’m ordering two copies of my debit card. One will stay with me, and one will be kept somewhere safe, like in a hotel safe. That way even if I lose my wallet again (and I may lose my wallet again), I’ll be able to get cash. My suggestion is that you do this, too. Not having cash in foreign country was enough to make this non-worrier worry—never again.


David Bowker is from Boston, and studied economics in snowy upstate New York. He’s worked in banks, at a fresh and frozen food company, and most recently, at a tech/research company. He’s currently traveling and seeing what comes next while doing his best to budget his savings. Photo: Flickr/mauroblock



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