Here we are ladies and gentleman - the third installment of the "Travel Fuck Up"!
Often times travel is portrayed as a beautiful, effortless, smooth experience when often times it can be quite the opposite. This series allows me to document some of the silly, strange, or just plain stupid decisions I've made over the course of almost a decade of travel. Hopefully I can give a little insight into what I learned from these experiences so you can wander a bit more wisely. If you're curious about the previous installments, you can take a gander at my examination of travel scams (LINK) or what to do when you misread your own travel itinerary (LINK).
Which brings us to today's tale of mistakes and misadventure....
THE FUCK UP
Thailand. One of the true gems of Asia in my very humble opinion. I was lucky enough to make my first trip to the Land of Smiles when I stumbled upon a $580 USD fare from Chicago to Bangkok in the very first year I started traveling. The timing for the cheap flight was pretty inconvenient as I had a previously purchased trip to Buenos Aires. Booking the trip would mean I'd arrive back from Bangkok and two days later have to jet off to South America. Was it a good idea to book two huge international trips so close together? I was young and having caught the travel bug only a few months prior, I figured why the hell not? I booked the ticket and went about selecting a hotel for my stay.
Fast forward a few weeks to my long journey over to Thailand. A sleepless jaunt over the Pacific in American Airlines economy class followed by the seven hour flight from Tokyo to Bangkok in the bottom deck economy exit row of a Japan Airlines Boeing 747 (yup, that's how long ago this was!). At the time I thought scoring the exit row was a victory but this was the trip where I realized that leg room isn't nearly as important to me as lateral space. The tight fit of the exit row's immovable arm rests had me feeling the absolute worst I have ever felt after a long plane trip. I hopped into a taxi after queuing in what felt like the slowest moving line I'd ever had the misfortune of entering and after an hour in Bangkok traffic, I was finally dropped off at the Lebua at State Tower - my home for the next few days.
Lebua has achieved a bit of notoriety over the past few years due to its open air rooftop restaurant that sits 68 stories above the urban jungle of Bangkok. The most well-known film to feature this iconic hotel was "The Hangover Part II". Unfortunately for me, my stay at Lebua was a few years prior to the movie's filming which meant I was unable to fling myself past security into the arms of Bradley Cooper or Justin Bartha.
The Sky Bar wasn't on my mind at the moment I walked through the front doors though. I was exhausted, aching, and borderline delirious from what was genuinely just a rough trip. I bolted through the doors of the tower, dutifully held open by two doormen, and immediately queued up to check-in. All I wanted was my room key, a hot shower, and to collapse into bed. After what felt like an eternity, a smiling Thai man behind the desk gestured for me to come over.
He welcomed me and asked me if I had been to Thailand before, why I was visiting, etc.... all very common small talk at an international hotel. I handed over my passport as a perfunctory gesture which he took with both hands before uttering the words that came very close to destroying my trip - "Can you also provide a credit card for me to put on file?"
As I mentioned above, this was in my first year of traveling the world. I was young and eager, but not very experienced. My previous trips that year included a trip through Japan with my boyfriend where we paid cash for rooms in hostels and a trip to Greece with my boyfriend and his mother where they had handled all the hotel bookings. This was my first solo trip and my very first trip where I was responsible for all the payments. Being a bit nervous about being on my own and managing my money, I had pre-paid for my room assuming that I wouldn't have to worry about anything further at the hotel.
That was my fuck up.
Being new to travel and pretty young, I wasn't nearly as financially stable as I am now. Having pre-paid for my room and never having checked into a hotel on my own, I didn't realize that I would need to have a credit card on file to cover any incidentals at the hotel like using the wifi, eating at hotel restaurants, or using the mini-bar. I hadn't notified my bank to put a note on my account that I would be traveling overseas, and I didn't have any credit cards with me. I managed my money by pulling out cash the day before the trip which would constitute my budget for the entire stay and that's all I brought with me. This was wildly silly and dangerous, and my lack of preparation was about to bite me in the ass.
I tentatively pulled out my bank card and handed it over to him. Bangkok is always steamy but suddenly I was very aware of the buckets of sweat cascading down my back and from my forehead. None of it was related to the heat. I knew that card wouldn't work. He took the card, swiped it, and frowned. A second swipe. And then a third.
"Sir, this card is not good. Do you have another?"
At this point I was about three seconds away from fleeing the premises of the hotel in shame, half expecting to be followed out by an army of Thai hotel staff yelling curses at the stupid man with no money.
But like most things in life, I swallowed my fear and just plowed ahead with a sliver of optimism that I could make this work and somehow not end up working in a strip club featuring chubby foreigners on Khao San Road. I told him that this was the only card that I had brought with me and that I had not informed my bank that I would be traveling. I asked if there was a way to skip the hold on the card if I promised to not use any paid services in the hotel, or if there was another way to secure the room. He thought for a minute and said that if I had cash, they could use that as the deposit and return it to me at the end of the stay.
Cash deposits are generally possible at hotels but they are so rarely done due to the ubiquity of credit cards that it's often forgotten entirely. This looked like my ticket out of an awkward situation but like many solutions in life, would end up creating additional problems. The deposit they were asking me to provide would leave me with about $60 USD to spend for the remainder my trip. Thailand is a pretty cheap destination but could I really survive on that much money for five days? I guess I was about to find out. With little choice, I handed over the cash and received my room key. THE FIX
There really isn't too much of a cliffhanger as I am clearly alive and well writing this post for you today. Yes, I managed to get by in Bangkok on $60. If you're limited on cash, Bangkok is one of the best cities in a world to be stranded. It's a very inexpensive place to get around and eat, so I was very lucky this fuck up just happened to occur in an ideal location. If I were in Paris or Tokyo, the end of this story would likely be very different. Still, it was a really stressful and rough few days and I did end up having to eat room service at the hotel a few times to tap into my deposit on the last two days. Did I want to eat hotel food in one of the greatest food destination cities in the world? Absolutely not! But often times travel requires you to make decisions and adjustments, so I did what I had to do.
Once I got back to Chicago, I decided it was time to take this "travel" thing a bit more seriously. So I set about educating myself on the ins and outs of properly managing money while on the road. Over time I've created a strong process of planning and preparing that's kept me secure every since. While there's too much to go over in this one post, I did wanted to share three quick tips with you.
1. Notify Your Bank & Credit Cards Of Your Travel
This was the crux of my issue in Bangkok - I didn't notify my bank and credit card companies that I would be flying halfway around the world. In a global commercial environment where money is often exchanged or accessed electronically via cards, there's a lot of caution and vigilance on the part of these companies to avoid fraud. Any transaction outside of the norm (like a hotel room in Bangkok, let's say...) will be declined and likely trigger a hold on your card, rendering it useless.
Some cards will let you set travel notifications through their website, while others require you to call in and speak with a representative. Either way, make sure you set aside some time to do this prior to getting on your plane out of the country.
2. Exchanging Cash
Situations are fluid but generally speaking I almost always find that the best conversion rate I get when exchanging US dollars for foreign currency are provided when I pull cash out of an ATM. Currency exchanges at the airport generally have some of the worst rates available for conversions, so if you do end up wanting to use a currency exchange I would recommend look at establishments away from the airport as these generally have slightly better rates.
That being said, I still keep some cash on hand with me when I start a trip. ATMs can be offline, broken, or outside of your bank's network, so there's no guarantee you can access cash immediately upon arriving at your destination. I've been burned once or twice when I tried to pull cash out of an ATM upon landing only to find myself unable to for one of the above reasons. With that in mind, I almost always bring $40-$80 USD with me to the airport just in case I need to use the currency exchange services to get cash for the taxi into town from the airport. Like a good Boy Scout - be prepared, and prepared in this situation means having enough currently to cover transport from the airport plus one or two meals till you can get to a working ATM.
3. Beware the Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC)
When using your credit card overseas, many establishments such as hotels and restaurants will give you the option of paying in your home currency. For example, I recently paid for a hotel stay while transiting through Qatar on my way back from Tanzania. The rate I booked was in Qatari riyals, but when paying my bill at the end of the stay the hotel asked me whether I would like to pay in riyals or US dollars. Sounds like a nice offer but really it's a complicated way of making you pay more money. The currency amount is determined through "dynamic currency conversion" (DCC) and it's almost always a terrible idea.
When you opt to use DCC the credit card processing company is providing you a less than stellar rate on the conversion - that's how they're making money. So you're paying more than you'd ideally like to pay for the simple "convenience" of not having to do the currency conversion in your head or on an app. Now, you might be thinking that paying in your home currency may save you on any foreign transaction fees your credit card incurs. But sadly, you're likely wrong. In many cases using DCC does NOT bypass the foreign exchange fees on a credit card. So .... double whammy.
I've heard stories from others where using the DCC actually did work in their favor, but these are few and very far between. So as a rule, I decline DCC.
LET'S WRAP IT UP FOLKS
These might not be the most complicated travel money tips but they're the ones that I think are the most applicable on a routine basis and the easiest to implement. When it comes to trouble while traveling, I think most people tend to gravitate toward personal safety, illness, or flight issues. Other than budgeting, money doesn't often cross our minds until we suddenly find ourselves fucking it up. Hopefully a few of these tips are useful to you and my mistake isn't one that you'll be repeating any time in the near future!
Until next time.....