*I’m interrupting my Quebec travelogue because I need to give a compliment where a compliment is due.*
Me (on the phone): Hi, I made an incorrect transaction in my credit card. Instead of paying off my bill, I accidentally transferred it to one of my accounts. Consequently, I got charged a cash advance fee and a missed payment fee.
Banking Representative: Let me have a look. Yes, I see what you mean. Let me process the refund for you. Mistakes do happen (sound of typing). I’ve finished processing the refund for the cash advance fee and missed payment fee. You’ll see it as pending for now but you should be able to use the card without any problem.
Me: Thank you.
Husband (who had been listening in): Whoa!
That’s why I love my Australian bank.
The first time I traveled overseas in 2004 to Beijing, China, I didn’t have a credit card. While traveler’s checks were prevalent at that time, I didn’t have them either. Instead, I traveled in cold, hard cash. After I traveled a few more times, I realized how dangerous it was to depend on only one source of fund, especially when traveling in other countries. A few years ago, I freaked out when my best friend visited me in Australia and told me she had about AUD 8,000 in cash with her (my memory is faulty, the amount may be higher or lower but it was enough to worry me). Australia may be a relatively safe country compared to other countries but I still wouldn’t carry more than AUD 300 in my person.
I was brought up to think that any form of credit was bad. My parents drilled in my head, “If you cannot afford it at that time, then you cannot afford to buy it.” When I moved to Australia, my husband and I didn’t have credit cards, either. We had debit cards, which also functioned as credit cards overseas. We binned the letters from our bank telling us we were pre-approved for an Altitude Platinum Rewards Card.
Years passed, I decided I wanted to have my own business. I needed access to funds aside from my savings but I didn’t want to get a bank loan. Enter the credit card. This decision helped me when husband and I moved to the United States since I had to wait 3 months to even get my own bank account because I was on E3-D visa. I’ll have a separate post on my sentiments about all things related to credit in the US.
Modes of Funding
Having access to different modes of funding is important when traveling. I’ve read many travel horror stories where people got robbed or got into an accident and they either had to beg their friends or family for help, go to the media to be transported back to their country after an accident, or depend on the kindness and swift response of their bank or travel insurance. I would recommend everyone traveling overseas to have 1) Cash in the local currency, 2) Credit Cards, 3) Debit Cards that functions as a credit card. I’m not sure if traveler’s checks are still widely accepted, I’ve never had to use one so I cannot say much about it.
Not all credit cards are created equal and not all banks treat their customers well. In the US, people can apply directly to American Express, Capital One, Citi Bank, etc. without having to go through a bank. In Australia, people usually get their credit cards through their banks. In Westpac, you get two different credit cards under one umbrella card. For example, if you choose to apply for an Altitude Platinum Rewards Card, you get a Visa card and an American Express card. You accumulate points when choosing either one and you only pay one bill. However, the Amex card from the bank is not linked to the international Amex company. What I mean by this is that an Australian traveling to the US wanting to build credit history cannot use the bank-issued Amex card historical transactions because the Amex company does not have access to those transactions.
Image from americanexpress.com
So far, Amex have served as well: customer service is prompt and easily accessible and they have a slew of benefits in addition to their rewards point. The downside is that there are merchants who don’t accept Amex. We experienced this a number of times in Canada, especially in Montreal. High merchant fees is the main reason cited for this. We do have a debit card but since we’ve understood the benefits of earning points while spending, we’ve decided to look for a backup credit card.
Banks and Credit Card Companies
As I mentioned earlier, not all credit cards are created equal and not all banks and credit card companies have the same level of customer support. I am fortunate that when I contact my Australian bank, I am able to speak to a human being who is empowered to make decisions and not limited to following a script.
When I google credit card companies, I am often dismayed to read the experiences of people about their credit card companies. I do take the complaints with a grain of salt. Not all reviews are genuine and not all reviewers tell the whole truth. Still, husband and I are often surprised when the customer service support of US companies behave rationally, instead of insisting on their spiel (I’m looking at you Citi Bank and Verizon).
It’s not easy finding a bank or credit card companies that will work with you instead of penalizing for every mistake, but I believe they are out there. Once you find them, never let them go.