I opened my eyes and looked out past the lace curtain on my time-capsule 70s hotel room. Without needing to leave the warmth of my bed and its four layers of thick blankets, I could watch the morning fog roll down the side of the mountains surrounding my hotel in La Paz, Bolivia. My eyes strained to make out the silhouette of the teleferico station perched at the edge of the plateau where El Alto begins, and the tiny cable cars rolling up and down the steep hillside, like toys.
My time in Bolivia was drawing to a close and I was contemplating how much money I would need for my last few days in the country. It’s always a tough balance – you never want to have too much, but of course you don’t want to run out either, so I in my sleep-haze I began attempting the mental addition to figure out how much I’d need to settle my hotel bill, book a tour in Salar de Uyuni to see the famous salt flats, and to get myself to the Chilean border in the next few days.
I reached down to the floor to rummage around in my purse for my wallet to see how many Bolivianos I had left after dinner the night before.
My heart nearly stopped – my ATM card was missing!
About a week ago, I used my ATM card to take out about a week’s worth of cash. I had an overnight trip to Copacabana and Lake Titicaca coming up, so I took out a little extra to be on the safe side. The ATM, for some reason, spit out a bunch of smaller bills, rather than the 100s that I was used to getting. As I struggled to tuck away the wad of cash, I must have forgotten to retrieve my ATM card. Instantly, as I played it back in my head I knew what happened and I had a sinking feeling in my stomach, closely followed by dread, and then panic as my brain began churning out worst-case scenarios.
I was scheduled to leave La Paz in two days on a night bus to Uyuni. If I had to wait for a replacement card to arrive from the States, who knew how long that would take? What if someone had taken my card and was charging up fake alpaca sweaters and llama steak dinners?
After a tear of two of frustration at my own stupidity, I got to work trying to figure out what to do. I checked online to verify no charges had been made on my card – so far so good. I contacted a Spanish-speaking friend who lived in La Paz, who offered to go with me to the bank where I’d used the ATM in hopes of retrieving my card. Although as it was a Sunday, it wouldn’t be possible until the next day. Better than nothing. I looked up the emergency phone number from the back of my ATM card off the copies that I’d stored online and tried making a free call through Google Hangouts, but no one answered. Not only was it Sunday, the next day was Marin Luther King day, so if there was no one staffing the so-called “emergency” hotline, I likely wouldn’t get through until Tuesday. I sent a tentative email through American Savings Bank’s online messaging system asking what my options were for having a replacement card sent overseas.
Then, with nothing else to do but wait, I took my sad self to the nearby restaurant, one that accepted credit cards since I had got a new Marriot one online, and promptly treated myself to a consolation glass of red wine and a steak. As the wine hit my bloodstream, I took a deep breath and felt myself relax and ask in the hotel reception for the complimentary room upgrade that came with my new Marriot credit card.
The next morning, my friend Freddy accompanied me to the bank branch and translated for me, explaining to the clerk my situation, while helplessly I clutched a good luck charm and mouthed the words “I hope its there, I hop its there” over and over. Upon hearing that the card was not one of their bank’s, the clerk directed us to an office a few blocks down, apparently where lost ATM cards go to wait in purgatory until they’re claimed. I thanked him with a grateful smile and Freddy and I signed in at the building where we were directed. Up to the 10th floor – I hope it’s there, I hope it’s there, I hope it’s there – where they directed us to the 11th floor, where we had to wait for a kind woman (who spoke English!) who – miracle of all miracles – pulled out a stack of debit cards from her top desk drawer and shuffled through them until she came to mine! Crisis averted!
This time, I was lucky with a close call.
But in hopes of sparing you, dear reader, with the same heart-stopping and stressful day that I went through in the effort to get my card back, here are a few things you can learn from MY mistake.
General tips for managing your money on the road:
- Take photos of your credit cards, IDs and passport (visa pages too) and store them online. I love using the Turboscan app to create PDFs of any important travel docs (and receipts as I go) and Dropbox for storing them. Be sure you also give access to a trusted friend or family member back home. Having a photo of the front and back of your card will give you access to the phone number to call in case it is lost or stolen and an easy way to show it’s yours if and when it turns up.
- Be sure you have money in accounts with more than one bank. This one is important, and I’d meant to open a Charles Schwab account (they reimburse international ATM fees monthly) before leaving, but never got around to it. By having two (or more) linked accounts, you will still have access to your cash if you lose one card.
- Don’t store all your cards in one place. The above tip only works if you don’t lose both of your cards at the same time, so it’s wise to divide your cards and cash too. I also separate my passport and keep a photo copy of it with me instead unless I know I will need it.
- No one uses traveler’s checks anymore. Your credit cards (when accepted) and debit card will give you the best exchange rate and ATMs can be found in just all but the smallest towns.
- Try to carry a bit of US Dollars with you. In a pinch you can exchange these into just about any currency worldwide, but keep in mind that any time you use a money changer, you’ll be losing something to commission.
- Avoid airport money changers. This is almost always the worst possible exchange rate. The only time I do is when I’ve managed to arrive in a new country with cash leftover from the last, which means I didn’t budget my last days well.
And if, despite all of this, your card goes missing like mine, remember the following:
- Don’t panic. Wine helps.
- Start by retracing your steps – the ATM will often have directions or a number to call in case your card is retained.
- If you don’t speak the language, enlist someone who does for help – a friend, your hotel staff, or in a pinch, reach out to someone at your embassy.