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Is it Better to Use Cash or Credit Cards in Port?

Is it Better to Use Cash or Credit Cards in Port?

When I am at home I almost never carry cash. I use my debit card for pretty much all of my purchases. I have found that using my debit card suits me well because it’s easy to use, universally accepted, and a debit card doesn’t attract as much unwanted attention as a wad of cash does. Using a debit card also guarantees that there will be a record of my transaction, which is something that my accountant insists on.

While it seems logical that these same benefits would also apply when traveling abroad, I have found that I greatly prefer to use cash whenever possible.

There are several reasons for this. For starters, using cash makes it easier to keep track of how much money you are spending. Each foreign country uses their own currency and it can be tough to convert the local currency to American dollars on the fly at the time of purchase. However, using cash allows you to see how much you are spending relative to your budget.

For example, I remember flying to Europe on a red eye once. When I got to my destination, my room wasn’t ready yet, so Taz and I decided to go get something to eat. We were both exhausted from being awake all night, and I really wasn’t thinking as clearly as I normally would. There is no way that I would have been able to convert Euros to Dollars in my head and get it right. However, I knew that I had cashed in five hundred American dollars at the airport, so that helped to give me a feel for how much I was spending. Using only the cash in my pocket, and making it last until I got on the ship the next day ensured that I wouldn’t accidentally spend more than what I had budgeted.

Similarly, using cash helps you to protect yourself against losses. If someone pick pockets you while you are out sightseeing and steals a credit card, they could potentially rack up thousands of dollars in fraudulent charges. Worse yet, a stolen credit card could leave you with no access to funds for the rest of the trip unless you have a backup card that was not stolen. Conversely, if you use cash then a pick pocket can only steal as much cash as you have on you at the moment. As such, using cash can help you to limit your potential losses.

Another advantage to using cash is that doing so can save you some money in currency conversion fees. Sure, you will have to pay a currency conversion fee at the airport when you convert your American dollars to the local currency, but remember that your bank will charge you a currency conversion fee every time you use your credit or debit card in a foreign country. It is almost always cheaper to pay to convert cash to the local currency when you arrive then it is to keep paying a fee every time that you have to use your debit card.

Another reason why I like using cash when I am in port is because sometimes using a credit card or a debit card can be a real pain. A couple of years ago, Taz and I were in the Bahamas. We were supposed to spend the afternoon snorkeling, but first Taz needed a new beach bag to replace one that had been ruined.

It didn’t take long for us to find a shop that sold beach bags, but the store clerk told us that their credit card machine was down. She went on to tell me that there was an ATM around the corner. I walked to the ATM only to discover that it was down too. Apparently, there was a problem with the phone lines because three different ATMs were down.

Taz and I decided that we might have better luck if we walked several blocks to another shopping area that we hoped was far enough away not to be affected by the outage. Sure enough, Taz found what she was looking for, we paid for our purchase, and were on our way.

Everything wasn’t completely peachy keen though. We had wasted a lot of time trying to find a place where we could use a debit card. More importantly though, when I got my next bank statement I discovered that the shop where we had bought the bag had triple charged my debit card.

Although I do generally recommend using cash while in port, sometimes cash just isn’t an option. My credit and debit cards were actually a major source of anxiety for me on a trip to Russia.

Many years ago, I tried using a credit card in a foreign country and the card was rejected. When I got home I called my bank to ask them about it, and they told me that they block credit card and debit card use in foreign countries unless they have been notified ahead of time. The bank does this as a way of preventing fraud.

Whenever I travel, I always bring along my debit card and a credit card (which is issued by a different bank) solely for emergency purposes. Even though I don’t intend to use either card, I always alert both banks before I travel just in case I do have to use the cards. After all, the last thing that I need in an emergency situation is to have my card declined.

About a week before this particular trip, I called the banks to tell them that I might be using my card abroad. As usual, they asked me which countries I would be traveling to. When I told the representative from one of the banks that I would be visiting Russia, she told me that she couldn’t guarantee that my credit card would work. She went on to say that they don’t normally allow cards to be used in Russia, but that she would submit my request for review.

I could have avoided the issue altogether by just taking one of the ship’s shore excursions and not doing any shopping while in Russia. For whatever reason though, the cruise line that we were traveling with didn’t offer many shore excursions in Russia. It seemed a shame to travel all the way to Russia and not get to see much, so I booked a private tour with a local tour company. Even though I booked the tour several weeks prior to leaving home, the tour company would not let me pay for the tour in advance. They told me that I could pay with either cash or with a credit card on the day of the tour.

Normally, this wouldn’t have been a big deal because I usually use cash when I am in port. However, visiting Russia poses some unique challenges.

The tour company had told me that if I wanted to pay using cash that they would accept either American Dollars or Russian Rubles. They went on to explain that if I wanted to pay in American dollars then the cash would have to be newly printed, crisp, and wrinkle free. Otherwise the tour company’s bank would not accept the cash at face value.

I do all of my banking out of state, so getting freshly printed cash wasn’t an option for me. I tried hitting a few ATMs before I left home, but none of them provided me with cash that would have been accepted in Russia. Besides, even if I had found newly printed cash, the odds of it remaining in a pristine state through the duration of my travels were slim.

Unfortunately, Russia Rubles were impossible to get ahead of time. When I asked about it on the ship, I was told that it is illegal to remove Rubles from Russia, so they did not keep any on board. I would have to hit an ATM once in port if I wanted any Rubles.

As I said, visiting Russia caused me a lot of anxiety. Think about the position that I was in. I owed a tour company about seven hundred American Dollars for our Russian visas and our tour tickets. I was going to be expected to pay upon my arrival. I couldn’t get the required cash for various logistical reasons, and my bank had expressed doubt as to whether my credit card would work in Russia. My entire experience now hinged on whether or not my credit card would be accepted.

When we got off of the ship in St. Petersburg, we used the visas that the tour company had sent us, and made it through immigration (the Russian immigration officers were less than friendly, and it made for a rather unnerving experience). We soon met our tour guide and she instructed us to get into the car.

I had been expecting the guide to ask us to pay for the tour up front, but here we were driving through St. Petersburg on a tour that I wasn’t sure that I would be able to pay for. I wasn’t sure when I would be asked to pay for the tour, or what would happen if my credit card were declined. I wasn’t exactly wild about the idea of the guide abandoning us. I can only imagine being stranded in Russia miles from the ship.

Roughly two hours into the tour, the guide told me that we should stop at an ATM because the place where we would be stopping for lunch only accepted Rubles. I nervously inserted my debit card, entered my PIN, and breathed a sigh of relief when my transaction was approved.

For the time being, I only got enough money out to cover the cost of lunch. I figured that if I had problems paying for the tour at the end of the day, I could always try going to another ATM.

To make a long story short, it was another six hours before the guide asked me for payment. I handed her my credit card and held my breath as she called it in. You can only imagine my sense of relief when the transaction was approved. I had only marginally enjoyed the tour up to that point because I was so nervous about paying for it. Once the tour was paid for, I was finally able to enjoy the rest of my day.


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