TRAVEL TIPS: Back-up Plans for Accessing Money with ATMs Problems
How do you access money while you’re traveling overseas?
Do you rely on ATM machines?
Cash or travelers checks to exchange money into local currencies?
Do you have a back-up plan?
I have to admit that I rely almost entirely on ATM machines to access money, and I have done so for many years. I have never owned a credit card.
My bank account is in the USA but I’m rarely there. Obviously, I can’t just walk to my bank and withdraw money in person. The only way to access my US funds is through my ATM/debit card.
As a long-term world traveler, I’m very thankful for ATM machines, which make accessing money really easy and straight-forward. Nowadays, plenty of ATM machines are available in almost every country, and not only in major cities and tourist destinations. They’re usually also located in towns and even rural areas throughout most countries.
The only country in Asia that doesn’t have ATM machines yet is Myanmar.
In the past, I’ve worked in various countries around Asia. I’ve taught scuba diving in several countries, worked at a rock climbing school in Thailand, opened and run my own bakery/cafe/restaurant, cut hair at a salon in Shanghai, sold imports from Bali/Thailand at music festivals in Japan, performed with a performance company in Bali, and worked crew on two seasons of Survivor.
In all those cases except Survivor, I was paid in cash in the country’s local currency. I’ve always made enough money to cover my daily living expenses plus save money for my next travel stint.
Most of those jobs are seasonal, lasting 3-6 months. After the season, I’ve continued traveling. I’ve generally been able to travel a few months afterward, using money I’ve saved. Thus, I basically traveled with cash.
Internet and ATM dependent:
Now things are quite different. Now I mostly work online, so all my income and payments are made through the internet. All of my income sources – from book sales, affiliates, writing assignments and advertisers – send money online to my internet account or, in a few cases, to my US bank account.
This means that nowadays my only means of accessing any money is through ATM machines. That works just fine most times, most places in the world. However, I’ve learned the hard way over the years that this strategy doesn’t work all the time.
Various ATM and bank issues have left me stranded more than once. In fact, it’s surprising how many different things can go wrong when trying to access money via ATMs! I’ve had problems with the ATM machines themselves, problems with my banks, problems with my ATM cards, problems with my account and even an absence of ATM machines.
All the following ATM problems have happened to me:
- ATM ate my card or didn’t give me cash it had already recorded as withdrawn
- ATM didn’t accept my type of card (visa/plus system vs mastercard/ cirrus system)
- power outages = ATMs don’t work.
- no ATMs in remote areas
- country had no ATM machines (in my case, Myanmar, where travelers can only use cash)
- no cash in my account to withdraw because a money transfer hadn’t finished yet
- no cash in my account because I had no internet access to transfer money into my account
- I reached my 24-hour withdrawal limit on my account
- my ATM card expired and hadn’t yet received my new replacement card (sent by my dad)
- my ATM card got un-approved for international withdrawals by my bank (bank mistake)
- my bank canceled my card and issued me a new one, without notice
- my bank otherwise screwed up my card temporarily
- I only needed a very small amount of cash when I was about to leave a country. It wasn’t worth withdrawing money from ATM
One serious problem that, thankfully, has never happened to me: I’ve never had my ATM card lost or stolen in all my 14 + years of travel. I’m extremely careful about protecting my card, passport and cash. Knock on wood. :)
The worst 2 cases I ever had:
- 2 ATM cards, to 2 different banks, did not work and I had no back-up cash
I had just arrived in KL, Malaysia from Bali. I could not access money from my main ATM account because I’d reached my 24-hour withdrawal limit. The previous day I’d bought a flight with cash, which I”d taken from my account.
The 2nd ATM card had been canceled by my other bank, unbeknownst to me, and a replacement card issued, which I’d never received. Quite unusually, I had no cash with me.
I ended up borrowing money from the guest house staff to eat lunch. Luckily, he knew me from several previous visits and felt I was trustworthy. It was rather embarrassing, I have to admit.
- ATM processed my withdrawal but didn’t give me any money!
It was a freak ATM happening. Unfortunately, it was Saturday so the bank was closed. I reported the issue to the police immediately then visited the bank first thing on Monday morning.
Once they confirmed that that particular ATM machine had an excess of money in the amount I’d reported, they gave me my money. That took about 2 weeks. In the meantime, I had to borrow money from a friend.
It’s clear from all the problems I’ve faced using ATMs over the years that it’s wise- necessary, in fact – to have some back-up plans, preferably more than one. As the big planner and organizer that I am, I usually have some sort of back-up in place.
My back-up plans have included the following:
cash in $US
– I usually have back-up cash in various denominations ($5 – $100 bills) so I can exchange some money in the local currency wherever I am.
Secondary bank account and ATM card
- I’ve had local bank accounts with ATM cards to draw funds from my accounts.
Use ATM/debit card to pay for what I needed
- I’ve used my ATM/debit card to pay for rooms, food or merchandise in stores.
- As mentioned above, I’ve borrowed money from a guest house staff that I knew.
- I’ve also had to borrow money from friends on ocassion.
Here are some other options you could use:
(I keep these in mind, just in case, though I’ve never had to use any of them so far)
- have parents, friends or family send cash / wire cash – western union, bank transfer
- buy things at a store with a debit card
- eat only at your guest house / hotel, running up the tab until you get money
- use a credit card for cash advance and/or to pay
- pay all your expenses with debit card / credit card
- eat at upscale restaurants / hotels that accept credit cards for payment
- have a local bank account or secondary account from which you can draw money either in person or with an ATM card
- have an online account with an ATM card attached. You or others can send money to you online.
Of all the back-up plans I’ve used over the years, the two I’ve found most helpful were:
- have back-up cash in $US and exchange it into local currency
- have a local bank account / secondary bank account with an ATM card attached to it.
As I mentioned at the start, as a long-term world traveler, I’m very thankful for ATM machines. They’ve allowed me to access money quickly and easily just about everywhere and any time. However, as my experiences have shown, it’s important to have at least one back-up plan for those times when ATM access fails.
I strongly recommend having:
* Cash in either $ L or E, in various denominations
* A secondary bank account with ATM card, preferably on different system (visa / Mastercard) if at all possible
* Credit card, if possible
* Local bank account
* A general plan ahead of time in case you get ‘stuck’. If you’ve got some plans / back-ups already in mind, you’ll be able to stay calm, think clearly, and access money in a different way rather than panicking or actual end up stuck with no money.
Sometime or other you probably won’t be able to access money from an ATM for one reason or other! Be prepared.
Check out my other upcoming posts in this series on money access while traveling:
* Best strategies for getting local currency upon arrival in a new country
* Merits of having local bank accounts
QUESTIONS: How do you usually access cash while traveling overseas?
What are your back-up plans?
Have you ever been stranded? What did you do?
(note: please refer here for more about this post)