So, I just got back from a three week adventure to Sweden, Finland and Russia and after ripping apart my bank for leaving me high and dry overseas, I have to admit – I should have made the call. Here’s what happened.
Unlimited, free cash withdrawals overseas? Easy packing.
As I was emptied my purse in preparation for the trip, I stood contemplating which credit card to take with me overseas. You see, my husband and I are lucky enough to have a German account from which we can withdraw money from any bank machine around the world. So, the easiest way for me to pay for things while traveling – and avoid massive charges on my Canadian credit card – is to take out money and just pay cash. That being said, I always take my Canadian card with me in case I run out of moolah and need to use the plastic.
Making payments prior to take-off
Since I was heading to Russia, where I had no idea how easy it was to get things done on the ground, I decided I should plan a little further ahead than normal. My itinerary had me flying into Stockholm, traveling onward to Helsinki and Kuopio, and then onto St.Petersburg for four days of discovery before heading home.
First of all, since the Russian visa application for Canadians (and Europeans) demands an invitation letter from the hotel for every applicant, we had to make our reservations months in advance. We reserved four nights in a three star hotel called History Hotel on the English Embankment (review of what is possibly the worst hotel in St.Petersburg, to follow) through St.Petersburg.com (mixed feelings about this site, you’ll find out why later). I made two separate reservations, since 4 of us were staying for 3 days, and only 3 were staying for the 4th. To make sure that we had the best possible “Russian” experience, we also booked tickets to see Swan Lake at the Hermitage! Needless to say, costs were adding up, but given the fact that I had made the purchases on the Canadian side of the ocean, I was sure there would be no problem with the order.
Touchdown in Sweden!
So, after buying my airplace tickets to and from Stockholm, and my hotel and entertainment in Russia, off I went; first stop, Stockholm. My flight from Toronto however, included a slight layover in Iceland, totaling something along the lines of a 10 hour trip, so needless to say, provision was needed. I stocked up on food before leaving but decided to grab a sandwich on-board since I wasn’t sure how far into the Icelandic airport I’d be allowed to wander. I used my Canadian credit card to pay for my ham and cheese sandwich and carried on my merry way.
When I pulled into Sweden, I took out a few hundred Krona (SEK) which was guaranteed to fund my food and any additional expenses. Since I was staying with a friend, I didn’t have to worry about paying off any big ticket items, like hotels and outstanding public transit made rental cars entirely obsolete. After three days in Stockholm, my friend and I headed towards Helsinki, where I took out some Euros (once again, negating a full on money exchange – thank you DKB) and pocketed just enough to cover four days or so in Finland. It was at that point that I received an e-mail from St.Petersburg.com informing me about a problem with the second half of the payment for my reservation. Instead of charging me immediately for the rooms, they had charged me a few days before arrival and I was being told that the 4th night hadn’t been approved. Shocked, as we’d never had never had a problem before, I figured that we’d exceeded our limit and forgot to pay off the card. After a few e-mails back and forth with the company, it was agreed that we could pay upon arrival at the hotel. I shot a message over to my husband back in Canada and thought nothing of it.
Take my card? Try it. I dare you.
After a day of touring Helsinki, we jumped into a car and headed north, way north, with two companions, to a friend’s wedding in Kuopio. It was 9pm when we arrived at our hotel; we were tired from a 5 hour drive from the city and couldn’t wait to check-in and get cleaned up – and that’s then the fun started. Since we had to pay the hotel up front and I had barely enough cash to cover the cost, I handed the receptionist my Canadian credit card and waited.. and waited… until I finally said I would just pay cash. To my surprise, the receptionist shook her head and said that she was obliged to call the credit card company because of security reasons. What? My blood boiled. At 5.5 months pregnant, tired and outside my home-zone, I wanted my credit card back – immediately. I eventually got it back, but the payment was declined. Shocked, I paid with cash and grabbed my credit card back, realizing suddenly that I was traveling overseas with no way of paying for anything that couldn’t be paid for in cash.
Tiny man with a death wish
After a wonderful wedding and a few relaxing days at a friend’s cottage, I was en route to Russia and in need of Rubles (RUB). I withdrew some notes and cashed in on money owing from my companions who shared lodging and were joining me at the ballet. Upon arrival at the hotel, I asked whether or not we could pay for our last night – I was told there was no rush and we were ushered into our rooms (in what was, let me reiterate, the worst hotel I have ever stayed at). On our second day at the hotel, I received a phone call in my hotel room. First off, I was shocked the phone in the room actually worked since nothing else in Russia does. Secondly, who knew which hotel room we were staying in and why would they call me? This was my first run-in with Victor from St.Petersburg.com, the gentleman who had been communicating with me about payment for the last night. Sounding a bit frantic, he was wondering whether or not we could leave the money in an envelope at reception. Of course, I agreed and was told, once again, that there was absolutely no rush. Great! I didn’t rush.
On day three, after catching a bit of a cold due to the terrible accommodations and the mosquitoes buzzing around our heads as we tried to fall asleep, I decided to call it an early night and headed back to the hotel while the girls grabbed a night cap at what had become our local cafe down the street. I approached the gentleman at the counter in an effort to explain that I would be leaving an envelope with cash for St.Petersburg.org to pick up the following day. Needless to say, I was stunned, when a voice behind me exclaimed “St.Petersburg.COM”. I then turned around to see an imp of a man set down his newspaper and stand up off the couch. He wouldn’t look me in the eyes but introduced himself as Victor from St.Petersburg.com, the man with whom I’d been communicating over the past few days.
If the follow-up phone call hadn’t been intrusive enough (it bordered on professional, an assumption that was soon dashed by this incident in-person) the showing up at my hotel around 11pm at night put me completely over the edge.Outraged as I was, I started berating the man for showing up out of the blue when we had agreed that I would leave the cash in an envelope for pick-up. He, staring at the floor, insisted that he thought it prudent to follow up and “politely” bug me again – clearly the Russian definitely of “polite” leaves something to be desired. After reminding him that he’d insisted there was no rush on the delivery, I told him that we’d leave the cash for him the following day. “So, not today,” he muttered. “No, not today,” I said staring at his bald little head.
The following day, I left the envelope, two rubles short – just like him.
The long road home
After returning to Stockholm, I prepped for the long-haul flight home two days later. I packed some food and had just enough SEK to get me to the airport – perfect! Until I realized that I needed food for the flight – crap! So, I picked up a water, a salad, a yogurt and a granola bar from a food stand at the airport and attempted to pay with my Canadian credit card, only to be told that the payment was, yet again, declined. Devastated and worried that I’d be left starving (keep in mind I was eating for two) on board, I used my German visa as a credit card and it worked, thank God. After being rejected one too many times, I paid a visit to the Icelandair ticket counter and asked specifically whether I’d be able to pay with Canadian coin on the leg from Reykjavík to Toronto; the answer was yes.
Face off: Me vs. the Bank
The day after I touched down in Toronto, I ordered a book from Amazon only to say that payment wasn’t accepted. Having assumed that my card would work once I was back in Canada, I called up TD and had a half an hour discussion with the poor customer service agent who had the bad luck of taking my call. As it turns out, the bank, after receiving a second charge from St.Petersburg.com, had canceled access to my card. In an “effort” to inform me, they had called me and SNAIL-MAILED me a notice to get in touch asap. Since I had no phone signal in Sweden, Finland or Russia, how I was supposed to get the message, was beyond me. Thus, I informed the agent that it would have been useful for the bank to send me an e-mail or call my husband, an authorized user on the account. Claiming however that it was the bank’s duty to protect the account, the agent defended the decision to shut me down completely. It was then that I blew a little bit. Yes, it’s the bank’s responsibility to protect the account, but more importantly, it’s the bank’s responsibility to protect the client! I had airline tickets on my credit card statement that clearly showed an intention to travel abroad, and instead of thinking ‘outside the box’ to get in touch, the company left me high and dry overseas. If I hadn’t had access to my German account, I would have been nearly 6 months pregnant and penniless overseas. More importantly (to a pregnant woman), I would have been starving!
As the agent reviewed transactions with me, I realized that my card had been invalid since my flight to Stockholm. That ham and cheese sandwich I had purchased on-board? Apparently that was for free, since payment was declined. The agent then proceeded to tell me that I was supposed to inform the bank every time I travel, so I asked, as an avid global traveler, that those security measures be removed, or that some alternative type of alert system be set up. The answer was no.
At times like these, I’m reminded of how removed Canada is from the rest of the world. Hoping overseas is like entering another solar system or something. If I’m in Germany and travel to Romania, my bank doesn’t question a thing, but wander too far from the Canadian border and your card must be compromised! Calling my bank is the last thing that crosses my mind when I’m readying myself to go overseas. That being said, after this whirlwind experience, it’s one call I can’t afford, not to make.