On Traveling Internationally with a Debit Card

An exploration in the certain psychological pleasure of paying with a debit card in the finicky and unpredictable business environment that is Europe. Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored post. This is not a paid advertisement.

Everyone knows the debit card is the most tasteful form of payment. No messy piles of cash (though it is almost impossible to resist the delight of paying for something with a crisp hundred-note in any currency) and no concerns with accountability that comes with credit cards. It is civil and confirmed: everyone knows you have the money you spend on a debit card. There is no magic, there is no secret. 

To travel with a debit card is an extraordinary achievement in patience and true wealth. In the most financially-sensitive circles (the one in which everyone is rich but no one spends the money), the traveller armed with nothing more than a debit card has blown any 400-carat-gold AMEX or triple Platinum Gold Signature Elite King Visa out of the competition for "most posh". The debit card is a simple statement in risk by anyone engaging in the exchange. For the debit card-holder, the risk of declination upon receipt. Anyone who receives your debit card as payment is faced with a judgement that is often personal. It is not as easy as company policy. Because the debit card-carrying traveller can be among the most well-heeled of the jet set. For the merchant: Do I accept this card? Is this person very wealthy, or trying to very scam me? For the traveler, who may be at a ticket counter, a hotel kiosk, a rental car agency, they are faced with the grim risk of unacceptability. For it to manifest in one's favor, sincerity is key. To witness the face of a sales clerk as your turn your eyebrows up in a near pout, then use every ounce of restraint to stop from shouting, "this card has thousands on it!" is a test of rare control that a human is not often faced with in life.

You have crossed the first hurdle: they will accept the card. But suddenly, the clerk's personal judgment has ended and company policy has resumed. You are a high-risk client. In the case of Sicily By Car, a car hire provider at Malpensa Airport in Milan, this manifests in a number of ways: first, you're automatically required to take out the absolute highest insurance policy, effectively insuring the car four times over. Next, a hold is placed on the card that is double the lease total. The "young driver" surcharge suddenly feels miniscule. The cost comes to just shy of one-thousand euros. The car is probably worth nine. Suddenly the experience becomes increasingly surreal and ancient. The card is swiped using a manual device which stamps the imprint of the numbers. It is copied with a copy machine, it is swiped into a computer. It is hand-written. The keys are handed over and a marathon of autographing takes place. Up here, down there, there, and here. Over there and back here as well. But your dignity is preserved. The card went through and you demonstrated to truly have one thousand euros to spend on a microscopic car for five days.

You reach the hotel. A fine five star in the corner of the Alps that you're certain no one has ever seen or visited before. Deeply remote and removed, it is the definition of a treasure. The hotel is perched on a perfect hill and you navigate the world's most expensive rental car up the narrow drive. Shifting into park and walking toward the reception, you loosen your grip around the wallet, pull it slightly open, and massage the debit card that has gotten you this far. 

You announce yourself and the hotel manager demands your passport as collateral. Oh please, I'd rather not. Can I pay now? She instantly declines and give no reason. You can put a hold on the card.  In your mind, you think to yourself: No, you can't. Because holds aren't really holds on debit cards. They are much more severe. They are like being in prison. They come across as charges. They come across as money spent. Money you no longer have. You must supply an IBAN (ironic for the American traveller, as they do not even use IBAN, only Swift for wires) for the money to be returned to the card between fourteen and eight-hundred days. The charge for the week is, like magic, about one thousand euros. The suddenly handing over your passport sounds like a better idea. The card had a one-thousand-Euro daily limit you forgot about. And the provider takes twenty-four hours to approve a lift on that. What are your alternatives now? You suddenly deeply regret using a debit card ever. You could be the wealthiest person on earth. But with a debit card, you're nothing.