Ask Gadling: You’re out of money in a foreign country

Even the most intrepid adventure traveler dreads the thought of running out of money while in a foreign country. The fact that this situation usually occurs under dire circumstances only compounds the anxiety and frustration that result from a depleted bank account.

The only time I’ve ever run completely out of funds was on 9/11. I’d been working at a friend’s London restaurant for a month, and sleeping in her spare room. I took two weeks off to visit Spain and Portugal, before flying back into Heathrow to catch my flight home. I arrived in Lisbon my last day, on the fumes of my savings, relieved to be headed home the following morning. I had just enough money left for a dorm bed in a hostel, a couple of bread rolls, and (possibly) cab fare to the airport.

I was in a cheese shop, having a fractured bilingual conversation with the shopkeeper, when I noticed his employees in a huddle, shooting glances my way. As I departed, I felt the shopkeeper’s hand on my arm, and that’s how I found out the World Trade Center–and life as Americans knew it–was no more. I headed back to the hostel in a daze, and spent the next two hours slumped in front of the television, in shock. It quickly became clear I wasn’t going anywhere, and my lack of funds was going to be a bigger problem than I’d anticipated.

On that darkest of days, I was lucky. A savior in the form of a Dutch backpacker loaned me fifty dollars. Actually, he forced it upon me, because he saw me watching the news and quickly assessed my situation. When I was able to get back to London a couple of days later, I picked up the money my parents had wired to a bank, and spent the next week working at the restaurant and crashing on the futon.

Since most of us can’t rely upon a hot Dutch guy to magically appear with a fistful of Euros (definitely a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence), what is the best course of action if you’re suddenly broke, in a country not your own?How to obtain emergency funds

  • Get a cash advance on your debit card. I called my bank, Wells Fargo, and asked them if I could do this in an emergency. I was told that I should go into the nearest bank and request a cash advance, but that it’s entirely up to that institution, as well as your personal bank, as to whether receiving funds is possible. Still, this is the easiest, most obvious first step, assuming your card hasn’t been stolen. On a separate, but related, note, always inform your bank and credit card lenders that you will be traveling overseas, to prevent a security hold.

Most banks/credit card lenders have an “outside the U.S./collect call” number on their website or on the back of your card. Email them to yourself, and write them down on a slip of paper you carry someplace other than your wallet (in case you’re mugged, which is the most common reason travelers find themselves sans money). Actually, it’s best to make two copies of emergency numbers, so you can carry one on your person.

The below numbers are general non-U.S. collect call; many financial institutions also have toll-free numbers by country code listed on their sites.
Mastercard: 1-636-722-7111.
Capital One: 001-804-934-2001.
Bank of America: 1-302-738-5719.
Wells Fargo: Access codes vary by country; click here for listing.

View more Ask Gadling: Travel Advice from an Expert or send your question to ask [at] gadling [dot] com.
  • Get a cash advance on your credit card, if you have one (it’s best to carry one for major emergencies anyway, even if it’s nearly maxed out). Also, be sure to check your credit card lender’s policies on emergency travel assistance, lost/stolen luggage reimbursement, etc. It may save you money or negate your having to purchase travel insurance, which is always a good idea for long-term or adventure travelers.
  • Having someone wire money bank-to-bank is the most secure method of receiving emergency funds. Barring that, international wire transfer services are available through Western Union (1-800-325-6000), and Western Union’s Custom House. Depending upon the provider, funds can be received between one hour to three days after wiring, and service charges will vary.
  • If you’ve got a family member or friend you can trust with your checking or savings account number, have them keep it on file so they can make an emergency deposit, if necessary.
  • Some companies, like Visa, offer prepaid TravelMoney cards. These can be used in an ATM like a debit card, but function like traveler’s checks. They may also be reloadable (i.e. reuseable), and feature lost/stolen luggage reimbursement, and travel and emergency assistance services (Visa offers “24-hour translation assistance, medical and legal referrals, emergency trip arrangements, and emergency messages to relatives.”). Be aware that this pertains to assistance and referral only; it’s your dime for any fees incurred from actual services rendered. Remember, too, that while ATM’s are fairly ubiquitous throughout the world, you can’t always rely upon finding one.

The drawbacks with prepaid cards is that they’re easily lost, stolen, or chewed up by an ATM (one reason I carry three–really–ATM cards when I travel. Portugal also taught me that lesson. Admittedly, it’s more cards to potentially have stolen, but I hedge my bets). They’re also expensive to activate and load, and there can be high foreign currency exchange rate fees.

The U.S. repatriation program is federally-funded, and helps destitute or ill Americans return to the States. Again, this is for serious emergencies, if no other option is available. There are strict requirements for eligibility, and you must apply from the American Consulate or Embassy nearest you at the time.

Don’t forget to register yourself with the U.S. Department of State if you’re traveling anywhere sketchy, or engaging in high-risk activities (no, unprotected sex doesn’t count).

ACS’s domestic number (of use if you’re the one who needs to help out a fellow traveler) is 1-888-407-4747. Outside of the U.S., dial the country code, +202-501-4444.

[Photo credits: Flickr | NoHoDamon; riacale; TheeErin]