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]

Foreign “safety vernacular” for women

There is, as they say, a time and place for everything. And sometimes, ladies, that occurs when you’re traveling. I encourage anyone who travels to a foreign country to learn a few key phrases and learn a bit about the place, in order to avoid cultural faux pas. Even something as innocuous as patting a child on the head in Thailand is considered a grievous offense, because the head is considered the the highest (and thus most sacred) part of the body.

It’s also bad form to lose your temper in Asia and other parts of the world, because it goes against cultural mores. But what to do when your safety is threatened, or if you’re being relentlessly hit upon?

It’s for this reason that I’ve developed what I like to call “safety vernacular” in a variety of languages. While I speak Spanish, I only know the aforementioned key phrases in other tongues: “please,” “thank you,” “what’s your name,” “where’s the bathroom?” But I also know how to swear like a banshee, and employ the varying degrees of “Get lost” that range from polite to, “If you don’t get out of my face now, you’re going to lose your testicles.”Now, you’re probably asking, “Is that really necessary?” Yes, it is. And it just may save your life.

What you say, and how you say it — as well as how you physically react — depends upon where you’re traveling. Sometimes it’s best to just ignore your harasser and move on. You don’t want to make a bad situation worse by responding aggressively in a country where women simply don’t act that way/where it could further encourage or antagonize your would-be attacker or paramour. And please, follow your guidebook’s advice on appropriate dress — not only will it help you blend in (inasmuch as that’s possible); it’s also a matter of cultural respect. Leave the Daisy Dukes at home, and pack a bra. While it doesn’t help in the vernacular department, a great book for cultural advice is Behave Yourself! The essential guide to international etiquette, by Michael Powell.

From chikan to “Eve-teasing”

Let’s take Tokyo’s Metro. It’s infamous for acts of chikan, or frotteurism, and foreigners aren’t exempt. Please note this doesn’t mean all Japanese men are evil perverts, or that riding the subway in Japan means you’re going to get felt up. But put it this way: it’s become such an issue that some railway companies in Japan designate women-only cars during peak hours.

Anyway. Japan is a country where it’s imperative not to “lose face.” Screaming at a frotteur and smacking him across the face, while perhaps the appropriate response, isn’t going to fly. Instead, find a guidebook that will tell you how best to deal with the situation, as well as provide you with a handy phrase to thwart it. “Eve-teasing” is a similar form of public harassment prevalent in India, as are open, leering stares. The best way to handle it is to ignore the stares, seek the company of other (local) women on public transit, or to call out your harasser in a crowd — public humiliation is very effective in India.

On how phrasebooks can help

It is for these situations that I swear by Lonely Planet Phrasebooks. They’re published in just about every language a traveler would require: Swahili to Southeast Asian hill tribe dialects; Basque to Mongolian. Not only do these little books offer cultural tidbits, but they’re packed with appropriate emergency phrases ranging from “Help!” “I’ve been raped,” and “How do I find the ____ embassy?” to sections on “Dating and Romance,” “Cultural Differences,” and “Specific Needs” travel. The various authors also have a great sense of (albeit dark) humor.

For example: the Spanish Phrasebook (Spain/Basque) offers these two gems: Por favor, deje de molestarme (Please stop hassling me), and Estoy aqui con mi esposo (I’m here with my husband). There are also phrases for “Do you have a condom?” and, “I might be in a wheelchair, but I’m not stupid!” See, very handy. The Portuguese Phrasebook also contains, in the “Making Love/Afterwards” section, “Would you like a cigarette?” and, “I think you should leave now.”

And some real-world examples…

But we’re talking safety here, and not the kind a condom can protect you from (although do take some with you; you really don’t want to be purchasing them in developing nations with less-regulated testing standards). In Italy and Latin America, the local women have no problem telling annoying men where to get off, and you should follow suit. I always make a point of saying I have a husband (it’s somewhat more effective than “boyfriend,” and I learned my lesson the one time I said I was a lesbian to a pesky Italian in a bar. “Aah!” he cried with delight, “Leccamento il fico! (“licking the fig”).”)

Anyhoo. I’ve found that said pesky Italians are best met with a loud, “Vaffanculo, stronzo (“Fu*k off, di*khead!)!” Once, in a dodgy situation in Mexico, I screamed, “Largate! O patear las bolas!” According to the Mexican friend who taught me all the bad (and safety) words I know en espanol, if said forcefully, this slang translates as, “Fu*k off! Or I’ll kick you in the balls!” Whatever; it worked. So did the use of “Get lost!” in Arabic to two sketchy boys who stalked me while I was lost in a Marrakesh souk.

So there you have it. Don’t go looking for trouble, but don’t invite trouble by looking (and acting) like a victim. A little pre-trip research, and keeping your wits about you on the road will go a long way toward ensuring you come home with nothing more than great memories and all of your valuables.