Don’t worry, American Express has your number

By | July 27th, 2016

Ed Lawrence and his wife arrived in London from Boston on a Sunday with almost no cash.

His ATM card didn’t work anymore. Neither did his Visa or Mastercard cash advance without the personal identification number (PIN).

But American Express did in a big way.

“I was thinking I would withdraw some cash at Heathrow after I arrived,” Lawrence says. “My ATM card worked fine on a previous trip to London, but the cash machine now declined my transaction. I tried a credit card advance next, but the machine wanted a PIN. Neither of us had arranged for credit card PINs.”

Hey, I don’t know mine either. But even though Amex also needed a PIN, the rep came through with a creative work-around for just such an occasion.

I remember needing to walk into an actual bank building during business hours to withdraw cash, relying on a live human. Gasp. My parents were paid in cash in an envelope when they first started working.

Today, our cashless society, combined with ATM reliance everywhere, has rendered us inattentive to empty wallets at a time when not all businesses accept credit cards when traveling. And lest we forget, let’s appreciate the good fortune to have this problem in our privileged society.

When used prudently with minimal revolving interest, credit cards have their upside for keeping records and receipts of expenses, renting a car, contesting purchases that have gone awry, and preventing money theft when traveling — making travelers checks so last century. Even Karl Malden should approve. Apparently, he never left home without them.

And while credit card cash advance and currency conversion fees can stack up, especially when abroad, it may well be worth the peace of mind. Travelers checks have fees too.

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“The nearest currency exchange human was eager to help, but no dice,” Lawrence continued. “They still needed that PIN since they use the same ATM system. Eventually we will need cash for noncredit purchases. Defeated, we went to the hotel and, after check-in, proceeded to contact my credit card providers online.”


Lawrence’s banking institution, a credit union, was closed until Monday and harder to reach. He later learned his cash withdrawal request was flagged as suspicious activity. Users now usually need to notify the bank in advance of any impending use abroad as the institutions’ triggering algorithms become stricter.

He was not aware of this, and that’s OK. Not everyone is. While this is a good thing, banks are actually protecting themselves more than you.

So, what about a MasterCard or Visa cash advance? “They could only provide a PIN in about eight to 10 days, mailed to your home address,” he went on.

What about a PIN over the phone? Fuhgeddaboudit. No one at the company is allowed to know the number.

“I was down to my American Express expecting to strike out since their PIN would take days also,” Lawrence lamented.

Not so fast.

“The Amex rep saved the day by providing a one-time only PIN good for a $500 cash advance after I answered a bunch of security questions,” he added. “I had to sign onto my email account to acknowledge their email to receive the PIN. This took less than five minutes.”

As an Amex customer for 25 years, I have found them to be a particularly loyal and effective advocate whether contesting an adversarial purchase or needing a myriad of personalized travel and billing troubleshooting with real-time problem solving skills. Apparently, I am not alone. My favorite part is rarely being on hold and a rep that always seems to know their stuff 24/7. I also value their included purchase protection provisions, rental car insurance and unrestricted “no catch” rewards points program (sorry, Chris Elliott).

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The bigger lesson here is a real live human was able to use their best professional judgment on a moment’s notice to strike a balance between protecting both the customer’s and company’s interests while addressing an unusual and urgent request. That is customer service.

Best professional judgment. Sigh. Something we do not experience that often anymore.

“My lesson learned is to call your credit and ATM card companies before leaving home to let them know about your travel plans and get PINs for your cards, including the Amex,” Lawrence concluded.

And as Malden used to say, “Don’t leave home without it.”



  • Alan Gore

    Good save by Amex!

  • I never leave home without my Amex platinum – saved my trip more than once, and Amex Platinum concierge has pulled off some brilliant help for us over the years, both in the US and in Europe.

  • CasaAlux

    I’ve been an Amex cardmember since 1991, and have recently upgraded from gold to platinum for the extra travel related benefits. In this 25 year period, I have never been anything but delighted with Amex’s customer service. It’s very rare to be able to say this about any company. I also love the online chat facility – when logged into one’s account online, one can actually chat with a live person empowered to help and solve issues. It’s another great option when away from home and perhaps unable to easily reach them by phone.

  • MarkKelling

    I knew there was some reason I keep my AmEx card.

  • AAGK

    Amex knocks it out of the park every time. I think I only disagreed with them once or twice and in retrospect, it may have been my fault.

  • Travelnut

    About ten years ago, AmEx saved my vacation. I’ve posted the full story before, so the short version is that I lost my wallet in Germany, and AmEx not only issued me a new card and gave me a $1,000 advance, but they orchestrated getting my wallet back to me, while I was still in Germany. Someone had found it and called AmEx. Still had everything in it. I haven’t been 100% pleased with their customer service the past few years, but I think they are far above any other carrier.

  • BubbaJoe123

    I have a similar Amex story. I was in Europe when 9/11 happened (was supposed to fly home that day, actually), so was stuck for a while. Got my wallet stolen in Paris. Called Chase and Citi, they promptly cancelled my cards, and promised to send me new ones in 5-7 days. Called Amex, they cancelled my card, and then said “we have an office in the Rue de Somethingorother – they’ll have a replacement card ready for you in an hour, just bring your passport; if you need cash, they can advance you up to $1000.”
    Made me a customer for life.

  • jsn55

    Great customer service by AmEx – I’d expect nothing less. Obviously, AmEx empowers their people to solve the customers’ problems … a rare thing these days. I’ve often wondered why we all give answers to so many security questions, but when we REALLY need help, we either fall in with the bank’s rules or we’re out of luck. So, yes, ‘don’t leave home without it’ but also: ‘don’t leave home without any money!!’ One of the first things that go into my computer bag are 5 twenty-dollar bills. You just never know.

  • Ed Lawrence

    Hello. Subject of the article here. Here’s the story behind the story: Just after this incident, Elliot.org published an article describing how Amex let a customer down. As much as I like Chris and this site, one must recognize how the site—because it is a site to help people—is filled with negative stories. I think once in a while people need a feel good story. So, when I saw the negative Amex story just after my incident, I thought Amex deserved a kudo. And now you know. Have a great day.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    Four years ago, my father and my kids were in downtown DC, and he had forgotten his wallet with all of his cash and credit cards. He walked into a branch of Bank of America with the kids to see if they would let him withdraw money from his account. After having a security conversation, and seeing a private library card with his name on it, the manager let him make the withdrawal, which allowed them to eat lunch and enjoy the day. (They had metro cards for travel purposes).

  • Lee

    I admit to being surprised that at this point in time people don’t know to notify their banks/credit card companies when traveling away from where their usual spending occurs. I have known about doing that for at least 8 years now – the only one (of which I am aware), ironically, that does not need/require such notification is Amex. But, the others will stop a charge or debit in its tracks considering it possibly fraudulent.

    Never a good idea either to have just one debit card; I always have at least two from separate accounts. Sometimes ATM machines have been known to eat a card and not spit it back out or it could get stolen, etc – So, more than one debit card is just a good practice.

    Amex, for me, has been a great company – they have always come through on various situations and I agree that their staff seem very knowledgeable and seem to have more leeway in making certain decisions than some others without having to go through a supervisor to do so.

  • Sharon

    Another fan of AMEX here! A benefit of our German Platinum AMEX card is 240 (!) days per year of international medical insurance — each trip up to 120 days, with no limit on cost, and – only since recently – a 10% self-deductible! As seniors, this is a “priceless” benefit, and well worth the 600 Euros a year sticker price for the card, since we spend several months of the year living away from our homebase. The insurance coverage is valid until the age of 80!

  • Ed Lawrence

    My. Card had worked on previous trips, but for some reason on is trIp my attempt to withdraw funds was viewed as sususpicious activity and blocked. I sent an email to the credit union from myhotel and a couple of days later received a reply notifying me of of the “suspicious activity.”

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