Not so funny money tricks the travel industry likes to play

By | May 6th, 2013

Maks Narondeko/Shutterstock
Maks Narondeko/Shutterstock

Hold on to your wallet. Businesses don’t just want to get their hands on your cash when you’re on the road — they also want more of your money, and on their terms.

Take what happened to Gordon Angell when he was visiting La Paz, Mexico, recently. Many restaurants in town display the “Visa” and “MasterCard” stickers, signifying that they accept credit cards.

But on Angell’s first evening, after finishing a meal at a restaurant, his server informed him the credit card machine didn’t work, and pointed to an ATM. He paid in pesos.

“The following evening we went to another restaurant called The Three Virgins,” he says. “We made sure that we asked them if they accepted credit cards and they said ‘yes.’ Surprisingly, when we offered to pay our bill, it was a repeat of the previous evening. Their machine was ‘not working.’ They told us to use the ATM.”

The ploy allegedly uncovered at The Three Virgins is just one of two interesting tricks used by clever businesses to get more of your money when you cross a border. And make no mistake, businesses love to “think different” when it comes to money abroad — just ask Apple Computer if you don’t believe me.

In a way, these little games assume you won’t think about money, and do the necessary math.

It’s no secret that any businesses would prefer your cash, for example. After all, they don’t have to pay any fees to Visa or MasterCard. But saying the business is “cash only” is a turnoff to many tourists, who don’t carry a lot of local currency.

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So in order for the restaurants to have their metaphorical cake and eat it too, they tell a little white lie. Yes, they accept credit cards. But you didn’t ask if our machine works. Those naughty virgins!

The currency exchange trick

Here’s another interesting sleight of hand involving money. It happened to Chris Hynak on a recent stay at Bluebay Hotel in Zanzibar. When he checked in, an employee informed him that all of his incidentals would be charged in shillings, the native currency of Zanzibar.

“I figured this wouldn’t be a problem,” he says. “I would simply pay my bill by credit card and have the amount of shillings converted by Visa at the daily rate, which as of today is slightly more than 1600 shillings to the dollar.”

That’s an absolutely acceptable strategy. Hynak would have to pay a “foreign transaction” fee for any purchase made overseas to his card, whether it’s made in dollars or shillings, but at least he’d get a favorable exchange rate.

But the Bluebay had other plans for his money. When it came time to settle up, it insisted on converting his shillings to dollars at a 13 percent markup.

“I protested, saying that I wanted to be charged in shillings, only to be told that their machine wouldn’t allow them to do that,” says Hynak. “I find this hard to believe. Where in the world can you not settle a bill in the local currency in which it was quoted?”

Indeed. After a brief argument, the hotel agreed to adjust its exchange rate, shaving about $23 off his final bill. He may still have to pay a credit card exchange fee on top of that, but at least the exchange rate is a little more reasonable.

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Not ‘Monopoly’ money

What do Hynak and Angell’s stories mean for you? Well, if you travel overseas, some merchants obviously hope you won’t bother to ask basic questions or do a little mental math before you plunk down your credit card.

They think the fact that you’re paying in shillings and pesos will somehow short-circuit your reasoning skills. They want you to look at their money and think: “It’s just Monopoly money” — and obediently fork it over.

The remedy is equally obvious. If a business claims to accept credit cards — and especially if it’s a product you can’t return after it’s consumed, like a restaurant meal — find out if the credit card machine is actually working. If a hotel or car rental company offers to exchange your dollars for local currency “as a courtesy,” then ask what the exchange rate is, and if it’s not competitive, insist on paying in local currency.

Don’t turn off your brain when it comes to using money overseas. Because they’re counting on you to.

Does the hotel industry unjustly profit from currency exchanges?

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