Thursday, July 15, 2010

Credit Cards and International Travel

What a good idea! If you are planning to travel to foreign countries from the U.S., the best credit card to take is the one offered by AAA. After all, AAA is a world-class travel authority. WRONG! First off, AAA does not really offer a VISA Gold card. Sure, they have their logo and name on it, but if something goes wrong, as it did for me, they disavow any responsibility and refuse to help. They pass the buck on to the issuing bank. The bank issuing the card, in this case was PNC Bank in Wilmington, DE and the party you have to contact when things go bad. Unfortunately, PNC Bank does not have an international toll free number and their support personnel seemed to have little knowledge or experience in dealing with international clients. My decision to sign up with AAA to obtain their credit card ruined my vacation to Europe and put me at considerable risk. My suggestion to international travelers is to obtain an a credit card from an international bank like CitiBank or from American Express. Even this will not be enough to ensure the security of using your bank card when it is needed and I will explain why.

The following is an account of our experience attempting to pay our bill at the Holiday Inn at Kings Cross, GB with a AAA/PNC Bank VISA Gold Card with approximately $10,000 U.S. credit line. The desk clerk swiped our card through the hotel's card reader. The card was rejected. The desk clerk then called their bank in response to the code they received on their credit card reader. The Holiday Inn's bank requested more information from us and then rejected the charge because PNC Bank company rejected their attempt to clear the account. We were left standing in the crowded lobby of a hotel on a weekend in a foreign country with a unusable credit card account. We were embarrassed and humiliated by this experience. The hotel was so convinced that we were deadbeats that they wouldn't permit me to call PNC Bank company using their phone.

I used the same PNC Bank VISA Gold card to call PNC's 800 number from a credit card telephone in the lobby. The 800 number listed on their credit card was not usable from Great Britain. The first call to PNC Bank's office put me in touch with a customer support person who was unknowledgeable and unhelpful. When I asked to speak to a supervisor, they hung up on me. A second call resulted in my being connected to a different customer service person who was more helpful. After speaking with the second person, I was assured that the problem was resolved. When I returned to the Holiday Inn counter, the credit card was swiped and the charge was again denied. The hotel's bank was called again. The charge was rejected, again. Once again, I called PNC Bank and talked to another customer service person who was more helpful sounding, but equally ineffective. I asked if my credit was in doubt. I was told that my credit was fine. I asked if I was behind in payments. I was told I was not. I asked if I had done something that would have caused my credit limit to be decreased. I was told I had not. I asked why my credit card was being rejected. None of the three customer service people had a clue to what was causing the problem. However, one of them hinted that Holiday Inns were not good credit risks and that charges were automatically denied to their customers. The last person said that my account was in order and that my card would not be rejected again. They were wrong. When I returned to the hotel desk, my credit card was rejected again. Another call to the hotel's bank confirmed the rejection. Three phone calls and $128.53 proved that PNC Bank's customer service people were totally inept of resolving a problem that originated within their company. Only the clever thinking of the hotel clerk enabled us to pay our bill. The clerk tried running a series of smaller charges through the reader. It worked.

This was not the first time our card was rejected in Great Britain. Our first hotel, The Bailey's, also had considerable trouble getting our card to accept their charge. We were also embarrassed and felt degraded by that experience. The combination ruined our vacation.

On our return home, weeks later, we learned that PNC Bank had called us at home and left messages on our telephone answering machine. The messages explained that our card was being used in a foreign country and could we please call them to verify the card was being used legitimately. How very clever of PNC Bank to call a home number in the U.S. to ask about charges being made in Europe. I doubt it would take a rocket scientist to figure out that PNC Bank should have called us at the hotel where we were staying and requested verification of our charges. They also had the option of requesting that we provide more information through the desk clerks at the hotels. PNC Bank was negligently stupid in their handling of this problem.

Having stood at the hotel desk three separate times attempting to use what appeared to be a bogus credit card made us look like criminals to the dozens of other guests. We were horribly humiliated, embarrassed, and insulted by PNC Bank's internal screw up. For our entire trip, we never knew if our card was going to be accepted. We never knew if we were going to stranded at some out of the way location without funds. It was a horrible experience. Had our VISA card been rejected at a inopportune time we would have suffered dangerous consequences. What's more is that we accepted the credit card offer from AAA because they are a travel organization and because of AAA's reputation. Based on our experience, we will never use them for anything more than maps and towing.

When we complained to Ms. Dorothy J. McKinnon, President, AAA Rochester about the problems we had using AAA credit card we were told that AAA had nothing to do with the the credit card bearing their name. We were told that we were on our own to pursue satisfaction from PNC Bank. They said that they would write to PNC Bank regarding the problem, but we never heard anything more from them.

When we complained to PNC Bank, they apologized for the problem and deducted the cost of the long distance telephone calls to their customer support center from London, England. When we suggested that we should receive additional compensation for their negligence they replied that the reimbursement for the phone calls was as much as they would compensate us. We have since canceled the PNC Bank VISA Gold card and will never do business with PNC Bank or AAA credit services.

If you believe that using a more credible bank card will keep you safe from this kind of problem you are mistaken. We have since experienced similar problems with other credit cards and have discovered the secret to trouble free credit card usage. Call the customer service number printed on your credit card before you leave on your trip. Tell the customer service representative that you are traveling to a foreign country. Tell them which countries and what cities you will be visiting. They will then log that into your account information. When charges start getting flagged because they are unexpectedly coming from the country you are visiting your account information will be verified. Since we started using this method we have not had a single credit card problem.

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