There are two things that used to be a staple to international travel, both of which have had a slow but decidedly certain death. I’ve only discovered their sure demise through several attempts to acquire/utilize each.
First is the traveler’s cheque. I had heard rumor that these were becoming harder to exchange overseas. Once upon a time, traveler’s cheques were the gold standard for securing cash money overseas; changing traveler’s cheques into local currency used to be the de facto method of procuring local monies. Then when ATMs became fairly ubiquitous, automated access to local dollars was available in just about any city with a population over 50. I used to travel with cheques just in case of emergency, since, if all forms of currency or access to currency should be lost or stolen, cheques are protected and can be replaced.
Today, as I prepared for SE Asia, I scoured banks, post offices, exchange offices, and Western Unions to buy my monetary security blanket. After about 4 hours of my life, not one location was able to issue a traveler’s cheque to me. I suppose if I had this kind of difficulty buying them, it may have been that much more difficult selling them. RIP traveler’s cheques.
Secondly, and this one completely shocked me, is the collect phone call. My first collect call attempt was to call my travel insurance when the bus company lost my luggage. I was in Cambodia at the time, and I could not get an operator to connect my call, so I just chalked it up to being in Cambodia. I conceded quickly, dialed the direct (toll) number from my cell, and incurred the expense.
My second attempt was to call my credit card company when a charge was placed on hold for security purposes (even though I went through all of the proper bank notification steps, apparently Visa, not the bank, has yet additional layers of security). With my adventure tour in the balance, I started navigating the collect call web. This time I was in Vietnam, where determining the number to dial an operator was difficult enough (apparently it’s 010, rather than just 0 like in the US).
The hotel receptionist, speaking in Vietnamese, conversed with the operator on the other end of the line, and after about 5 minutes told me they could not connect the call collect. This time I chalked it up to being in Vietnam, a clear miscommunication due to the language barrier, and the fact that the receptionist didn’t know what a collect call was. This should have been a sign. I ended up speaking with the Visa rep via FaceTime via the toll-free US number via a US resident in the US to resolve the security issue. Simple.
In the aforementioned cases, I asked the operator to dial the collect number listed on the cards provided by the issuer to no avail.
My final attempt for a collect call was in Bali, where I managed to suffer a bloody face trauma in a swimming pool that required proper medical attention (and ultimately 20+ stitches by a maxillofacial surgeon). Fortunately, I was in one of three spots in SE Asia with Western medical facilities, and within walking distance to boot. I guess there is a silver lining to everything. My goal was to again complete a collect call to the number provided by my insurance company.
Since I was taking matters into my own hands, I was positive that I could get this collect call patched through. I first found the number to the local operator (107 in Bali), and after calling the number was advised that the number cannot be connected collect through this operator, and that I should dial 102. I had no idea there was more than one operator… guess that’s lost to my generation.
102 was a dead end. The phone went silent and lacked even a dial tone. So I dialed trusty “0” hoping to connect with an international operator. Fortunately, the voice on the other end spoke some English and asked me which operator I wanted. Having only learned about the multiple operator option minutes earlier, I was confused by the question as names like “Frank” or “George” rushed through my snarky thought stream as potential responses. But all I really wanted was an international operator who could connect a collect call, so I told the somewhat willing voice on the other end just that. Surely this cannot be that difficult.
The voice on the other end said, “Please hold while I try to find somebody.” I had no idea who I’d be speaking with. After what seemed to be a quick wait on the hotel room phone, an AT&T agent, who spoke English perfectly as a first language (which I rarely get when I call AT&T customer service from the US), took the line. I may have said “thank goodness” out loud. I explained that I was simply trying to connect a collect call to the number provided by my insurance.
She understood my request perfectly. And I understood her response without an ounce of confusion, but I had to repeat it back to her, and ask her to state it once more because I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. Clear as day, the AT&T agent nearly retorted with, “Collect calls don’t exist any more. As of March , there are no more collect calls.” After probing further and learning that there just simply are no longer any options for a recipient to pay for a phone call, she offered me the options to buy a calling card or provide my credit card so she could connect me to the States. Both options clearly would have resulted in me footing the bill.
Having heard it with my own left ear, I learned without a shadow of doubt that collect calls are suddenly extinct. I still haven’t completely come to terms with the notion, since it seems like an entire network of services and phone numbers have been rendered useless overnight, and the service providers such as insurance companies and banks are still issuing collateral promoting collect phone numbers. It seems almost unilateral by the phone companies, and no one bothered to inform anyone who may use a collect number on either end… odd that this wasn’t more concerted across providers.
Moral of the story, I suppose, is that as new technologies become more common and available, old “technologies” (if you can call a check and a free phone call technologies) will wane. While I understand the proliferation of cellular minutes, unlimited text messages, and to some extent cellular data, international phone calls still come at a price… even with a global plan. Since my refurbished phone locked to my US cellular provider after installing the US SIM, I am unable to buy tourist SIMs abroad, but even local tourist SIMs come with very limited international calling.
I’ve been able to complete international calls but have reserved said calls for emergencies. It seems there would be some other free alternative for emergency cases, but my phone bill will prove that nothing except minute-rate calls exist today. I’m guessing services like What’s App (and other data based call/chat options) will soon supplant still costly international calling as major providers adopt these new technologies. Even some guest houses in SE Asia provided a What’s App ID for easy conversation.
As for traveler’s cheques, I’ve relied on a small stash of USD that could be exchanged in case of emergency and ATMs for everything else. Provided I never part with my bank card, this works… and it works well. Even the smallest towns I’ve visited have offered at least a single ATM and small bank fees. (I recommend a virtual bank with no bricks-and-mortar such as USAA, Schwab, or Ally; they usually reimburse ATM fees.) And once in a country, I usually withdraw enough local cash for several days.
Just don’t ask what would happen if I lost my bank card… don’t even think it!