There is nothing better after an almost 16 hour flight than to get to your hotel, plop on the bed and just “aaaaahhhhhhh”. Let fall away the tension from the cramped economy class seat and the lack of sleep of the airplane night. Just… enjoying the fact that you’ve made it.
That’s not how my trip started.
It started with an airport ATM laughing “insufficient funds” at my credit card. Well okay. I’d seen the people in front of me huff in exasperation at its screen, so clearly there was something wrong with the machine.
I thought I was being clever by skipping the wait by the baggage belt and getting money out first. Let the other passengers wait for their stuff, I’m already a step ahead of you. Once I got my money, my bag will have arrived and I walk out of here without delay.
Only the ATM didn’t agree. I looked back to the Cambio exchange service near the drove of people from my flight. Some people had had the same idea as me and started queuing. Luckily, I had spotted another exchange next to the exit, completely empty.
I walked over and waved at the woman behind the glass. “What’s the dollar exchange rate?”
She stared at me for a second, clicked a button and pointed at the microphone. “What’s the dollar exchange rate?” I repeated.
“526 colones” she told me. “How much do you want?”
I thought about it. I had no idea what the ATM would have charged me, so there was really no way to tell whether this was a good deal or not. But then again, with the ATM out of commission I didn’t really have a choice.
“I’ll take 300.000 please.” That was more than 500 USD and should last for two weeks of paying most things in cash.
The woman started the paperwork – passport, contact information, and so on. Finally she took my card and slid it in the hand terminal.
“Your PIN please” she said and tried to maneuver it through the miniscule opening in the glass. It didn’t fit.
“Maybe you can…?” she gestured for me to stick my hand through the hole to enter the PIN on her end.
My wrist protested being forced through the weird dugout-like slot but I managed to type in my PIN without causing permanent damage.
The machine almost immediately protested: “Error.”
The cashier ripped off the receipt and held it against the glass. “It didn’t go through.”
“Huh, what?” That one took me by surprise. “Does it say why?”
She shook her head. “Maybe the connection with your bank is bad?”
I doubted that. “Hm, okay, I guess I’ll try the ATM again, thanks.”
She handed me back my card and threw out the papers.
I left and eyed the ATM again. It still looked like people were having issues with it. Maybe I should try the other Cambio.
I walked back to the baggage area and saw that all the bags were already gone. Only my lonely packsack was sitting next to the belt, waiting for my attention. I grabbed the sack and dragged it over the the second Cambio.
“Hi, I’d like to buy some Colones please.”
The guy behind the counter stared at me, clicked the button and pointed at the microphone. Why does no one turn the mics on when they see the customer approaching instead of after they start talking?!
The same procedure repeated as before: Paperwork, buy-more-get-discount sales pitch, card in terminal – error.
It started to dawn on me that the problem might actually be on my end. I had flashbacks to when I had my terrible HSBC card that was immediately blocked if you used it abroad and didn’t inform the bank beforehand. Was the same thing happening here?
I dropped my bag back between the baggage carousels and myself right next to it. Fuck, fuck, fuck. I had just landed in Costa Rica, was dead tired, and I had zero local currency. Argh.
I dug out my tablet and phone, put on my headset, loaded up Skype (no, I’m not paying those roaming charges, thank you very much) and typed the bank’s customer service number off of my phone. Wait, what time is it in Germany? Thankfully, someone answered; after the usual battle against the automated menu.
“Yes, you have insufficient funds, ma’am,” the representative told me.
“Uh, what?” I started. I didn’t understand. I had spent the last two weeks transferring every penny that I had into that bank account, so that I definitely would not run out of funds. “How can that be?”
“Well, you have a 500 Euro limit on your credit card, and you only have 100 Euros left.”
If the lights in the baggage claim area had been off, the entire hall would have been illuminated by the light bulb going on over my head. Ah, yes, real credit cards have a limit!
You see, in Sweden, the home of my regular credit card, the card is tied directly to your bank account. It’s actually more of a bank card with credit card behaviour. That means your “limit” is what’s in your account. It also means that for the past six years I never had to think of things like limits.
This was a different card though. By recommendation from my regular travel buddy Stefanie, I had opened a new bank account with German DKB that would allow me to take out money abroad for free – an essential feature when travelling for this long! But I hadn’t considered that this, unlike my Swedish card, could not be used for however long I pleased. So, long story short: I face palmed.
“Can we increase the limit?” I asked the lady on the phone. I remembered my friend having had a similar problem on a trip a few years ago and simply had her limit raised.
“No, I’m sorry, but you can do that in your online banking. It will take 2-3 days to activate.”
“The what now?!” Once again I had not anticipated her answer. I can’t stay at the airport for three days! was the first thought going through my head. I did not feel like my blood pressure was doing well.
A line of trolleys rolled past me as the airport employees cleaned up the baggage claim. I could barely hear anymore.
“Look,” I half yelled into the headset, over the noise of the arrivals hall. I was convinced she had misunderstood my situation, “I’m sitting in the Costa Rica airport, I have no money, I don’t have a working card, what can I do?!”
“Oh, just transfer some money to your card, that would be immediate.”
Couldn’t you have lead with that?!!
Okay. I took a deep breath. There was hope.
I finished the call and took three seconds to send a silent thank you to the heavens that they had made me paranoid enough that I had installed all the banking and TAN apps on my tablet before I left.
A cleaning scooter rolled past me, the driver clearly not happy that I was blocking his path.
I brought up the banking app and checked my balances. With PIN and TAN and fingerprint verification it took me another five minutes to bring the credit card into black and then some. I triple-checked the account status before I packed up.
For the third time, paperwork. I put in my PIN and held my breath. Approved!
The cashier and I both cheered. I received over a quarter million in cash (colones unfortunately, not dollars), got to my hotel, plopped on the bed and just went “aaaaahhhhhhh”.
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