The worst feeling is when I’m traveling a foreign country and I realize that the ATM ate my debit card. It transforms the “Wow, money at my fingertips” feeling to “Holy shit, I have no money at all.”
On my recent trip to Thailand, I had zero dollars when I arrived in Sulat Thani, where I needed to catch the night boat to Koh Tao. So I found a bank, which was already closed, and used the ATM. But the ATM ate my debit card. Luckily there was a local woman who helped convince the bank employees–who were there, working after hours–to open up the machine and retrieve my card.
The ATM Ate my Debit Card, Again
A month later, I was in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, and Marissa and I were exhausted and hungry from our long bus journey. All we wanted to do was sit on the beach and have a seafood lunch.
I went to an ATM in front of a nearby hotel, inserted my card, punched in my pin, and felt the discomfort as the screen returned to its welcoming image. I pressed the cancel button and the machine went out of order. I slammed on a few more buttons and the screen flashed a phone number to call if I encountered any problems. Well, I had a god damn problem. I sprinted into the hotel and told reception about my situation.
“We are pleased to inform you that the machine is separate from our hotel,” the man at reception said.
“It’s right outside your hotel,” I replied, trying very hard to keep my cool. “Can I just use your phone to call the local number about getting my ATM card back? I have no money.”
“We are pleased to inform you that the hotel charges one dollar for one minute.”
“Listen to me,” I said, this time trying to restrain myself from socking him in the face. “I have no money. The ATM ate my debit card. And the words ‘pleased to inform’ are never used when introducing negative information.”
He looked at me angrily, as though I had just shattered his world. It was as if ‘pleased to inform’ had been his favorite English phrase. The phone rang and he answered it. The receptionist looked at me and moved his mouth around as he thought about what to say to the caller. “I am… to inform you that your towels can be replaced.”
When the call ended, he stared me down and then handed me the phone. I reached the bank operator, who needed my contact number. But I didn’t have the number for my hotel, so I gave her my email address. I repeated it a few times, but even after spelling it out, she kept reading my email back as “firstname.lastname@example.org.”
“When are you going to contact me?” I asked the woman from the bank.
“But I have no money now and I’m leaving town in the morning. I need my card, ma’am.”
“We need the phone,” the hotel receptionist said.
I ignored him. The operator put me back on hold.
I was trying to come up with a back-up plan, like having my parents look into sending money abroad or going back to the days of traveler’s checks.
Finally, the woman from the bank returned to the phone call and decided that I should come down to the main branch. I ran back to my hotel, told reception that I would have to pay for the room later because the ATM ate my debit card, and put on my running shoes. When I was about to start sprinting to the bank under the Sihanoukville sun, my hotel’s receptionist asked if everything was okay.
“The ATM ate my debit card. I have to go to the bank.”
“It’s far. You should take a tuk tuk.”
“I have no money. Can you give me a ride?”
He went to the bar and spoke with one of the employees there. After a few minutes of conversation, a man at the bar hopped onto a motorbike and I jumped on behind him. We set off to the bank.
I walked right over to the lady at the information desk and she knew who I was.
“The hotel called and said that someone gave in your card.”
“What do you mean?”
“The machine gives back your card. I will confirm for you.” She spent fifteen minutes trying to figure out how to use Google and took another few minutes mispronouncing my name to the hotel’s reception.
I ran the two miles back to the hotel. Sadly, the “pleased to inform you” receptionist was off duty, missing a great opportunity to use his catchphrase.
Tips for using the ATM overseas:
Use ATMs during business hours. This way, if the ATM eats your debit card, an employee can retrieve it for you.
The ATM ate my debit card a third time, but here are the tips I used:
Bring your passport. The bank needs it to verify that you’re the rightful owner of the card.
If you use a remote ATM, find the bank’s phone number on the machine when it digests your plastic.
Copy down any reference numbers and take any print-outs.
Go with a friend so they can stand guard in case the ATM spits out the card while you’re on the phone.
Use a hotel phone. Tell them you have no money, but you’ll pay them with a nice review on Trip Advisor or the like.
Before using the ATM, make sure you haven’t eaten in the last ninety minutes, be properly stretched, have your running shoes on, and drink plenty of fluids.
Photo by TC