I’m in the habit of preparing well for my vacations, especially when it comes to safeguarding my money and making sure I can use it. To this end I put together a plan. I would have two prepaid debit cards. One would be on my person at all times while the other would remain at the hostel, in a safe if possible. I would load funds onto the cards as I needed them, a few days in advance and never very much. I confirmed that there would be no problems using my cards in Peru and that, if one was lost or stolen, I could easily notify the bank and have the funds transferred back to my bank account or to the other card.
My online research told me that American Express had the best prepaid debit card. There would be no extra fees and no monthly charge. When I called them, they assured me there would be no problems using the card in Peru and that I would have the flexibility I desired.
But when I got the cards, I was unable to load funds onto them from my bank account using their website. I notified them of the problem and it took them almost two weeks to get it working. Fortunately, I had left myself plenty of time and it was fixed well before my departure.
Or so I thought. A few days after arriving in Peru I tried to load funds onto one of the cards – and got an error message that my account could not be verified. I could only call them during business hours, and even then I was getting tech support from what appeared to be India. They weren’t much help. Each time I called (3 times if memory serves me right), I was told the problem was fixed and that I should try again in a little while. Sure enough, the error persisted. I called again and demanded to speak to a supervisor. He told me everything was working fine and there should be no problem. That the funds had been loaded onto the card. From my experience in the U.S. I knew that if this were the case, my bank account should show a pending withdrawal. It did not. I informed him of this and was told that this is not always the case. I was told to be patient and wait a few days. According to their website, it can take up to 5 business days. Those 5 days elapsed and the money still wasn’t there. The following morning, steaming mad, I called again (each call had to be made from an internet cafe’). This time the Indians told me they’d load the funds themselves. In the end, the funds did show up – about a week and a half later.
When I returned home, I wanted to unload the money back into my bank account, something I was originally told could be done. Now it turns out it cannot be done. Had the cards been lost or stolen, the only thing they could have done was to send me a new card. Where would they have sent it to when I was traveling around Peru?
I normally don’t like advising against an option unless I have a better one to suggest. At this point, I think the best option is to carry one or two regular debit/credit cards with you and some cash safely hidden. American Express has proven itself to be technically incompetent, ignorant (or misleading) of its own policies and careless with its customers. It might be that American Express is less willing to spend money and resources on its prepaid services since those customers typically have less means or influence than their regular customers.