Always. Carry. Cash.

A classic “lesson-learned” tale of traveling.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

There are many mantras I’ve heard from my Dad growing up that, admittedly, I felt were a bit outdated. One of them was always carry a Virginia map in your car. Really? A map, Dad? GPS was invented for a reason, was my classic response.

The other mantra was always carry cash. Before every trip, I would inevitably hear, “How much cash do you have on you?”  I would sigh and sometimes bluff a little to make him feel better, knowing that I could use my card just about anywhere for anything.

A $1.89 cent pack of gum? Swipe. Filling up the gas tank? Swipe.

I don’t like admitting when I’m wrong and I don’t do this very often, so pay close attention because I will only say this once: My Dad was…right.

That was painful, but also very true. As a swiping addict with an aversion to ATMs, I falsely assumed that a developed country like Japan would have similar monetary practices as the U.S. This is utterly false, I soon learned, as the country is still very much a cash-based society.

Japanese Yen

Just to clarify, I did have some cash on me when leaving. The mistake I made was not converting it to Yen at the airport prior to leaving the states. I assumed there would be currency exchange locations in the airport. “What airport doesn’t have a currency exchange?” I thought. Oh right, the one I flew into in Osaka.

After barely making my connecting flight from Tokyo to Osaka there was no time to stop at one of the currency exchange kiosks in the main airport. I figured I would just have to get some cash when I landed at my final destination. The convenience store that offered this service was closed by the time that I got there. With my luck, the MasterCard I was using of course is no longer accepted by about 90% of Japanese ATMs as of April 2013. The only cash I had in my procession was in US dollars.

Don’t panic, I told myself, alone in a foreign airport. I quickly asked an airline employee who spoke some English and she directed me to another convenience store two blocks away that closed in 15-minutes. I hustled over there as quickly as my four bags would allow me to go, ignoring the concerned faces that landed upon the crazed, sweaty American jostling through the airport lines.

I made it just in time and, here comes that luck again, it turns out that the store only allows each customer to convert $100 USD and no more beyond that. Fine, no problem, I thought. Expect after paying a $30 cab fee and my remaining hotel balance of $65 (which they only accepted in cash of course), it was a major problem. The following morning, I awoke anxiously and began the cash quest once again. I could not call the bank because I did not have an international cell service plan and was relying on Wi-Fi. The other ATMs that I tried nearby the hotel also did not accept my card and the hotel I was staying in did not offer currency exchange as a service.

I frantically messaged my parents using IChat, trying to give off the, “Don’t worry, everything is under control” vibe, when really I was thinking, “PLEASE HELP ME.” My timing was impeccable. I was calling home at 7 p.m. on a Friday, which is probably the most inaccessible times to get anyone from the bank on the phone, that is if they would even be able to do anything about my situation.

Aiko, my English-speaking friend at the front desk, watched this situation with a look of curious concern. I went into my room on the 9th floor to use my laptop, then back to the lobby to access the Wi-Fi on my phone, then outside to the ATM, then back inside to tell my parents it hadn’t worked, then back upstairs to get online again and so on and so forth. I finally asked him if there was any way the hotel could charge my card for something and then give me the cash back so I would have enough for a cab fare back to the airport.

He said, “What kind of currency did you say you have again?” I told him U.S. dollars. Then the sky parted, it stopped raining and the sun burst through the clouds as he said, “Oh. I’m travelling there next month. If you like, I could just buy some US dollar from you and sell you the yen.” I could have kissed him in the lobby then and there!

Don’t worry; I refrained, as it would have been socially unacceptable. I had my cab fare, I could exchange my remaining funds back at the airport and I figured I survive off of the Cliff Bars I packed for the next two days if need be.

I left the hotel that morning with some yen in my wallet and the familiar words of my dad saying, “Always carry cash.”

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