(Puente Del Este, Uruguay) I’m at the International Data Privacy Commissioner’s conference at Puente Del Este, where I’m speaking later this week. But a couple of days ago I wasn’t sure I would be able to get here. My wallet was stolen in Buenos Aires even though it was in a zippered pocket. I was left with no money, no credit card and no ATM card only hours before I planned to take a ferry to Uruguay. I didn’t even know how I would come up with the $100 (US) for the ferry ticket, let alone taxi fare to the terminal and money for food. I knew that once I got to my hotel (prepaid) at the conference, I’d be OK and surrounded by colleagues. Fortunately, my wife is scheduled to join me here later today with her own cards.
Lesson 1: Always leave a credit card, ATM card and cash in hotel safe
My biggest mistake was not having backup cards to charge expenses or get cash. As a very frequent international traveler, I knew better but just forgot to take this precaution. Never again. From now on, I’m putting those extra cards in my luggage and transferring them to a safe upon check-in.
Lesson 2: Carry a copy of your passport, but keep the passport in the safe
The good news is that my passport wasn’t stolen. But it could have been. Argentina is one of those countries where you need to have your passport handy. But aside from customs and other government formalities, a clean color photocopy of the main page is usually sufficient.
Lesson 3: Separate your documents and cash
I lost all my cash and cards because they were all in my wallet. I didn’t lose my passport and mobile phone because they were in different pockets. I wish I had stashed a credit card or ATM card somewhere else, perhaps under my clothing.
Lesson 4: Have online copies of important documents
One thing I do is keep an online copy of my passport, eye-glass prescription, medical insurance card and driver’s license on a password protected webpage. Another option is to scan those documents and email them to a web-mail account like Gmail. I’ve already accessed this page to print out a copy of my medical insurance card.
Lesson 5: Know credit card services for emergency money
The good news is that most credit card companies have ways to wire you money and, in the case of American Express, issue an immediate replacement card in major cities. The bad news for me is that the theft occurred on a Saturday night and I had to travel Sunday morning. Were it a weekday, American Express would have wired me money and issued me a replacement card from its Buenos Aires office, but there was nothing they could do till Monday. Before you leave, learn the travel benefits associated with your cards and have their phone numbers handy. If you travel with a laptop, you can make free or low-cost calls via Google Voice (free) or Skype (2 cents a minute to landlines).
Lesson 6: Have an online credit card number
I have a credit card that I don’t carry but use for online purchases that I store on Lastpass.com. Although most local merchants require an actual card, I was able to purchase my ferry ticket online using this card number, which kept me from having to use nearly half of the little cash I had. An online credit card can also be used to pre-pay for hotels and air tickets. Lastpass also stores your passwords, which can be handy in an emergency situation.
Lesson 7: Download the State Department Travel App & know local emergency numbers
Someone tried calling the American embassy on my behalf but told me it was “closed.” Apparently she didn’t call the emergency number or if she did, there was a mess-up at the embassy. The U.S. State Department has a Smart Traveler app for iOS and Android with lots of good information, including emergency phone numbers of embassies and consulates.
Lesson 8: Have a network you can call on
There were a few other things that helped me out of this jam. The biggest one is that I happen to work part-time for CBS News which has free-lance reporters (called stringers) all over the world. I called our New York office and one of our able staff called our several stringers in the region. When she couldn’t reach anyone right away, she contacted an international organization of freelance foreign correspondants and found a local Buenos Aires reporter who rescued me by loaning me $200 U.S dollars and enough pesos to cover my taxi fare to the ferry terminal. I realize that most people don’t work with companies with people around the world, but think about resources you do have such as religious affiliations or civic clubs that have branches everywhere.
Lesson 9: Don’t panic and take it in stride
The moment I discovered my wallet was missing I, of course, panicked, but I quickly forced myself to relax and take control, knowing that I’d get through it. I quickly took stock of my options including the protections afforded by my credit cards, the fact that I had a hotel for the night (glad this didn’t happen before I checked in) and the resources at my disposal.
Lesson 10: Count your blessings and do unto others
I learned another important lesson. For about 20 hours, I had to watch every penny. The little money I had in my pocket was for emergencies, so I couldn’t “afford” to buy breakfast on the ferry to Uruguay. When I was going through Argentine exit customs I mistakenly thought I’d have to pay a $10 exit fee and I tried to explain (in broken Spanish) to the official why that $10 would be a hardship for me at the moment. A bi-lingual American, overheard me, who happened to work at the American embassy and she wound up buying me breakfast on the ferry. I was never really desperate, I was never really hungry but at least I had to think about what it meant to be broke in a foreign country, knowing that I money in my bank and investment accounts back home. It reminded me that there are millions (perhaps billions) of people in this world who are truly penniless and not able to check into 5 star hotels. It caused me not only to count my blessings but to think again about how I can pay back the kindess afforded to me by helping others.