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Airlines and debit cards

Charles de Gaulle International Airport, Paris

Charles de Gaulle International Airport, Paris | ©IBIT/G.Gross

Travelers trying to use debit cards to book air travel can be tripped up by an automatic spending limit. It makes last-minute bookings a risky business.

A recent teachable moment from a client of mine, whom we’ll call Adam (not his real name). He wanted to use a debit card to book an airfare for a domestic round-trip flight.

On general principles, airlines are more comfortable dealing with credit cards, but they do accept debit cards. Adam picked his flights and dates, then you tried to confirm the booking.

No good. Adam’s card was declined.

He assured the airline that he had more than enough money in his checking account to cover the airfare. It didn’t matter. The airline still refused, without telling him why.

What the eff, right?

The problem was not the airline. It was Adam’s bank.

Debit cards typically come with maximum daily spending limits, the better to keep you — or some ne’er-do-well — from draining your bank account all in one shot.

If the airfare you’re trying to book exceeds your daily limit, your booking attempt automatically runs into a computerized brick wall.

And as we all know from experience, trying to reason with a computer seldom ends well. Especially a bank computer.

And if you’re wondering why the airline reservation clerk didn’t explain that to Adam, it’s probably because the clerk’s computer gave him no detailed reason for declining the card. It just said no.

To solve this problem, you do need to talk to a humanoid — not at the airline, but at the bank or credit union that owns your debit card. (And for the record, that card may have your name on it, but the financial institution still owns it, not you.)

This is the point at which someone invariably says, “Why didn’t the bank tell me that in the first place?” The answer is, they probably did, in the paperwork that came in the mail along with your debit card.

Call them up, tell them your travel plans and ask them to raise your daily limit long enough to let you buy your tickets. As long as you have the money ion your account to cover it, they usually will agree to do that without much fuss.

(NOTE: Getting your daily limit raised permanently is a different, and more involved, business, beyond the scope of this post.)

How long does it take to get your daily limit raised? As with the original amount of the limit itself, that depends on your bank.

Some will do it almost instantaneously. Others can take 24 to 48 hours or more, and only after you physically go into your bank, talk to a bank officer and fill out paperwork.

The implications of all this are simple and clear. If you plan to use a debit card for travel, figure how what your daily spending needs will be, find out what your daily spending limit is, and if necessary, handle your bank business as soon as possible.

But do all of that well before it’s time to start booking flights. Procrastination could really torpedo your travel plans.

Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency, specializing in cultural and heritage travel worldwide.

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