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TWO-FISTED PLASTIC

ATM cards have pretty much rendered the traveler’s check obsolete. But the farther afield you go in traveling around the world, the more you may need more than one card.

One of my all-time favorite philosophy books is called “The Four Agreements” by don Miguel Ruiz. It’s a collection of wisdom based on the teachings of Mexico’s ancient Toltec people (whose facial features, seen in the sculptures they left behind, look remarkably African).

The Four Agreements are:

  1. Be impeccable with your word
  2. Don’t take anything personally
  3. Don’t assume anything
  4. Always do your best

Today’s travel tip concerns the third of those agreements: Don’t assume anything.

Which brings us to the subject of ATM machines, my upcoming trip to West Africa and my newest friend in the travel blogosphere.

For many travelers the world over, automated teller machines have pretty much supplanted the venerable traveler’s check as a means to get cash abroad. Quicker, reliable and so much less of a hassle.

However, all ATM cards are not created equal, something I didn’t realize until I started preparing for my upcoming trip to Senegal and the Gambia.

One line on a Web site about the Gambia stopped me in my tracks:

“ATM machines in the Gambia only accept cards from VISA, not Mastercard.

In all my travels to date, this is the first time I’ve ever encountered this. I pulled out my wallet and looked at the back of my the ATM card issued by my credit union.

Sure enough, there they were, those two interlocked spheres labelled “Cirrus,” one of the other names that Mastercard goes by outside the United States.

I then turned to HSBC, a massive international bank chain with branches all over the world.

All over the world, it turns out, except in Africa. They’ve got some branches in Cairo. That’s it.

No matter, don’t mind, I told myself. I’ll just use their ATM card in the Gambian ATMs, and swallow my pride — along with the fees that come with using a “foreign” ATM machine.

Then I looked on the back of the ATM card from HSBC.

Two interlocking spheres.

I’d always assumed that all the world’s bank machines accepted all the world’s ATM cards. Being a believer in The Four Agreements, I really should’ve known better.

Greg to self: “We may have a problem here.”

Self to Greg: “Congratulations. Just figured that out, did ya?”

Enter Michael Hodson, an American expat living in Colombia who writes on travel for the Huffington Post. His advice: for international travel, bring one of each.

“Greg, to be safe, you really should carry two ATM cards everywhere — one VISA one and one Mastercard one. Don’t know about Gambia, but I have been caught on that in more than a few countries.”

Turns out he wasn’t the only one. From Kiratiana Freelon, editor of American Airlines’ Black Atlas site:

“I learned the hard way about having Mastercard versus a VISA…left me with no money in Guinea Conakry!!

I’ve resolved the issue. I won’t be out on the streets of Banjul with a sign reading “Will travel for food.” But if you travel internationally, or ever plan to, consider this near-disaster of mine a cautionary tale — and open another bank account.

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