Cash-free holiday

Part II: From Paris to Barcelona

In part I, I described being robbed on the Paris Metro. It was upsetting, partly because it challenged my sense of security – ‘How could I have been targeted when I’m so big and strong? etc.’ – and partly because it threw into stark relief my pretentious experiment of trying to holiday with my family without using cash. Cashless had just got ‘real’.

But the truth is, up until that point, it had been a pretty much a doddle. Through a combination of a new credit card (Halifax) that didn’t charge ‘non-sterling transaction fees’ and judicious use of Revolut on my phone – also no non-sterling fees – we had managed just fine, travelling by train from a village in Somerset to Paris, eating on the way and cabbing it from the Gare Du Nord to our absurd, champagne-themed hotel. All entirely without cash. No problem.

As luck would have it, Paris was experiencing an extreme heatwave and regular stops for water were essential. But, even on our suicidal river cruise – a glass-enclosed boat is not where you want to be when the mercury’s topping 42°C – I was able to buy bottles of lukewarm Evian from the machine using ApplePay, unlike the several British and American tourists I spoke to in the queue who wanted to pay with (snigger) actual coins. Suckers.

Eventually though, after more than 48 hours on our tour, and about to expire from heat stroke, I found a shop where the water was cool but the welcome for digital currency was stone cold: ‘Non monsieur.’ I was forced to reach for my wallet and pay the old-fashioned way. Little did I know that that would be the last cash transaction I would ever make*.

A tithe on travellers

Pausing briefly, those non-sterling transaction fees I mentioned earlier can be as high as 2.99% on every purchase you make. So, alongside our desire to holiday without cash, we had determined to take a stand against ‘the man’ and pay no non-sterling transaction fees on this trip.

Most app-based bank accounts, including the two I use – Starling and Revolut – don’t charge these fees. Revolut and some others also allow you to keep a digital wallet in your chosen currency so you can transfer money across when the rate is in your favour. But, the downside of using digital cash is that it’s just like, well, actual cash – you have to have it in your account to spend it.

Like a lot of families on holiday, we tend to live on borrowed money as well as borrowed time. We usually pay on a credit card and then pay for the holiday as the tan fades – it’s a way of making the memories (and the arguments) last longer. So, the cash going out straight away doesn’t always suit.

When I was pickpocketed, I only lost about €25 and £20 in cash, so no biggie. But, I also lost all my physical cards, and to what was clearly a professional gang who also took my driving licence and business cards, which happened to feature my home address. In case the bitcoin still hasn’t dropped, that’s potentially enough personal information to fabricate an id and take out a loan. So, wife, family and passers-by, perhaps my total meltdown wasn’t really an over-reaction at all, actually. Cue lots of panicked calls to card companies, the DVLA and credit agencies.

Instant isn’t necessarily best

Of course, in reality there were still cards. My wife had cards so we could, had we wanted to, still have bought a new car, albeit only a small continental one with a silly sounding horn. But we’re a plucky lot my family, and we determined that even without my wallet we could still manage without paying non-sterling transactions fees. My 17-year-old daughter’s Nationwide account neglects to charge this tithe on travel so, from then on, any payment that I couldn’t make via Revolut or Apple Pay – €99 limit – she paid, and I paid her back via Paym (see previous posts). Of course, Paym is also an immediate payment technology so it doesn’t get around the pressure to have the money in your account, but last summer we were lucky – we were briefly in the black.

Not so secure security

Dignity restored through the power of beer, we continued to the Arc de Triomphe, where I received a call from M&S Bank asking if I still had my card and whether a transaction for just under €1,200 at a Carrefour outside Paris really was me. I’ve had these calls before and usually I’m both polite and grateful – it’s good to know that someone out there is watching out for you, monitoring your typical spending habits, building a profile of your financial behaviour and flogging it to anyone who’s paying.

Since my wife – joint account holder – had spent the best part of 30 minutes speaking to them about the pickpocketing and locking the card, it was surprising and, shall we say, disappointing to hear that they had no log of the call, the instruction to freeze the card, or my embarrassing sweating moment in the police station in Mont Matre. I confess, after my initial shock on hearing the news that M&S hadn’t blocked the card, one of my first thoughts was actually for the thieves: loading a trolley with €1,200 of crap from Carrefour only to be declined at the checkout must have been a right ball-ache. Maybe they did a runner.

But our holiday continued, meals and bar bills above €99 courtesy of my daughter. Hotels were pre-paid, as was our sleeper train to near Barcelona where we met up with our eldest son, who was able to add the power of his card to the family venture. He also found the taxi app for Barcelona – Uber isn’t licensed there – and we enjoyed five days of glorious food and cocktails without spending a single actual Euro, or incurring any non-sterling transaction fees. Result! In your face, banks and financial institutions.

What’s the moral of this tale? There isn’t one really, just an observation: going cashless is pretty easy in big cities and it’s only the smallest retailers who don’t take contactless. And beggars. Just do a bit of homework, find the right cards, preload your digital wallet, hang on to your wallet, and remember to take the right adapter to keep your phone fully charged. Oh, and as a back up, take some sensible teenagers with you who have their own cards too.

Bonnes vacances mes amis.

*Not.

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