Travel Fail: My Debit Card Expired in Bulgaria Leaving Me Cashless

PHOTO: Jessica Gonzalez

All travelers, even professional ones, experience the woes of plans gone awry. In our column, Travel Fails, we’re highlighting stories where everything went wrong.

Who Failed: Leandra Beabout, Contributing Writer at Fodors.com

Where Was the Failure: Sofia, Bulgaria

How Bad Was the Failure (Editors rate the failure across five categories in our 0-5 Fail Scale):

Gross: 0

Scary: 3

Time-consuming: 3

Humiliating: 4

Painful: 0

The Fail Tale

On most of the Balkan Peninsula, cash is still king. Paying with plastic is reserved for fancy hotels or big box stores, so it’s tough to get around, eat, or have a good time without a stash of coins.

So when I left for a 2-month trek through Bulgaria, debit card in hand, I barely remembered to pack an emergency credit card. The goal was a budget-friendly summer, one propelled by public transportation, grocery runs, and a single-wheeled suitcase.

But I was not as prepared as I thought.

Exactly one week before my flight home, while strolling back to my apartment for dinner, I realized I’d just used my last 5 lev bill ($2.84). No problem, I thought, I’ll find an ATM.

But when I punched the PIN into the machine, the screen flickered ominously.

“Error: Card expired,” it read, coolly spitting my card back into my hand, where the expiration date stared back at me: July 2019.

It was August 4th.

Thought #1: Google It

What do you when you realize that despite growing up in Europe, despite calling yourself a travel journalist, you are a travel travesty—and a nearly broke one, at that?

I had seven days, one cucumber, half a block of cheese, and the equivalent of $1.43 in my pocket (yes, I counted).

With an hour to spare until the banks closed, I ran through my options. I couldn’t stomach using the emergency credit card for a week. Eating out every meal would have trashed my dwindling budget. Plus I’d have to hoof it to the high-end restaurants across town several times a day, cutting into the writing time that would pay my bills back in the U.S.

Underneath a giant knot of annoyance was a steely determination to figure this out before I spent more food money in my last week than the rest of the trip combined.

So in the dark of my Communist-era living room, I turned to Google. Down the rabbit hole of fellow failure stories, I read that some got by on the kindness of strangers. Some had new cards mailed to 5-star hotels (not an option—the 5 stars or the time it would take). And some turned to the garish black-and-yellow glow of a Western Union.

“Hmm, a wire transfer,” I thought. “Easy.”

Thought #2: Suck It Up

It didn’t take long to calculate the cost of groceries, a train ticket to the airport, and enough extra for a farewell drink or two: $35. But the transfer fee added $5.88, a 17% increase. Still, it was better than 27% plus $15, which is the fee my bank would have swindled out of me. (Shame on you, Chase. Shame on you.)

I berated myself for letting my card expire. For kowtowing to a financial institution with fees that made my $35 emergency fund cost $40.88. But I was also a little proud of sticking to my budget-minded guns.

Thought #3: I’ve Got This

Confirmation email and Money Transfer Control Number (MTCN) in hand, I raced to the nearest Western Union. It was simple: All I needed to do was flash my passport and MTCN to get my precious cash in time for supper.

But as I rounded the corner, I saw that the Western Union was in a bank. A bank that had closed early for the day.

Thought #4: Easier Said Than Done

I zig-zagged three blocks through pedestrian traffic to another Western Union. Though the woman in the glass booth spoke no English, she gave a curt nod when I plastered my MTCN to the glass.

But all was not well. She tapped on the keyboard for 10 minutes before picking up the phone to chatter away—laughing, sighing, laughing again—all while re-typing my info into the system 57 times.

Two elderly Croatian women behind me clucked their tongues in annoyance. I sheepishly cleared my throat to cover the monstrous sounds escaping my empty stomach. Fifteen minutes later, the women muttered farewell. They were the practical sort, apparently, not too proud to break out the emergency credit cards at suppertime.

Finally, the woman behind the glass slid back my ID.

“Sorry, no can give you money,” she said, shrugging and pointing vaguely at the computer.

“Tomorrow?” I asked.

She shrugged again.

Thought #5: Try, Try Again

After a failed attempt to wrangle a Western Union refund on my phone, I wandered aimlessly onto Vitosha Boulevard, a lamp-lit heaven of outdoor cafes and gelato stands. Tucked behind a mouthwatering display of pizzas, a black-and-yellow sign gleamed in the twilight. Why not try one more time?

At the counter, a German customer slowly, carefully inspected his money. Ninety seconds ticked by before he plunked down a handful of shiny Bulgarian lev.

“I collect coins,” he said. “Exchange them for coins from a different year, please.”

The woman behind the glass smiled tightly and reopened the cash register while I side-eyed the pizza I couldn’t buy.

When Herr Numismatist finally ambled off, I stepped up to the glass and held up my MTCN like the Western Union veteran I was becoming. The woman clacked on the keyboard for a while, then asked for my address—a new level of questioning! My heart lifted.

Then the cash drawer opened. Thirty-five dollars became Euros, which were then converted to Bulgarian currency. The exchange left me poorer with each step, but I pressed my hands together in thanks and grinned when the woman pushed the tiny stack of bills through the slot.

She turned back to her computer and gestured to the next person, “We finish now.”

Lesson Learned

Check, then double-check your debit card expiration date before leaving the country. And while you’re at it, check your credit cards and driver’s license too.