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How to Travel Without Credit Cards


by Ken Mondschein



Traveling to new and strange countries, where the familiar rules don't apply, is perhaps the single most mind-expanding thing you can do. Not only do you get to talk to people whose worldview isn't shaped by Fox News, but going abroad is probably the only opportunity a suburban white kid has to get an idea of what it feels like to be a minority in someone else's country. The thing is, to go anywhere really interesting (say, taking a holiday in Cambodia), trying to float one's 15-year-old Volvo across the Pacific isn't really an option. Like it or not, much like Iggy Pop, you're going to be a passenger—and in so doing, you run the risk of reinforcing the cage that we're all trying to break free of.

Jet aircraft being much larger and more complicated than your average CD burner, there are no small, indie airlines for you to patronize—and, since big businesses tend to reinforce one another, the airlines really prefer it if you pay with a credit card. Besides the fact that, living as we do in a September 12 sort of world, paying with cash puts you at risk for a prison-rape-like body cavity search (especially if you've landed on one of Big Brother's "does not play well with others" lists), you actually have to pay extra to do business the old-fashioned way. Delta, for instance, charges twenty bucks for a paper ticket. Though the cheapest tickets are usually available over the Internet, it's pretty darn difficult to upload cold, hard cash through a phone line. Also, besides the fact that they only take plastic and have the bad taste to use Captain Kirk himself as a pitchman, big discount-ticket outfits like Priceline are utterly unforgiving of mistakes, and you may find yourself stuck with a one-way ticket to Jakarta during the monsoon season.

Yet, the reasons against owning a credit card are also many. Besides the fact that they basically exist to make us all into indentured servants to Master Card and Lady Visa, the credit card is the way the consumption-oriented American lifestyle is financed. The power of swiping a little piece of plastic makes it hard to say "no" to every impulse buy that comes along. And, as the little display table in any college student union shows, the credit card companies use the same marketing strategy as your local smack dealer: They give you a fun, free little sample, and, the next thing you know, you're selling your entire vintage vinyl album collection to pay for your next fix. Even using a debit card contributes to the problem—most debit cards use the MasterCard or Visa system, which supports the companies that lobby for the laws that erode consumers' rights. As for American Express, the company gave almost half a million dollars to Republican candidates in the 1999-2000 election cycle. And, of course, that doesn't even count the innumerable trees murdered so that credit card companies can gift us with more junk mail than even the entire country of Nigeria would know what to do with.

So, how to get the 'droids and the old man to Alderaan without having to sell your speeder? One way is to deal with smaller, friendlier companies that are used to accommodating counterculture-types. STA Travel, for instance, has pretty cheap rates, especially for students, is located in most college towns, and will allow you to buy a ticket by cash or check—all of which leaves you with a few more dollars in your pocket for those "coffeehouses" in Amsterdam. You can even buy directly from a major airline over the phone with an electronic check transfer-you read the number of the check to the nice lady, and the money is deducted from your account. (Of course, you need a checking account for this.)

Accommodations are another problem. It's pretty hard to confirm a hotel room without plastic—most places will want a card number, and don't take kindly to off-the-grid types. The answer is, of course, youth hostels, which are both cheaper, and afford the opportunity to meet new and interesting people from different cultures and get drop-dead drunk with them. Hostels also usually take cash; popular guides such as the Let's Go! series list those that do, and rate them, as well. As long as you're not trying to reserve rooms in Venice during the tourist season, you should be fine—and if you have an international student ID card, so much the better, since that often affords deep discounts. Even cheaper, of course, is crashing with fellow counterculturalist types. Even if you don't know anybody in the city you're traveling to, check the Internet for new friends to sleep with. Activists are usually more than happy to host comrades-in-arms for that next World Trade Organization protest.

If you're going anywhere at all civilized (such as Europe, Japan, or Outer Mongolia), you probably won't need to rent a car. You see, they have these wonderful inventions in other parts of the world called busses and trains. Much like the good old American car, these magical devices take you where you need to go, but with one important difference: you don't have to drive. On the other hand, if you're traveling in the wilds of the good ol' US of A, you might need to pay a visit to your local rental outfit. Bad news here: You can't rent a car without a credit card. Hell, you can't even be a secondary driver in a rented car without a credit card: I've been asked to turn over plastic when I wasn't even the one paying for the damned thing. The alternative is to leave such a large cash deposit that you might as well buy your own used car. Solutions: Trains, busses, bicycles and catching lifts from friends and fellow revolutionaries. (Hitchhiking, Abbie Hoffman's old standby, has become way too dangerous.) You can also get a prepaid voucher for a car rental from a travel agent, but this may not obviate the need to leave a deposit.

Finally, carry provisions with you when you're traveling. Layovers in countries with different currencies can be hell on your wallet. Denmark, for instance, isn't using the Euro (yet), so getting a meal or a hot shower during a layover in Copenhagen without a charge card would mean changing dollars or Euros into Danish crowns, and then re-converting the change—at a hefty markdown for each transaction. A bag of trail mix, on the other hand, would make you independent of having to buy anything while you make your connection. Be careful traveling with food, though: Most countries don't look kindly on the import of fresh fruit or rotting vegetables.

Though travel, domestic or international, is possible without a credit card, it isn't easy. Without a doubt, it's far simpler-and cheaper, considering currency exchanges-to at least have a debit card with which to purchase goods and services. Not only that, it helps to reassure the nice men with the submachine guns that you're a productive taxpayer and not a potential revolutionary. But, if you're serious about fighting against the machine, credit-card free travel is the only way to fly.


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Posted January 1, 2007 12:58 AM






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