What do you do when you lose a credit card on vacation?

Written by
Geoff Williams
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You hear about other people losing their credit card. You never think it’ll happen to you, especially on a family vacation. But in June, that’s exactly what happened to me.

Most people go to Las Vegas, and if they gamble, they lose a lot of money. I went to Las Vegas and lost my credit card – at a nature preserve. Yeah, yeah, I know; I can hear the wisecracks. I lead an exciting life.

Anyway, if you’ve ever wondered what steps you should take if you lose your credit card on your vacation, I can unfortunately offer some first-hand advice.

Keep your credit card in a safe place

This is obvious advice that we all follow, until we suddenly don’t.

My parents, my daughters and I were on our way to the Grand Canyon, but we first stopped off at the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve, which I highly recommend.

My 18 and 20-year-old daughters are avid birdwatchers. I’m more or less a casual admirer of birds.

But on this day, I was simply a birdbrain. My credit card, normally in my wallet, was in my pocket. Loose, and stuffed in there with a bird guide.

I’m suspect that at some point, probably when we were gawking over a yellow-headed blackbird, I pulled out the guide and, unbeknownst to me, the credit card tumbled out. In any case, I noticed my missing credit card when we reached the gift shop.

Panic.

We all panic when we lose a credit card, even if for just a second. That’s fine, just don’t panic for long. You have things to do.

Retrace your steps

If I’d retraced my steps more exhaustively than I did, I likely would have found my credit card.

The staff was terrific. It was a hot day, and we’d explored a lot of the preserve. Someone got a golf cart, and we drove around the paths searching for the credit card, all the while knowing that the longer I looked, the less time we would have at the Grand Canyon.

Eventually, I had to accept the cold, hard facts: When a credit card gets lost in Vegas, it stays lost in Vegas. Or something like that. Still, it’s always a good idea to look.

Call your credit card immediately, to report your missing card

That’s the advice any credit card expert will give you, and I followed it dutifully. My father drove our rental car, and I immediately made a phone call. But here’s a helpful tip: Try calling when you aren’t driving in the middle of a desert with weak phone reception.

Still, you want to make that call as soon as you can. Delaying things could mean a thief picks up your credit card and goes on a shopping spree. I admit I wasn’t too worried. I kept thinking, “How many shifty people go to bird preserves?” Still, you don’t want to take any chances.

That said, if my card had been immediately discovered by a bird-loving credit card criminal who maxed out my card, while that would have made my vacation even more problematic, I wouldn’t have lost much, or possibly any, money in the long run.

That’s because if you report your credit card lost (or stolen) before a thief uses it, federal law states that you aren’t responsible for charges made by the crook. If you report your card lost after somebody uses it, the most you’d be responsible for is $50. Fortunately, most credit cards won’t even make you pay that.

This anti-fraud protection represents one of the key reasons credit cards are preferable to cash or even debit cards. Federal law provides much stronger protections in the case of credit cards than it does for debit cards.

How do you request a credit card replacement?

I knew I wanted to get my hands on a new credit card as soon as possible. After I canceled my credit card, as I spoke to the customer representative on the phone – first in our rental car and later at a truck stop that had WiFi – I learned I had two choices:

  1. Request a virtual credit card almost immediately.
  2. Request a physical credit card be mailed to my hotel in two days.

I could not do both.

I’m sure some credit card companies work differently or even better than mine, but I had an either/or situation on my hands. I could either accept a virtual credit card, which I could use in my phone’s digital wallet, or I could wait two days and hope that the credit card would show up in the mail at our hotel. My parents graciously said they’d pay for anything my daughters and I needed so I could have a credit card sent to a hotel, but it seemed like a no-brainer to request a virtual credit card I could put on my phone right away.

But it isn’t a no-brainer.

Call your hotel ahead of time

Now that you’ve protected yourself from fraud and requested a new card, it’s time to adjust for the rest of your trip. Start with ensuring your accommodations know about your missing card. I didn’t do this, but I knew I had my parents’ credit card as a financial backstop, and, yes, I had some money to rely on in my checking account. If you’re on your own, though, and you dependent on your credit card to get you through your vacation (and I fully admit I was depending on mine) my recommendation is to alert your hotel or hotels as soon as possible.

Because many hotels do not accept payments from a digital wallet.

And also making matters more complicated, many hotels ask to see your credit card – even if you prepaid for your room. Hotels often want to have your information at check-in, in case there are incidental charges or fees, and the front desk wants to compare your credit card with your driver’s license.

Still, and maybe I’m naïve, I have to think that if you explain your situation, and that you only have a virtual credit card with very real money on it, that you could at least – perhaps at the front desk – pay for your room online, using your phone, and then show your ID. I would hope.

But you’d be better off finding that out before you travel to the hotel, if that’s feasible. The logistics of getting your room paid for will be all the more challenging if the front desk is crowded with other travelers, and you have to explain to the staff and the tourists behind you how you lost your credit card.

Gas stations aren’t always digital wallet friendly

My parents and I agreed before our trip that they would pay for the rental car, and I would pay for the gas. That was generous of them when we made the deal, but with gas spiking to $5 a gallon levels, I started thinking that maybe my parents were going to come out of this pretty well.

Except that many of the gas stations we went to – especially in rural, out of the way areas – didn’t accept Apple Pay, or at least not at the pump. My father, therefore, was often heaving a deep sigh and fishing into his wallet to pay for gas.

Instead, I paid for most of my parents’ meals; most restaurants, though not all, seem digital wallet-friendly. Anyway, having a virtual credit card on vacation instead of an actual card in a wallet is not as easy as it sounds.

Thanks to credit cards, debit cards, cryptocurrency and digital wallets, we’re mostly a digital cash or cashless society, but we’re not quite there yet.

What happens when or if your lost card turns up?

Sooner or later, your lost credit card may reappear. In my case, I had left my cellphone number with the nature preserve staff, and they called me the next day to let me know that some good Samaritan had turned it in. Of course, at that point, all I could do was ask the staff to cut up the card and throw it away.

Try not to make a habit of losing things

I hope you won’t have cause to feel even more dumb, days later into your vacation, but let me just offer you some helpful advice: You’ve already lost your credit card; don’t lose anything else.

About a week later, at the Blue Pot Coffee Restaurant in Kayenta, Ariz., near Monument Valley, I returned from the restroom, sat down at our table and soon reached into my pocket for my phone to pay for dinner. I felt a familiar rush of panic. Moments later, a guy who had used the facilities after me came to our table, handed me my phone and walked away. My family collectively looked chagrined and sadly shook their heads. I can’t say I blame them.

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