SpotHopping is the story of Mike and Hilary's trip around the world. If you're new to the site, you can read more about it here. You can write to us here.

This page initially contained breaking news about some credit card trouble we had early in the trip. A few Web 2.0 sites picked up the story. The headlines became a bit sensationalized — for the record, we were never in danger of starving to death — but we were forced to spend three days in Costa Rica dealing with a credit card company instead of having fun and creating content for the vicarious enjoyment of our readers. Here's a summary for posterity:

We had signed up for a Capital One MasterCard before leaving the States because they're one of the only banks left that won't hit you with a 3-4% foreign currency conversion charge. The only problem was that the credit limit was a mere $1000. Now, we're not throwing our money around on this trip, but we were expecting it to cost more than $33 / day. Additionally, it would be good to have some spending power on hand in case of emergency — there can be delays and problems when transferring money, and we wanted to have a cushion. But the limit was non-negotiable.

Not pictured: mosquitoes

However, three different agents (Enrollment, Activation, and Customer Service) all assured me that I could prepay to have a higher effective limit — using our credit card like a debit card. I was told to mail them a check. Hil and I had done this before on our Citibank cards without incident, so we thought it was pretty ordinary.

Turns out that's not the case. We discovered — at dinnertime on New Years Eve in Costa Rica — that our card wasn't working anymore. I spent much of that night (and a good portion of the next two days) standing at an outdoor payphone in the sweltering Costa Rican heat. At least Capital One accepts collect calls.

Bottom line: they admitted that the account notes indicated that I was just following the instructions of their own representatives, but they nonetheless blamed me for doing so. They said that it was impossible to remove the hold. So we posted a big rant here, and a bunch of the Internet picked up on the story.

You did it!

I don't know if it was due to the efforts of friends and family or the publicity on the front pages of Consumerist and Reddit, but by the end of the day I had received an email from a Capital One executive: The hold was off!

What got us into this mess

I also found out what scam Capital One was defending itself from. Here's how it works:

  1. Sign up for a credit card with a low limit -- they're the easiest kind to get
  2. Mail the issuer a fraudulent check for a great deal of money
  3. Go on a shopping spree with your high effective limit
  4. Disappear before the check bounces

In light of the above exposure, Capital One's placement of a hold on my account makes sense. If my check turned out to be bad, they didn't want to be on the hook for $7000, since they were only ready to trust me with $1000. I guess the fact that we'd already fled to Central America didn't really help our credibility.

Nonetheless, I think Capital One's customer service department should make a few changes. If a customer calls up and asks how to send in an overpayment check, the rep should warn them of the consequences. Heck, when such a check arrives, they could call the customer and tell them a hold will be placed. They could even offer to rip up the check.

Anyway, I'm just glad it's all over.


Hilary and I want to extend our deepest gratitude to the following people:

  • Everyone who helped publicize the story; we'll never know how much of a role you played.
  • The two complete strangers who offered to wire us money if our emergency funds ran out or got held up; that was unspeakably generous but thankfully not necessary.
  • Everyone who offered moral support; it was sorely needed.
  • The two Costa Rican Redditors who volunteered to help in any way they could; this is a country of friendly, helpful people.
  • The Subway restaurant in Tamarindo, for providing free WiFi to anyone within a 300-foot radius.
  • Mom
  • Capital One, for bending the rules on behalf of two customers in need.

Some final tips for anyone who might be planning a similar trip:

  • Definitely shop around for a card with a low or nonexistent foreign currency fee; it adds up!
  • Get the card as far in advance of the trip as possible. I was told multiple times that if my account had been more than six months old, this might not have happened.
  • Once you get the card, use it enough that they raise the limit, so you can avoid everything that we went through.
  • Add someone back home to the account so they can act on your behalf.
  • Consider doing all of the above with multiple credit cards; it's not likely that they'll all fail at the same time.
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