Have ATM Card That Will Travel? Not So Fast

09/26/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I've spent a lot of time traveling internationally. Some for business and some for pleasure, but regardless of the reason, I always need more cash then I seem to have on hand.

Despite the realization last fall that our financial systems are uncomfortably interconnected around the world, getting cash while traveling internationally is not so easy. And for some banks, you have to pay big bucks in fees to access your own hard-earned money -- or even use a credit card outside the U.S. I've paid fees that should be criminal in some parts of the world, simply to exchange my hard currency for rupia, rubles or renminbi.

The ability to be able to get cash when traveling rivals in importance to staying in a safe hotel; cash equals safety. So many places around the world do not take credit cards and personal foreign checks are worthless. Cash is king and yet many people mistake an ATM card for a constant source of cash while traveling.

While in Hong Kong for a week promoting my book, I found I could not access my U.S. bank account without incurring high fees. I bit the bullet and withdrew what I needed, which, thankfully, was not much as Hong Kong is a city that runs on plastic. From Hong Kong, my family and I traveled to the Philippines and stayed with an old friend in Manila. I decided to straighten out my financials then since we planned to visit the kinds of places that do not take credit cards -- some of the outlying islands to take in sights far from any city or bank -- and needed cash.

The first day I went to a bank and withdrew money, no problem. I suspected all was fine, withdrew again two days later and was fine again. The third time, I was allowed only a $100 withdrawal -- significantly less than I needed. Running out of time, I had to get the cash or I would disappoint my twin daughters who were really looking forward to swimming with whale sharks in Donsol. Shocked and embarrassed, I had to borrow cash from my friend to pay for our tickets. If not for him, our vacation would have taken a sharp nose dive.

I later learned that since I had not been in the Philippines for 10 years, my bank tagged my transactions there as "suspicious" and mistakenly froze my account, limiting my daily withdrawal to $100. I was also charged high transaction fees, something that had been implemented unbeknownst to me in the past 12 months. Needless to say, I was quite unhappy both there and when I returned to the U.S. and read my statement. Adding insult to injury was my credit card statement; it showed two fees: one for using my card abroad and the other for exchanging currency. Shocked, I was convinced that some bank had to offer superior services for global travelers such as myself.

Fortunately, while doing some consulting for HSBC, I learned about HSBC's Premier service that caters to individuals who live and travel overseas. I loved what I learned enough to switch over my account and tell everyone I know who travels internationally to check it out. It offers me international services and support like no other bank -- replete with a Premier Relationship Manager who can provide 24/7 assistance - which would have helped when we wanted to swim with the whale sharks -- as well as a credit card that doesn't charge foreign transaction fees.

If you travel internationally, it pays to find out what fees you're being charged -- and perhaps do something about it.