Traveling without cash: is it possible? - Alvinology

Traveling without cash: is it possible?

Hej! As I was preparing for my recent trip to Denmark and Sweden, I realized that I was going to be in Sweden for only about 48 hours. I would arrive in Malmö on Thursday at about 12 noon and depart Malmö for Copenhagen by Saturday 12 noon. So actually, that is not a lot of time in Sweden at all so I wondered how much (or how little) Swedish currency I would need for that 48 hour period. I then thought, hey, would it be possible to do Sweden entirely on credit cards, thus effectively removing the need to handle any Swedish money? Not only would it eliminate the dilemma of trying to withdraw just the right amount of Swedish Kronas – it would also save me fumbling around with an unfamiliar currency. Would it be possible? I was determined not to have a repeat of my last day in Romania, when I was desperately trying to spend the last few Romanian Leis I had at the airport just minutes before getting on my flight.

Traveling without cash: is it possible? - Alvinology
Do foreign currencies confuse you?


So I asked my AirBNB host Theresa if that would have been possible and she replied, “Yes, certainly. You can use cards for everything from buying train tickets, restaurant meals, entry tickets to tourist attractions, shopping in supermarkets. I hardly need to carry any cash. Sweden is very plastic friendly.” And so I thought. challenge accepted. I am going to attempt to do Sweden without actually handling any Swedish money in my wallet. Did I succeed? Actually, yes I did. I had already paid for my AirBNB in advance, the ticket machines in Swedish train stations accepted credit cards so there was no problem trying to get my train tickets with my credit card. Even the more modest looking eateries (I hesitate to use the word ‘restaurant’ to describe them) accepted cards and everywhere we shopped gladly accepted my credit cards. I could quite easily see why Theresa said she barely needed to carry cash anymore in Malmö.

The last snag was to get on that bus to take me from Malmö to Copenhagen: we had wanted to take the bus because of the stunning views from the Øresund bridge linking the two cities. Theresa then realized, “oh, I don’t think you can pay with cards as they may want you to pay in cash when you get on the bus, but let me check to see if we can buy you the tickets in advance through the website. They won’t be able to take credit card payments on the bus itself.” Thankfully, she found out that we had a simple solution: all we needed was to book online and we would be emailed an e-ticket with a bar code that can be read by the bus driver when we boarded the bus. So as we got on that bus bound for Copenhagen, we thought, why stop here – let’s try to avoid handling any Danish money as well and do all of Denmark on credit cards too!

Traveling without cash: is it possible? - Alvinology
At the VM Houses, Copenhagen


We had a pretty good start in fact: I met up with two old Danish ex-colleagues and they took us out to a Saturday flea market in the Meat Packing district of Copenhagen. (Don’t be put off by the name, it is actually quite a Bohemian, funky part of Copenhagen that reminded me of Shoreditch in London.) We had stopped by a sandwich and fishcake (fiskedeller) store which was just a small shack with a few benches in the car park – I did wonder if a place like that would accept credit cards but sure enough, they did. This is Denmark, one of the most high tech countries in the world where even the smallest of businesses will accept credit cards. This would be like a tourist trying to pay for his chicken rice, ice kachang or laksa in a hawker centre in Singapore with a credit card – it just wouldn’t happen.

I also noticed that many of these hawker stores in the market also accepted payment via MobilePay – this is a Danish system where you could use your mobile phone to directly transfer funds from your account to another account to pay for a purchase, such as a cupcake or a cup of coffee in the market. All you need is the MobilePay account number of the vendor and the funds are transferred almost instantly. This allows the full amount of the purchase to be credited directly into the bank account of they vendor, without having to use a credit card third party company like Visa or Mastercard taking a fee. It has really taken off in Denmark and it means that you don’t even need to carry your credit cards with you when you go out shopping – all you need is your phone. Now isn’t that pretty awesome? MobilePay is also now available in Italy and America, but it is really in Denmark where it has taken off in a big way. Of course, this was a payment system used only by the locals – as a tourist, I still had to use my credit cards.

Traveling without cash: is it possible? - Alvinology
My very Danish lunch of fish cakes, brown bread and salad.


Everything else seemed to be credit card friendly in ultra-high tech and modern Denmark, then I finally hit a snag. I was advised to use the Copenhagen habour buses to see the city from the water – they take many of the same routes as the more expensive tourist sightseeing cruises but you pay a fraction of the cost because it is effectively part of the Copenhagen public transport network. Now this is how public transport works in Copenhagen: you have to buy an hourly ticket and the moment your ticket is issued, you have an hour of unlimited travel on any mode of transport (bus, train, habour bus, metro) within the specified zones of your ticket. If you were to buy a ticket within a train or metro station, you could use your credit card but the moment your ticket is printed, the countdown begins for your 60 minute ticket. I wanted to buy a ticket the moment I boarded the harbour bus, so I could make the most of my 60 minute ticket. Well, there are no credit card machines on the harbour bus – they would gladly sell you a ticket but you have to pay in cash.

The lady at my hotel warned me against trying to get a ticket at the train station. “Oh no, it won’t work. If you buy your ticket at the train station, you still have to walk to the river to get the harbour bus. That could take ten minutes and if you miss one harbour bus, you could end up waiting 20, even 30 minutes for another. By the time you get on the harbour bus, you will have less than 30 minutes left on your 60 minute ticket. No, if you wanted to enjoy cruising around on a harbour bus, then just go to the ATM, get some cash so you can buy a ticket the moment you board the harbour bus. Really, that is the only sensible way to do it.” The locals actually avoid this altogether by buying an e-ticket on their mobile phones the moment they commence their journey, but this is dependent on you having internet access on your phone to do this. Practically all Danish people would have a smart phone these days so it isn’t a problem for the locals, but this option is still not viable for tourists who are reliant on free WIFI whilst traveling abroad.

Traveling without cash: is it possible? - Alvinology
Spring is a lovely season to visit Denmark.


So we took her good advice and withdrew 300 DKK (about £30 or S$60) from an ATM even though we only needed 24 DKK each for the ticket – I reckoned, oh well if I was going to get some cash out, I may as well get a bit more so I can have the option of paying for smaller items with cash. Admittedly, it was reassuring to have a bit of cash in my wallet for a change as I was now able to buy small items like a hot dog from a roadside vendor without worrying if they accepted cards. I was also conscious of the fact that I was paying two separate charges each time I used my credit card: one levied by the Danish vendor (for using a foreign card) and another by my British bank for using my card abroad. And hey, Danish money is cute: the coins are doughnut shaped with a hole in the middle.

Then came our last day in Denmark – we had a late afternoon flight from Copenhagen airport and at breakfast, we had 62 DKK (about £6.20 or S$12.40) left and we tried to spend it all in the local supermarket. However, we struggled to find anything we really wanted to carry all the way home to London from that supermarket. Conscious that we were losing precious time, I thought okay let’s go to McDonald’s and see if we can buy some lunch with that 62 DKK. However, this being Denmark, 62 DKK wasn’t going to get lunch for two, but the friendly cashier (who spoke perfect English of course, this being Denmark) said, “oh don’t worry guys, listen, you can just give me 62 DKK and then you can pay the difference on your card..”

Traveling without cash: is it possible? - Alvinology
Copenhagen was sunny but still quite cold in spring.


And I thought, great, problem solved. We started chatting with her as she asked us about what we have been doing in Denmark and Sweden – I told her all about visiting Malmö, Lund, Hillerød, Helsingør and Copenhagen. Just as we were having a lovely chat, she suddenly said, “oh shit, I have made a mistake, I’m so sorry…” She had put in the full amount of 113 DKK into the credit card machine instead of just 51 DKK and as I had already punched in my code into the credit card terminal, she couldn’t put any money back on the card. The only way she could have canceled the sale was by giving me back 113 DKK in cash from the till, but that would leave me with even more Danish money to have to spend before I left Denmark in a few hours. She offered us free ice cream and coffee with our meal for her mistake, which was a very nice gesture. So we had a nice lunch there but were still left with 62 DKK to spend.

As I went to try to get my ticket for the airport, I thought perhaps I could buy that ticket with cash to try to spend my last 62 DKK. I realized that the ticket for the airport from central Copenhagen cost 36 DKK each and so I still needed 72 DKK for two tickets and I was just 8 DKK short. I contemplated getting one ticket with cash and the other on my card, but that would still leave me with 26 DKK and very little time left to spend it. I then asked a customer service representative for help and she said, “don’t worry, you can pay for 62 DKK in cash and then we’ll just put the difference on your card. But you cannot do that with the ticket machine, you need to go to the ticketing office over there where they can process that payment.” I had a look at the ticketing office and it was so busy – I pleaded with her that I would miss my flight if I had to join that queue. The kind Danish lady smiled and said, “it’s fine, please just come with me.” She took us to the front of the queue, spoke to her colleague and said, “he will serve you now, have a nice trip!”

Traveling without cash: is it possible? - Alvinology
At Helsingor Castle (anyone read Hamlet?)


So thanks to her, I managed to leave Denmark having spent every last Danish Krone in my wallet. Would I try to travel again without using any local currency? Probably not – yes it was convenient not having to fumble with the local currency in Sweden, but at the end of the day, it was surprisingly easy to get rid of my last few DKK in Copenhagen by simply doing this part-cash, part-card payment (which was available both at the train station and at McDonald’s). And at the end of the day, even if I had a few DKK left over, there were charity donation boxes at the airport. I made an appalling discovery at my friend’s house recently where there was a huge pile of foreign currency accumulated from their previous trips. It’s hardly a souvenir if all you are doing is leaving it in a corner to gather dust. Don’t get me wrong, I keep a small amount of Euros and SGD in my home because I regularly travel to Eurozone countries and Singapore – but apart from that, I really don’t see any point in holding on to currency from any other country.

So there you go, that’s it from me on this issue: what about you? Do you try to avoid handling local currency when on short trips abroad? Or do you give in and try your best to spend it all before you leave the country? Do you prefer to only use your credit cards on these trips? Do let me know what you think and what your experiences have been, leave a comment below. Many thanks for reading, mange tak, tack sa mycket!

Traveling without cash: is it possible? - Alvinology


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