Credit Crunch on the Way to Havana
Posted: Jan 28, 2009 12:13pm ET
I am sitting in the Virgin Atlantic Lounge waiting for my flight to Havana. It’s already an hour late, and I guess it will be later. Travel to Cuba is always a calamity, which I will go into tomorrow following my flight. I have plenty of stories of amusing flights – which is a nice way of phrasing it. Some of you may remember my flight last year from Havana to Cancún on Cubana, the Cuban national carrier. I nearly had to change my underwear on that flight. Check out my old blog on that one.
Last night when I arrived in London from visiting my children in Yorkshire, I noticed that I left my credit cards at their mother’s house. Yes. I left all of my credit cards – the entire credit card holder. I was in a panic. I felt like I had left home without my trousers on or something — not that this has ever happened! I was freaked out to say the least.
When I arrived at the hotel at Gatwick, the woman at the reception desk asked me for my credit card that had been used to make the room booking. I politely said that I left it at home. I felt guilty in a strange way. “Well, you will have to pay cash then,” she said.
My credit is perfect, I thought to myself. I have no personal debt. I am not a subprime mortgage holder. Furthermore, I am not a former employee of Lehman Brothers, or any shifty hedge fund. What’s the problem?
“Can’t you just use the card on file?” I asked to the woman in Italian, since I noticed she had an Italian name.
She couldn’t help, even though she told me her life story in Italian and how she was from the center of Sicily. Chatting her up had no impact, so I tried logic.
“Why not just say that I didn’t show up and you can charge the room as a “no show” on my credit card on file and then you can give me the key,” I said. “I am sure in Sicily that would be how we could work it out.”
She smiled and asked me for the money. I obviously did not want to part with the cash I had because it is the only cash I am going to have for a few weeks to live in Cuba. I considered the coach in the bar. A couple of pints of beer and I would be sweetly sound asleep on the burlap looking covered couches. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I have too much self-esteem as a traveler now. I had flashbacks to backpacks, train stations, youth hostels, and “Let’s Go Europe” guidebooks when I was in my 20s. Sorry. No puedo hacerlo. (Need to practice my Spanish.)
I was really pissed off at myself. How could I be so stupid to leave my credit cards in the hands of my ex-wife? It was bad enough when we were married! My teenage son Jack will bring the cards over when he comes for a few days on his holiday in 10 days, but a lot of damage could be done with them in the meantime. He will probably lose them like everything else anyway. Oh well. What else is new?
Besides, credit cards are not much use in Cuba. Plastic from the United States is not accepted due to the American trade embargo. (Americans who travel illegally to the island use cash, but I have a license with the Office of Foreign Assets Control to travel to Cuba.) Moreover, not that many Cuban hotels, restaurants or shops accept credit cards – intentionally or unintentionally. I can’t tell you how may times I have been in places on the island and my British credit card is refused.
“ No función senor. Lo siento.” They obviously prefer the cash for various reasons. Only government-owned establishments have the possibility of accepting credit cards.
Another big drawback with plastic on the island is that the Cuban government charges outrageous handling fees and exchange rates. The current credit card handling fee is 11 percent of the value of the purchase, and today’s exchange rate for the U.S. dollar with the Convertible Cuban Peso is 0.9259 centavos. Yes. Cuban dinero is stronger than the almighty green back! Don’t worry; it’s not because of our economic meltdown. It’s been that way since late 2004.
Anyway, I don’t think I am going to miss my credit cards that much. And my Cuban friends don’t have any anyways. Most don’t even have bank accounts. In fact, they can’t understand the idea of credit crunches, subprime mortgages, derivates, or everything else that doesn’t make much financial sense to the rest of us in these strange times.
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