Thursday, February 18, 2010

Chasing The Elusive Peso in Buenos Aires

Since we travel more than most of the people we know, other than the hardcore members of FlyerTalk, we sometimes get asked for travel tips. For example, what's the cheapest way to get money in a foreign country?

Travelers checks are pretty well defunct and we haven't used them in 30 years. Credit cards are fine in many places, as long as you're aware you're paying something around a 3% or more transaction fee. ATM cards are fine and we use ours frequently since we prefer to deal in cash where possible and the exchange rate is decent. Most banks charge anywhere from three to five dollars per foreign transaction, plus whatever the local institution charges, making smaller transactions quite expensive. We're fortunate to have an account with our bank (Wells Fargo) that allows to make up to four foreign withdrawals per billing period without charge.

Still, we're always looking for a better way, and a Wells Fargo Bank manager suggested we try their ExpressSend service to send a chunk of money to Buenos Aires. There's no transaction charge for an account such as ours, the exchange rate is decent, and all we have to do is walk into a branch of the local bank to offer our passport and transaction number in order to pick up our foreign cash. What better way to pay for hotel rooms and meals in the local currency?

After a smooth arrival at EZE today, and an equally smooth ride in a remise (a pre-paid taxi) to our hotel, we set off walking to the nearest branch of the BBVA Banco Frances about six blocks away to pick up the trial $100 we'd transferred a few days, after which we'd wire a larger chunk of money. That's when things got interesting.

During our hour or so in the bank, the first teller told us we couldn't pick up the money because we're not Argentine residents. No, we never claimed to be. The next teller confirmed that yes, they had our money, but we couldn't have it. When Brian told her that maybe we should just call the policia, she barely cracked a smile. We then asked to speak to a manager. Throughout all of this, the fact that their English was better than our Spanish, but not by much, didn't help the situation.

We were then introduced to a woman important enough to have her own cubicle. She asked us to wait - actually she commanded "Wait," as did the others in the bank. It must be the way they're taught in their English classes how to politely ask people to wait. After sitting for a half hour or so, we were approached by both women, acting as if they had a solution. What we had to, she said, was to go to a government office just six blocks away to get an identity number. We could then return to the bank and pick up our cash. It's only fair to say they were quite apologetic and seemed to be trying to say that it was the result of Argentine government bureacracy rather than anything Wells Fargo had done wrong.

We set off with a slip of paper on which was written AFIP, the government office, Esmeraldo y Av de Maya, the intersection where it's located, and C.D.I., the identification number we were to apply for. An hour and a half later we'd trudged a couple of miles, asked no fewer than five locals, either passersby on the street or businessmen in their stores, and nobody could direct us to the building. We returned to the bank, and of course, being after 4:00 p.m., large metal doors sealed it off from us.

We walked back to the hotel, called a bank manager back home on Skype, and within a half hour he assured us we'd get our $100 transferred back within a couple of weeks. He also said that not even their experts at the ExpressSend service knew about this problem in Argentina.

The moral of the story: It's easy to spin your wheels trying to save a few cents here or there and sometimes it's just not worth effort. We did enjoy the walk on a sunny day here in B.A., but there are sights to see here other than the mythical AFIP office.


Gregory said...

Bureaucracy indeed! You're way more patient than I would've been.

I agree with you that the fees really add up - in sum, I think I paid about US$50 in fees during SIN Do. I think it's time to take another look at the relevant thread on FT to find the credit card that imposes the least fees.

Kathy and Brian said...

Yes indeed. It's just the annoyance of obtaining yet another credit and/or debit card.

Kim said...

Ack, what a nightmare! Between this and Karen's mailbox debacle, I would say our family has had more than enough bureaucracy to last at least the next year. Enjoy your trip!

Unknown said...

If you have a Charles Schwab account, they claim to give you the proper exchange rate and also pay all ATM fees charged by foreign banks, with no fee.

We used that card in France and it seemed to work as represented. The people who wrote the article explaining this said sometimes they had to call Schwab's attention to foreign ATM fees. Even if you did pay those fees, the 3% savings is worthwhile.

Kathy and Brian said...

Thanks for noting that. Schwab sounds like a good deal except that we don't have an account with them. Coincidentally, we just returned from a frustrating trip to an ATM after lunch. Last night we pulled out 1000 pesos from the neighboring ATM, but that one is out of service at the moment and the most we could withdraw from this one was 650 pesos, around 160 US dollars, so we didn't bother. An employee said we could keep inserting it and getting more money but there's a service fee every time so we might just as well use one of our credit cards, where at least we're getting various rebates and points.

We've never been in a country where the ATM limit is so low, although we're sure there are others. It appears to be a money maker for the banks.