Help! My Pricey Travel Credit Card Wouldn’t Work When I Traveled

Dear Tripped Up,

I have long been a business traveler, and therefore have the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card, touted to be one of the best travel cards out there, if you can stomach the high annual fee of $550. But on a trip earlier this year to Italy and the United Kingdom — my first and only significant travel in the past year — I tried to use the card every day for four days, and every time it was declined. Each time, I called Chase and spent hours speaking with various members of their team. They either claimed my card had been reset and should work again, punted me to someone else, disconnected me or hung up after being rude to me. I would like Chase to fix these problems and provide some recompense, such as some or all of my annual fee refunded. Can you help? Grace, Corona del Mar, Calif.

Dear Grace,

I am feeling your pain: I travel with the very same Chase card you have, as well as a Delta-branded American Express card. On my current trip to Brazil, I have had dozens of transactions declined. Every attempted purchase is a crapshoot — sometimes switching cards works, sometimes inserting the card instead of tapping works and sometimes taking deep breaths works, if only to calm me down. It’s not quite bad enough to make me long for the days of traveler’s checks, but it’s close.

That said, the fact you couldn’t get your card to work at all is worse, and especially troubling since it’s supposed to be a great choice for travelers and comes with a hefty annual fee. (Though, to be fair, the effective cost of a Chase Sapphire Reserve Card is $250, since they do refund your first $300 of travel expenses.)

I asked Paul Lussier, a Chase spokesman, to look into your case. He told me that the first two times your card was declined (at a parking lot in Monopoli, Italy, you said) it was because of “an invalid or partial chip read.” That could have been the fault of the card reader, how your card was inserted or a number of other things, he said. The third time, another element of the fraud detection system kicked in and blocked your card, and he acknowledged that your call was disconnected, though it’s unclear how. After the fourth attempt and your subsequent call, he said, the problem was resolved, though by then your trip was over.

You’re not going to like his conclusion. “From our own internal review, it doesn’t appear that any errors on our part occurred,” he said. Nor, he said, were there errors “on the customer’s part.” In other words, the Chase fraud detection system did what it was supposed to do, taking the data it received and determining there was enough risk to decline the transactions, and you did what you were supposed to do, call in and complain. Alas, you two disagree on how well Chase’s customer service performed. He said they listened to the recording of your calls and determined “our agents handled the calls correctly.” I’m guessing that will make you furious, but I’m afraid I can’t determine which of you is right.

What could you have done differently? At one time, I would have advised letting your credit card company know that you were traveling abroad. But Chase explicitly tells its cardholders that they don’t need to do that. “We’ve got you covered! With our enhanced security measures, you don’t need to set up travel notifications anymore,” the Chase website reads.

“Just about every credit card issuer has gone away from that,” said Nick Ewen, a director of content for The Points Guy, a site that covers travel credit cards extensively. He told me he and his wife used to have a ritual, on their way to the airport, of alerting their credit card companies of their destination by phone or app. It seemed like a simple solution, and one that might help me in my on current trip, on which about a third of my transactions do not initially go through, making me want to scream “Hey Chase, hey American Express, I’m in Brazil! Get used to it!”

Yann-Aël Le Borgne and Gianluca Bontempi, data scientists at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium and the authors of an online handbook about credit card fraud detection, explained what has changed. In the past, human experts created rules that detected potential fraud, including the amount of the transaction compared to your typical spending, or where the purchase took place. “That was the case 100 percent of the time, maybe 10 years ago,” said Mr. Le Borgne. “But now, thanks to machine learning, it has become possible to process huge amounts of data from past transactions and identify these rules through statistics.”

In other words, said Mr. Bontempi, fraud is now detected “by hundreds of variables that probably mean nothing to you, but from a statistical perspective are much more accurate.” But that makes it maddening for us humans when our cards are declined — in your case and mine, repeatedly — for no obvious reason. The fact that your calls didn’t help makes it even more vexing.

I’m not going to start feeling sorry for credit card issuers any time soon, given their profits, but they do have a tricky task to perform, determining within milliseconds whether any one of a billion-plus transactions a day should be disallowed, especially considering the near-total protection they offer consumers against fraudulent use of their cards. Complicating matters further for American issuers, our credit cards can generally be used without four-digit PINs, unlike cards in many countries. The Belgian researchers could not say for sure, but they told me it was reasonable to assume that, all other things being equal, a transaction with a PIN code would be less likely to be flagged for fraud than one without.

“We look at a multitude of factors when making a decision to block a transaction for potential fraud,” Mr. Lussier, the Chase spokesman, told me. And here’s the kicker: “There are no concrete tips for consumers to use that would help them guarantee every single credit card transaction they make isn’t denied for potential fraud.”

But there are a few things you can still do, said Mr. Ewen, of The Points Guy: First, be sure your phone can receive texts and make calls from abroad, so you can both be alerted to potential fraud and call from wherever you are as soon as your card is declined. (Grace, I know you do receive text messages abroad and did not receive any from Chase, but Mr. Lussier told me that chip-reading issues would not trigger such a text.) Also, travel with multiple cards. I’d add you might even want to bring three, if you have them — two to carry, and one, perhaps an A.T.M./debit card, to leave in the hotel for emergencies. Insist on inserting cards into machines rather than tapping from the beginning of your trip, something that might (or might not!) have saved me from landing on the fraud detection radar.

Unfortunately, Grace, it looks like this time I couldn’t be of much help, and I would certainly understand if you wanted to cancel your Chase card. One consolation, though: If you do cancel, you won’t lose your points — or, at least, not their full value. For 30 days after you close your account, you can redeem them for cash; transfer them to one of Chase’s airline or hotel partners, including United, Southwest, Marriott Bonvoy and Hyatt; or even buy a new iPhone.

If you need advice about a best-laid travel plan that went awry, send an email to [email protected].

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