American Express: Please Leave Home Without It

Marakesh, Morocco

Depending on where all you’ve been (or not been) in the world, this may make no sense to you. But I have found that the easiest way to make an entire store hate you— nay, sometimes even an entire marketplace— is to pull out your American Express card. Once you do this, it’s almost like word travels in whispers throughout the land, and suddenly you’re in a biblical plague drama. The townspeople start closing their shutters, boarding up their windows, all but painting pig’s blood above the door lintels to get you to go away. “Leave this place and never return, Foul Demon!” you might hear them say.

Maybe it’s not as bad as all that, but it’s pretty darn close. You could be having the most delightful time with a shopkeeper. You guys could have just been bartering playfully, maybe even joking and laughing a little as you attempt to reach a fair price… he’s told you stories about his family back in the Old Country, you’ve told him stories about the mysterious phenomenon in your country called Chick-fil-A… It’s all been fun and games, and then it comes time to settle up, and you pull out an American Express card.

Time and time again, this sucks the air out of the room. Everything comes to a grinding halt, everything sours. No matter how much fun and camaraderie you were enjoying previously, just moments before, now it’s like you just slapped this person’s sweet mother in the face.

Depending on the salesperson and their personal disposition, the responses I have seen range from indignation to panic to despair to outrage to, most frequently, downright anger. Even when there’s a language barrier, you can catch the drift of what they are communicating, and if I could sum it up in a simple English phrase, that phrase would be, “How dare you!”

Upon seeing your Amex, first there will always be a huge string of Nos. “No no no no no!” Like you’ve produced a wriggling rat from your pocket and are trying to hand it to them. Next there will be lots of open, outward-facing palms with wide-splayed fingers, as if to say, “You can’t make me take that, or even touch it! I’ll have nothing to do with that filthy thing!”

If you point out that there is a sticker with the Amex logo in their window they will deny it, stand in front of it, or, I even watched one guy in Morocco start peeling the sticker off with an antique knife from his store, right there in front of me. In South Africa, after seeing my Amex, the store clerk told me his credit card machine had suddenly stopped working. I wanted to say, yeah, because I just watched you unplug it and hide it under the counter!

I came to learn that merchants the world over despise American Express, because they purportedly charge the store owner exorbitantly high transaction and usage fees. Apparently, everyone around the world is aware of this fact, and they assume that you must be, too. Well, I wasn’t aware of this, obviously, but it has since been explained to me by many a tour guide and store owner. There is an unspoken rule in many places that no one would dare try and pay with an American Express because no one would be so ignorantly rude or so intentionally crass as to insult a merchant in that way. When you pull it out of your wallet, store clerks act as if you just stole from them. Or more accurately, they act as if you just tried to steal from them and got caught. And that is how they will treat you from then on out: with suspicion, distrust, and maybe even a little aggression.

In Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, I learned to stop even trying to pay with it, unless I wanted to watch all my prior bargaining (and pleasant treatment) immediately unravel. But in Nepal, American Express was the only card my TREKKING PARTNER KIMBY brought with her, so every time I saw her preparing to try and use it, I would make every effort to try and hurry up, finish my own personal transaction with the store clerk, and duck out of sight before all hell broke loose.

Because with American Express, “It’s nowhere you want to be.”

If you’ve never experienced this, I hope I’ve described the hostility towards American Express well enough to dissuade you from trying to use it abroad, or at the very least, convinced you that you need to have a backup plan. Bring other forms of payment with you, especially if you don’t enjoy having people constantly hate you in stores. At all but the most corporate of places (like chain hotels) store owners really do act as if you just walked in and peed all over their floor. What’s worse is, after all of this, it’s not likely they’ll eventually capitulate and let you pay with it, no, all kind will towards you will just cease to exist, and then you’ll still have to pay with a different card or cash. It’s true, there are some things money can’t buy…. like guaranteed instant hostility.

For everything else, there’s Mastercard.

Or literary any other card in existence.