Hong Kong Phooey: How I Survived Without Cash in Hong Kong for Three Days

Have you ever boasted to your friends, “All I ever use is a credit card, because it’s so much easier than money”? Yeah, I did that once, too. In America, you can buy almost anything on credit, as long as you’re not buying off the black market. Seriously, they should just call U.S. dollars “black market paper” since I’m not sure you need it for anything else in the United States.

Gun Flag Money

I was so used to putting everything on my card, I never considered that it would be a problem to use my card in ANOTHER COUNTRY. As I found out, other countries just don’t share our love for introductory APR’s and racking up points. Which left me almost stranded when I recently lost my cash in Hong Kong. Here’s how I survived, using only a credit card and my wits.

How I Lost My Cash in Hong Kong

I always like taking the subway wherever I travel, and Hong Kong is no different. When you arrive at the Hong Kong International Airport, you can take a subway connection called Airport Express and then go wherever you want using their MTR mass transit.

My problem? Trying to juggle too junk: my luggage, iPod, and laptop bag. I’m not sure where or how, but during my forty-five minute subway trip I lost my money clip loaded with Hong Kong dollars. I didn’t even realize the clip was gone until I had arrived at the hotel. Enjoy the cash, petty thief or hapless finder of my money!

I was armed with my American Express Platinum card as well as my American Express Delta Skymiles card, so I figured this wouldn’t be a big problem.

Challenge #1: Convenience Store

The next morning, I stopped by the local 7-11 to look for some simple breakfast food. The typical 7-11 in Asia looks like this:


In Asia, “7-11″ are the actual dimensions.

So imagine the dismay of the store clerk when I tried to buy some things with a CREDIT CARD. It was like I was presenting him with a form of alien space currency.

Captain Clerk: I’m sorry, we don’t accept that here.

Me: So, what do you accept?

Captain Clerk: We take cash.

Me: What is this, the 80s?!

Magnum PI

Magnum only takes cash.

I guess I’m eating room service this morning.

Challenge #2: Transportation

I was scheduled to meet a friend across town for lunch, so I had to figure out my options.

Taking the subway requires you to navigate a large machine and tell it where you want to go — but once I did that, it asked me for cash.

Hong Kong Subway

Sub-par subway.

I didn’t even want to try the bus; the line was incredibly long, and there was no way they’d have a credit card swiper on board.

Hong Kong Bus Stop

Asia’s just FULL o’ people.

I went to my hotel’s front desk, and they politely explained that there was no way to get around Hong Kong with a credit card, unless I wanted to take a private car. I really needed to meet my friend, and it was only fifty bucks, so I went with it.

Challenge #3: The Octopus Card

Arriving at the sushi restaurant, I explained my cash-less predicament to my friend. (He was paying — what a relief!) My friend told me I could buy something called an OCTOPUS CARD which would allow me to travel without cash. Apparently instead of using cards that have credit, they use cards with octopii.


Something’s fishy about this payment scheme.

I went to a customer service office to find out more about Mr. Octopus. I discovered that you can use this card for almost everything in Hong Kong: convenience stores, fast-food restaurants, grocery stores, parking meters, car garages and even vending machines.

Great idea – sounds like a CREDIT CARD.

Except, you need to have ACTUAL MONEY to get one — and THEY DON’T TAKE CREDIT CARDS!

Challenge #4: The Airport

I’m a pretty creative dude (love to finger-paint), and I don’t give up easily. So I figured if I could get my way back to the airport — always a beacon of international credit card delight — I could talk to someone about getting some paper money. I was starting to miss the feel of cash at this point.

Hong Kong Airport Express

I borrowed some subway fare from my friend to get to the Airport Express, which is a high-speed train to the airport. Problem: it happens to be the ONLY high speed train to the airport, so they charge around $20USD to get there. Too bad I didn’t realize that until I got there.

But children sure do get a discount! I bought one of these for half the price.

Child Tourist Day Pass

How do they regulate this kind of stuff? I should be taking children’s discounts more often!

Challenge #5: Disappointment

Even though the Hong Kong International Airport is one of the biggest in the world, the best I could do with my card there was buy dinner. After that, I was screwed. At this point, I had completely blown my travel budget with the room service, private car and cleaning out the mini bar (although I must say the Cucumber Lay’s Potato Chips are much better than you would think).

Asian Lay's Potato Chips

I was pretty much broke like a joke in Hong Kong. Incredibly frustrated by my luck, I called the American Express collect number on the back of my card to try to solve my problem.

Rep: Thank you for calling American Express Member Services. This is Lisa, what can I do for you?

Me: Lisa, do you know how hard it is to use credit cards in Hong Kong?

Rep: No sir, I don’t.

Me: Well, I’ll tell you, if you don’t have cash to give to the Octopus man, you can’t do anything!

Rep: I’m sorry to hear that.

Me: Me too Lisa, me too. Look, I don’t want to get into any specifics here Lisa, but I’m out of money. I need to get some cash so I can buy food that doesn’t taste like cucumbers. “Natural & Cool”? Yeah, right!

Rep: Well, how much money do you need?

Me: Enough to survive in a world that doesn’t accept credit.

Rep: Could you give me an amount?

Me: $200.

Rep: Okay, here is what we can do. We’ll link your card up with one of your bank accounts and you can use your card at an ATM to get cash.

Me: Perfect! That sounds great, Lisa.

Thanks to Amex, I was able to withdraw a little spending money to get around for the next couple of days and enjoy myself. As an American, it’s really quite stressful not being able to use credit cards. Always remember to bring cash when traveling and keep it somewhere safe, although for big things you can still use credit.

I used my pocket cash to buy a new money clip.

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