If you’re on the road this summer and using plastic to pay for your rental car, gas or hotel, here’s a way to avoid a needless nightmare: Make sure your credit limit or debit balance has enough of a cushion to handle preauthorization “blocks” or “holds.”
That’s because it can be hard to predict precisely how much of your money will be tied up by businesses that block out funds on your cards to help make sure they’ll get paid.
Certain types of merchants routinely preauthorize amounts that are higher than, well, reality. A hotel might put an extra couple hundred dollars on hold on your card, just in case, say, you raid the minibar or damage the room. After your stay is over, that hold eventually is released. But that can take a while.
Just how long a hold lasts is up to the card-issuing bank. Most come off within days, even hours, once the actual purchase amount is reconciled between the merchant’s bank and the cardholder’s bank. But there have been instances of holds lasting up to a month.
Even smaller preauthorization blocks can add up as consumers travel, pinching their access to money just when they need it.
“It’s usually with people who are on tight budgets or traveling with a family,” says Steve Bernas, president of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago & Northern Illinois, where complaints are common during peak summer travel months.
Many consumers don’t realize their available debit-card balance or credit-card limit has been eaten up by holds until it’s too late, Bernas says. “There’s really no consistency for the consumer,” he says.
One woman’s credit-hold nightmare
Sadly, Jokima Hiller knows too well how much trouble credit holds can cause. In May, Hiller planned to rent a car and drive from her home in Springfield, Missouri, to Gary, Indiana, for the funeral of a childhood friend’s mother.
When she made the reservation, Hiller asked the National Car Rental agent how much she’d be charged. On the pickup day, she made sure she had two credit cards, both with more than enough available credit to cover the $278 rental.
Then, the clerk surprised her: There would be an extra hold of $200 in case of damages.
Then, she says, he mistakenly ran two charges on one card, maxing it out, and tried four more charges on the second card, hitting limits there, too.
The ugly result was that about $700 of Hiller’s credit was suddenly blocked. Then, the rep told her he couldn’t rent her a car, after all.
“People are coming, there’s a line forming, and I’m, like, ‘Oh, my goodness, how did I get up here?’ ” Hiller says. “I was devastated. I cried, and I begged them: Please don’t let me leave here tonight without a car.”
The mistake took five days to sort out, involving many calls to the banks and the car-rental company. Hiller ended up missing the funeral and had to get by in the interim without money. She didn’t even have enough available credit to wire flowers.
“My church gave me money so I could go grocery shopping,” Hiller says.
A National spokeswoman, contacted by the Chicago Sun-Times, apologized for her inconvenience. Hiller says the company also offered her a free future rental, which she says she doesn’t plan to use.
A couple of tricks to use
Some credit- or debit-card blocks can’t be avoided. But some can.
Here’s one trick: When you stop at a gas station, pay the cashier inside rather than swiping at the pump. Otherwise, you could get hit with a hold of up to $100 — even though your gas might have cost only $20.
Here’s another: At a restaurant, you can tell the server you intend to tip in cash. That way, the card will be swiped only for the exact total of the bill.
But with a rental car or hotel, consumers usually are stuck because the business will insist on blocking an extra amount to cover extras or damages, according to Nessa Feddis, senior vice president of the American Bankers Association.
“There are legitimate reasons that these holds could be placed,” Feddis says.
She says it’s worth calling your credit-card issuers before a trip to see if they’ll be nice and bump up your limit.
Bernas suggests opting in for texts from your bank offering updates on your debit card’s balance.
Also, travel with more than one credit card, and spread the charges around to avoid too many holds piling up at a time, says Bernas, who has heard complaints from consumers of 20-day holds.
“It’s to protect the merchant,” he says. “It’s not to protect the consumer.”