More airlines adopting plastic-only policies

The next time you wish to purchase a cocktail, earphones, a pillow or a blanket on an Air Canada flight, be prepared to pull out your plastic. As of May 1, Canada's largest carrier no longer accepts cash for on-board purchases. Following in the heels of American Airlines, which went cashless in February, duty-free items, food and alcoholic drinks now require a credit card.

Air Canada's plastic-only policy is intended to create greater convenience for passengers, particularly non-North Americans, many of whom don't wish to carry Canadian or U.S. currency for the sake of purchasing an in-flight pillow. What's more, by charging items to a credit card, Air Canada maintains that flight attendants won't have to struggle to make change, resulting in faster service. Not to mention a clearer pathway to the lavatory.

But jetsetters, beware. According to Chad Viminitz, a financial behaviour coach with RTR Advisory in Edmonton and author, no longer accepting cash for purchases "is usually not a benefit to the consumer. You've eliminated a very solid financial decision for the consumer to pay cash. You've taken that away from them."

The problem, continues Viminitz, is that "credit card companies know that you'll spend on average about 23 percent more than you will with cash. So at the end of the day, credit cards aren't necessarily more convenient when you're spending more than you expected."

But that's not the only risk of creating a cashless society in the sky. Identity theft strikes countless travelers year after year. "It's not people getting robbed for a couple hundred dollars while you're walking through the airport," says Viminitz. "It's about someone from another country stealing your information and now your credit card information is disseminated around the world." For this reason, Viminitz recommends notifying your credit card company of any travel plans so that atypical purchasing patterns can be flagged for further investigation. As for in-flight purchases, Air Canada stresses that all credit card payments are recorded using secure encrypted handheld devices.

Currently, the maximum credit card purchase allowed onboard Air Canada is $500. Only Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club and Japanese Credit Bureau cards will be accepted for duty-free purchases. If you don't have a credit card or your child age 12 to 17 is flying as an unaccompanied minor, you can pre-purchase onboard amenities online up to an hour before your flight. A code proving the purchase will appear on your boarding pass.

Published May 19, 2010

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