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What to take on a plane (Hint: It's plastic)

You might want to pack earplugs, a sweater and reading material in your carry-on. But if you want to buy anything, bring a credit card.

By Donna_Freedman Sep 9, 2011 9:13AM

Recently a New Jersey attorney tried to sue Continental Airlines for its "cashless cabin" policy, after he found himself on a nearly 10-hour flight with no way to purchase a headset or buy a drink. Believe it or not, he'd put his credit cards in the suitcase he checked.

As usual, there's a little more (but not much more) to the story.

The attorney, Michael Rosen, said he'd previously purchased a headset he was told would work on all Continental flights. For some reason it wasn't compatible with the plane that flew him back from Honolulu.

Rosen tried to buy a new one. The flight attendant would not accept $3 for the headset or $5 for a cocktail that the traveler wanted to buy.

His lawsuit claimed, among other things, that the no-cash policy discriminates against "individuals who do not physically possess a debit or credit card."

Ultimately the case was dismissed. But let's use it as an object lesson on why you need some form of plastic.

I understand why some people refuse both credit and debit: They think that cash is king.

Maybe. But it's not emperor of the world.

The legality of 'legal tender'

You can pay cash for everyday needs, and write checks or use online bill-pay for most of your bills. But there is no law that every place you want to do business with has to accept your greenbacks.

Don't believe me? Check the website for the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which notes that no federal statutes require that "a private business, a person or an organization must accept currency or coins (as) payment for goods and/or services … unless there is a state law which says otherwise."

For example, a business can specify "no bills larger than $50" or "no rolled coins." It can even refuse to accept plastic. Last night I ordered pizza for my brother's family from a place that turned out to be cash-only. Luckily I had the bucks; it would have been embarrassing to borrow $20 from the folks I was supposed to be treating.

Policy is policy

Rosen had every right to leave his credit cards in the checked suitcase. (Not something I'd ever do.) And the airline had every right to enforce its policy.

That said, if I'd been the flight attendant I'd have asked my supervisor if: 
  • I could just give Rosen a headset based on the fact that he'd already bought one, or
  • I could suggest that Rosen ask another passenger to pay and hand him or her the cash.
This would have been a cheap, effective piece of customer service that, as it turned out, would have saved my employer the cost of answering the lawsuit.

The moral of the story, once again: You need some form of plastic. Or a water bottle and a good book.

More on MSN Money:

Sep 12, 2011 1:39PM
Or better yet, don't fly at all.  If the airline won't take cash, they don't need my business.  Hope they all fail.
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