My boyfriend and I landed in Washington, D.C. and went straight from the airport to a late-night dinner. When the bill came, I dug through the abyss of my backpack, fumbling for the smooth leather surface of my wallet. And l came up completely empty. My wallet was gone, left in either the seat-back pocket or in the Centurion Lounge in SFO. Either way, I had no way to pay for this meal, and worse, any purchases during our weeklong trip.
Luckily my boyfriend took care of the bill, and I used my phone to hail an Uber to take us to our hotel. During that Uber ride, I frantically Googled how I might survive my walletless week.
But as it turns out, that car ride was just the first of many digital payments I would make over the coming days. I learned that I don’t need a wallet, and I don’t need a man (O.K., maybe I did for that first dinner!). Turns out, my smartphone can do almost everything my wallet can do, from paying at restaurants to renting a bike, to even getting into a hotel room.
And by the end of the week, I saw an added benefit for my future travels: I don’t have to bring my wallet everywhere. And imagine being wallet-free at tourist attractions teeming with pickpockets or wearing a cute nightclub dress with no pockets.
I had to figure it out on my own in D.C. (and thankfully United found it and shipped it back to me, so I didn’t have to cancel or replace any of my cards). Now that I’m back, I’ve done even more research and am excited to share my hard-won wisdom with you.
You can load a credit card or debit card onto an app like Apple Pay, Google Pay or Samsung Pay and as long as the merchant accepts contactless payments (look for the contactless payment symbol displayed near the register), you just hold up your phone to the payment terminal to initiate the transaction.
Each app has additional security features to ensure a thief can’t steal your phone and start shopping. For example, Apple Pay requires TouchID (a fingerprint scan on your phone’s home button), FaceID or a PIN to complete the payment. If you lose your phone you can remotely wipe your payment details.
Apple Pay is compatible with credit and debit cards from hundreds of banks. In D.C., I linked my Chase Sapphire Reserve and Bank of America Premium Rewards cards to my iPhone to buy food, coffee and even last-minute toiletries at Rite Aid. While not ubiquitous, Apple Pay mobile payments are accepted at 74 of the top 100 merchants in the U.S. like Safeway, Taco Bell, Chevron and Target. Small businesses often are able to take digital payment through payment processors like Square (even some Girl Scouts take Square, according to Buzzfeed).
I ordered an espresso through the Peet’s Coffee app, allowing me to not only pay digitally, but skip the line completely. I made the transaction from my hotel, and by the time I got to Peet’s, my morning joe was already waiting on the counter.
Even smaller restaurant brands like Georgetown Cupcakes have their own apps for ordering and collecting rewards, eliminating the need for loyalty punch cards.
I zipped around town on a bike rented through Capital Bikeshare, which is operated by Lyft. The Lyft app allows you to find and unlock bikes, and charges your card on file (Lyft also powers the bikeshare programs in New York City and San Francisco).
Increasingly more ATMs have contactless terminals much like what you’ll find at store registers, but these allow you to use your phone for transactions like withdrawing cash. I hadn’t added my debit card to my Apple Pay before the trip, but I was able to add my Bank of America debit card through their app to my Apple Wallet. From there, I could withdraw cash from one of BoA’s cardless ATM, which was a trippy experience.
Hotels typically ask for identification at check-in. It’s a reasonable security measure, but it’s not ideal when your wallet is in United’s lost and found. Luckily, I stayed at a Hyatt, which is one of the growing number of hotels that provide an emailed security code for check-in. To my delight, I could also use my phone as my hotel room key. I just opened the app, held my phone to the digital lock and I was in my room. I never once spoke to the front desk staff, which is the icing on the cake for introverts.
The majority of useless bulk in my wallet comes from membership cards to spots like my gym and Priority Pass, a program that grants airport lounge access (membership is complimentary through several credit cards, including the Chase Sapphire Reserve and American Express Platinum). By downloading their apps and logging into my accounts, I accessed digital versions of my membership cards. I did squats before checking out the Smithsonian and drank complimentary airport champagne before boarding my flight home, all without hassle.
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The pain points
My wallet-free week was possible, but it wasn’t plain sailing.
I made it through airport security wallet-free, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s possible to fly domestically without identification, but the TSA recommends arriving early, as you’ll be subject to additional screening. A TSA agent interviewed me with personal questions to confirm my identity, and I went through an additional pat-down and screening.
The ordeal felt additionally long, especially since I’m typically spoiled by the ease of TSA Pre✓ and Global Entry. Ideally, I would have had membership with CLEAR, a tech company integrated into more than 60 U.S. airports that allows expedited airport security access — and doesn’t require ID. Instead, it uses biometrics (your eyes and fingerprints) to confirm your ID, though it costs $179 annually.
You sometimes still need physical cards
Not every merchant accepts digital payments, including the DC Metro (my ATM withdrawal came in handy there). And bars likely won’t serve you without valid ID. At Russia House, I was relegated to a virgin Moscow Mule (that’s ginger beer plus lime in a copper cup).
Occasionally awkward interactions
If the restaurant accepts digital payments, the waiter may bring a card reader to you (which is common in Europe). But occasionally, the card reader can’t be moved from behind the bar, which meant I had to follow the waiter to the bar and hand over my phone, which felt less-than-elegant.
Ultimately, a 100% wallet-free life is probably infeasible right now, but it’s certainly more seamless than it was even a few years ago. At the very least, a week without it proved that most of its contents are extraneous. After this, I’ll streamline down to just my driver’s license and one physical credit card to use at Luddite retailers, since everything else is being stored on my phone.