NEW YORK (CNNfn) - No one likes to be embarrassed in public. But it doesn't get any worse than that feeling of humiliation when the clerk or waiter breaks the news: "credit card rejected."
"Who wants to be out with your friends or business clients and have that happen -- 'Do you have another card, sir?' You feel like a loser -- when it can be completely beyond your control," Steve Rhode, president of Debt Counselors of America Inc., said.
A sudden credit-card shortage can leave you stranded without a way to pay. At best you're looking at a big pile of dishes and some explaining. At worst, you're strapped for cash thousands of miles and several border checkpoints from home.
Plastic is so common, getting your card declined is one of those shared experiences that prove you're human.
"You should expect that at some time you're going to have a credit card rejected," Rhode said.
But the results can be serious. Credit experts cite a number of ways to ward off Sudden Plastic Desertion syndrome.
How best to avoid getting stuck
First, be prepared.
"It just makes real good sense to carry more than one credit card," said Robert McKinley, president of consulting company CardWeb.com Inc. Consumers used to view credit cards as emergency cash, but more and more rely on them now. So having a backup is a good idea.
If you're traveling, particularly abroad, call your card company and alert them to your plans. The same goes if you plan to make large or atypical purchases, said Judy Tenzer, a spokesperson with American Express.
Even though AmEx (AXP), which offers both credit and debit cards, promotes some as not having preset limits, it still has computer systems that are triggered when there's an unusual spending pattern.
So if you know you'll be buying an expensive once-in-a-lifetime trip or several rooms of furniture for a new home, "give us a phone call and let us know about it," she said. She wouldn't specify the triggers, which vary by customer, "but common sense should prevail."
If you're slapping a Ferrari on your card, you may have to get your banker on the line to show you can afford it.
It's not just unusual amounts to watch
A call ahead could also help when it comes to your spending pattern, not just the amount, McKinley added. If you buy a small amount of gas and then visit an electric appliance and a jewelry store, your card might get held up because that's a pattern someone with a stolen card might follow, checking it at a pump where there's no attendant and then going on a spending binge. Issuers also watch for a sudden spate of charges over the Internet.
Smaller card issuers without sophisticated fraud-tracking systems may just cut your card after six purchases in a day, no matter what you're buying, McKinley said. Calling ahead will make sure you're not stuck trying to reach them after hours.
It happened to McKinley after he made several purchases on a business trip and tried to check into a San Francisco hotel. His South Dakota card issuer was closed and had frozen his account.
"It's a bit embarrassing. I'm known as being an expert with credit cards," he admitted. "Fortunately I had another one to use."
Catherine Cummings, vice president of consumer affairs at MasterCard International, agrees that calling ahead helps. Read your statement to make sure all the charges are yours and to check your credit limit, too, she added.
Watch out for hotel and rental 'holds'
Even if your credit is in good stead, hotels will often put a hold on guests' credit cards, sometimes for the anticipated cost of your stay and even for surplus charges the hotel expects.
Ask what the dollar amount on the hold of your card is when you check in, credit experts say, and pay particular attention if you've canceled a stay at one hotel and moved or reserved another. That could leave you with a double hold, and each can last as long as 10 days. If you don't know what they are or don't make sure unused holds get canceled, you can run up against your limit quickly.
Car-rental companies often put holds on credit cards, too, sometimes for as much as $300 on a $30 rental. And people who pay by credit card should watch for damage charges, McKinley said, which could come through later and unexpectedly.
Though fewer rental companies accept debit cards any more, they can put a hold on your checking account, Holly Anderson, a spokesperson with the National Consumers League, pointed out. A $300 hold can leave vacationers with a lot of their checking cash tied up if they're not aware of it, she said.
Best of all, "know what you're getting into," she said. Holds can be in small print and are easily ignored, so ask travel agents and anyone you give your card information to about the terms.
"When you give out your card number, be prepared for something to happen," she said. Ask exactly what will.
It happens to the best of us
If you haven't used a card in a while, check the expiration date. Remember to activate new cards. And be aware that some card issuers may cancel your card if you don't use it or aren't a profitable customer, Rhode said.
He tells the story of a couple who went on a cruise and planned to use their card, only to find it canceled because they paid the entire balance every month.
"Always call before you leave," he said. "Ask 'Is my card in good standing? Is it scheduled for canceling?' You're going to rely on that card."
But don't rely on it exclusively. Some cash isn't a bad idea. Cards can get rejected for something as simple as a broken credit-card terminal or the verification computers going down, and having a backup is unlikely to help there. A worn-out strip still comes back as a reject code, John Waskin of American Credit Counselors Corp. said.
And last, remember it happens to all of us. Even to credit counselors, in fact. The people you'd think would know best of all have their own horror stories.
Mark Rosen, community relations manager of Credit Counseling Centers Inc., got rejected thanks to a very weird set of circumstances. His wife's purse was stolen, and they canceled all their cards. New cards arrived in the mail, but he didn't realize they were new versions of the stolen cards, which coincidentally had expired around that time.
So when Rosen tried to use the card out shopping, the store rejected it as stolen.
Bank executives get their cards rejected. Indeed. President Clinton has had his card rejected. Maybe it's one of those little reminders to bring us all down a peg or two. But tell that to the judge.
"No matter what happens, if there are people in line it's embarrassing. Everyone thinks you've done something wrong," Rosen said. "It's a humbling experience."