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9 tips for traveling with credit cards

There's more to smooth travel than just keeping your cards working

By Dana Dratch

It may not be the only way to fly, but traveling with a credit card is an easy way: Plastic is convenient to pack, gives you a record of your purchases and is more secure than cash.

By now, you probably know the basics, such as notifying your card issuer of your itinerary to make sure your card doesn't get cut off for suspected fraud just when you need it most. And even making sure you have contact numbers for your cards, just in case something does go wrong.

But there's more to smooth travel than just keeping your cards working. Here are 9 tips to make your travels with plastic cheaper, easier and more enjoyable.

10 tips for traveling with credit cards

1. Your cards may offer 'secret' travel perks.

If you've been using your credit cards to fill your tank and buy groceries, there might be a host of travel benefits those cards offer that you don't even know exist.

Travel cards often offer travel-related perks, such as priority boarding, waived luggage fees, vouchers for food and drinks or access to airport lounges. But it's common for general-use cards to proffer some travel benefits, too, says David Rabkin, senior vice president of consumer lending for Ameican Express.

Unknown to you, that card already in your wallet could "buy you a bigger room, a free breakfast and a late checkout," says Rabkin.

So call each card you have, get a list of its travel benefits and figure out which will give you the most for your travel dollar.

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2. Cards may offer free or discounted medical insurance for your trip.

"It's one thing that's less fun to talk about, but it could be important," says Rabkin.

"Often credit card companies can get a discounted rate," he says. Some cards will provide "some basic forms" for no extra charge. "And many credit card companies will let you purchase a version of that for the specific trip."

Prices can vary with the card, how much coverage you want and how long you'll be away, Rabkin says. "Often, it can be purchased online from your card company."

3. Going overseas? Ask about foreign transaction fees.

Many issuers or card banks will charge a fee for foreign transatcions, or even domestic charges that involve a foreign bank.

In some cases, you can avoid foreign transaction charges by having your purchases charged in U.S. dollars by the merchant. And there is a growing number of credit cards that don't charge foreign transaction fees.

Your best bet: Do a little research before you leave. Call cards and find out what fees you face if you shop abroad. "Believe me, these fees can add up," says Peter Greenberg, CBS News travel editor and founder of PeterGreenberg·com. 

I can't count the number of times I've had credit cards declined while traveling.

-- Jeremy Shepherd
CEO, PearlParadise

4. Pack more than one card.

Not all cards are universally accepted. And sometimes good cards are declined.

"Credit card companies tell you to call them when you are traveling internationally to let them know -- but in my experience this rarely makes a difference," says Jeremy Shepherd, CEO of PearlParadise.com.

"I can't count the number of times I've had credit cards declined while traveling," he says. As a result, Shepherd often carries four different cards from three different card companies, plus a debit card.

One good way to test card-acceptance in your target area: Select a few tourist-oriented spots, visit online and see what cards they take, says Rabkin. "Tourist-focused restaurants are a great bellwether," he says. 

5. Get your cards travel-ready.

"Before I do anything, I make sure I have set up my credit cards so that I can access them online," says Cynthia Clayton Ochterbeck, editorial director of Michelin Travel Partner. While card account features vary online, you can ask a question through chat, update your travel itinerary (so cards aren't shut down for fraud) or block a lost/stolen card immediately, she says. And, if you're traveling internationally, that can sometimes be a lot easier than calling a toll-free number, she adds.

Many cards have their own apps, too, says Rabkin.

Before you leave, find out what accommodations your card issuers make in emergencies. Some cards with concierge services can arrange to get money to you if your wallet is lost or stolen or get a new card into your hands quickly, Ochterbeck says.

While some travelers carry photocopies of all their important documents, others will scan those same documents to a cloud account or email them to themselves -- so that they can access them in a pinch.

One smart strategy: Plug your cards' toll-free numbers (ones that will work where you're going) into your speed-dial, says Sukhi Sahni, spokeswoman for Capital One.

Before I do anything, I make sure I have set up my credit cards so that I can access them online.

-- Cynthia Clayton Ochterbeck
Editorial director, Michelin Travel Partner

And, with your debit card, just like your credit cards, let your bank know that you'll be accessing your account from out of town. Otherwise you could find your access is blocked, says Ochterbeck.

6. Debit card could be key to cheaper currency.

Want to get a good rate on local currency overseas? Your best bet is likely a debit card at an ATM, says Ochterbeck.

While you may get hit with a fee, you'll still often do better than at currency exchanges, she says. "You pay one time and generally the exchange rate is better."

Look for an ATM from "an established bank, not one affiliated or next to a currency exchange," she says. Also, suss out individual ATM fees, "as ATMs may not all be created equal," says Kathleen Gurney, president of Financial Psychology Corp. and author of "Your Money Personality: What It Is and How You Can Profit from It."

One veteran traveler's tip: Hit an airport ATM for a couple hundred dollars' worth of local currency when you arrive, says Ochterbeck. Since you never know what's going to happen when you travel, "take some time and get some cash first," she says.

7. Merchants can legally tie up more than you're charging.

A variety of merchants, including hotels, restaurants and gas stations, will often put a "hold" or a "block" on more of your credit line than you end up charging.

Holds usually disappear within a few days to a week. In the meantime, though, you have fewer resources with which to travel. With a credit card, it means you lose a portion of your credit line. With a debit card, the holds tie up actual cash.

For that reason, "never use a debit card for any hotel transactions," Greenberg says.

Otherwise, some hotels might block four or five days' worth of room charges "and, before you know it, you've gone over your limit and won't know it until you go to pay a restaurant bill and your card is denied," says Greenberg, who instead prefers to use a charge card with no spending cap.

Want to use a different card for points or mileage? You still can, he says. Just pay the bill with your card of choice when you check out.

8. Charge records can help you budget your next trip (and this one).

It's easy to estimate fixed items like hotels and airline tickets. But if you've used your card for incidentals such as meals, cabs, museum tickets and other entertainment, you can use that to budget the next time you travel, says Danielle Fagre Arlowe, senior vice president with the American Financial Services Association.

And don't be afraid to go online and track your spending in real time while you're traveling, she says.

9. Think 'travel needs' next time you shop for a card.

Do you fly to the same destination regularly? Look for a reduced-mileage awards program that lets you fly to select destinations for fewer miles, says Robert Firpo-Cappiello, deputy editor of Budget Travel.

If you frequently go abroad, check out cards that eliminate any extra fees for overseas charges, he says.

From getting points for a familiar hotel brand you like to giving points at a large number of locations around the world, shop for a card that has benefits in sync with your travel preferences, says Firpo-Cappiello.

See related: Card fraud monitoring can halt legitimate purchases, 11 hidden credit card perks, Keep credit holds and blocks from ruining your vacation

Published: April 4, 2013



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