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10 tips for traveling with credit cards

Summary

There’s more to smooth travel than just keeping your cards working. Here are 10 tips to make your travels with plastic cheaper, easier and more enjoyable.

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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 of traveling with credit cards. You should notify 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. You should also write down the contact numbers for your cards, just in case you lose them or they are stolen.

But there’s more to smooth travel than just keeping your cards working and in your possession. Here are 10 tips to make your travels with plastic cheaper, easier and more enjoyable.

See related: Card fraud monitoring can halt legitimate purchases

1. Your cards may offer ‘secret’ travel perks

If you’ve been using your credit cards just to fill your tank and buy groceries, you might be passing up 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 on flights 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 or visit its online home, get a list of its travel benefits and figure out which will give you the most for your travel dollar.

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

No one wants to think about getting sick enough so that you have to cancel your upcoming trip, including all those airline tickets and hotel rooms. You might also not want to think about the hassle and expense of dealing with lost luggage.

The travel insurance perks offered by some credit cards could help alleviate the financial pain of such traveling disasters.

Many cards offer travel insurance that lets you cancel flights or hotel rooms without cost if you get sick or face an emergency that causes you to suddenly cancel your trip. Other forms of travel insurance may also cover the cost of replacing your clothing and other items should your airline lose your luggage.

Both perks can save you plenty of money. However, you will need to meet certain requirements to take advantage of this travel insurance. To cancel a flight, for instance, you might need a note from a doctor explaining that you are too sick to travel.

“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 transactions, 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.

See related: 11 hidden credit card perks

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, in case one of his other cards is unexpectedly declined.

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

If you haven’t yet, make sure to sign up with your credit card providers’ online customer portals. Once you do, you’ll be able to check your card balance, and look for suspicious purchases, online through your computer or phone.

“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, you can go online to 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.

Install your credit cards’ apps on your phone, too, says Rabkin. You can access many of these same features through your cards’ apps.

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.

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. Your 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.

For instance, if you’re using your credit card to pay for a hotel room, the hotel might temporarily charge you an extra $100 to cover any food, beverage or entertainment purchases you might charge to your room. After you check out, this hold will eventually disappear.

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 bank account’s 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.

See related: Keep credit holds and blocks from ruining your vacation

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. Estimating how much you’ll spend on other items such as restaurant meals and tours can be trickier.

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.

Doing this can help you determine if you’re about to break whatever budget you might have set for your trip. You can then take the appropriate steps to slow your spending if you really don’t want to go over your vacation budget.

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 favored 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.

10. Notify your credit card – and debit card – providers before you leave

It might seem old-fashioned, but it’s still a smart move: Call the providers of your credit and debit cards before you leave for your trip. telling them where you are traveling.

If you don’t, providers might deny your transaction, worried that a purchase across the world from your home city might be a fraudulent one.

Some banks say they no longer need customers to call them before embarking on a trip. Their anti-fraud technology has gotten strong enough to make this an unnecessary step. However, it never hurts to call your card issuer. You don’t want your card to be unexpectedly denied when trying to pay for a hotel or dinner abroad.

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