On vacation, a credit card can be a lifesaver — but a serious credit card crisis can wreck even the best-laid travel plans.
While you may not be able to keep the airline from losing your luggage, you can avoid many credit card catastrophes — or at least minimize the damage they cause — with a little bit of advance planning.
Here are some credit-related problems that can wreak havoc on your well-deserved holiday, and some tips on what you can do to avoid them, well before you board the plane or pull the car out of the garage:
1. You didn’t tell your credit card company about your travel plans.
You clued in your mom, your boss and your next-door neighbors that you were heading to an exotic overseas vacation. However, unless you call your card company, too, “70 percent of the time they’re going to shut that credit card down right after the first time you use it,” says Jordan Harvey, co-founder of Knowmad Adventures, a Minneapolis-based travel company specializing in Latin American sustainable travel. It happens most in third-world countries, where even a small purchase can get your card flagged for fraud and rendered unusable until you call in.
Vacation salvation: Call the number on the back of your cards to let the issuers know ahead of time where you’ll be and when, and ask them to make a note of it on your account. According to Harvey, a card may get flagged anyway, but a quick heads-up is your best defense.
2. Your card was denied overseas.
If you think a credit card is a credit card, you haven’t been to Europe lately, where many merchants process only cards with microchip technology — not magnetic strips-rendering your average American standard-issue plastic unusable. A 2009 survey by financial services research firm Aite Group found that travelers in Western Europe faced a 50 percent chance of having a problem with card acceptance — and that a quarter of travelers said it ruined or almost ruined their trip.
Vacation salvation: While a few American banks have begun testing the chip-and-PIN cards common in Europe, they’re still rare here. For now, prepay as much as you can, including train tickets, online. For in-the-moment purchases, carry two to three different credit cards and ask the retailer to swipe each one in case one doesn’t work. Or for peace of mind, take along a Chip-and-PIN Cash Passport preloaded card from Travelex, which works where your regular magnetic stripe card won’t.
3. You used a credit card that charges a hefty international transaction fee.
A 2010 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 91 percent of bank cards and 57 percent of credit union cards tack on a “foreign transaction fee” when you buy things abroad, usually from 2 percent to 3 percent of the purchase price. It’s the same hazard when you take cash out of an ATM overseas, where international fees regularly hit $5 a withdrawal.
Vacation salvation: Avoid being nickel-and-dimed to death by signing up for a card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, such as all Capital One cards, or select cards from American Express, Chase and Citi.And call your bank about an ATM-fee rate cut while you’re out of town. “If you simply say, ‘I do a lot of international travel. What can you do for me?’, they should be able to rebate those fees within a given two-week period,” says Harvey.
4. Your card got stolen while you were out of town.
Getting mugged by a band of roving thieves is every tourist’s nightmare — and one you can’t always avoid with a money belt. “World thieves are fairly clever,” Harvey points out; they’re quick to discern how to defeat new hiding technology.
Vacation salvation: “While you still have your wallet, thin it out as much as possible,” says identity theft expert Robert Siciliano. “If you have multiple credit cards, store cards, Social Security cards, insurance cards and more, then, ‘Houston, we have a problem.'” Plan to take just a couple of credit cards — say, a Visa and an American Express, since some merchants take only one — plus a debit card for cash; everything else should stay home. Make sure to write down your account numbers and card issuer phone numbers and stow them in a safe place, like inside your suitcase or with a friend back home, so you’ll have it in case the worst happens.
5. You forgot to use your credit card’s travel perks.
“Many credit cards offer travel perks and additional insurance coverage when it comes to rental cars, lost luggage and airline cancellations,” says consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch. “But most cardholders don’t know they have such benefits and end up doubling up, which results in spending unnecessary money.” In fact, a 2007 study by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners found that 24 percent of respondents weren’t sure whether their credit card covered their rental insurance or not; 34 percent bought the rental company’s insurance just to be safe.
Vacation salvation: Before you hit the road, read your card issuer’s fine print, or call to have a customer service rep explain your coverage to you. The rental company’s collision damage insurance can cost up to $19 a day — a pricey buy if you don’t even need it.
6. You were charged fraudulently.
Having your identity stolen or your card charged without your say-so may not ruin your vacation, but it sure dispels the post-trip afterglow once you’re home. For Neal Frankle, who blogs at WealthPilgrim.com, card fraud was a recurring problem when he visited his daughter, who lives in Israel. “I use my card extensively overseas, and when I come back I find that it’s been hijacked about 50 percent of the time.”
Vacation salvation: Since Frankle stopped using his card at smaller businesses he’s has had fewer problems with identity theft, but his next line of defense is to keep his own identity out of it altogether by using a prepaid card. “I’ll load it with $750 — that will do nicely and keep a lid on spending! Two birds with one credit card! I love it.”