Vacations often come with unexpected expenses, using a credit card can leave you with a heavy debt load when you return home. Here is how a wide variety of travelers leaned on their plastic for the good, the bad and the crazy – and what they say they will do differently the next time they leave town.
There’s an old adage about prepping for vacations: bring half as many clothes as you think you need, and twice as much money.
Pack those credit cards, too, of course. They are invaluable tools to help you pay for the things you want and need while away. Be careful with budgeting, planning, and charging, though, since you don’t want big balances to follow you back home.
Vacation liabilities are all too common. A recent LearnVest study found 74 percent of Americans got into debt by covering their costs, expected or otherwise.
Here is how a wide variety of travelers leaned on their plastic for the good, the bad and the crazy – and what they say they will do differently the next time they leave town.
See related: Summer vacation mistakes that can cost you
An unexpected hospital diversion
Jessica Skeete, a San Francisco-based product manager for the couples and money management app Zeta, thought her staycation would max out at $1,000. Little did she know family drama would blow that estimate sky high.
“I paid for my grandma to come to Canada from the Caribbean,” says Skeete. “I was 23, got my first real job and used my second or third paycheck for it. I carefully planned for the trip, including where we would go out to eat, which casinos we’d go to, a double-decker bus – all of it. But my grandma and my dad got into an argument. Her blood pressure went up and she had to go to a hospital and spend the night.”
The result was a $5,000 hospital bill, which went on Skeete’s credit card. Eventually, her father used his own credit card to delete her debt, but she was glad she had the account to deal with the problem in the first place.
The lesson: Skeete now ensures the credit cards she uses for vacations are embedded with good travel insurance, since it would have paid for much of her grandma’s medical bill. If the coverage is still inadequate, she buys an independent policy.
See related: Sick on vacation? Credit cards can help you survive
The happiest place in France is shockingly expensive
Talia Klein Perez, whose blog HuluWithKids helps promote new destinations for family travel, was recently on a bucolic vacation to the Loire Valley, Normandy and Paris. Unexpected costs, however, began to add up, such as $230 in surprise toll road fees.
“Some were nearly 30 euros a pop,” says Perez, who carefully planned the adventure and had a ballpark figure for the final cost.
Outside of the tolls, everything has been more or less as anticipated, except for one biggie.
“Disneyland Paris raised their prices by a lot toward the end of 2018,” says Perez. “There weren’t really any articles about it that we saw, but regardless you can only buy them so far in advance.”
(Disneyland Paris Discovery passes rose from 149 euros [$166.65] to 179 euros [$200.20] on April 2, 2019.)
Perez and her husband used their credit cards more than they anticipated and will handle the bills upon return.
The lesson: While Perez recognizes it’s not possible to predict a sudden lurch in amusement park entrance fees, she will check to see how much toll roads are so she can prepare for them in the future.
Bye-bye affordable B&B, hello luxury hotel
Jimmy McMillan, owner of Heart Life Insurance, of Palm Coast, Florida, and his wife recently took the trip of a lifetime to Italy for their honeymoon. Unfortunately, it was Easter time, so their vacation coincided with the most important Roman Catholic holiday in the most important city to Catholicism.
“The charming bed-and-breakfast that looked so delightful on the internet, which cost $200 a night, canceled our reservation 24 hours before we arrived in Rome,” says McMillan. “They refunded the money; however, trying to find a place to stay was impossible. We settled for a swanky hotel way out of range for what I had budgeted. It was about $1,200 per night!”
In fact, the couple stayed at the world-renowned Fendi suites, which were romantic and luxurious, but it added about $4,000 to the vacation. He charged that amount to keep the peace with his bride.
“Thank God for Chase Freedom,” says McMillan. “That card literally saved my marriage!”
The lesson: “Book with a reputable hotel brand,” says McMillan. “And avoid Rome during Easter.”
See related: 5 steps to make sure your cards’ credit limits are vacation-ready
Alex Tran, a digital marketing strategist from Seattle, departed for a European adventure after her college graduation. The problem was she didn’t quite prepare for just how pricey it was going to be.
“I spent all my money on landmarks and museums in France – they weren’t cheap!”
She was only halfway in to her two-month foray when she hit the financial wall.
“I had to apply for an emergency credit card while I was there,” says Tran. “This was in the days where I was afraid of credit, so I went without one.”
The credit card she applied for was delivered to her family’s home in California, so her parents had to ship it to her. Tran wasn’t forced to cut her vacation short, but she did rack up credit card debt. She paid it off incrementally when she returned.
“I ended up paying six months of interest on the card, which made the trip even more expensive,” says Tran.
The lesson: “If anyone were traveling abroad, my number one tip is to bring cash plus a credit card so that you can keep earning points toward future travel or cash back,” says Tran, who is no longer fearful of plastic but keeps her balance at zero. “Now it’s my turn to get it back from the banks. Seems like a natural cycle of credit for any normal person.”
Rachel Lauren Young, a U.S.-born travel writer now living as an expat in Mexico, recalls an unexpectedly expensive volunteer vacation to Costa Rica and Colombia. She and her boyfriend took a philanthropic expedition for six months, teaching English in remote communities and completing public and private works projects.
“As far as we knew our food and lodging would be covered, so we thought we’d only be liable for transportation like flight, buses and taxis,” says Young.
However, all the expenses during nonworking times were their responsibility, and those costs blindsided the couple. Out came the credit cards, one of which was a rewards card.
“I imagined myself working toward my next flight with each purchase,” says Young.
By being frugal and working as a writer while they were on the trip, she was able to manage the surprise credit card bills they were accruing along the way.
The lesson: “I wish we had considered exit strategies and prepared for these emergency type situations,” says Young. “But we were young and naive and fully expected everything to always work out perfectly. Now, we know better!”
See related: 11 money, credit management tips for extended vacations
Travel may not always make you ‘richer’
Now it’s your turn to absorb the hard-learned lessons from these travelers. Map out the costs to the best of your ability before leaving, but recognize that not everything can be built into a vacation budget. Odds are you’ll experience higher prices and extra expenses, so pad your wallet with helpful pieces of plastic in case they need to pick up the slack.