10 credit and money tips for travel abroad

Plan now which cards to take to avoid fees and ensure your vacation runs smoothly

Cashing In with Tony Mecia

Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. Every week, he answers readers’ questions about credit card rewards programs in his “Cashing In” column.

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What cards should I take for a trip to Europe this summer? 

Plan now to take a couple of credit cards and a debit card. Choose credit cards from different payment networks (Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Discover) and that charge no foreign transaction fees.

But that’s just for starters. Use this 10-point checklist to plan now what cards to take – and how you will use them – on your vacation in Europe.

Expert Q&A

Check out all the answers from our credit card experts.

Dear Cashing In,

I’m traveling to Europe for vacation this summer for the first time in a long time. What kind of preparations do I need to make to pay for things? – Amanda

Dear Amanda,
Foreign travel can be an adventure: navigating through a different country with a different language and experiencing a different culture. But to keep it from becoming too much of an adventure, take some sensible steps before you leave.

You should start thinking about how you’re going to pay for things abroad at least a few weeks in advance. That’s because in some cases, you might want to get a different kind of card.

Here is a checklist of 10 things to do before you leave and once you get to your destination:

1. Draft your credit card plan.

For travel abroad, you will want at least two credit cards that are Visas or Mastercards (American Express and Discover are less widely accepted worldwide). Having credit cards from different payment networks helps, too, as in the case of the widespread Visa service outage that affected cardholders in Europe on June 1, 2018.

You also will want to pack credit cards that charge no foreign transaction fees. These fees typically add 3 percent to the cost of purchases abroad – or at home when you purchase items online from a merchant who is abroad.

Also, it would be helpful if at least one of your credit cards has PIN capability. Chip-and-PIN is the EMV chip card standard in Europe, while chip-and-signature is the standard in the U.S.

What this means: Some payment kiosks in Europe, such as for train tickets or parking, accept only chip-and-PIN cards. Few U.S.-issued cards have PIN capabilities – the most common are from Barclays, a British-based bank.

From a points and miles perspective, you also want a rewards card that gives bonus points for travel purchases.

Finally, double-check your credit limit and card expiration date. It could ruin your trip to suddenly discover that you are unable to pay for various vacation expenses once you are already abroad.

Tip

Tip: Carefully choose credit cards that are widely accepted where you are traveling.
Guidebooks for the region you plan to visit often say which credit card to bring along. In general, credit cards from Mastercard, Visa or American Express are safe bets. Discover cards are broadening their international reach, but still have a ways to go to catch up.  

2. Pack your debit card for the trip.

To withdraw money from ATMs, you’ll want a debit card connected to your home bank account. Make sure you have enough money in the account.

Check with your bank to learn if it is a partner with a global ATM network. Interbank networks, such as Visa PLUS and Mastercard, Maestro or Cirrus, enable network ATM cardholders to access surcharge-free ATMs abroad. 

3. Notify your banks of your travel plans.

Some card issuers say advising them of your travel is no longer necessary, but it doesn’t hurt to tell your card issuer where you are traveling and when.

If you fail to contact your card issuers, your unusual location may be flagged and cause your issuer to block further charges, since the issuer may think that your credit card or account data has been stolen.

Although it is easy enough to call your card issuer if your card is declined for suspected fraud, there often is a delay before you can use your credit card again.

See related: Cards or cash? When traveling abroad, you often need both

4. Plan to take some cash.

You should always have with you a mix of U.S. dollars and foreign currency as a last resort.

Not everywhere accepts plastic. For example, street markets that are common in European cities, only take cash. Taking a few hundred dollars worth of cash seems about right.

5. Keep a copy of your card information with you.

If your cards are lost or stolen on your travels, having the phone numbers of your card issuers as well as your card information will come in handy. The 800 number you currently have will probably not work outside the United States. Contact your issuer and get an 800-number that works where you’re traveling.

While you’re on the line with your card issuer, find out how the issuer will get a new credit card to you should you lose your plastic or have it stolen. Often, the issuer can have a new credit card couriered to you with a day or two, though it may come with a fee.

Pack the copies of your card info in a secure place but separate from the cards (not in your wallet, for example). Incidentally, you might also take a photocopy of your passport.

6. Consider getting a money belt.

Think about where you are most commonly going to carry your cards and cash. At crowded tourist sites in big cities, are you comfortable carrying a purse or having a wallet in your back pocket?

A credit card is safer than cash if you are robbed, but it still should be stored away in a hidden place such as a money belt.

7. Pay your bills ahead of time, including credit card bills.

If you’re gone for a week or two, don’t forget to pay your bills beforehand. Missing a card payment will trigger instant late fees with most card issuers.

Note, too, that trying to pay while overseas can be tricky.

Tip

Tip: Watch out for double billing.
It can happen: You reserve a hotel or rental car with your credit card, then decide to pay in cash. When the credit card bill comes, surprise! You got charged anyway. Keep that cash receipt. If you are charged twice but don’t have your cash receipt as proof of payment, you will be out of luck. Instead, it is generally better just to pay with the credit card number the hotel or car rental agency already has on file. 

And while on your trip, you should:

8. Opt for charges in local currency.

Often when using a credit card, you might be asked if you want the charge in dollars or the foreign currency. You should opt for the foreign currency, because your card issuer will give you a better exchange rate on foreign transactions than the vendor will.

9. Don’t use a credit card for cash.

Just like in the U.S., you shouldn’t try to use your credit card at a cash machine. It will be charged as a cash advance, with a high interest rate.

Other reasons why cash advances should always be avoided: A transaction fee, which is a percentage of the cash advance, is usually charged. There also is typically no grace period for cash advances.

10. Don’t use a debit card for purchases.

Almost all debit cards used abroad for purchases will incur foreign transaction fees. (One major exception: Capital One debit cards.) Instead, use a credit card with no foreign transaction fees.

See related: How to pick the right credit cards for around-the-world travel

With a little bit of planning and knowledge, you can ensure your vacation – focusing on fun instead of financial logistics. Enjoy yourself! 


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Updated: 06-18-2018