Picking the right credit cards for around-the-world travel

2 families, 3 credit cards each, 2 epic adventures: Here's what they did

How credit cards make epic travel possible

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Whether you are planning a yearlong worldwide adventure or you are a millennial checking off countries on your bucket list, planning for your epic trip should include which credit cards you will take with you. 

Retirees Laureen and Arne Lund sold their home in Gig Harbor, Washington, and set out on an extended world tour. A little over a year in, they have spent time in South Africa, Laos, New Zealand, Portugal, Morocco, Namibia and more on their open-ended journey.

Before the Lunds left the U.S., they ran the numbers on credit card fees and rewards so they could pick a primary card for their travels. 

“Our cards have worked exactly as we had hoped,” she said. “We did a lot of research and it paid off.” 

Laureen and Arne Lund hiking in New Zealand.

Laureen and Arne Lund hiking Tongarino Pass in New Zealand in March 2017.

Diane Selkirk, her husband, Evan Gatehouse, and their 7-year-old daughter began sailing around the world nine years ago. For their epic adventure, the Canadian family packed a Mastercard and a Visa. They added another Mastercard during a stay in Australia. 

Why cards from different networks? There will be times, after all, when Visa’s longtime slogan “It’s everywhere you want to be” doesn’t prove true on an around-the-world adventure. 

If you are planning travel spanning the globe, you need to know which credit cards to pack.

8 credit card tips for around-the-world travel

  1. Decide which cards you want to take. Research “best travel credit cards.” If you don't have the best cards for your travels, sign up for new ones. The sign-up bonuses may even help pay for a chunk of your trip.
  2. Take along multiple credit cards. Pack two or three credit cards from different networks. While Visa and Mastercard are more accepted worldwide than American Express and Discover, having a variety of cards gives you more options. 
  3. Stagger your cards’ expiration dates. You don’t want to be out of country and suddenly out of funds because all of your cards’ expiration dates have passed.
  4. Never pay foreign transaction fees. Only take cards that have no foreign transaction fees. If you don’t, a 1 to 3 percent fee will be added to every charge you make overseas. 
  5. Leave yourself some credit room: Take credit cards with high credit limits in case you have big expenses.
  6. Call your card issuers: Tell them them you will be traveling overseas. Make sure you have a phone number for each bank so you can report any problems and 1-800 numbers don’t work in many countries, so you want direct numbers.
  7. Ask about chip-and-PIN cards. While chip-and-signature cards are prevalent in the United States, chip-and-PIN is more common in Europe and some issuers offer them. Check with your issuer to see if a chip-and-PIN version of your card exists.
  8. Take precautions in case you lose your wallet: Snap a photo of the front and back of all your cards and email them to yourself. Leave copies of your cards with someone at home in case you lose one. Then you can call home and get the details needed to cancel and replace the card.

Do a wallet check before packing your bags

Odds are you already have in your wallet at least some of the cards you will need for your trip, says Mark Cowdell, a certified financial planner at Cowdell Investments in South Jordan, Utah. 

He suggests calling your card issuers and asking if their credit cards are likely to be accepted by merchants in the countries you will be visiting. Also, ask about chip-and-PIN versus chip-and-signature credit cards. 

For example, chip-and-signature cards can be an issue at payment kiosks, such as for subways or trains, that won’t accept your card without a PIN. 

Make sure, too, that your card charges no foreign transaction fees, Cowdell says.

Our 2017 survey found more cards are dropping foreign transaction fees. For example, the Citi Costco Anywhere Visa dropped foreign transaction fees in January 2018. 

How two families used their credit cards around the world

Ahead of their travels, the Lunds culled their credit cards to three that they would take with them. 

Although their primary card, a Capital One Venture Rewards card, has a $95 annual fee, it racks up 2x miles for every dollar charged, so Laureen Lund says they use that card whenever possible. Their backup credit card, a Bank of America Alaska Airlines Visa, has a $75 annual fee and earns 1 mile for every $1 spent. 

With the Venture card, “you redeem the award by erasing any travel expense you’ve already charged,” Laureen Lund says. “For us, it’s easier and more cost effective than using an airline travel rewards card.”

The Lunds’ just-in-case third card? That’s a no annual fee Capital One Quicksilver Rewards card with 1.5 percent cash back on every purchase. So far, the couple hasn’t used the Quicksilver card. 

None of the Lunds’ three credit cards charges foreign transaction fees.

Diane Selkirk, Maia Gatehouse Selkirk and Evan Gatehouse in Australia.

Diane Selkirk, Maia Gatehouse Selkirk and Evan Gatehouse aboard their boat in Cairns, Australia, about halfway through their around-the-world voyage.

Evan Gatehouse selected a credit card that gives 1 percent cash back on every purchase (a good return for credit cards in Canada). As a bonus, the card included car rental insurance, something he didn’t already have. 

Because they were embarking on a year-long trip, Selkirk says they staggered their credit cards’ expiration dates so they didn’t all expire at the same time.

The couple and their daughter wrapped up their circumnavigation in May 2017 and are back home in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“One of the first steps was to get a credit card that offers air miles – something we should have done much earlier in our journey,” Diane Selkirk says.

A cash refund hand-delivered in the Seychelles

Laureen Lund, emailing from Ella, Sri Lanka, said she was in bed watching the sunrise. “Over the next five months, we go to India, Bangladesh, Maldives, Singapore, Guam, Bali and Australia before heading to the USA for a two-month visit. Then off we go again.” 

Through all of their travels to date, “the level of credit card acceptance has ranged from almost universal in New Zealand to almost nonexistant in Vietnam, Cambodia and the Seychelles.”

 

Video: 5 credit card questions to ask before traveling overseas

In the Seychelles, Laureen Lund says, “we were happy to find after a nice lunch that they accepted credit – but the handheld credit card machine was out of paper. 

“The waitress was confused by this and ended up running the charge three times in an attempt to get a receipt out of it. The owner finally realized what was going on. So did I since I could see the charges showing up in real time on my credit card app. 

“For some reason, he said he was unable to just cancel the extra transactions,” Lund says. “His solution was to find out where we were staying and bring us a cash refund the next morning after his bank opened. Next morning there he was, cash in hand!”

See related: Travel credit card reviewsVideo: How one woman travels the world on credit card points9 travel-related fees, perks your rewards card may cover for free, Can you count on your credit card travel insurance?


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Updated: 06-22-2018