To manage money during travel, carry a mix of cards, cash

Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia
Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for

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Question Dear Cashing In,
I’m traveling to Europe with two chip MasterCards. Will I have any trouble at ATMs in Europe? When I travel, I like my wife to send money to me by Western Union. Is this a good idea? You lose your credit cards, and you’re in trouble. What’s your opinion? – Calvin

Answer Dear Reader,
If you have developed a system that works for you, and you are comfortable with Western Union’s fees and have figured out a way to coordinate money transfers with your wife, then by all means continue doing that.

I happen to believe there are alternate approaches that could make better use of your time and money. But if you worry about losing credit and debit cards overseas or having them stolen, then use Western Union. It sounds as though you are comfortable with that method, and you want to have peace of mind when you travel.

It is true that if you take credit and debit cards on a trip, it will be a hassle if they are lost or stolen. But that’s true of other key items you travel with, such as your passport and luggage.

On international trips, you might consider taking the following:

  • Debit card. Take the debit card that’s linked to your checking account, and let your bank know ahead of time that you will be traveling. Make sure you have enough cash in your checking account.
  • Credit cards. Take maybe two or three credit cards, at least one of which is a Visa or MasterCard. Try to take cards that don’t charge a fee for foreign transactions. Many reward credit cards charge no foreign transaction fees.
  • Cash. Go with a little bit of cash, maybe a few hundred dollars, with at least some in the currency of the country you’ll be in.
  • Card numbers and bank contact information. On a piece of paper or on your phone, record information about your cards: issuing bank, card numbers, bank phone numbers. Bank contact information is usually on the back of your credit and debit cards. Store this information in a safe place, separate from where you keep the cards, or leave the information at home with a trusted friend or relative. You might also take a photocopy your passport.
  • Money belt. Consider carrying cash, passport and credit and debit cards in a money belt, especially if you will be traveling in big cities. Using a money belt makes it more difficult for pickpockets to steal from you.

This is a balanced approach that gives you a few options, in case a card doesn’t work or gets lost or stolen. Use the debit card at ATMs to replenish your cash and use credit cards wherever you can to preserve cash.

You will pay a little in ATM fees every time you withdraw money, so try to limit the number of withdrawals while not carrying too much cash. Don’t use the credit cards at ATMs, because you will pay hefty cash advance charges. And don’t use the debit card with merchants, because you will pay foreign transaction fees (usually).

If you’re more comfortable with your Western Union method, you can continue to do that. Most people probably use a mix of cards and cash, so maybe you try that and see how it goes.

See related: Prepaid travel card pros and cons

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Updated: 10-21-2018