Travel with cards, mobile apps only? Not so fast; you'll still need cash

In many parts of Europe and Asia card acceptance is widespread, but around the world cash is still king

Dan Rafter
Personal Finance Writer
Specializes in mortgages, credit and credit scores

Travel abroad without cash? Don't

Want to travel the world without cash, relying only on your credit cards and mobile payment apps such as Google Pay and Apple Pay?

Not so fast. Much of the world isn't yet ready for cashless travelers.

Tim Leffel, Tampa-based author and editor of the Cheapest Destinations Blog, said traveling internationally, or even throughout much of the United States, without cash is a mistake.

"Apart from the most advanced parts of Europe, the United States, Canada, Japan and Korea, it would be extremely difficult to travel without cash, downright foolhardy, actually," Leffel said.

Other travel experts agree: You still need some cash when traveling. Relying only on credit cards and mobile payment apps is a mistake.

See related: Get cash while traveling abroad, with no fees

Issues you may encounter with your card abroad

Even if you are traveling to a country where credit cards and mobile wallets are accepted most everywhere, never travel without at least some backup cash, said Keishi Nukina, a Tokyo-based travel and aviation blogger for KNAviation.

Nukina says that she travels from 80,000 to 135,000 miles a year and has been to more than three dozen countries where credit cards are nearly useless.

Even in countries where credit cards are widely accepted, Nukina said, she's run into problems that made her glad she had cash.

  • Banks might block your card when you are traveling to a different country, requiring you to call your provider to lift the block.
  • While you’re waiting for that to happen, your card will be useless. Or you might encounter a smaller restaurant or shop that only accepts cash, even if you're traveling in a big city in Europe, the United States or Japan.

In such cases, backup cash is an important safety net, Nukina said.

"My rule is simple: No matter how prevalent credit card acceptance is, always carry cash for at least a day or two worth of expenses," she said.

  • Traveling without cash could leave you stranded at train stations, shut out of hotel rooms and unable to pay for a meal or souvenirs.
  • You might even be shut out of medical services, as in many countries, local doctors only accept cash.

Mobile wallets international acceptance is limited

If you already set up your mobile wallet on your smartphone and use it regularly to make purchases in the U.S., that might prove difficult to do overseas.

While mobile payments at register are slowly climbing in the U.S., the number of countries where you can pay with your phone is still limited.

  • Apple Pay is currently only available in 30 countries worldwide.
  • Both Samsung Pay and Google Pay are currently accepted in only 21 countries around the world.
  • In Latin America, for example, the only country where both Apple Pay and Google Pay are currently accepted is Brazil.

 

ATMs may help you get cash when traveling if you can find one

Jen Ruiz, Rochester, New York-based owner of the budget travel blog Jen on a Jet Plane, says that she understands why travelers would prefer using credit cards.

  • With credit, travelers can earn cash back or miles with their purchases. When they spend cash that money is simply gone, with no rewards earned.
  • Cash comes with less protection. When it's stolen, it's gone.
  • It's more difficult to track spending with cash. You might not receive receipts for every cash transaction you make, but you can track every credit card purchase.

See related: 6 reasons to stop using cash and start using credit cards

Ruiz points to a trip to Buenos Aires she took last year. She needed cash to purchase items at a market where the vendors didn’t accept credit cards. Ruiz walked to the nearest ATM, but found it wasn’t working.

She walked to the next ATM, which wasn't working, either. Neither was the next, nor the one after that. In all, Ruiz spent more than two hours searching for a working ATM. She eventually gave up.

“I guess Argentina didn’t want my money that day,” Ruiz said. “But that’s an example. You’d think it’d be easy to get cash in a big city like Buenos Aires, which is considered the Paris of South America. But it doesn’t always work out that way.”

That's why Ruiz always makes sure she has cash before she leaves the airport in whatever destination city she arrives.

  • Exchanging American dollars for foreign currencies can often be a waste of money, Ruiz said.
  • But by taking money out of an ATM at the airport, Ruiz is certain that she’ll always have cash on hand for an emergency.
Tip

Tip: If you plan to withdraw foreign currency from foreign ATMs, don’t forget to bring your debit card along. Withdrawing cash from an ATM using a credit card carries cash advance fees and high interest that is charged the moment the cash is withdrawn.

Card transactions usually go smoothly until they don't

Laura Longwell, a Philadelphia photographer and owner, along with her husband, Lance, of the Travel Addicts blog, says that she, too, prefers using credit cards when traveling.

But she warns that relying solely on credit cards when traveling by train can be a challenge:

  • If you want to purchase a train ticket at a kiosk with your credit card, you might have to leave extra time.
  • While often these transactions go smoothly, other times a machine isn't working or won't accept your credit card.
  • In such situations, you'll have no choice but to find a ticket agent and purchase your train fare with cash, Longwell said.

Don't forget to be chip-and-PIN ready

U.S. travelers might also find it challenging to use their cards because of the different ways in which they operate in other parts of the world.

  • The United States still operates with a chip-and-signature method, where consumers may still have to sign for purchases at drug stores, restaurants and hotels.
  • In most European countries, though, credit cards operate on a chip-and-PIN system. With this method, consumers must punch in their own personal identification number, instead of signing, when using their credit cards.

Longwell recommends travelers contact their credit card providers before taking their trips to request a chip-and-PIN card. However, not all issuers carry them.

"Sometimes you will need that PIN," Longwell said. "The worst situation is to be caught in line somewhere and your card isn't working as you expected. Having that PIN is the No. 1 way to avoid that."

See related: Headed abroad? Which US issuers offer chip-and-PIN cards

Tipping? You'll most likely need cash

One more downside to relying solely on credit cards? It makes it much harder to tip the service personnel who bring you your meals and clean your hotel rooms. It’s far easier to tip these workers with cash.

This might not seem overly important to you. But tips are critical for these workers, and conscientious travelers should tip for good service, said Cory Sarrett, consultant with La Galerie Hotel in New Orleans.

See related: Poll reveals who are the best, worst tippers

As Sarrett puts it, “tipping is super important” for service workers in both the United States and abroad.

Sarrett recommends that travelers rely on a combination of credit cards, mobile apps and cash when vacationing.

All three methods have positives and negatives, and having access to each will help ensure that your vacation is a stress-free one, he said.


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Updated: 12-11-2018