The solo traveler's guide to keep you and your cards safe

Start by assessing your credit cards. Are they the best ones for where you are going?

Susan Ladika
Personal Finance Writer
Expert on fraud, travel and debt.

Have card, will travel: A guide to traveling with a credit card

The content on this page is accurate as of the posting date. Please review our list of best credit cards, or use our CardMatch tool to find cards matched to your needs.

Whether you’re traveling to Pittsburgh for business or Prague for pleasure, you don’t want to run into financial troubles – especially when you’re on the road alone.

A little planning now – long before you head to the airport or hit the road – can keep you and your cards safe. A few calls ahead of your trip can reduce the chance that your credit card will be declined, cut the risk that your cards and cash will be swiped while you’re sleeping and keep you from paying hefty fees for foreign credit and debit card transactions. 

It all starts with a check of the cards in your wallet. Are they the best cards for where you are going? If not, make changes now. This guide (and a handy checklist you can print out) will show you what to look for in your credit cards (no foreign transaction fees, for example), how to keep your finances safe whether you’re staying at hostels or high-end hotels and more.

Before you go

Notify your card issuers

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If you’re traveling and charging purchases from places you don’t normally go, your credit card issuer may suspect fraud and block use of your card.

To prevent that, notify your credit card and debit card issuers before you hit the road or take to the skies. Some financial institutions will let you notify them of your dates and locations of travel online or through their mobile app. With others, you’ll need to call to let them know.

“If you’re out of your pattern, the artificial intelligence that scans the transaction will red flag it, and it can lead to unnecessary delays,” says Andy Abramson, founder of the communications agency Comunicano. Abramson, of Del Mar, California, was named Business Traveller magazine’s 2015 business traveler of the year because he has averaged about 200 days a year on the road for more than a decade.

Notify others of your travel plans

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Let friends or family members know of your travel plans, and check in periodically so they know you’re safe.

If you’re traveling internationally, you can sign up for the free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), offered by the U.S. State Department. You’ll receive information from the closest U.S. embassy or consulate about the safety situation at your destination, and it will be easier for the embassy to get in touch with you if there’s a natural disaster, civil unrest or a family emergency.

Make copies of your financial documents

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Make copies of your debit and credit card numbers and the phone numbers to call in case your cards are lost or stolen. Do the same for your bank account information and your passport if you’re traveling internationally. Leave one set of copies with a friend or family member, upload one set to a secure site, such as Dropbox, and carry one set with you, separate from your credit cards.

If your card is lost or stolen, you can use the information you’ve copied to immediately notify your credit or debit card company. “Time is of the essence,” says Johnny Jet, a travel expert who travels 150,000 miles a year.

Know your credit card benefits

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Knowing the perks that come with your credit cards can save you cash ahead of your travels. For example, compare two cards, the Chase Freedom versus the Chase Sapphire Preferred. While the Sapphire Preferred is better for aspiring travelers, Freedom is better for everyday purchases.

Some card benefits of particular interest to solo travelers:

Travel insurance: Many credit cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Sapphire Reserve, will reimburse you for your prepaid expenses if your trip is canceled or delayed. The amount you’ll be reimbursed can vary greatly from card to card. You also may have coverage if your luggage is lost or delayed.

Free checked bags: Some airline credit cards, such as the Gold Delta SkyMiles from American Express and United MileagePlus Explorer cards, let you check your first bag for free. With the United MileagePlus Club card, your first two checked bags are free.

Rental car insurance: If your credit card includes rental car insurance, check to see if it’s primary or secondary coverage. Also, note whether there are any countries excluded from coverage. All Citi cards, including the Citi ThankYou Preferred, have no country restrictions for rental car coverage. 

Emergency assistance: If you run into trouble on a business trip or epic adventure, you card may offer medical and legal referrals.

To determine your card benefits, you can check the terms and conditions online or you can sign up for Sift, which sifts through your credit card policies and shows you all your benefits for each card.

“There’s all that fine print. People aren’t aware or don’t know how to take advantage” of their card benefits, says Sift co-founder Abhinav Dubey. 

Know your card fees

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Whether you’re traveling domestically or internationally, keep credit and debit card fees in mind.

In the U.S.: If you use your debit card at an ATM that’s not in your network, you might be charged both by your bank and the bank ATM that you use. If you use a big bank, such as Chase or Citi, you can find branch locations around the country on their websites or mobile apps.

If you use a credit union that’s part of the CO-OP Financial Services network, you’ll have access to almost 30,000 ATMs around the country, and you won’t charged a fee.

Outside the U.S.: You also may be able to avoid ATM fees abroad, says Jason Gaughan, credit card executive for Bank of America. For example, Bank of America is part of the Global ATM Alliance, so if you’ve got a Bank of America debit card, you can make a withdrawal or transfer funds fee-free. Among the many banks in the alliance are Barclays in the United Kingdom and Deutsche Bank in Germany.

You also should look for credit cards that don’t charge foreign transaction fees on your purchases, such as the Bank of America Travel Rewards card, Gaughan says. A foreign transaction fee is a charge, usually 3 percent, that many credit card issuers and payment networks add for each transaction made abroad.

Know your card details

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If you’re staying at a hotel or renting a car, you might have a “hold” placed on your credit card to cover possible extra charges. Make sure those holds don’t eat up your entire credit limit.

Also, check your credit card expiration date. You don’t want to be far from home when your card expires and have no way to get your hands on your new card. 

 

Using cards when traveling

Should you use credit or debit?

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It helps to bring both a credit card and a debit card on your travels. Use your debit card to withdraw cash at ATMs, rather than your credit card. If you use your credit card, it’s considered a cash advance, so you’ll be paying a high interest rate as soon as you get your cash.

That high interest rate is just for starters. As our 2017 Cash Advance Survey found, cash advances begin accruing interest as soon as the transactions post to a cardholder’s account. Also, 99 out of the 100 cards surveyed immediately charge a fee for each cash advance transaction, typically 5 percent of the transaction or $10, whichever is greater.

If you report your credit card as lost or stolen, your liability for fraudulent charges is capped at $50 – although many major card issuers have adopted zero liability policies.

With a debit card, your liability is limited to $50 if you report your card missing within two business days. Beyond that time, your liability could be $500. And you also run the risk of the thieves draining your bank account and wiping out your savings.

Do you need a chip card?

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Most U.S. credit cards have chip-based EMV technology, which has long been the standard in Europe and other parts of the world. However, while most U.S. cards now require a chip and signature for authorization, in Europe and other places, cardholders typically use a chip and PIN to authorize payments.

How this difference can cause problems: While your chip-and-signature card will work many places abroad, there are exceptions. Jet recounts wanting to take a train from the airport in Copenhagen, Denmark, into the city, but the ticket kiosk only accepted chip-and-PIN cards. As a result, he had to wait in a long line to get a train ticket from the ticket counter.

A chip-and-PIN card “saves time and aggravation,” Jet says. What does he travel with? When traveling abroad, Jet carries a Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard, which has a PIN. Other cards issued in the U.S. also offer chip-and-PIN.

Should you get a prepaid card?

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With a prepaid card, you load a certain amount of money onto the card – say $200 or $300.

A big advantage of prepaid cards for travelers: If your prepaid card is lost or stolen, no one can run up thousands of dollars in charges to your card or drain your bank account. And some financial institutions will replace the money if your card disappears.

How many credit cards should you carry?

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While you might be able to streamline the record of your expenses by using one credit card, you might find certain hotels or restaurants don’t accept your mainstay credit card – particularly if you’re traveling abroad.

For example, Visa and Mastercard are accepted more often worldwide than American Express and Discover, but check which cards are more commonly used in the countries you will be visiting.

To increase the chances you will have a card that is accepted nearly everywhere, “Have Cards, Will Travel” CreditCards.com columnist Stephanie Zito recommends traveling with a variety of cards from different networks.

Another reason to pack more than one card? In case your primary card is lost or stolen, you will have a backup, Gaughan, of Bank of America, notes.

Where should you carry your money and cards?

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When traveling solo, it’s particularly important you keep a close eye on your cash and cards, because you don’t have another traveler to fall back on if you get into a bind.

If you have multiple cards, keep them in several places, Zito suggests. If your wallet is lost or stolen, you don’t want to have all your cards disappear.       

Another tip: Jet wears a travel vest with hidden pockets. 

When sleeping on a train or plane, safeguard your cash and cards. Jet has heard reports from friends about thieves going into the overhead bin during international flights and stealing other people’s possessions. If your cards and cash are in a purse or backpack, carry that with you – even to the bathroom.

How should you monitor your balance and transactions?

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While traveling in the U.S., you can check your financial transactions and account balance for free on your financial institution’s website or mobile app. If you’re backpacking across the globe or on a business trip abroad, you may be charged data or roaming charges when checking your accounts.

Also, sign up for text or email alerts for all transactions, Jet says. These alerts are a great way to spot fraudulent charges. If you don’t recognize a purchase, you can contact your card issuer, or go online or use your issuer’s app to turn off your card if it has an on/off switch

How can you safely use an ATM?

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Always look for card skimmers when you’re using an ATM to prevent your credit or debit card information from being stolen. And always cover your PIN. “You never know if someone has a camera or binoculars,” Jet says.

Avoid ATMs in dark areas, obviously. Abrahamson recommends opting to use ATMs with long lines so there will be plenty of people around when you withdraw your money.

If you’re traveling abroad, check the State Department’s Country Information, which will alert you to crime, such as skimming, pickpockets or armed robberies, in countries you will be visiting.

Do you need RFID-blocking devices?

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You may have seen ads warning you that thieves can steal your credit card data using radio frequency identification, or RFID. That’s led to an upsurge in RFID-blocking wallets and other accessories.

Since RFID-enabled contactless credit cards are just starting to arrive in the U.S., chances are you don’t need an RFID shield. Contactless cards are much more common in the U.K. and Canada.

What if your card is stolen or lost when you’re abroad?

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There’s always the risk your credit or debit card may be lost or stolen when traveling the globe, so it’s imperative you keep a copy of your card information, as well as the customer service number, in another location. If your card vanishes, immediately notify your card issuer. That will help prevent fraudulent charges from being billed to your account.

You also can request an emergency card replacement. 

What if you lose your card while traveling solo?

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If you’re traveling on your own and your credit card disappears, you should still be able to get your hands on some cash or a new card if you have a Visa, Mastercard or American Express card. 

Capital One, for example, will issue a temporary virtual number until your replacement card arrives. With Visa, a new card can be shipped globally in 24 to 72 hours and the card issuer also will work with your bank to have cash available within a few hours. American Express can wire you a small amount of cash through Western Union or MoneyGram, and can help you check out of your hotel if you can’t find your card.

Hostel safety

How should you select a hostel?

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Hostels are a popular way to see a city and meet like-minded travelers trying to hold down costs. Guidebook author and TV travel host Rick Steves calls European hostels the cure for expensive, lonely travel.

How do you pick a hostel, though? You want a place that is cheap, safe and has a strong local vibe. And if free breakfast or beer is included in your hostel rate (yes, some hostels offer those things), that’s even better.

Steves notes there are “official” or “independent” hostels. Official hostels are part of a network called Hostelling International, which manages a federation of nonprofit hostel associations. In the United States, the association is called Hostelling International USA.

You can book hostels directly on their websites. TripAdvisor.com has hostel reviews, such as this one for Vietnam’s Central Backpackers Hostel, which has a free beer hour.

How do you keep your cards, money and valuables safe in a hostel?

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Many hostels have lockers you can use. You should bring a padlock, although many have locks you can rent.

You also keep your cash and cards on you in a money belt or neck wallet while you sleep.

If you’re not staying in hostels but rather in luxury hotels, there usually are in-room safes to keep your valuables and any extra cash and backup cards. And with card rewards, luxury hotel stays (with a view of the ocean or a whirlpool to soak in after walking all over the city) may be free or within your budget, Zito notes.

Wi-Fi network safety

Protecting yourself on public Wi-Fi

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Public Wi-Fi seems to be everywhere – at airports, hotel rooms and restaurants – but if you use it, your personal and financial information could be at risk.

Many public Wi-Fi systems currently lack strong security, so cyberthieves may be able to steal your passwords and other personal information. Sometimes hackers will put themselves between you and the internet connection and intercept the information you send.

It’s particularly important you don’t shop online or make other financial transactions on public Wi-Fi.

The good news: It soon may be safer to type passwords on public Wi-Fi. WPA3, a new security protocol, better encrypts hotel and coffeshop communication. 

Protecting yourself on public computers

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It’s risky using a public computer, particularly if you need to enter personal information or make a financial transaction. This goes for hostels, high-end hotels, campus computers and even libraries.

If the public computer doesn’t have good security, keystroke logging malware can record your keystrokes. You also put your information at risk if you walk away from the machine when it’s in use. Make sure the computer doesn’t save your login information, and delete your browsing activity when you’re finished. Oh, and don't leave any invoices, receipts or other valuable information on the printer or in the trash can near the computer.

Do you need VPN?

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Because you should avoid public Wi-Fi, you should consider other ways to send your information. One option is a virtual private network (VPN), which creates a private network from a public internet connection, giving you a secure, encrypted connection. Some VPN services are free, while others charge a fee.

What should you look for in a VPN, and how do you choose one? According to c/net, you should steer clear of the free VPN services. Most VPN services for a new business will cost roughly $10 a month, c/net notes. If you prepay for a year, you can usually shave a few dollars off your bill.

Or you can avoid VPN altogether and use your smartphone to create a personal mobile hotspot. This way your information is sent via your provider’s cellphone connection. Information sent via 4G is encrypted.

Final thoughts: Start planning your next trip

How are you, as a solo traveler, going to feel as if you’re prepared to tackle the world? Plan your next big adventure now.

Check your wallet or purse. Do you have the right cards for where you will be going? If not, sign up for one or more rewards cards. A big sign-up bonus might enable you to take a break from hostel living and chill in a swanky hotel while backpacking across the continent. That clothing and gear needed for your trip can help you meet the new card’s minimum spend, ensuring you get that big sign-up bonus.

You’ll find those tips and a lot more on our solo traveler’s checklist. Print it out and use it to help you get ready to hit the road, take to the air, sail the seas or hike across the country.

Safe travels! 

See related: How to pick the right cards for around-the-world travel, 11 money and credit management tips for extended vacations

 


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Updated: 11-19-2018