5 steps to make sure your cards' credit limits are vacation-ready

Without an adequate credit line, you could be find yourself in trouble

Erica Sandberg
Personal Finance Writer
Consumer finance expert, author and “Opening Credits” columnist.

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5 steps to make sure your cards' credit limits will cover your vacation

No matter where you go on vacation, preparing your credit cards before departure is an essential task. Unless you have sufficient charging power, you’ll come up short at the most inopportune time.

Skipping a high-priced activity that you’ve always dreamed of – from riding in a Venetian gondola to helicoptering over the waterfalls of Kauai – can ruin an otherwise perfect trip.

Insufficient funds for more serious matters is worse. You may have to switch to a more expensive hotel at the last minute because the one you booked is in a rough part of town or you may need to cover emergency medical treatment in Greece after crashing a rented moped. 

Without an adequate credit line, you could be in trouble if you don’t have a large amount of cash available to cover the surprise expense.

To be fully prepared for unexpected expenses while traveling, make sure you have a high enough credit line on the cards you’re packing. Here is a five-step process to preparing your account limits for take-off.

1. Determine the total cost of the vacation

It’s impossible to determine the correct credit line for your vacation without knowing what the entire trip will cost, including any excursions or activities, says Nancy Shenker, founder of the travel site bleisureliving.com. “Calibrate it so the total price is within your ability to pay off fast, not just what your credit card can cover,” says Shenker.

Each vacation is different, so the outlay can vary tremendously. To obtain an accurate figure, list all your desired and necessary expenses, then add them up. Comprehensive online forms can help you determine the many assorted costs, such as this from budgetworksheets.org. Travel agents can offer more personal guidance, and you might even have one through your credit card issuer. American Express cardholders, for instance, give cardholders access to professionals who will walk them through the entire planning process.

See related: 11 money, credit management tips for an extended vacation

2. Subtract prepaid expenses

Your vacation credit line should be considered for expenses you incur during your trip and not those you’ve already purchased.

“Many of your larger expenses, such as hotel and airfare, may be prepaid,” says Austin, Texas, resident Erik Paquet, founder of Abroaders.com, which helps travelers turn rewards points and frequent flyer miles into flights and lodging. “I always make a list of what has been paid in full before departure. This makes it easier to plan for an appropriate credit limit, and also helps me make sure I’m not charged again for something that was prepaid online.”

Review your trip expenses to determine what you’ll pay for beforehand, with care to anticipate extras. Accommodations, entertainment and food are embedded in the pre-paid price of all-inclusive resorts and cruises, but excursions, alcoholic beverages, gambling and special dinners are usually add-ons.

Take advantage of pay-in-advance deals, too. Some hotel chains, such as Marriott, will reduce its rate by 20 percent for guests who cover the bill before check-in. You can further optimize the benefit by opening the Marriott Rewards Premier Plus Credit Card several months in advance. Charge $3,000 in the first three months of ownership, which might be about the cost of the vacation itself, and you’ll get 75,000 bonus points that can be redeemed for hotel nights.

See related: Using points to stay at all-inclusive resorts

3. Know what you’ll be paying for in cash

But wait, what about the money from your wallet or debit card that you may also be using? That will reduce the amount of necessary charging ability, and you will definitely need some bills with you. “Cash is still king in many parts of the world,” says Paquet. “Credit cards are safer and have more protections than carrying lots of cash, but you can’t depend on them entirely.”

“To get to the magic number of how much your charging limit ought to be, consider what you’ll be using cash for on the trip, but don’t stop there,” says Shenker. “I’m not going to charge small souvenirs or a soda, so I plan ahead for the daily cash I need for those types of things.”

However, there will usually be a surprise must-have that’s beyond your fixed cash allotment. “It’s that splurge,” says Shenker. “For me, recently, it was an amazing pair of boots in Italy. They were expensive, so I used my credit card, even though they weren’t in my travel budget.” Her advice is to have at least 25 percent to a credit line available for unexpected indulgences.

"In Spain, I woke up so sick I couldn’t move. I went to the emergency room. It was horrible, but I had no choice; I had to get better. I swiped my card at the hospital. It was just a few hundred dollars, but even if it had been a few thousand I would have done it. That’s what your credit card is for."

4. Estimate for emergencies

The fact is, not every vacation plays out perfectly. Emergencies arise, so prepare your credit limit for the things that could go wrong.

“In Spain, I woke up so sick I couldn’t move,” says Roni Faida, a travel expert from Charlotte, North Carolina. “I went to the emergency room. It was horrible, but I had no choice; I had to get better. I swiped my card at the hospital to pay. It was just a few hundred dollars, but even if it had been a few thousand I would have done it. That’s what your credit card is for. You need a big line for emergencies. I’ve been on trips with people who got sick and I tell them, ‘go to the doctor!’ and they say ‘I can’t; I don’t have any money or credit cards.’ It’s foolish.” 

See related: Saved by plastic: 5 true credit card rescue tales

Aside from requiring vital medical treatment, you may also need to project for extreme weather conditions that can affect your travel experience and budget. “I was in Mexico when a hurricane hit New York, where I was living at the time,” says Shenker. “I could not get back home because planes weren’t landing, I needed a contingency plan and that meant saying longer at the hotel, and a much bigger bill.”

Other “what ifs” include replacing lost and stolen items. Credit cards will be the preferred payment tools for them, since you don’t want to deplete your spending money. If you want to replace the $300 camera a crook grabbed while you were snapping pics on the Spanish Steps, charge it.  Many credit cards offer purchase protection benefits, which might replace or reimburse the cost of lost or stolen items, should it happen again. Among them are Citi Double Cash Card and United MileagePlus Club Card.

Run through the gamut of possibilities, and think about how much they could cost. Would you feel safe if you knew you had an additional $1,000 or more to charge so you could deal with a problem without too much stress? That number will be part of your credit line. 

5. Diversify your cards

With the above information you’ll have what you need to calculate the right credit limit for you and your vacation: The total trip price minus prepaid expenses minus cash purchases and extra spending plus the cost of projected emergencies equals the bare minimum charging limit you’ll need on each card.

Bear in mind that it’s best that the limit should be per account, not spread out over a couple cards. “You should have at least two credit cards with you, but three is better,” says Faida. “I’m the queen of ‘what will happen?,’ so if it’s $5,000 you need while you’re there, you better have that line on each card. What if the other cards don’t work? Trust me, it happens!”

Diversify the cards among card networks, too. “Visa and Mastercard are the most widely accepted payment networks internationally,” says Paquet. “American Express may not be accepted by all merchants.” Your best bet is to bring one of each, all loaded with the same credit line capability.

Credit limit too short? Try getting them increased

Don’t panic if you discover your pre-trip charging ability is too short for comfort. A credit limit increase request, which you can make over the phone or online, can often result in approval, provided you’ve had the card for a while, don’t have a high balance and have been making payments on time. According to a 2018 poll conducted by CreditCards.com, 85 percent of cardholders who asked for a higher credit limit received one.

If your request is accepted, you’re on your way. If it’s denied, understand the root reason. It could be because your credit scores aren't high enough or your credit card has only been open for a few months, you’ve had late payments within 12 months, a history of maxed out credit lines or that you’ve already recently received a credit limit increase.

“Depending on the reason why your credit limit request was denied, you may simply need to wait a few months until your account is old enough to qualify or you space out your requests,” says Laura Adams, host of the Money Girl podcast. “However, if your credit score is too low, you may need to focus on building your credit health by paying bills on time and reducing debt balances.”

Another option, says Adams, is to apply for a new card with a different issuer instead. The limit on it might do the vacation prep trick. Check your credit scores to see which you’re eligible for, then review the available offers using CreditCards.com’s CardMatch tool. Focus on rewards and travel cards. With a decent credit rating and income, you should be able to score a card with strong borrowing power, and possibly even one with a large sign-on bonus that you can use for a future vacation.


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Updated: 12-10-2018