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How to use your credit cards abroad as a conscious traveler

Swipe plastic for big purchases, but use your cash when buying from small vendors. Read on for more conscious travel tips


Conscious travel encompasses a range of decisions, including where you visit, the companies with whom you book and even how you pay. Here are some tips on how your credit card can help you be a savvy and sustainable traveler, and when you should use cash instead.


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Conscious travel is on the rise, with millennials and Gen Z travelers especially keen to engage in sustainable practices while traveling the world.

But conscious travel isn’t just about eco-resorts and eating organic. It encompasses a range of decisions, including where you visit, the companies with whom you book and even how you pay.

“I think people are realizing that their purchasing behaviors and the decisions they make through where they put their money is the most direct way of expressing your values and what’s important to you,” said Chris Baker, founder of OneSeed Expeditions, an adventure travel company. “I think tourism, because it’s an interaction across cultures, is an obvious place for people to prioritize those values.”

If you’re planning an upcoming trip, the following tips will help you be a savvy and sustainable traveler.

See related:  10 tips for traveling with credit cards

Be mindful of where you spend your money

Shannon O’Donnell, author of The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook and the blog A Little Adrift, said travelers sometimes shy away from ecotourism or sustainable travel initiatives because they assume anything under that umbrella will carry a hefty price tag. But that’s not necessarily the case.

“You have to book accommodations somewhere, you’re going to have to eat food,” she said. “Conscious travel – responsible travel – at its core can just be making a better choice. It just means spending your money purposefully.”

So, you don’t need to spend $1,000 at an eco-lodge, but you can opt to stay in a small, family-run bed-and-breakfast instead of with a global hotel chain.

Ashley Blake, founder of Traverse Journeys, recommended eating at social enterprise restaurants and seeking out affordable local experiences — such as cooking classes or homestays — as ways of maximizing both your positive footprint and your time in the country.

You can also make an impact by purchasing souvenirs directly from the artisans who made them; eating at food stands and mom-and-pop restaurants, and favoring small businesses over international chains.

That ensures that the money you spend stays local, and it empowers business owners to use that money in ways that are best for their shops and their families.

See related:  Sustainable living without breaking the bank

Use credit cards for big-ticket items and save cash for local vendors

Credit cards are extremely convenient for travelers, and it often feels safer than simply carrying cash. If you lose a card or it gets stolen, you can cancel it and avoid any losses. It’s also nice to rack up travel points or cash rewards on your trip.

However, credit cards aren’t always great for small businesses. Vendors must pay fees on credit card transactions, which can be a pinch. When you’re buying from small shops and artisans, pay cash whenever possible to help them out.

“If you’re a small, community-based organization, those fees really add up and can be brutal,” said Andrea Ross, managing director of the adventure travel company Wild Frontiers. “As a consumer, we need to be aware that they may be marking their product at their bare minimum, [and] when we use a credit card, they’re getting kind of docked. We want to make sure that we’re aware of that, and doing what we need to do to help them be sustainable.”

One way to do that is simply to ask, Blake said.

“If you’re paying for something on the street, it’s going to be cash,” she said. “But if you’re going to a store, you can ask if they have a preference. And with smaller purchases, cash is always going to help because it doesn’t take that credit card fee.”

The bottom line is to be mindful about how your spending habits might translate in a new environment.

“You should … not assume that the systems around you will work the same as they do in the country where you’re from,” Baker said.

Apply rewards points and cash back bonuses strategically

After spending years accruing travel points, it’s natural to use them to offset your travel expenses. However, that may not be supportive of the area you’re visiting.

“When you use points to stay in hotels, you’re really booking bigger properties. I would argue that in a lot of developing countries, they have a lot less of a positive impact than some of the smaller, more boutique properties,” Ross said. “So maybe it makes sense to use your points the next time you’re in New York versus when you’re in Delhi. Those points should strategically be used in places that don’t have an option that has more of a community angle.”

If you earn cash back bonuses from your cards, commit to donating that money to a cause that moved you on your travels. The staff at a nonprofit will know the best way to apply those funds, so although you’re not on the ground helping, you are still doing something meaningful for that community.

See related:  9 ways to make cash back more fun

Know when your money is more valuable than your volunteer hours  

One popular travel option is to sign up for a volunteer trip that allows you to spend time working within a local nonprofit or community.

That can feel like a meaningful way to visit a country, but it doesn’t always benefit local residents as much as you might think. The time that goes into training short-term volunteers could be better spent by staff and experts on the ground.

You may not have the skills the organization really needs, and O’Donnell noted that a large portion of what you pay for the trip may be covering a middleman’s salary rather than benefiting the people you want to support.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t help out. One approach is to ask what the nonprofit truly needs from you — and be OK with the fact that it may not be glamorous.

O’Donnell recalled an instance when she moved to a small town in Mexico for five months and volunteered to work at a community center teaching English.

“I went there and they were like, ‘You know, what we really need is someone that will file paperwork.’ Who would have flown from the United States to file paperwork? No one,” O’Donnell laughed. “But I try to walk the life that I preach, so I filed paperwork until they needed help in other areas. That’s the reality of volunteering.”

If you don’t want to spend your trip doing mundane (but necessary) work, that’s OK. Make a donation to the organization and skip volunteering on this trip. Chances are, you’ll be able to use your credit card to make a donation, giving you a chance to accumulate rewards or travel points toward your next trip, Ross said.

Conscious travel doesn’t mean stressing out about every decision you make along your trip. Have fun, visit the places you’ve been dreaming of, and enjoy everything your destination has to offer. But be mindful along the way.

As Ross put it, “You can ask yourself at any time, ‘Is what I’m doing benefitting either the environment, or this community, or both?’”

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