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10 credit and money tips for travel abroad

Travel will likely be picking up fast this year, so make sure you’re prepared to pay for things with the right credit cards


Traveling outside the U.S.? Plan now which cards to take to avoid fees and ensure your vacation goes smoothly. For example, take cards that have charge no foreign transaction fees.

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If you’re planning on traveling overseas for vacation this year, it will probably be for the first time in a long time. The CDC has an ever-changing list of destinations to which Americans can travel, so it’s a must to check the site before you make your plans.

In addition, it’s key to remain abreast of airline protocols when traveling; you’ll obviously need your passport but you’ll also need proof of vaccination, a completed locator form (for some countries), COVID test results within a certain window and a mask for the plane ride. Make sure you check with any countries you plan to visit for their specific rules regarding testing windows and locator forms.

You should start thinking about how you’re going to pay for things abroad at least a few weeks in advance. That’s because in some cases, you might want to get a different kind of card.

Here is a checklist of 10 things to do before you leave and once you get to your destination:

1. Draft your credit card plan

For travel abroad, you will want at least two credit cards that are Visas or Mastercards (American Express and Discover are less widely accepted worldwide). Having credit cards from different payment networks helps, too, as in the case of the widespread Visa service outage that affected cardholders in Europe on June 1, 2018.

You also will want to pack credit cards that charge no foreign transaction fees. These fees typically add 3 percent to the cost of purchases abroad – or at home when you purchase items online from a merchant who is abroad.

Also, it would be helpful if at least one of your credit cards has PIN capability. Chip-and-PIN is the EMV chip card standard in Europe, while chip-and-signature is the standard in the U.S.

What this means: Some payment kiosks in Europe, such as for train tickets or parking, accept only chip-and-PIN cards. Few U.S.-issued cards have PIN capabilities – the most common are from Barclays, a British-based bank.

From a points and miles perspective, you also want a credit card that gives bonus points for travel purchases.

Finally, double-check your credit limit and card expiration date. It could ruin your trip to suddenly discover that you are unable to pay for various vacation expenses once you are already abroad.

2. Pack your debit card for the trip

To withdraw money from ATMs, you’ll want a debit card connected to your home bank account. Make sure you have enough money in the account.

Check with your bank to learn if it is a partner with a global ATM network. Interbank networks, such as Visa PLUS and Mastercard, Maestro or Cirrus, enable network ATM cardholders to access surcharge-free ATMs abroad.

3. Notify your banks of your travel plans

Some card issuers say advising your banks of your travel is no longer necessary, but it doesn’t hurt to tell your card issuers where you are traveling and when.

If you fail to contact your card issuers, your unusual location may be flagged and cause your issuer to block further charges, since the issuer may think that your credit card or account data has been stolen.

Although it is easy enough to call your card issuer if your card is declined for suspected fraud, there often is a delay before you can use your credit card again.

4. Plan to take some cash

You should always have with you a mix of U.S. dollars and foreign currency as a last resort.

Not everywhere accepts plastic. For example, street markets that are common in European cities, only take cash. Taking a few hundred dollars of cash seems about right.

5. Keep a copy of your card information with you

If your cards are lost or stolen on your travels, having the phone numbers of your card issuers as well as your card information will come in handy. The 800 number you currently have will probably not work outside the United States. Contact your issuer and get an 800-number that works where you’re traveling.

While you’re on the line with your card issuer, find out how the issuer will get a new credit card to you should you lose your plastic or have it stolen. Often, the issuer can have a new credit card couriered to you with a day or two, though it may come with a fee.

Pack the copies of your card info in a secure place but separate from the cards (not in your wallet, for example). Incidentally, you might also take a photocopy of your passport.

6. Consider getting a money belt

Think about where you are most commonly going to carry your cards and cash. At crowded tourist sites in big cities, are you comfortable carrying a purse or having a wallet in your back pocket?

A credit card is safer than cash if you are robbed, but it still should be stored away in a hidden place such as a money belt.

7. Pay your bills ahead of time, including credit card bills

If you’re gone for a week or two, don’t forget to pay your bills beforehand. Missing a card payment will trigger instant late fees with most card issuers.

Note, too, that trying to pay while overseas can be tricky.

And while you’re on your trip, you should:

8. Opt for charges in local currency

Often when using a credit card, you might be asked if you want the charge in dollars or the foreign currency. You should opt for the foreign currency, because your card issuer will give you a better exchange rate on foreign transactions than the vendor will.

9. Don’t use a credit card for cash

Just like in the U.S., you shouldn’t try to use your credit card at a cash machine. It will be charged as a cash advance, with a high interest rate.

Other reasons why cash advances should always be avoided: You’ll typically have to pay a transaction fee, which is a percentage of the cash advance. There also is usually no grace period for cash advances.

10. Don’t use a debit card for purchases

Almost all debit cards that you use abroad for purchases will incur foreign transaction fees. (One major exception: Capital One debit cards.) Instead, use a credit card with no foreign transaction fees.

Bottom line

Now that travel is heating up again, it’s important to prepare for it. With a little bit of planning and knowledge, you can ensure your vacation – focusing on fun instead of financial logistics. Once you have the details all wrapped up, all you need to do is enjoy yourself.

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The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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