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 don’t charge any foreign transaction fees and bring some local currency with you.
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More and more people are making travel plans as foreign countries slowly lift their COVID-19 restrictions. And for many, their upcoming vacations are the first ones in a long time. Even as some countries open their borders, some still maintain strict guidelines for quarantining and testing, so be sure to check your destination country’s current regulations.
The ongoing pandemic aside, you still need to carry around your passport, proof of vaccination (if your destination country requires it) and some credit cards.
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 helps 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
You can use your debit card internationally to withdraw money from ATMs. You’ll want a debit card connected to your home bank account, and be 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.
If not, your ATM withdrawal will incur some charges, including an international ATM fee, which is a flat fee of up to $5, charged by your bank or credit union, plus maybe a percentage of the amount you withdraw. You may also be charged a machine owner fee. This fee is what the machine owner charges you for using their ATM.
Unless you have a no-fee ATM network, you’ll want some cash in local currency when you arrive.
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 may only take cash. Taking a few hundred dollars in cash seems about right.
The best place to exchange U.S. dollars for local currency is your home bank. The rate tends to be more favorable. Avoid exchanging currency at the airport kiosks because those rates are usually much higher.
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 U.S. 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 within 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 in case your passport is lost or stolen. Carrying a copy will help speed up the process of issuing a new passport at the local embassy or consulate.
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 because you can at least call your credit card issuer to freeze it.
However, you should keep more important items like your passport and emergency cash in your money belt in case your wallet or backpack is stolen. A money belt is a small pouch on a strap that you wear around your waist, meant to be hidden under your clothes. If your other possessions are stolen, at least you’ll still have important documents and some cash to help you get to your next destination.
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.
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 at home will usually give you a better exchange rate on foreign transactions than the vendor would.
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. And there 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.
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 will be about fun instead of financial logistics. Once you have the details wrapped up, all you need to do is enjoy yourself.
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