Even if you plan to get by primarily on cash while traveling, packing at least one credit card can save your trip. I learned that when I visited Japan last year. At some point between clearing customs at the airport and catching my train into Tokyo, I lost my passport. The U.S. embassy could get me a new one in a matter of hours – but for a hefty fee.
The cash I had was slated for the inns and hostels I’d booked (which took only cash on arrival), leaving little wiggle room — and my debit card hadn’t worked at both ATMs I’d tried that morning. Luckily, I had a travel credit card that charged no foreign transaction fees. I handed it over and got my new passport:
For every story about a credit card saving the day far from home, though, there are plenty more about declined charges, theft and surprise fees. To keep things running smoothly, read on for our pre-departure checklist –- and our list of cards you might want to consider taking with you.
Before you leave
- Call your bank: Explain you’re planning on using your card overseas. They’ll know which questions to ask you, from where you’re going, to the locations of your layovers, to which dates you’ll be where. A note will be added to your file so that (hopefully) none of your charges gets flagged as suspicious and declined.
- Put together an emergency kit: Make note of your card numbers and your bank’s phone number (the collect number listed on the back of your card for out-of-country calls). Or make copies of your cards and store them separately from your actual cards. If your cards are lost or stolen, you’ll then have all the necessary information on hand to report it to your bank.
- Try to bring a card with an EMV chip: EMV is the norm in many other countries, so pack a card with a chip, if you already have one. If you don’t, call your bank and ask if it will replace your card with an EMV version.
Most major banks have a goal of converting all cards to EMV by October 2015, but there are some stragglers. If your magnetic stripe card is your only option, don’t worry too much — merchants in popular destinations likely have equipment to accept the card, although it might be difficult to navigate a cashiers’ confusion if there’s a language barrier.
Even travelers with chip cards may run into issues, because the U.S. is implementing EMV differently from other countries; just peruse the varied experiences of commenters under this article. Overall, though, having a chip card will likely smooth out your travel experience — just make sure to bring plenty of cash and fill up your car’s tank to avoid getting stranded at an unmanned fuel pump at night.
- Take plenty of cash: In the U.S., we often take for granted the ability to buy a pack of gum with a card. Yet plenty of businesses overseas don’t accept cards, let alone for tiny purchases. Those that do might even charge you a fee for the convenience. So make sure you have enough walking-around money.
- Watch out for dynamic currency conversion: You’re buying souvenirs at a shop with your card. The merchant asks if you’d like to have the amount converted to dollars instead of paying in the local currency. It may seem convenient, but it’s quite a money-making scheme for the merchant (who gets to decide on the exchange rate). Your bank will probably give you a better deal, so just pay in the local currency.
- Be aware of foreign transaction fees: Some cards tack on an extra fee for using your card outside the U.S, making your trip more expensive than you’d planned. Luckily, plenty of cards waive these charges (more on that below).
Cards to consider taking with you
Planning a trip? These cards each have a number of desirable features for travelers:
Capital One Venture ($59 annual fee) and VentureOne ($0 annual fee): Both cards waive foreign transaction fees, and both have an EMV chip. While these aren’t the most perk-heavy travel cards you’ll find, their rewards structure might make them worth packing. The Venture earns 2 miles per dollar on all purchases, while the VentureOne earns 1.25. You can redeem your points on any travel charge you’ve already made. So, if you use one of these cards for car rentals and other eligible travel purchases while you’re away, you can then use your miles to cancel out some of those purchases when you get home.
Chase Sapphire Preferred® (Intro Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95): The CSP has an EMV chip and no foreign transaction fees. This card is also known for the extra protections it gives travelers. It’s one of the rare cards that offers primary rental car insurance (meaning you won’t have to go through your regular car insurance if the rental is damaged). Also, it has a high maximum for trip cancellation/interruption coverage: $10,000 (compared to the $5,000 or less cards with similar annual fees offer).
The rewards also benefit travelers, giving double points on dining and travel, meaning all the restaurant meals you eat and hotel stays you pay for during your trip will pad your Ultimate Rewards balance. That’s an especially good thing because the card allows you to convert your points directly into several hotel and frequent flier programs (which you might utilize for your next trip).
Barclaycard Arrival Plus ($89 annual fee): This card charges no foreign transaction fees and has an EMV chip. As an added benefit, the chip has PIN capabilities, which allows you to complete transactions at unmanned terminals that require a PIN (at subway stations and gas stations, for example). All your purchases on this card get you 2 miles per dollar, which you can redeem against travel expenses. So, once you get home, you can erase hotel stays, tours and even cab rides from your bill. There’s also a no-annual-fee version of this card, which earns 2 miles per dollar on travel and dining purchases and 1 mile per dollar on everything else.
American Express Platinum: This card from American Express (a CreditCardForum advertising partner) is pricey, but it makes quite the travel companion. In addition to the requisite EMV chip, no foreign transaction fees and travel insurance benefits offered by so many travel cards, it has some premium benefits that make travel much more comfortable: Reimbursement for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry; a $200 airline fee credit every year (which you can use for food and drinks in the air); access to a variety of lounges (Delta Sky Club, Airspace Lounges, Centurion Lounges and Priority Pass lounges); and enrollment in American Express’s Fine Hotels & Resorts program (which gets you late checkout, gifts and other privileges at certain properties).