Traveling with Credit Cards: 10 Tips for Using Cards Abroad

Person with a backpack traveling with a credit card

International travel is often an exhilarating experience, but it also comes with its share of complexities (no matter where you go), especially when it comes to using and relying on your credit cards abroad. 

Credit cards, while yes they are convenient all the time, they are also a safe way to handle your traveling expenses and not depend on bringing (and worrying about) a wad of cash to cover your travel. However, using credit cards internationally requires some preparation and know-how. We’ll explore essential tips for using credit cards abroad to ensure smooth and secure travels so you can relax and enjoy your international escapades.

1. Choose the Right Credit Card

Before you depart, it’s crucial to select a credit card that is optimized for international travel. A few things to keep in mind before making your selection is:

  • No Foreign Transaction Fees: Opt for cards without any foreign transaction fees. These fees typically add about 1-3% to each purchase made abroad. This can add up FAST and quickly grow if you withdraw multiple times on a trip. 
  • Wide Acceptance: Visa and Mastercard are generally accepted worldwide. American Express and Discover cards are also options, though they may be less widely accepted in some countries. Your local credit union card might not be as recognized globally, it is essential to ask if you are banking with a smaller organization. 
  • Travel Benefits and Rewards: Consider cards that offer travel insurance, lost luggage insurance, car rental waivers, and no fees for cash advances. Rewards like air miles or points for no-fee purchases can also be beneficial.

2. Notify Your Bank

Make sure to call your card issuer about your travel plans before you leave and let them know the exact dates you plan to travel. Most banks allow you to set a travel notice via their website or mobile app. This prevents your bank from flagging your overseas charges as suspicious and freezing your card. A few days before departure is typically recommended, but even the morning you leave, it is important to notify your card company, especially if you are not a regular traveler. 

3. Understand the Exchange Rate and Currency Conversion Fees

Credit cards offer one of the best exchange rates. However, it’s wise to be aware of the dynamic currency conversion (DCC) trap:

There are several merchants who offer to charge you in your home currency, instead of the rate of the local currency. While it sounds convenient, it often involves high fees and poor exchange rates. Always opt to be charged in the local currency.

4. Make Copies of Your Credit Card Information

In case your wallet gets lost or stolen, having a copy of your credit card can help you quickly report the loss to your issuer. Store this information securely online as well as take a picture of it on your phone, or keep a physical copy in a safe place separate from your wallet, ideally in the safe in your hotel room.

5. Withdraw Cash Wisely

While it’s best to use credit cards for purchases (due to better exchange rates and purchase protection), you might need cash for smaller expenses where cards are not accepted:

If you need to withdraw cash, use ATMs affiliated with major banks to avoid additional fees and to ensure safety. Be aware of cash advance fees and interest charges from the day of the transaction. If you need to do it, use ATMs sparingly to avoid racking up any additional fees. 

6. Understand Your Credit Card’s International Capabilities

Man traveling with a backpack and holding a credit card with a chip

Before you travel, know the specifics of your card:

  • Chip-and-PIN: Many countries require a PIN rather than a signature for credit card transactions. Ensure your card has a chip and PIN capability.
  • Contactless Payments: Cards with contactless payment options (like Visa payWave and Mastercard PayPass) can make transactions smoother in many countries.

7. Check for International Customer Service

Ensure that your credit card issuer offers 24/7 international customer service in case you need assistance. Know how to contact them from abroad, ideally without incurring high phone charges. A lot of credit cards these days have online chat functions that are great at helping you out, you just need service or Wi-Fi.

8. Review Your Card’s Travel Protection Features

Many credit cards offer various forms of travel protection, which can include:

  • Travel Accident Insurance
  • Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance
  • Rental Car Insurance
  • Lost Luggage Reimbursement

Review these benefits and understand how to utilize them if needed, as they can save significant money and stress.

9. Monitor Your Accounts Regularly

Even while traveling, keep track of your accounts through online banking. Regular monitoring helps you catch any fraudulent transactions quickly. Most banks offer instant alerts via text or email for transactions, which you can sign up for. 

It is smart to get in the habit of checking your bank account every morning before you leave to ensure there are no unexpected charges and to give you an idea of any extra foreign charges. Then, you can allocate the remainder of your vacation accordingly. 

10. Local Laws and Practices

Research local laws and customs related to credit card use in the countries you will visit. In some places, merchants charge extra for card payments or have a minimum spend requirement. Every country is different, so it is important to do your research before you hop on a plane. 

Conclusion

Traveling with credit cards offers convenience, security, and numerous benefits. However, the key to a hassle-free experience lies in preparation. Choosing the right card, understanding the fees, setting up safety measures, and knowing how to deal with theft or loss are all crucial. 

With an educated approach, your credit card can become your best travel companion, ensuring that your focus remains on enjoying your international adventures.

You might also be interested in: How Many Credit Cards Should I Have? And 6 Helpful Tips

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