Collecting travel rewards, finding cheap flights, booking discounted hotels - it's likely travelers have investigated at least one of these options for saving money on travel before booking their summer vacations. However, one item many summer travelers forget to check off their lists is choosing the right credit card for overseas spending.
When it comes to international travel, not all credit cards are created equally. Choose the wrong one and you could end up spending much more than necessary while abroad. Strategically spend on the right card, and you could end up saving hundreds of dollars while protecting your bank accounts and personal information.
Why Rely on a Credit Card?
To the responsible spender, putting an entire vacation on credit might seem counterintuitive. After all, why rack up a balance when you can simply pay cash?
"Depending on where you travel, a credit card may be more useful, because it will keep you away from traveling with too much cash, which can take up space and make you look like a target when converting to a local currency," said Justin J. Kumar, senior portfolio manager at Arlington Capital Management.
Not to mention, cash can't be replaced or reissued if it's lost or stolen. Depending on the destination, theft can be a serious concern. While it's good to keep about $50 on hand for tips and other necessary cash spending, carrying any more than that is a risky move.
Debit cards can be even more dangerous, as they provide direct access to bank accounts. Depending on when fraud is noticed and reported, debit card holders could be liable for some or all of the unauthorized charges. Credit cards, on the other hand, limit personal liability to $50.
How to Choose the Best Credit Card for Travel
According to Shay Olivarria, a financial education speaker and author, there are three main qualities travelers should look for in the credit card they plan to use while traveling.
One of the most important features to look out for is cards that don't charge fees, especially no foreign transaction fees. According to Olivarria, foreign transaction fees are usually about 3% of the transaction amount - though they can be as high as 5%. "They can add up fast," she said. "Using a card that has no foreign transaction fees frees up more money to have fun."
In addition to foreign transaction fees, another major expense to avoid when traveling with a credit card is currency transaction fees. "Some credit cards will charge a currency transaction fee -- sometimes as much as 5% -- if you want to be charged in your home currency," explained Kumar. "You can direct vendors to charge your card in their local currency instead of having to convert their price to your home currency."
Kumar noted that the key for travelers is to be aware of the currency transaction and foreign transaction fees associated with their cards before traveling and compare them when making purchases abroad. "They are usually available on the benefits websites for the cards, or they can be discussed when calling a credit card representative," he said, "which is a good policy when traveling abroad to avoid service interruption. Alerting the credit card company so that any purchases are not declined due to a foreign location will save time and potential embarrassment or hardship while traveling."
Secondly, travelers need a credit card that offers solid fraud protection. There are a number of risks to carrying plastic in a foreign country, such as theft and unscrupulous merchants. "Most cards do offer some protection, but make sure to read the fine print before you go. You want to know how a card will cover you in different situations," said Olivarria.
Finally, summer travelers should ensure that their card issuers provide great customer service and are proactive about keeping them in the loop regarding unusual or suspicious activity.
For instance, travelers are much less likely to monitor credit card statements closely, which can allow fraud to slip by unnoticed. "Knowing that your card issuer is actively looking for duplicate charges or charges that look out of the ordinary and updating you immediately is key," noted Olivarria. "My favorite card sends an email to ask about charges that seem suspicious, and I can click a button from the email to let them know that everything's fine or that charge is fraudulent."
Summer vacation is supposed to provide an escape from the stress of everyday life - not add to it. For those who are planning to travel abroad, paying close attention to the credit cards they carry will help avoid unnecessary headaches.
"Overall, the best choices for credit cards are those that minimize the fees, that are the most diligent and careful in reviewing for fraudulent transactions, and that have a reasonable replacement policy if the card is lost or stolen," advised Kumar.