Choosing Credit and Debit Cards for Travel

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No matter where you travel, you need to be able to access your money. While traveling within your own borders, this isn’t such a big deal, but what about when you travel internationally? There’s a lot to consider when choosing credit and debit cards for travel since they come in all different varieties, and each one has it’s pros and cons.

The main things to look for are how they each handle transaction fees, ATM fees, customer service, and if they offer any other benefits that might help you along the way, like accruing miles or points.

I have a USAA debit card, which I love because it doesn’t charge ATM fees, it reimburses other ATM fees up to US$15 per month automatically, and they have incredible customer service. However, you can only get an account with them if you or certain family members are/were in the US military. I have access because my husband’s father was in the Air Force.

I asked some other travel bloggers from around the world about choosing credit and debit cards for travel. I’ve listed each one along with the country they’re from so you can decide if you can use the company they’re suggesting. Hopefully these options will help you choose.

choosing credit and debit cards for travel

Credit and debit cards for the USA

Lance and Laura at Travel Addicts: While not accepted everywhere, American Express is my go-to travel credit card. The American Express Platinum Card offers upgrades, concierge service and amazing personalized opportunities. I have found that using AMEX when traveling can open up opportunities that I would not have been able to get otherwise. AMEX also offers lower foreign transaction fees than most Visa and MasterCard options, although it does come with a pretty steep annual fee.

A strong runner up is the Capital One Venture Card because it has no foreign transaction fees. That said, I find that you need to need to take about 4 foreign trips per year make the annual fee worthwhile. The Capital One Venture Card offers no other benefits, so the payoff is lower.

Katie from KatieAune.com: I don’t recommend Capital One for travelers because I had several problems with their debit card when 2 separate ATMs confiscated my card and their customer service was extremely unhelpful. I was also unable to use my card at about one third of the ATMs I tried to use while traveling for 13 months in the countries of the former Soviet Union. They also sided against me when I disputed a charge on my account. I am now using Charles Schwab due to the positive experiences other travelers have had.

Talon from 1Dad1Kid: I use Charles Schwab for debit. It’s a free account, they have great customer service, there is no fee for foreign currency exchange when I use my card either as point of sale, via ATM, or online. Additionally, once a month they reimburse any ATM fees directly into my account automatically.

Jaime from Breakaway Backpacker: I used Charles Schwab while traveling around the world for 2 years. Thankfully I never had to contact them or provide receipts to get refunds of my fees. At the end of every month I would see a credit in my account from the fees that I was charged by the ATMs I used. It’s the most amazing debit card I have ever had. I mean I received NO FEES for using any ATM around the world.

Helen at From Way Up High: I use Bank of America’s Travel Rewards Signature Visa. You get 1.5 points for every dollar spent, and three points per dollar for flights booked through the bank’s travel tool (which actually has really good prices). For every 30,000 points, you get $300 cash back on travel purchases. It may not be the strongest rewards program, but there’s no annual fee and no foreign transaction fee.

Heidi from WagonersAbroad: We chose the Chase Sapphire Preferred. The big draw was no foreign transaction fees (so you get the exchange rate for that day and no hidden fees), 24/7 customer service, 2 x points for travel and dining expenses, and hey they let us purchase our car in Spain on the card! Of course we paid it off the next week, but not many visa cards would allow that. If you book travel via rewards then you get 20% off too, but I haven’t used that feature yet.

Credit and debit cards for Canada

Gillian from One Giant Step: We use the TD Canada Trust ‘TD Select Service’ account. I think the fee is $13/month but if you keep a $5000 balance it is free. As we always like to have an emergency fund available we just use it to keep the balance up so it’s free. With it we are not charged any international transaction fees using our debit card while traveling. The local ATM we use may charge a fee and we have to pay that, but the bank itself doesn’t charge.

With the account we also have a free premium travel Visa card. It offers fully flexible travel points accrual that we can use for any travel purchase (flights, trains, hotels, packages etc), 1 month travel/health insurance, and car rental insurance also. It’s the best bank account for travel we could find in our Canadian province when we looked 2 years ago.

Credit and debit cards for Australia

Michael from Time Travel Turtle: If you could create a credit card for permanent travellers, it would be the ’28 Degrees’ from GE Money that I was able to get in Australia. I couldn’t quite believe it when I found it because it has no international transaction fees, no currency conversion fees and no annual account fee. It is a Mastercard so you can use it pretty much anywhere in the world. And if you keep the balance in positive, rather than negative, you can use it to withdraw cash from ATMs around the world without paying an extra cent for the service.

I can use it to pay for a 3 euro train ticket in Italy or withdraw 100,000 kyat from a cash machine in Myanmar – and it doesn’t cost me anything. I don’t dare think about how much I would have paid in fees over the past few years without this card!

Credit and debit cards for New Zealand

Lis from Non Boring Travel Guides : You want to chose carefully – using  your regular debit or EFTPOS card overseas can see you hit with transaction fees of up to NZ$7.50 per a transaction! Also avoid the heavily marketed “travel cards” which tend to “only” charge NZ$5 for an overseas withdrawal via ATM! I currently use two cards overseas:

OneSmart.co.nz is a Mastercard Debit card associated with Air New Zealand‘s frequent flyer program. You’ll need to join their frequent flyer program, but once you have, the Mastercard is free of annual fees. You will get three free overseas ATMs withdrawals a month (after that NZ$3 a withdrawal). You can also manage multiple foreign currency balances if you prefer to convert your NZ dollars before travel.

Bankdirect.co.nz – Bankdirect was ASB’s online bank before the technology was standard with any bank! Their Visa card is cheap  (NZ$15/year) and has the undocumented feature. If you put the credit card into credit – i.e. you are using your own money – then  overseas withdrawals are free of transaction fees.

Credit and debit cards for the United Kingdom

Lucy from On the Luce Travel Blog: I’ve had a Nationwide Select credit card for years which I only use for travel. You need to have a bank account with them to be eligible but you get unlimited commission-free overseas transactions. There is also 0.5% cashback if you use it in the UK and as with most UK credit cards there’s no fee. The bank account that goes with it (FlexAccount) also give you free European multi-trip insurance as long as you pay £750 into the account a month, again without any fees.

Credit and debit cards for Belgium

Sofie from Wonderful Wanderings: About a year ago I really started to look into alternative ways to pay for airline tickets, which mostly comes down to using a credit card that allows me to save ‘miles’. Most articles written on this subject are by American authors. In Belgium, however, there aren’t many credit cards that allow you to save miles.

In fact, the only ones I know of are by Brussels Airlines. They have an American Express, a Visa and a Mastercard option. I have the Mastercard which costs €60 for one year. I got 1000 free miles when I signed up, which is nothing in comparison to what you can get when signing up for an American card. But it is what it is. For each euro I spend I get 1 mile in return. Although this won’t even get me one free ticket per year, I do try to pay as much as possible with by BA credit card.

Another reason why I chose this card, which is more expensive than the basic credit cards you can get at the bigger banks, is that by owning such a card, the miles you collect through the BA loyalty program Miles&More (of which I am a member), don’t expire after one year, like they normally do.

Credit and debit cards for Brazil

Daniel: Here’s a brief explanation about two of the most popular Brazilian travel cards. Both Visa Travel Money (VTM) and AMEX GlobalTravel are pre-paid debit cards. Their main advantages are: no dollar price changes and the tax to use the card abroad is 0.38%, much better than the tax of the credit cards (6.38%). To use them correctly in the US, you have to select the option credit and not debit (even though they are debit cards). It took me some time to understand that in my last trip, and when I got this credit/debit issue, I faced no more problems.

choosing credit and debit cards for travel

I use the Trail Wallet – Travel Budget & Expense Tracker app on my iPhone to track our expenses, and I really love how helpful it is. I even use it to track my spending at home. I definitely recommend it if you’re looking for an easy way to track your travel expenses.

Even if your country isn’t mentioned above, this should give you a good idea of what to look for in credit and debit cards in your own country. Make sure you can use your cards when you travel to foreign countries. If you can’t access your money when you travel, what good are they?

Minimize your costs and maximize your benefits. Find out what their customer service is like before you commit. Decide if a card that earns you frequent flyer miles or points of some kind is worthwhile to you. It might be a lot to process but it’s important to be armed with as much information as possible when choosing credit and debit cards for travel.

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