• Choosing Credit and Debit Cards for Travel

    by  • Planning • 35 Comments

    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

    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.

    USA – 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.

    USA – 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.

    USA – 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.

    USA – 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.

    USA – 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.

    Canada – Gillian from The Global Bookshelf

    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.

    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!

    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.

    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.

    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.

    Brazil – Daniel from HasGottaTravel

    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. The big explanation is in this post in Portuguese.

    choosing credit and debit cards for travel

    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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    35 Responses to Choosing Credit and Debit Cards for Travel

    1. August 21, 2013 at 1:18 pm

      Great article idea Ali!
      You read so much about American credit cards and ways to earn miles. It’s good to have someone finally looking at other countries as well!

      • Ali Garland
        August 21, 2013 at 2:42 pm

        Thanks Sofie, and thanks for contributing! I think Americans just use credit cards more than people from other countries, which isn’t really a good thing. I wanted to show a glimpse of some other countries’ options.

    2. August 22, 2013 at 4:39 am

      Great list! Learned a couple of great tips in this one. Thanks for making travel simple!

      • Ali Garland
        August 22, 2013 at 8:39 pm

        Thanks Lance, and thanks for contributing!

    3. August 22, 2013 at 6:10 am

      Great post! You did a good job compilating the bloggers opinion!

      Cheers

      • Ali Garland
        August 22, 2013 at 11:03 am

        Thanks Daniel, and thanks for contributing!

    4. Debra
      August 22, 2013 at 10:08 pm

      Thanks! Makes me realize how important it is for your ATM card to work abroad. That was my biggest issue last time. I am going to see if we qualify for the USAA card.

      • Ali Garland
        August 22, 2013 at 10:35 pm

        Glad to help Debra! If you do qualify for USAA, they’re really great. Since they deal almost exclusively with military, they’re used to people being in other countries, so they just get it. They also have the most amazing customer service, such wonderful, friendly people.

    5. Matthew Cheyne
      August 25, 2013 at 6:19 am

      This is an excellent article Ali :) It’s great to have the international comparisons to see how cards stack up against those in various other countries.

      As for the Australian recommendation, I have come across the 28 degrees card but it’s issued by GE Money of whom I have heard heaps of bad things about, including my own experiences with having store cards with them back in the 90s. The interest rate on the card is 20.99% with a $25 late fee which is high by Australian standards.

      As I’ve probably already told you previously, I have a Velocity Global Wallet Pre-Paid travel card that’s part of the Virgin Australia loyalty card program. The link for it is here: http://www.velocityrewards.com.au/content/ProgramBenefits/GlobalWallet/index.htm . There are other pre-paid cards on the market like The NAB Travelcard http://www.nabtravellercard.com.au/1/ , the Australia Post Load and Go Pre Paid Card and the Comm Bank Travelcard https://www.commbank.com.au/personal/travel/travel-money-card.html .

      Personally I think that considering I hate entering into credit contracts, do almost all of my transactions electronically and want a variety of currencies to choose from, the Velocity Global Wallet was a wise choice. Plus you get a second virtual card for online transactions in order to boost your security and 2 points for every $1 spent in Australia and 1 spent overseas. It’s only a brand new product that’s come onto the market in the last month or so so I haven’t heard of any accounts of travelers actually using it out on the road. Hopefully when I get to use it, it will be a great experience.

      • Ali Garland
        August 25, 2013 at 1:39 pm

        Thanks Matthew! Yeah, each card has its advantages and disadvantages, so each person needs to decide what’s most important. That does sound like a high interest rate, but if you pay in full each month, it might not be a big deal. The pre-paid cards sound good too, just a different approach. I’m really glad you found something that works for you. Let me know how it goes when you start using them!

        • Matthew Cheyne
          August 25, 2013 at 1:46 pm

          I’ll keep you in the loop as to how all things go travel wise; the pre-paid card included. There is one thing that you may be able to help me with. Do you know anything about a payment system called “Poli”? The prepaid card that I have offers it as a means of depositing funds into the card with a 24 hour turn around time which is much better than the 3 days that paying by “B-Pay” (a method that applies only to Aussie bank accounts where you enter in a biller code and reference number and pay directly out of your bank account) that is the other option and often the only option available on the prepaid cards here in Australia. I was wondering if you or anybody else has used “Poli” and can vouch for it as a safe payment method.

          • Ali Garland
            August 26, 2013 at 1:46 pm

            Sorry Matthew, I’ve never heard of either of those. I’ve also never used pre-paid cards like that, so that’s probably why.

            • Matthew Cheyne
              August 26, 2013 at 1:54 pm

              Not to worry Ali. I did some research on Poli and it’s a payment gateway offered by a Melbourne based company. I found a warning against using it by ASB Bank New Zealand, an offshoot of Australia’s Commonwealth Bank. Basically they are saying not to use Poli because of the risk of fraud and of cyber thieves capturing your information for malevolent ends. Some airlines and pre paid cards offer Poli as an alternative payment method so that people avoid delays or credit card fees. Here is a link to one of the sites detailing the warning. The website is as follows and is a reputable New Zealand news website: http://www.stuff.co.nz/business/money/8101389/Banks-bristle-over-web-go-between

            • Ali Garland
              August 26, 2013 at 6:39 pm

              Good to know Matthew, thanks for sharing the link in case others are looking for it!

    6. August 27, 2013 at 9:08 pm

      Hi Ali, I’m from Italy and I was looking for a similar debit card, but apparently we are unlucky over here. The only one I can think of is the one I currently have from ING Direct. It doesn’t charge for ATM withdrawals within Europe + Turkey. It also has a credit card that comes without annual fees. Apart from that I don’t know about cards addressed to travellers, it looks like it’s a market only in the English-speaking countries, or almost. If anybody knows something, let me know.

      • Ali Garland
        August 28, 2013 at 10:47 am

        Hi Stefania! I’m really starting to think Americans just use credit cards more (resulting in lots of debt problems!) so there are more options. The debit card you have sounds pretty good. The bank I have here in Germany only has free ATM withdrawals inside of Germany, so if we travel to another country, even within Europe, there’s a 5 euro fee! If I hear of anything helpful for Italy, I’ll keep you in mind!

        • Matthew Cheyne
          August 28, 2013 at 11:04 am

          @Ali: That 5 euro charge is really steep! It amounts to about $7 AUD which for me is insane. The pre-paid card I talked about only charges 2.95 euros to take out money in Europe. That’s steep enough.

    7. August 31, 2013 at 5:54 am

      I’m an American looking to live and travel in Europe next year. My main priority is to obtain a card with no foreign transaction fees. With that said, what priority should ‘chip and PIN’ capability be? Is this an absolute must-have in Europe (with most time being spent in Spain)?

      • Ali Garland
        August 31, 2013 at 11:05 am

        I live in Germany, and many places here (restaurants, grocery stores, smaller shops) don’t accept credit cards at all, so we often pay in cash or use our bank card. Some places that do accept credit cards can swipe your card if it doesn’t have a chip in it, but some don’t have that capability. I think your best bet is to find a bank/ATM card that doesn’t charge foreign ATM fees, and even reimburses other ATM fees (like the Charles Schwab bank account) and try to rely on cash. In places where you can use credit cards, you shouldn’t have too many problems. But it’s not like in the US where you can use a credit card just about anywhere. Unfortunately I don’t know about Spain specifically but I do know that in general Europe has a different view on credit cards.

        Make sure you do research about visas because a normal tourist visa for the schengen area only allows you to be inside the area for 3 months out of every 6 months, so that won’t work for you to be in Spain or the majority of Western Europe for a year.

        Let me know if you have any other questions!

        • September 1, 2013 at 6:29 pm

          Thanks for the info, Ali. It’s been a few years since we’ve been in Europe and you are right, it is a good reminder that credit cards aren’t as ubiquitous as the U.S.

          I’m hoping to get to Spain on a non-lucrative visa which would allow us to be there for a full year. Lots to do to get to that point, but that is the plan at the moment.

          • Ali Garland
            September 4, 2013 at 10:46 am

            Good luck with the visa, and enjoy Spain, such a great country!

      • Matthew Cheyne
        August 31, 2013 at 11:18 am

        Personally I would make the chip and pin a really high priority. I live in Australia where chip and pin technology has been around for a number of years and I feel a whole lot more secure using it and to be honest with you, most merchants only take it here. Some are even going contactless where you use technology like Visa Paywave or the Mastercard equivalent to make payments by holding the card up against the payment device and it will process a payment for you without a PIN up to certain value.

        I’m saying all this because I believe that the situation in Europe, where the same technology has been around for longer than Australia would have the same practice. My order of priorities in looking for a credit card to use overseas would be: security first, fees second, features third. But everybody is different and it’s a really personal thing choosing a credit card so I wish you all the best with everything and with your travels too.

        • Ali Garland
          September 1, 2013 at 5:40 pm

          Thanks Matthew!

          • Matthew Cheyne
            September 1, 2013 at 5:47 pm

            Your welcome Ali:) I hope the weekend was kind to you!

        • September 1, 2013 at 6:32 pm

          Thanks for the well wishes, Matthew. You confirm my assumption that chip and PIN technology should probably be pretty high on the list when choosing our next card. Thank you.

      • March 29, 2014 at 8:27 am

        Hey Buck, we do fine on our card without the chip. We just tell retailers sin chip con “la banda”. no chip with strip. It is fine in retail stores, but some restaurants may not have a machine that will only take the chip. It doesn’t happen often where we have a problem in Spain or Europe.

        • March 29, 2014 at 10:36 am

          My US Chase Sapphire cards have chip but no PIN, and that’s been fine. The European merchants give them the normal chip+pin treatment, but their machines just spit out a receipt for signature. Once or twice I’ve been asked for an ID by the clerk.

          I think the only issue is with kiosks where they require signature. I’ve heard they won’t work there, but haven’t tested.

          • March 29, 2014 at 4:32 pm

            Good info, everyone. I have a US Chase Sapphire that I plan on using and that is a chip and signature (no PIN). I also need to call USAA to see if they can offer a card with a chip, no annual fee, and no foreign transaction fees.

    8. Matthew Cheyne
      September 4, 2013 at 2:37 pm

      I have further more comprehensive information for any Aussie considering travel cards, debit cards, credit cards etc as an option for traveling overseas. This website http://www.finder.com.au/travel-money#travel-money-cards is geared towards Aussies and is very comprehensive. It shows you all the products on offer on the Australian market and if you look around you may be able to find some commentary both by the website and users of the products as to how good they are.

      For all of us, this You Tube video by the travel blogger who goes by the name Wandering Trader is all about bank fees on the road and how to avoid them. This guy really knows his s**t. I highly recommend you spare the four minutes and watch it. It may save you both time and money. Here it is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=daKRQpyKgAM

      • Ali Garland
        September 4, 2013 at 4:24 pm

        Thanks Matthew! It’s hard to know what works for people in other countries, so thanks for sharing some Australia info. I know of Wandering Trader, though I don’t actually know him, but you’re right, he seems to really know what he’s talking about.

        • Matthew Cheyne
          September 4, 2013 at 4:32 pm

          I was really surprised to hear that there is a global ATM alliance in which the partners don’t charge each other ATM fees to their respective card holders. What surprised me even more was that he could list all of the partners including Westpac bank which is one of the four major banks here in Australia. Unfortunately though Westpac according to their website doesn’t offer cards aimed at travelers of any sort from what I can see so the benefits would only apply to their normal credit card holders. But the information is really good to know.

          Between that video and the link to the Finder website, you can work out a really good strategy that minimizes ATM, Foreign Exchange and loading fees on pre paid cards. I did the comparison myself and for an Australian traveling to New Zealand, the Velocity Global Wallet, the pre paid card I have has the lowest ATM fees of any of the pre paid cards and the most benefits too. My point: in Australia at least it really pays to do your homework before you even buy your airline ticket as to what payment system your going to use while you’re away.

    9. December 30, 2013 at 12:53 am

      I just spent 6 months in Thailand using a State Farm Bank account ATM card to get cash.

      If you have any amount of direct deposit, they do not charge you any fees AND they reimburse the fees you pay to the local ATM owner. I also got fantastic exchange rates on my withdrawals. This should work almost anywhere worldwide.

      For a CC, I used the Chase Sapphire and Chase United cards because of no surcharge, plus we use them to rack up the miles for travel.

      • Ali Garland
        December 30, 2013 at 1:38 pm

        That’s great to know, Chuck! There are so many great options out there, and different advantages for all of them. I’m glad you found a bank and credit card that work well for you when you travel!

    10. August 6, 2014 at 6:33 pm

      Great article! Thank you. In paris and trying to figure out how and what to use. From the US but it family is traveling all around, so this was hugely helpful.

      • Ali Garland
        August 7, 2014 at 9:28 am

        Thanks Tara, glad to help! Enjoy your time in Paris!

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