Credit and debit cards are extremely important while traveling. That itself is a bit of a no brainer. Everyone should have at least two or three cards with them just in case one expires, gets lost, or fails. Unfortunately, not everyone knows everything they should about using cards abroad. In the following I’ll show you why you need more cards, how they can fail, and how you can SAVE HUNDREDS of dollars on fees.
Everything I wrote about, I wrote from experience. I invite all the readers to continue the discussion and comment with there own tips, tricks, knowledge, experience and stories.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW AHEAD OF TIME
This is the basics. Make sure you understand all of this before you leave, so you aren’t caught off guard.
- Credit cards are rarely accepted anywhere except the airport (within SEA specifically): After 6 months of travel, I don’t even need one hand to count the number of physical stores I used my credit card in. I never used it. I still needed it though. The credit card is great for flexing its benefits when buying plane tickets, booking hostels on your phone, and at the airport before you can find a currency exchange. It can also act as an ATM card in a pinch.
- Most cards charge a hefty foreign transaction fee: Up to 3%, I hear. These fees will break you down if you are not careful. Luckily, many cards advertise themselves as travel cards, with no foreign transaction fees, and do not have these fees. Shop for your credit card wisely and keep this in mind. See my card suggestions at the end for a good example.
- Every ATM charges fees: ATM fees in SE Asia vary from $3 – 10. With the steep fees, most people are stuck between sucking it up and paying it often, or carrying loads of cash on them in each country (that is not recommended for obvious reasons). There is one exceptional bank that will refund you all ATM fees that are charged. Schwab, and its excellent free checking/investor account, saved my girlfriend and I over $300 in ATM fees after six month. More information about this account can be found at the end of the article.
- The banks will shut down your account if you don’t tell them you will be traveling: Don’t forget to call them. Should only take 2-10 minutes depending on the bank.
- Cards expire: No duh, but don’t forget to check.
- Don’t expect to find an ATM right when you get to a new country. Be ready and have about $50 in USD stashed in your pack for emergencies, and a bit of pre-exchanged local currency ready.
How a card can fail and why you need more than one:
Three stories summed up in a sentence each:
- The ATM charged me but I didn’t get any money, and now my bank shut my card down for suspicious activity. Always keep receipts for cancelled and failed transactions. Try to always visit an ATM that is attached to the associated bank. Frequently check your account, especially after a strange interaction with an ATM. Remember that a credit card can act as an emergency debit card (cash advancing), but try not to use it since there are commonly extra fees involved.
- The bank was hacked, and now they sent me a new card, but obviously I’m not home anymore. Note: They will send you a new card to an international address if you can wait it out and know where you’ll be.
- I’m an idiot, and didn’t check my expiration date. It happened to me, and I’m not proud of it.
These are three damn good reasons to carry an extra credit and debit card from a different bank on the side when traveling. Stash them deep in your bag for safety. They weigh nothing and if you ever need them you’ll be stoked that you brought them.
Saving money on fees and beating the system:
Foreign transaction fees: There are dozens of banks and creditors that offer cards, for free, without foreign transaction fees. Find one! 3% is a lot of money to be paying on a long trip that is tight on funds.
ATM fees: Unless you’re using the Schwab High Yield Investor Checking Account, you’ll likely be paying ATM fees at every ATM you see. Beat these fees by withdrawing large sums of money at ATMs. Balance the risk of carrying cash with the cost of the ATM, but I usually took out 10-14 days worth of cash ($200-500) and split it between my bag and my wallet.
Cash back and rewards cards: Most credit cards come with a 1% cash back on certain purchases. Some cards, come with even better deals, with cash back percentages reaching over 3% in certain categories. Even better cards sweeten the deal buy offering decent sums of money (in reward points) if you spend enough money or keep the card long enough. The Barclay Arrival Plus, I’ll talk about below offers 40,000 points (about $300) if you spend $3000 in the first three months. If you can meet these demands and still make the payments, it’s almost free money.
These three cards combined, have earned and saved me over $600 in a year of travel and preparation.
Schwab High Yield Investor Checking Account:
I didn’t think to look at a brokerage firm for a checking account, but this account has been a god send. No ATM fees! Excellent customer service! No foreign exchange fees! This one of a kind account will eventually become the backpacker’s standard.
Pros: Refunded ATM fees. No foreign exchange fees. Market price exchange rates. Excellent customer service. Short hold times. Decent web and app platforms.
Cons: Transferring money from a main account at another bank wirelessly takes about 5 business days. Physical banks are few and far between in the states. Hopefully there is one near you. Initial set up may need to be done in person. This is an old school bank.
BofA TravelRewards Card:
Standard card with no foreign transaction fees. Visa. My back up card. No pros, no cons. Super standard.
Awesome card with an excellent set of perks, especially the initial rewards offer. No foreign transaction fees. The first year is free, but after that, you need to pay $95/yr, so don’t forget to cancel the card before the year is up.
Pros: 2% Cash back. No foreign transaction fees. Cash advances available (at cost). MasterCard. Huge 40,000 point reward offer. Good customer service. Free for first year.
Cons: $95/yr after first year (remember to cancel it). Not Visa. Needs decent credit to get approval.
Additional links for credit card research:
- Nerd Wallet – for side-by-side card comparisons.
- The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas – Travel Independent
- The Best Travel Credit and Debit Cards – Thrifty Nomads – International Options!
- Prepaid Debit Cards in 2018 – Overview of available prepaid debit cards available at the moment.