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Using credit cards internationally: 10 tips to remember

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Your international flights are booked, your fancy hotels are reserved, and your itinerary is jammed with insomnia-inducing bucket list adventures. All that’s left to do is pack, yeah?

Actually, no. Before you leave home, doing some quick financial housekeeping is wise. If you don’t have a solid credit card strategy, you could pay hundreds of dollars in fees, forfeit easy savings on purchases you planned to make anyway, and even find that your card is nonfunctional at checkout. Here are ten ways to make traveling internationally with a credit card easy.

10 ways to make traveling internationally with a credit card easy

It’s worth exerting a bit of effort to abide by these tips before your trip to avoid a potential hassle during your vacation.

1. Choose a card designed for travel

If you’re planning an overseas trip, you should open a proper travel credit card. It’s not a gimmick—you can achieve a lot of value from the benefits of a credit card specifically constructed with travelers in mind.

For example, many non-travel credit cards will charge a fee when you make a purchase that is processed outside the U.S. During your international trip, you could pay up to 3% in foreign transaction fees for all spending. But most travel credit cards waive these fees.

Depending on how much you spend abroad, waived foreign transaction fees could amount to hundreds of dollars in savings.

2. Tell the card issuer your travel plans

“See if you need to put a travel notification on your account,” says Jen Ruiz, founder at Jen on a Jet Plane. “Many travel credit cards don’t require it but others may. Your debit card definitely will if you intend to withdraw cash.”

Taking this precaution can save you a lot of headaches. If you don’t keep your credit card issuers in the loop when you plan to travel, transactions could be declined as a fraud prevention measure when you try to use your card. Understandably, a charge on your card 7,000 miles from your home can raise a red flag with your issuer. 

Most major banks allow you to file a travel notice online. You can input the countries you plan to visit, allowing you to swipe your card along your travels worry-free.

Some credit cards will proactively note your travel plans if you use them to purchase your travel. For example, if you use your card to buy a plane ticket to Paris, you may get a message from your card issuer letting you know that your card has been approved for use in France.

3. Research applicable fees

Depending on your destination, you could be in for unexpected fees whenever you swipe your credit card. For example, when you swipe a credit card at checkout, the merchant accepting payment must cough up a “processing fee” to the credit card issuer. To the merchant, this fee is often well worth the convenience it brings for its patrons. But sometimes, the merchant will tack that fee onto your final bill.

It’s worth researching to see if the area you’re visiting is in the habit of putting the processing fee in your lap—and if so, you may decide to bring along some extra cash to save money.

4. Avoid dynamic currency conversion (DCC)

If you’ve ever been abroad, you may have been asked a strange question at checkout immediately after inserting your credit card into the point of sale: Would you like to pay in local currency or U.S. currency?

It’s understandable to want to view your payment in U.S. dollars—simply to better comprehend exactly how much you’re spending. But get this: If you choose to convert your bill into U.S. dollars, you’ll be subject to what is often an egregiously unfavorable exchange rate. This could result in an upcharge of more than 3%. You may even be charged additional fees for the conversion.

Also, realize that requesting a bill to be charged in your home currency doesn’t circumvent foreign transaction fees. You may still be liable for those on top of the exchange rate.

5. Bring a backup card

For a myriad of reasons, you should bring along more than one card on your international fling. For example:

  • You may lose your primary credit card.
  • The card’s payment network, such as American Express and Discover, may not be widely accepted where you’re going (we’ll discuss this more shortly).
  • Fraud or other complications may make your card temporarily useless.

To be extra precautious, Jen suggests to “[k]eep one credit card separate from the rest as a backup. Don’t keep all your cards and money in one place.” Your second card could be a debit card or a prepaid card—but we recommend grabbing another credit card, as it comes with benefits and protections such as $0 liability for unauthorized charges.

6. Set up a PIN (if applicable)

Ever heard of the term “chip and PIN” when referring to a credit card?

Nearly all credit cards nowadays tout an EMV chip. But surprisingly few credit cards in the U.S. are “chip and PIN,” which allow you to complete payment by entering a four-digit number at the point of sale. Instead, most U.S. credit cards are “chip and signature,” which only requires a quick scribble.

In a handful of scenarios, particularly around Europe, you’ll need a true chip and PIN credit card to complete your transaction. For example, an unattended kiosk may prompt you for your PIN after you insert your credit card into the reader. If you don’t have a PIN, you won’t be able to complete your transaction.

Having a chip and PIN card could be the difference between filling up your gas tank and finding yourself stranded without a viable payment method. It’s worth calling your credit card issuer to see if you can set up a PIN on the card you plan to take.

7. Find out how to get cash

We scream endlessly that the hefty fees and high APR of cash advances make them a bad deal. They should only be used in case of emergency. It’s better to plan ahead and take a debit card that will allow you to make withdrawals abroad.

But emergencies happen, and you may find yourself in a circumstance that warrants a cash advance from your credit card. You’ll need to enter a PIN to receive cash, so contact your credit card issuer if you don’t know the preset PIN. You should also have the option to select a personalized number.

8. Write down the customer service number for your card

In most cases, your credit card’s customer service number is on the back of your card. If it’s not there, be sure to jot it down and keep it in a safe place just in case something goes awry with your payment method.

Additionally, if you’ve got a fancy card that comes with an increased level of customer service, note the number that directly connects you with your white glove hotline. For example, The Platinum Card® from American Express offers a dedicated concierge service with a number different from Amex’s regular customer service number.

It’s easy enough to find these details by navigating the automated phone labyrinth or simply googling, but it doesn’t hurt to have it immediately available.

9. Check your card benefits for travel perks

Travel credit cards can do more than just waive foreign transaction fees and extract cash from ATMs; they can revolutionize the quality of your travel. Depending on the credit card you’ve got, you could benefit from:

  • Airport lounge access. There are multiple lounge networks comprising thousands of lounges worldwide, many offering free food and alcohol. With the right credit card, you can access most of these lounges for free as often as you want (with an active boarding pass).
  • Trusted traveler programs. Many credit cards provide credit toward the TSA PreCheck or Global Entry application fees. Membership to either of these programs means you (usually) won’t have to remove your shoes and belt at airport security.
  • Travel insurance. When you use your qualifying travel rewards credit card to reserve your travel, you’ll receive travel insurance benefits like trip delay protection, travel accident insurance, primary rental car insurance, and more.
  • Elite status perks. Many credit cards confer elite status benefits for specific airline and hotel brands. Holding one such card may be enough to influence which hotel brands you stay with—or which airlines you fly.
  • Statement credits. The top travel credit cards offer annual credits to offset common travel purchases, such as airfare, hotel stays, rental cars, and baggage fees.

10. Choose a widely accepted payment network

A payment network is a platform that credit card issuers use to process your credit card transactions. Common payment networks in the U.S. include Visa, Mastercard, American Express, and Discover.

Outside the U.S., however, don’t be so confident that your payment network will be as ubiquitous. Visa and Mastercard tend to have virtually universal acceptance. American Express and Discover are a different story—though they are still accepted in many countries.

Top credit cards for international travel

If you’re looking for the best travel credit cards to complement your globetrotting lifestyle, you’ve got a slew of high-powered options to choose from. You need to ask yourself one question as you decide: Do the travel benefits outweigh the annual fee?

For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card charges a $95 annual fee. Beyond waived foreign transaction fees, the card’s main draw is its travel coverages. The card’s trip delay insurance, baggage delay insurance, and primary rental car insurance alone can save you many hundreds of dollars during your trip. But if you don’t value trip delay insurance, the card isn’t worth it for you.

The Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card charges a $395 annual fee. But it comes with up to $300 back annually for bookings made through Capital One Travel l and 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary. That’s an easy $400 in free travel each year, which more than offsets the card’s annual fee.

In other words, this card is an easy win if you regularly spend at least $400 on travel each year. You can then enjoy the card’s complimentary access to 1,500+ lounges through Priority Pass, elite travel insurance, and application reimbursement for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry without the guilt of an imposing annual fee weighing on your conscience.

The takeaway

There are quite a number of credit card-related details to consider before your international trip. Taking a few precautionary measures, such as opening a travel-centric credit card, setting a PIN, and bringing along more than one card can go a long way toward making your trip a smooth one.

Please note that card details are accurate as of the publish date but are subject to change at any time at the issuer’s discretion. Before applying, please contact the card issuer to verify rates, fees, and benefits.

Terms apply to American Express benefits and offers. Enrollment may be required for select American Express benefits and offers. Visit americanexpress.com to learn more.

Eligibility and Benefit level varies by Card. Terms, Conditions, and Limitations Apply. Please visit americanexpress.com/benefitsguide for more details. Underwritten by Amex Assurance Company.

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