A Little Advice…What’s in Your Travel Wallet?

best rtw travel Credit cardsStepping away from travel stories, I wanted to share focus on the practicalities of traveling long-term and talk about handling money abroad, as well as which credit and debit cards rank as traveltasticly special.

**This post was updated in January 2016 to reflect new credit and debit cards on the market and my honest opinion on what I find works best.**

Together, my cards and I have been through the good (no withdrawal fees), the bad (two percent transaction fees) and the ugly (whaddaya mean I can’t make a withdrawal or transaction in Slovenia… but I’m IN SLOVENIA). After more than six years traveling, I learned that finding seamless banking solutions made a huge impact on my travels at the end of the day. Many lessons were hard-learne, so here is how I handle money on the road.

Travel Considerations for Credit & Debit Cards

  • Transaction Fees: What is the percentage for transactions made on your credit card, and on your debit card when it’s used as a credit card (swiped and not used at an ATM)? Find this number for your current card and write it down so you can compare.
  • Withdrawal Fees: Many banks charge a flat fee every time you use an international ATM. Ask before you leave.
  • Are any countries blocked?: Back in 2008, my credit union blocked Thailand and Slovenia because my bank designated them as “highly likely for fraudulent activity.” Now that I switched banks, this is no longer an issue.
  • Online Banking: This is a no-brainer, but you really should be able to get access to your account balance abroad—particularly important for long term travelers.
  • Carry different brands: You should have a Visa and a  MasterCard, some countries more widely accept one over the other.

Does my debit card company really matter?

A resounding yes! Many banks charge a foreign withdrawal fee every single time you use an ATM outside of your country. Depending on the rate (some are even over $3 per withdrawal) it swallows up your savings. These fees add up over time and can easily be avoided with research ahead of time.

My Saving grace: Schwab Online Banking

Charles Schwab travel debit card reviewCharles Schwab is a completely online based bank and they have unparalleled advantages for travelers—better than any other US bank I’ve heard of yet.

The Good:

  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • No ATM withdrawal fees.
  • They reimburse withdrawal fees from other banks!
  • They’re online so they’ll never ask you to come into the bank branch to pick up your replacement for a stolen card while you’re sitting on a beach in Thailand.
  • Customer service over the phone has always been a cinch, and email responses to questions are fast.

The Bad: 

  • It’s completely online, so if you’re like me, you sometimes like to have a human to point at and make ugly faces to when things are going wrong. With Schwab you’re left making faces into the phone. Somehow less satisfying.
  • BUT, they do have investment branches in most US cities and they warmly welcome walk-in banking customers who have questions (just no actual banking).
  • I hear that transferring funds around is difficult (read through the comments); I don’t do any of this, I direct deposit my paychecks and leave it at that, so this could be true and a drawback if you juggle funds from many accounts.

Final Thoughts on Debit Cards

When I left on my RTW trip the economy was at the beginning of the recession and I was moderately content with the $1 foreign withdrawal fee tacked onto ATM withdrawals from my Credit Union bank account. Fast forward nine months, the recession hit hard, and my Credit Union upped the fee to $2.50 per withdrawal. Once I got back to the US I switched to Schwab and they have lived up to their fee-less withdrawal promises throughout 20+ countries. At the end of every month Schwab deposits a reimbursement for fees into my account; considering that Thai banks charge $5+ per withdrawal, this was always a significant reimbursement each month. It makes a huge difference to have that single asset on my checking account. I just love the Schwab card and truly recommend that you travel with it above most others as your primary bank card. They have a great online interface and truly refund you every single foreign withdrawal fee.

Credit Cards for Travel—Necessary or Folly?

I rarely  support going into debt to travel, and credit cards fall into a dangerous territory if you’ve ever abused them in the past. That being said, things happen and it’s wise to travel with a credit card. They come in handy and should anything happen to your bank account (like no freakin’ withdrawals in Slovenia!), you have a back-up and some surety. I use a credit card for things where cash won’t work and I don’t want to swipe/risk my bank card (I rented a car in South Africa and was so glad that I used it instead of my bank card since they overcharged me and it took months to resolve!)

My Saving grace: Chase Sapphire Preffered

Chase Sapphire PreferredI switched to Chase Sapphire Preffered in the summer of 2013 as a way to earn enough miles to pay for my flights to Africa. The card has a great signup bonus as well as attractive ways to earn miles and great international policies. It does carry an annual fee, however, so this turned out to be right for me, but read on to decide if you’re better off going with a non-rewards card, which has no fees and could be better for a RTW trip.

The Good:

  • No foreign transaction fees tacked onto international purchases.
  • 40,000 bonus miles if you meet the spending requirement in the first three months, then miles deals the rest of the time.
  • International customer support.
  • Full online access and great interface.

The Bad:

  • After the first year the Sapphire card carries an annual fee, so it’s best if you are playing the game of using the card to earn miles, otherwise you can get the same benefits with no fees.
  • Rewards cards—like the airline miles credit card—carry higher fees so if you’re prone to carrying a balance on your card, go with a credit card that has lower fees.

Capital One travel credit card reviewAnother option I have used in the past is Capital One. CapOne is a frequent traveler choice because they don’t have foreign transaction fees. I carried this card until 2013, but I hated their customer service so I find that I usually just leave it at home and stick with my Chase Sapphire instead since it earns me miles. That being said, Capital One has consistently been the one North American credit card that never charges international transaction fees. And it’s true, I carried my CapOne card throughout all 14 countries on my RTW trip and it worked in every single place. It doesn’t have any annual fees, so it could be a good option.

Final Thoughts on Credit Cards

I carry my Chase Sapphire credit card in my arsenal because it lacks the international transaction fee and I earn miles. There are other Chase cards without the annual fee, but still with the great Chase customer service, so you could do some research there. This is a murky area because there are so many credit card options out there. I don’t really play the travel hacking game, but if you’re looking to learn more about travel hacking and using your credit card to earn miles, I recommend you read up at Chris Guillebeau’s dense resource page, or dive into the vast resources on The Points Guy.

Other Credit Cards Inside and Outside North America

These two companies work for US-based travelers. I have no experience with these other companies but have heard and read good things about their travel policies:

  • ING Direct: Read through the comments below, other people have raved about the ease of money transfers and service.
  • Capital One Direct Banking: Also comes highly recommended in the comments for their easy online interface and no transaction fees.
  • Caxton FX Global Traveller (a prepaid MasterCard – I know nothing about it, but RTW travelers have raved)

Any other great travel-friendly cards out there? What do you take abroad?

Disclosure: I have no degree in finance and I give you no guarantees on using these companies. This is just a personal, friendly recommendation from a fellow traveler; no more and no less. :) Oh, and no one paid me to recommend their cards so these recommendations come from personal experience and reader feedback.

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27 Responses to A Little Advice…What’s in Your Travel Wallet?

  1. Mike February 24, 2011 at 2:38 am #

    All excellent info. I will also praise ING. I’ve been using them since 2001 and never had any issues. I also use Schwab, love them but only negative is having to transfer funds from brokerage account into checking, and a Capital One MC, no issues with them. Chase recently eliminated international transaction fees. I’m using a British Airways Chase Visa as my main card and have had zero issues.

    • Anonymous February 25, 2011 at 6:08 pm #

      Thanks for weighing in Mike! I mail in deposits to my Schwab checking, so I
      hadn’t realized that they make it difficult to transfer funds like that, but
      you’re not the only one to point that out – a real drawback! As for Chase,
      if they really have taken away international fees then I just might get an
      account there, they have so many rewards points programs and the such! :)

  2. Kerri January 27, 2011 at 6:04 am #

    As always Shannon, this is a fantastic bit of advice! I have been pondering the money handling question for a while now (starting my RTW in a week) and this answered a lot of my questions. I only wish Canada has comparable options. I’m hoping my American SSN helps me land a Charles Schwab account. I have read that in SE Asia, American dollars are the way to go. Do you happen to know if they are easy to get there, or if it is necessary to carry cash over (yikes!)?

    • Anonymous January 30, 2011 at 10:41 am #

      Glad that you found some helpful stuff in this post Kerri! And it is too bad
      that you don’t have these options in Canada – though I hear that ING Direct
      is pretty good through the grapevine (ie other comments here in this
      thread). …As for the question of dollars – you are definitely going to
      want to bring over American $ rather than Canadian – and I say that you
      should always have at least US $100 stashed on you at the beginning of you
      trip – seriously good to have money on you if you get in a pinch, get stuck,
      lost – it’s just good to have. As far as restocking cash, Cambodia’s ATMs
      give out US$ when you use them, so you can restock there if need be! :)

  3. Sarah Wu January 21, 2011 at 7:25 am #

    I have to admit that I’m glad I brought my Capital One card with em to Italy. I caleld HSBC card to let them know I’m traveling and they say no problem they’ll make a note. When I got to there the card was decline and won’t let me charge anything. However Capital one worked. (And I never called them too). Good thing I had it with me.

    • Anonymous January 22, 2011 at 10:16 am #

      That’s precisely why I love having multiple cards, different companies and
      logos on them – it’s just craptastic when they decide to not work on you!
      Glad that your CapOne card worked for you, it’s always in my wallet too :)

  4. Jack and Jill Travel The World January 16, 2011 at 10:26 pm #

    I have them both. We’re planning to use these 2 cards for our RTW trip and are test driving them right now. So far we really like them, but I guess the real test drive is still upcoming.

    • Anonymous January 17, 2011 at 2:11 am #

      These should really do you well, I haven’t hadn’t had a single problem yet
      :) Just make sure to give them both the travel warning before you leave!
      :)

  5. TacoBillMcGuinness January 15, 2011 at 9:52 am #

    What I meant was, there is NOT a single pic in which your prettiness does not shine.

  6. Jeremy B January 14, 2011 at 8:41 pm #

    Great list of tips Shannon! This sounds a lot like the one nomadicmatt just did. Like you, I do cash, credit, and debit cards. Some people may not like using credit cards or could get into trouble with it but I love the idea. I’ve always been responsible with money and love my budget spreadsheet about as much as I do my blog. I am very frugal and financially responsible so I have no issues with a credit card. I know others who do online banking only and it seems to work well for them and it does save money on fees.

    However, I do have a question for you. Since American credit and debit cards use magnetic stripe and some other countries use the chip and pin, have you ever run into any issues using your cards while traveling?

    • Anonymous January 17, 2011 at 3:47 am #

      That’s a really great question – and I actually only encountered that problem in Europe when I was trying to book bus and train tickets online…they wanted a pin number of some sort… not sure what. But, the whole issue with the chips and what-not is why I always, always have a Visa and a MasterCard (and I carry an AmEx in Europe) and that got me through without any real hitches.

      (PS – yeah, I saw Matt’s post but already had this queued up so went with it :)

  7. Krista C. January 14, 2011 at 11:46 pm #

    Wow, Shannon, thanks so much for these tips! I have been thinking about this issue on and off for quite awhile, this helps a bunch.

    • Anonymous January 17, 2011 at 3:37 am #

      Glad to help! It can make a difference on the road which one you choose, happy travels! :)

  8. Akila January 14, 2011 at 5:28 pm #

    Shannon, I have the Schwab checking account and maybe I have one that’s slightly different than yours because mine has no ATM fees but doing anything online is impossible. In particular, I can’t move funds around online which drives me insane.

    We use Capital One Direct Banking for our checking which I really love because they give me a great rate on foreign currency fees, as well as their whole system is online and easy to use.

    I love my Capital One No Hassle Miles card! We’ve actually had really good luck with their customer service. They refunded us $400 when Europcar overcharged us in Australia without any hesitation. I could do ads for Capital One . . . that’s how much I love them.

    • Anonymous January 17, 2011 at 3:21 am #

      Hmm…I don’t do a lot of moving funds from my Schwab account because I run out of two accounts, and just really use my Schwab for travel (and fund it before I leave)…it seems a little crazy that they would make it that difficult to do your banking online since they’re an online bank!

      Great tip on the CapOne banking – I have never looked into that, but I really prefer easy online systems so you’re not having to Skype on horrible connections to get things done!

  9. GlobalButterfly January 14, 2011 at 5:05 pm #

    This is REALLY helpful info!

  10. Anil January 14, 2011 at 6:05 pm #

    I’m a sucker for airline mile cards but for good ol’ fashioned banking I like ING – the online interface is great and makes it an attractive option even if you just use it to transfer money between other banks. It also has a higher than average interest rate on checking and savings :)

    • Anonymous January 17, 2011 at 3:34 am #

      I’ll add ING to the list Anil, I haven’t really had much interaction with them but I like the fact that they’re good with online money transfers, that’s apparently an area where Schwab is not so hot. Will look into them! :)

  11. Anonymous January 14, 2011 at 3:51 pm #

    I use a Capital One card and absolutely love it–although I feel you on the customer service! My only gripe is that it takes 20 minutes just to do one simple thing because they ask you a million repetitive questions–but in the end, they get it done, and that’s what matters.
    My home bank is Tri Counties, a community bank in Sacramento. They also never charge for ATM withdrawals and reimburse me for other bank’s fees, similar to Charles Schwab. Plus they give me an amazing interest rate and I love dealing with them when I’m at home–so friendly and helpful! Helps that my whole family banks with them, so I can ask any questions through them when I’m abroad.
    Might look into Charles Schwab though–been hearing lots of good things, although the online only part would take a bit of getting used to.

    • Jeremy B January 14, 2011 at 8:42 pm #

      Christine, I might check out TriCounties to save money. Right now I use Chase and while it’s big, it has cost me money when I travel. And my current interest rates are AWFUL!

      • Anonymous January 17, 2011 at 3:18 am #

        Chase has a lot of great programs and cash back incentives when you are in the States, by best friend uses them, but if you are heading out of the country you should definitely look into a bank that isn’t going to charge you ridiculous fees! :)

    • Anonymous January 17, 2011 at 3:18 am #

      Thanks for including your local recommendation – I would love to find a bank that good in Florida, becuase I really like the local feel and being able to walk into a branch sometimes. But, Schwab is worth looking into if you need to change banks, or if you are looking to invest since they are really well known for that side of their business to!

  12. TacoBillMcGuinness January 14, 2011 at 9:13 am #

    I really enjoyed this, Shannon. I found it very interesting and informative. It was something I was curious about without ever really knowing I was curious about it. I am fortunate enough (for the moment) that I am not living paycheck to paycheck, but finances are always one of my concerns and priorities, and something that holds me back from doing all the things I want to do. I really, really enjoyed this article.

    P.S. There is a single pic in which your prettiness does not shine!

    • Anonymous January 17, 2011 at 3:16 am #

      Glad you liked it Bill and thanks for commenting! :) If you really really want something then it’s worth saving for…where there is a will there’s a way! What are your finances holding you back from?

      • TacoBillMcGuinness January 20, 2011 at 7:57 am #

        Training how to SCUBA, then scuba and cage diving with Great White sharks.

        • Anonymous January 20, 2011 at 8:00 am #

          Excellent and well worth waiting then! I know that’s one of your Big Dreams
          :)