Handling money on the road is an important practicality for any international traveler. Let’s specifically discuss the best credit and debit cards for travel, with a note at the end about when and how to handle your cash (important since many developing countries are cash-based economies).
Although every traveler can benefit from the right card, long-term travelers and expats especially benefit from using cards that eliminate any and all foreign transaction fees. Together, my debit and credit cards and I have been through the good (no withdrawal fees), the bad (two percent transaction fees), and the ugly (whaddaya mean withdrawals and transactions are blocked in Slovenia… I’m in Slovenia right now). After more than ten years traveling, finding seamless banking solutions for international travel has made a huge positive impact on my travels.
In this post, we’re going to talk all things money on the road. That means what you should know about debit/bank cards, the best credit cards in general, and the best travel rewards credit cards (those cards offering miles or points you can exchange for flights, hotels, etc.).
Five Considerations for Travel Credit & Debit Cards
- Transaction Fees: Many credit card companies tack on a 1% to 3% foreign transaction fee to the total price of what you buy. For long-term travelers, this is a clear no-go. Luckily, you have options to circumvent these fees if you research ahead of time. You must find out the percentage for foreign transactions made on your current cards. That means read the fine print—cards designed for use in the U.S. may charge you several percentage points to use the card internationally. Check your credit cards, but your debit card, too. Since you can use debit cards as credit cards (swiped rather than used to withdrawal cash at an ATM), you need to check that fine print as well. Jot these notes down in a spreadsheet or notebook so you can compare options.
- Withdrawal Fees: Many banks charge a flat fee every time you use an international ATM. Ask before you leave. Many international banks also charge a withdrawal fee, so you might get hit twice if your bank card charges a withdrawal fee! Only by researching your current bank cards fees can you determine if you should shop around for a travel-friendly bank account. Also look into if your bank has international branches in your destination city where you could use the local branch to avoid fees.
- Are any countries blocked?: Believe it or not, you might not be able to withdraw any cash in some countries. Back in 2008, my local credit union blocked all transactions from Thailand and Slovenia—my small bank had designated them as locations “highly likely for fraudulent activity.” Now that I use a different bank for primary debit accounts, this is no longer an issue. If you’re also using a local credit union, talk with them in person about your planned trip. And consider carrying two separate bank cards to circumvent any issues.
- Online Banking: Can you access your account balance abroad, and even more, can you handle issues from overseas.? Some banks demand your personal presence to replace a lost card; other times banks only ship to the address on file. Basically, you want a bank that can handle remote support in case you need assistance from abroad—this particularly important for long term travelers. Nowadays, most banks also offer a handy app you can use from your smartphone, which is ideal since logging in from random browsers and computers all over the globe is not safe.
- Carry different brands: Visa and MasterCard are the most widely accepted cards and you need to carry one of each type of card. As strange as it sounds, some countries primarily accept just one of the two brands.
Is There Really a Best Debit Card for Travel?
A resounding yes! Most banks either charge foreign withdrawal fees every time you use your debit card at an ATM outside of your home country, or fees for withdrawals outside of your banking network. Either way, those fees add up—if you’re on the road for a month and modestly withdraw money twice a week, you’ve blown $20 just on bank fees. Then, stack on top of your bank’s fee the fact that all overseas banks also charge a withdrawal as high as six dollars in many cases, and you are looking at $70 in banking fees—all money that is much better spent on your trip.
Schwab Checking: The Best Bank for Travelers
Charles Schwab is an online-based bank with unparalleled advantages for travelers—even after nine years since I signed up for my Schwab checking account, I have yet to hear of any other U.S. bank that even comes close to offering the range of free services Schwab offers travelers..
- no foreign transaction fees
- no ATM withdrawal fees
- reimburses withdrawal fees charged by any other bank
- never requires appearance at a bank branch to access services
- telephone customer service is a cinch, and email responses questions are prompt
- there’s no bank branch where you can sit across from a human and demand answers (since nothing has ever gone wrong, I’ve never missed this)
- transferring funds around between accounts outside Schwab is not seamless (though customer service goes out of their to help ease the process)
How to Avoid Paying Bank Fees When Traveling
When I left on my world travels, the U.S. had just entered the 2008 recession and I was moderately content with the $1 foreign withdrawal fee tacked onto ATM withdrawals from my local credit union checking account. Fast forward nine months. As the recession hit hard, my credit union upped the fee to $2.50 per withdrawal. That hit my travel budget harder.
Once I returned Stateside, I switched to Schwab. Across nine years and 50+ countries, Schwab has lived up to its fee-less withdrawal promise. At the end of every month, Schwab reimburses my account for any withdrawal fees charged by another bank. Considering Spanish and Thai banks charge $5+ per withdrawal, I love seeing a credit of $20+ bank into my account each month. This single feature is a huge asset for any travelers, but long-term travelers specifically. You can’t afford to not bank with Schwab—to my knowledge, no other U.S. bank offers this feature.
A few other options recommended by other travelers:
- ING Direct: Read through the comments below—other people have raved about the ease of money transfers and service with ING.
- Capital One Direct Banking: This option also comes highly recommended in the comments for its easy online interface and lack of transaction fees.
- Caxton FX Global Traveller: This prepaid MasterCard has a diehard contingent of fans among some long-term world travelers.
Tip: In addition to ensuring my bank and credit cards cover these main areas, my father is also to my bank accounts in case surprising issues crop up (and they have over the years). If you have a trusted family member or friend, consider allowing them to work on your behalf, if necessary. It takes good faith, because my dad has fully authority on my account, but if you have someone you absolutely trust, it’s really handy, at times, to have them on your local accounts.
Travel Rewards Credit Cards—Necessary or Folly?
Sinking into deep debt for travel is not likely a great choice for most of us. Although I had debt when I left to travel, I actually spent less on world travel than I had living in Los Angeles and paid off my debt a few years into my long-term travels. Afterwards, I was leery of credit cards—they fall into dangerous territory if you’ve ever abused them in the past (I had).
That 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 bank withdrawals in Slovenia!), and it’s the preferred way to secure a rental car. I use my travel credit cards for things where cash won’t work (flights), and when 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!).
Then there is the subject of travel hacking—if you’re prepared to invest some time in seeking out good deals, you can amass a decent stash of airline miles or points before you even leave on your trip. You can then exchange those points can for flights, accommodation, rental cars, and more. Let’s assume you’re game for a travel rewards credit card—here are the best ones depending on your personal situation.
Travel Hacking: A Quick Overview
If you’re new to the idea of travel hacking, it boils down to this: You earn reward miles or points that you can then exchange for free travel. The majority of this activity centers on the U.S. market, where U.S. credit card companies offer deals and incentives for those willing to use credit cards and generally chase down special offers.
I am not an expert travel hacker by any stretch of the imagination—that Chase Reserve is my sole gambit into that world. As such, I won’t get into specific tips and advice of how to travel hack. I will just note that even if you approach it lightly, it can be an effective way to offset a few travel expenses.
If you have a long timeline before you leave on your world travels, look into the travel rewards cards so you can accumulate points throughout your daily life as you plan and save for your trip. Even with just a light amount of travel hacking, it’s easy to offset at least a few plane flights or hotel nights. From just eight months of use on my first travel rewards card, the Chase Sapphire credit card, I bought a $1,200 flight to Africa. That’s not an insignificant sum! And that was light travel hacking (Matt gets into what more serious travel hacking looks like). The Chase Sapphire Rewards cards are a truly great deal and have many devotees in the travel hacking crowd, not just me.
To really learn this subject, head to the authorities on this topic:
- The Points Guy
- Canadian Travel Hacking
- Rewards Canada
- Head for Points UK
- Chris Guillebeau Travel Hacking
Chase Sapphire Reserved: My Concession to Travel Hacking
My first entry into the world of travel hacking happened in the summer of 2013, when I opened a Chase Sapphire Prefered account as a way to earn enough miles to pay for my flights to Africa. The card had a 40,000 point signup bonus, attractive ways to earn extra miles, and great international policies on rental car coverage and things of that nature. In 2018, I switched to the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which is even better—it offers priority lounge access, triple points on travel, and more. Both cards carry annual fees, however. This turned the right option for me, but read on to decide if you’re better off going with a non-rewards travel card, which has no fees and could be better for a round the world trip, or if you’re still paying off your debt.
- Chase travel cards offer no foreign transaction fees tacked onto international purchases.
- You earn either 40,000 and 50,000 bonus miles if you meet the spending requirement in the first three months—after that, the cards offer either two or three times the points on travel, depending on the card.
- The international customer support is top notch.
- You have full online account access and slick, intuitive interface.
- The Sapphire cards carry an annual fee, so it’s best if you truly are playing the game of using the card to earn miles, otherwise you can receive many similar travel transaction fee the benefits on cards without annual fees.
- Rewards cards—most truly great travel and airline miles credit card—carry higher fees all around. If you’re prone to carrying a balance on your card, go with a credit card with lower fees.
Another option I have used in the past is Capital One. CapOne is a frequent traveler choice because it doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. I carried this card until 2013. I hated the company’s customer service, but I couldn’t fault its offerings. For travelers looking for many of the great benefits of a travel rewards card, but without the annual fee, then look at Capital One VentureOne. Capital One has consistently been the one North American credit card that never charges international transaction fees. I carried my CapOne card throughout all 15 countries on my world trip itinerary and it worked in every single place. It doesn’t have any annual fees, so it could be a good option.
Now that I pay a hefty annual fee for my Chase Reserve card ($450 with a $300 refundable annual travel credit), I use that card exclusively to amass points there that buy my flights home to Florida see my family now that I am based in Barcelona.
Selecting the Right Credit Card for Your Needs
I carry my Chase Reserve credit card in my arsenal because it lacks international transaction fees, it offers me lounge access at airports all over the world, and I earn three times the points on all travel dollars charged. The Preferred and Reserve are two of the bested rated travel points credit cards on the market.
If you’re shopping for an airline miles card, look at the Gold Delta SkyMiles by American Express. And for hotels cards, the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card is a Chase Visa card and is a good bet. Note, however, American Express is not widely accepted internationally, but it’s a great way to earn miles if you’re traveling in the U.S., or if you’re several years out from your long-term travels.
Tip: Add your primary rewards card to your Apple Wallet—then it’s easy to tap and and pay and earn points. Since U.S. cards are not equipped with WiFi like European cards, by using Apple Pay you can seamlessly navigate the tap-and-go world on your European travels. There are days here in my home of Barcelona that I only leave with my iPhone since 95% of the locations accept Apple Pay.
Cash: When and How to Carry it Safely
Many developing countries operate on cash economies. Although credit cards are essential in a pinch and work for booking flights, you will spend most of your money in cash when traveling throughout Southeast Asia, Africa, Central America, Central Asia, and many other locations. It’s this cash-based factor that makes it so important for travelers to use banks that do not charge withdrawal fees.
This cash factor also means there are times you are carrying a lot of money in your pocket, purse, or money belt! It used to wig me out to have several hundred dollars on my person, but now I accept it as a part of the travel experience. That doesn’t mean I’m going to make myself an easy target though! Here are some ideas about when, why, and how to safely use and carry your cash while traveling.
- Carry a safety $100 dollars in USD. Although you could use Euros or pounds, the USD is a strong secondary currency in many locations. When I traveled with my niece, I carried $175 dollars as our “just in case” fund, and I always stored it in a different spot than my credit and debit cards. This cash works in a variety of circumstances: If the local ATM is broken, if you need to bribe your way out of a situation, if you’re injured and need to pay for immediate assistance, if your primary wallet is stolen, etc. I mention these because every one of those situations has happened to me over the past decade of travel.
- Withdraw a four to seven days worth of local currency at a time. You want enough cash to get you through the next few days, but not enough that you’re out of money if you’re robbed. By withdrawing a few days at a time, you ensure that a broken ATM or an unexpected emergency is easily handled.
- Do not exchange money—withdraw from an ATM. When you arrive at the airport, steer far clear of the exchange booths and instead hit up the ATM. I use the XE.com currency app so that I always know the local exchange rate, or you can usually be certain that the bottom right withdrawal option is for an amount between $80 and $200.
- Keep cash in multiple spots. Consider keeping cash in at least two spots. And if you are traveling as a couple, split credit cards and cash between you both. I always shove two twenties somewhere in a hidden luggage compartment, or I will put it in a bag with dirty socks and underwear if I am in a very sketchy hotel situation. Another tactic is to carry a muggers wallet with a day’s worth of cash. My primary wallet is often in my purse, but I also carry a daily wallet (usually a small zip pouch) with charge and a wad of small local currency I can use at markets. If you’re mugged, you would hand over this wallet and leave your main wallet or money belt hidden unless things were to escalate. Several travel friends have successfully used this tactic when mugged in South America.
That about wraps up every money recommendation from my ten years on the road. Between these three areas—debit cards, credit cards, and cash—there is no financial situation you can’t handle on the road. If you have a favorite tip—be it for a favored card or a safety tip, let me know in the comments below! And use our other resources if you’re planning your world travels and want insider tips on finding great flights, accommodation, travel insurance, and more.
Disclosure: I have no degree in finance and there are no guarantees if you take my advice on using these companies. This is a personal, friendly recommendation from a fellow traveler; no more and no less. Oh, and no one paid me to recommend these cards—every recommendation comes from personal experience and reader feedback. :)