Credit 5 Helpful Tips for International Travelers Using Credit Cards Abroad

by Deborah Ziff Soriano | July 31, 2018

A little advance planning can help you avoid any snags or unexpected fees when using your credit card while traveling far from home.

On a trip to Spain with her husband and then 8-year-old daughter, Tamara Gruber forgot to alert her credit card issuer that she was going to be traveling internationally. When she tried to purchase a SIM card in Barcelona so she could use her cell phone abroad, her card was declined.

“It was a true Catch-22 situation in that we couldn’t buy the SIM card without our credit card and we couldn’t make a call to get the charge approved without a SIM card,” says Gruber, who blogs about traveling with her family on the website “I’ll never make that mistake again.”

Having a credit card while traveling can make life on the road easier — especially when venturing outside of the country. And these simple tips can help you avoid any snags or unexpected fees when using your credit card on your next trip.

    1. Set up a travel notification on your credit card with the issuer

    The good news is that many card issuers monitor your card for fraudulent use. The flip side of that is that using your card abroad or racking up charges in multiple destinations can prompt your bank or card issuer to put a freeze on your account.

    That’s the situation Gruber found herself in. She was eventually able to take out cash at an ATM and purchase the SIM card. Once the card was installed, she called the credit card company to unblock the account.

    But letting your card issuer know about your travel plans in advance can help you avoid those frustrating moments.

    “You usually don’t find this out until you go to use the card again and it’s declined,” says Caroline Makepeace, who founded the travel website yTravelBlog with her husband, Craig. “This can be very distressing in another country, especially when the card is your only access to money.”

    Experts recommend that you let your card issuer know which cities you intend to visit and the dates of your trip. Be aware that even domestic travel can send red flags to card issuers.

    “I usually put a little buffer at the end of our travel dates, just in case we get delayed somewhere,” says Keryn Means, founder of the family travel website Walking on Travels. “I will also include any countries and cities that our flights are connecting through, in case we’re delayed there.”

    Experts recommend that you let your card issuer know which cities you intend to visit and the dates of your trip.
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    2. Watch for debit and credit card foreign transaction fees

    If using your credit or debit card internationally, be aware of the potential to incur foreign transaction fees. These are fees that some card issuers and banks charge for transactions abroad to cover the cost of converting the money into U.S. dollars. The fee is often somewhere between 1% to 3%, Makepeace says, which may seem small, but can add up.

    Just check with your card issuer to see if it charges foreign transaction fees and how they work. There are some credit and debit cards with no foreign transaction fees.

    “I'd recommend doing your research to find out if your card [issuer] does charge, how much it charges and how many different fees, so that you can have a spending plan before you leave to ensure you don't spend a lot of your travel money on bank fees,” Makepeace advises.

    Gruber said she returned home from a trip to Canada to discover she had been charged foreign transaction fees on her purchases.

    “We came home with an extra $40 in charges we didn’t need,” she said. “Ever since, I make sure we use cards that don’t charge foreign transaction fees.”

    3. Anticipate your need for cash

    Finding a card with no foreign transaction fees can help to reduce the amount of cash you need to either bring from home or take out of ATMs. (Consider that taking cash out of ATMs while traveling internationally could result in fees.)

    How much cash you bring along depends on your comfort and needs. Means, for one, travels with no more than a few hundred dollars in cash to cover any incidentals. “We usually end up having leftover cash because we’re using our credit card so much,” Means says. “In the end, using our credit card with no foreign transaction fees saves us money over using cash.” Using a card over cash also has the benefit of leaving a paper trail, Makepeace says.

    4. Travel with more than one credit card

    Traveling with more than one credit card provides important back-up if one card is lost or declined. Experts also recommend keeping them in separate locations.

    “Generally, I’ll leave one in the safe at the hotel,” Means says. “If I’m traveling with a friend or spouse, I usually make sure they have one too in case something happens and mine is stolen.”

    Traveling with more than one credit card provides important back-up if one card is lost or declined.
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    5. Check for travel benefits offered by your credit card issuer

    If you’re about to embark on a big trip, it might also be worth your time to check in with your card issuer to see if they offer any travel perks.

    Some may offer benefits that could help you at the airport, such as free checked bags or reimbursement for expedited security screening and clearance programs. Others may help once you land, such as car insurance. You might also be eligible for medical insurance for your trip.

    Even cards that aren’t marketed as travel cards may have benefits, such as extra rewards points or miles at restaurants.

    “Depending on how many different cards you have,” Makepeace notes, it can be a challenge to keep track of what your rewards points can do. “It is worth spending time researching and taking notes so it's easier for you to know how to use your cards and collect those rewards.”

    Doing a little homework before your next adventure — to find out about both potential credit card benefits and fees — will help set you up for smoother travels when you arrive. Bon voyage!

    Deborah Ziff Soriano

    is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area who writes about a range of topics, including higher education, personal finance and business.