Credit Cards for International Travel
These are interesting times we live in when it comes to financially protecting ourselves. Just the simple pastimes of shopping and travel can expose us to financial fraud and it does seem to be getting worse. A couple of years ago our son and a friend where cruising with is and the ship stopped in Mexico. On the pier they took advantage of telephones advertising ten minute calls to the U.S. for $5. When they got home they were each notified that they had gone on a shopping spree in Romania and when the charges for the phone came thru they were for over $30 instead of the advertised $5.
Over the years we have been notified a number of times about unauthorized use of our credit cards along with one an incident of identity theft. Once someone bought gold coins online shortly after we left the country (several days before that a rental car agent had everything needed, the card information, a copy of my drivers license and she knew we were leaving the country – maybe??). Another time we were notified that we had purchased several bicycles in Rome while we were traveling in Europe (I think that information was supplied from checking into a hotel in Italy). Another time someone bought a batch of train tickets in Germany shortly after we booked a hotel in Europe thru booking.com. The one case of real of identity theft was quickly caught by our identity theft protection service. Fortunately most credit card companies do not hold you libel for unauthorized charges.
Even considering the above, with the wide international acceptance of credit cards there is no reason to not make them your primary resource for paying while you travel. Often it can save you money over making several currency exchanges. One important thing to understand is that the best card for your everyday needs at home may not be the best card for international travel. You need to shop wisely.
For years our preferred domestic card has been the Discover Card because of its points program. It also advertises that they don’t charge international processing fees, which made it seem a good choice for traveling. Unfortunately this card doesn’t often work internationally. We’ve had repeated conversations with customer service and while they claim that it is accepted anywhere that takes the Diners Club Card we’ve learned that this is far from true. Its been rejected at so many shops and restaurants that we don’t even ask any more. We have used it while traveling but only when dealing with large corporations like hotels and airlines.
We have also experienced frequent problems trying to use the American Express Card. It seems that there are whole regions where businesses won’t accept it. On a recent trip to Barbados we couldn’t find anyone that would take American Express. We also had them shut down our card while overseas even though we told them we would be traveling and I still can’t believe why that happened.
The good news is that Visa and Mastercard are accepted almost everywhere, which makes either one a good choice for the American traveler. There are some additional considerations in choosing a credit card for international travel.
- Wide Acceptance – As already mentioned some cards can be a problem internationally and our experience is that you cannot trust their claims. At this time the only two cards available in America we will use is Visa and Mastercard.
- Transaction Fees – Early on we learned that international transaction fees could add up quickly and you should select a card that doesn’t charge these fees. Of course there are exchange rates but you will pay those regardless of what card or exchange service you use.
- Travel, Credit Cards & Purchase Protection – The best example of this feature is insurance protection if you use a card to rent a car. All cards have a catalog of these benefits from extended merchandise warranty to travel life insurance and some cards can better than others.
- Earned Points and Rewards – This is a common feature of most cards today and are an important benefit for us. At home we select a card for payment that provides the greatest number of points for each use but internationally there are different priorities.
- Security Policies –Fortunately the transition of most cards to imbedded chips has greatly improved security but there are still potential problems. Just to be safe we set up all our cards with notifications on all internet and phone charges. If possible we also prefer that notifications come by text message because often data isn’t available or affordable while traveling. We also notify the card companies of our travel plans but lately that doesn’t seem to be necessary –because of the chip most aren’t interested.
A number of years ago we weren’t concerned about identity theft – just didn’t think it was a high-risk problem. Over the past five or six years we have been victims more than once and now believe the protection is well worth the expense. Each recent attack was caught by our ID theft service quickly but we also take some additional steps to protect us.
We have used a couple of different services and our experience is they are very similar. We were however with Equifax and overseas when their data breach occurred and trying to deal with them was not a pleasant experience*.
For a good review on these services check out this article on Reviews.com.
I think one of the best things we do to protect ourselves is to freeze our credit reports on a regular basis. All three agencies allow for you to do this and some identity theft protection services make this an easy process. while reporting agencies claim that you have to have a suspicion of a problem to use this service nobody will challenge you about doing this. The result is someone else cannot successfully apply for a card or loan in your name if you credit report is frozen.
Your credit report contains information about your payment history that all creditors and lenders use to make credit decisions about issuing you credit. When you freeze your credit report, creditors and lenders can’t pull your credit report or credit score**. Since most banks require a credit check, an application for credit would likely be denied. You can freeze your credit report at all three major credit bureaus, but it must usually be done individually.
To freeze your report go online to Equifax, or call 1-800-349-9960.
To freeze your report go online to Experian, or call 1-888-397-3742.
To freeze your report go online to TransUnion, or call 1-888-909-8872.
Also these freezes automatically expire after 90 days so it must be repeated. One additional advantage is the warnings that you get from your ID theft company will greatly diminish.
*Equifax’s web site wasn’t functioning and if we got a call thru to their switchboard we spent almost an hour before giving up. We did send emails but they were never answered.
** This does work as I went to apply for a credit card that offered additional travel benefits and was turned down. They did send an email telling me my credit was frozen and if I would remove the freeze they would process the application again.