Traveling is traveling, right? Yes and no. When it comes to credit cards, traveling outside the U.S. is different than traveling domestically, and credit cards that are appropriate for domestic trips may be bad choices for overseas charges.
When choosing credit cards for international trips, their costs, security, convenience, and rewards must all be considered.
Eliminate any cards that charge foreign transaction fees. There's simply no reason to pay an extra 3 percent or so for purchases made overseas. The surcharges are a gouge to begin with, and there is no shortage of good cards available that don't charge them.
Next consideration: annual fees, which run the gamut from zero to hundreds of dollars. A high fee isn't necessarily a deal-breaker; sometimes the fees are more than offset by the perks bundled with a card. But it's important to avoid paying more than a card is actually worth.
And if you're unable to pay your credit card bill in full every month, then the card's annual percentage rate must be factored into the overall cost equation as well.
Adding both security and convenience to the equation are cards with chip-and-pin or chip-and-signature capabilities. The so-called EMV technology makes it harder for criminals to steal credit card data. And unlike merchants in the U.S., some foreign companies only accept chip-and-pin cards for payment. That's becoming the standard worldwide, so you may as well get onboard sooner rather than later, for your own security and to avoid having your cards declined when traveling outside the U.S.
If you were limited to a single credit card, you'd be smart to make it a MasterCard or Visa, for a very simple, very compelling reason: They're accepted by the most merchants worldwide. American Express is hit and miss, acceptance-wise. And Discover cards are more miss than hit.
Even if you opt for an American Express-issued card as your primary card, it's smart to carry a Visa or MasterCard as backup, for those occasions when a merchant informs you that, sadly, "No American Express here, please."
And speaking of acceptance, it's always a good idea to phone your credit card companies ahead of time to let them know you'll be traveling out of the country. That will help avoid the embarrassment and inconvenience of having your card declined due to the card-issuer's sometimes overzealous fraud-prevention measures.
Whether your preferred reward is loyalty points or a cash rebate, there's bound to be a credit card that fills the bill. Rewards cards need not be budget-busters, either. There are plenty of airline, hotel, and cash-rebate cards that charge no annual fee, so there's no extra cost to reap basic rewards.
At the other end of the cost spectrum, there are also rewards cards costing as much as $450 a year that provide cardholders with some of the same perks typically associated with elite status in an airline or hotel program. It's a trade-off: lower cost, fewer perks; higher cost, more lavish perks.
Credit Cards for Overseas Travel
There's no single "right" card for overseas travel. But with the above criteria in mind, these three are well worth considering, depending on your needs and your travel and purchase behavior. All are without foreign transactions fees, and all feature EMV chip technology.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card ($95 annual fee, waived the first year) is a reliable choice for overseas travel, featuring no foreign transaction fees; primary car-rental collision-damage waiver (CDW) insurance; trip cancellation insurance; and exceptional flexibility on the awards side.
Cardholders earn 2 points per $1 on travel and dining expenses charged to the card, and 1 point per $1 for other purchases. When redeemed for travel through Chase's Ultimate Rewards portal, the points are worth 1.25 cents apiece. Because award travel is paid, it's not subject to the capacity controls and blackout dates that can make award bookings such a chore in traditional airline programs. Points may also be redeemed for gift cards or cash, in which case they're worth just 1 cent each.
In addition to redeeming points for travel or cash, points may be converted 1:1 to miles or points in seven airline programs and four hotel programs. That transferability gives the card an extra degree of flexibility and value.
Unfortunately, two very good flat-rate cash-back cards, both of which rebate a solid 2 percent on all purchases (1% when you buy plus an additional 1% when you pay), come encumbered with foreign-transaction fees: a 1 percent fee for the Fidelity Rewards Visa Signature card, and a full 3 percent for the Citi Double Cash card.
A solid alternative cash-back card for overseas travelers would be the Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards credit card. The card offers a 1.5 percent cash rebate on all purchases, with no earning limit or category restrictions. There's no annual fee, and it's a MasterCard, so it will be accepted widely.
And lastly, for travelers looking for a perks-rich card, with a correspondingly high annual fee, there's the Citi/AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard. The card is linked to American's AAdvantage program, one of the largest airline loyalty schemes, with an industry-leading roster of partner companies where miles may be earned and redeemed. (Disclosure: Citi is an Airfarewatchdog advertiser.)
While the annual fee is daunting, it is more than offset by the value of the associated perks—but only if you actually earn the perks.
Editor's note: This content is not provided by any bank, credit card issuer, airline, or hotel chain. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed here are those of the author's alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by the aforementioned entities.