Save Money While Traveling: Credit and Debit Cards

I travel with a minimum of two trusty pieces of plastic in my pocket. One being my debit and the other(s) my credit card. While I suppose any such cards that you already possess will work, there are a few specific features on my cards that will save you a bundle in the long run. Take note.

Open an Online Checking Account that reimburses ATM fees:

Withdrawing money from ATMs has replaced travelers cheques as the go to method of getting cash while traveling. It’s extremely convenient to walk up to an ATM in the middle of some small town in the middle of nowhere and get access to your funds, completely avoiding the annoyance of having to carry around a bundle of cash. But with this convenience comes a downside, ATM fees. Not only will the ATM’s bank charge a fee, but many times, your own bank will also get in on the action. This can cost upwards of $8 just to get a hold of your own money. If you were to actually stop and calculate it out, this can add up to hundreds of dollars a year. Solution: I opened a free checking account through Charles Schwab who not only doesn’t charge it’s own fee, but actually reimburses me for the fees charged by the ATM. They do this because they don’t have any actual physical branches from which to pull money, but in doing so, it provides a perfect money saving opportunity for anyone, but especially for travelers, such as you and me. I usually get around $20 back each month which is literally a free day of traveling. Keep your hands on your own money.

Get a Credit Card with no Foreign Transaction Fees:

Most people, at one point myself included, aren’t aware how credit cards work in foreign countries. You see a price in some foreign currency, swipe your card and wallah, total owed goes to zero. What you don’t see is the card companies pocketing a small fee to convert your hard earned dollars (or Euros or Quid or Kroner) into the local currency. That’s why you need a credit card with no foreign transaction fees. This eliminates another avenue companies use to get their hand in your pockets. Many free cards don’t have this feature so you’ll need to do a little research. All Capital One cards but there are plenty out there that waive the first year fee. You can just cancel it or request to have it downgraded to a no fee card after a year, effectively costing you nothing and saving you money. I’d suggest combining this with a card with a huge rewards sign up bonus that you can use for free airfare, killing two birds with one stone.

One More Thing: Setup a PIN Number on your Credit Cards:

Everyone hears to notify your credit card company of your travel plans, but not many remember to make sure the card has a PIN number. Having a PIN allows you to withdrawal money from any old ATM using your credit card. This should normally be avoided since doing so acts as a cash advance and comes with a hefty fee (Usually $10 or 5%, whichever is more). However, it can also come in extremely handy if the ATM isn’t accepting your debit card and you’re onto your last few dollars. If you don’t have a PIN, you may have to go inside the bank, opening another can of worms as you attempt to explain your situation and why they should hand over some cash.

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4 thoughts on “Save Money While Traveling: Credit and Debit Cards

  1. Hi Phil,
    Capital One does not charge foreign transaction fees on withdrawals and purchases and the exchange rate is good. I have a debit (MasterCard) and a savings account card I use for all cash needs. If you find a foreign bank like HSBC that doesn’t charge for local withdrawals there are no fees at all.

    • I didn’t realize ALL Capital One cards did not have foreign transaction fees and have updated the post accordingly. As for withdrawals/cash advances, my Capital One still charges a fee so no luck there.

      You’re right, if you open an account with a foreign bank like HSBC, than you can also avoid ATM fees, but I’d argue my method is the better option. I don’t have to find a certain ATM but can instead choose any and always get reimbursed.

      Thanks for the info. Always learning more

  2. Hey Phil, I just ran into an American in Bangkok who didn’t know about Charles Schwab, and I also saw it was omitted here. If you are an American, it’s probably the #1 debit card/bank I would recommend.

    When I first moved abroad 3 years ago, I wrote a post detailing my cards. It’s a little dated now, but most of the info holds true today:

    Why Schwab? No foreign transaction fees, high withdrawal daily limits if requested AND they refund all of your ATM fees. If you use ATMs in Bangkok, then you know most ATMs cost at least $5 per transaction. This can save you some good change as Schwab will refund all of your ATM fees at the end of the month.

    BTW I don’t work for Schwab, just really love them 🙂

    • I’m actually a huge advocate of opening a Charles Schwab checking for all the reasons you’ve given. But for some reason the credit card paragraph was repeated in the ATM fee section. Super weird and I have no idea how it happened. Whatever, you’ll notice it’s fixed now. Thanks for the heads up!

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