Traveling with Your Credit Card: Safety Precautions to Consider

It’s summer, which means that many of us are packing up our bags and heading for the hills (or the beach, or the museums). The last thing you want to worry about is your credit card.

Unfortunately, all too many of us face hassles with credit card security while traveling — especially during trips abroad. These problems can range from the annoying to the devastating, but most of them are very preventable. This article will walk through several strategies designed to give you the best chance at a worry-free vacation. We’ll discuss pre-departure preparations, card security features, special tips for traveling abroad with a credit card, what to do if the worst-case scenario occurs, and a few travel cards to consider for maximum security.

Pre-departure Preparations

You wouldn’t leave home without booking your flight or packing your bag, and credit card security is just as important. Make sure to add a few credit card-specific tasks to your pre-departure list.

Here is a list of preparations to consider:

  • Call your card issuer to notify them of your travel plans
    Many credit card issuers have built-in fraud protection that could shut down your card if it’s used outside of your normal purchase pattern. The last thing you want is to have your card denied at that fabulous Italian bistro, so give your card issuer a heads up.
  • Do some research regarding foreign transaction fees
    If you carry multiple credit cards, you should know that there might be a wide variation between your cards when it comes to foreign transaction fees. Call your card issuers or do some digging online to compare fees and select the card with the best deal.
  • Learn how to contact your credit card issuer while abroad
    Toll-free numbers don’t work abroad, so you’ll need a different way to contact your credit card issuer if you encounter problems during your travels. Some cards have international numbers printed right on the back. If yours doesn’t, call them up before you leave and ask them what number to use. Write down this number and keep it with your travel documents.
  • Make copies of the front and back of your credit cards
    This is one step that’s frequently overlooked, but if your cards are stolen, having photocopies can be very helpful. Many travelers also do this for passports.
  • Make sure your card will be accepted abroad
    Not all cards are taken around the world. If you have enough time to plan ahead, consider getting a chip-and-pin card, which is more widely accepted abroad, especially in Europe.

Chip-and-Pin Cards

Chip-and-pin cards (sometimes known as “smart cards”) are just beginning to emerge in the U.S. market, but they have become the go-to standard in other countries. These cards feature embedded microchips that can hold a large volume of dynamic data. They also require entry of a pin in order to complete a transaction, and that means that a thief who simply has your card number can’t use your card.

Chip-and-pin cards are so ubiquitous abroad, in fact, that you can expect your traditional American swipe card to be rejected at several common locations, including:

  • Gas stations
  • Parking meters
  • Some merchants and retailers
  • Destinations in Europe other than major cities

Several American credit card issuers have hopped on the chip-and-pin bandwagon, including:

  • American Express
  • Bank of America
  • Chase
  • Citi
  • U.S. Bank

Handling your Credit Card while Abroad

So you’ve taken all the precautions before boarding the plane: what about when you’ve reached your destination? There are several steps you can take to avoid fraud, theft, and unnecessary trouble abroad. Consider the following strategies:

  • Avoid use of credit card in less-than-secure situations
    The street vendor may have a lovely smile and even better food for sale, but this probably isn’t the best place to pull out your credit card.
  • Have your travel companion carry a different card as a back-up
    Even if you plan on relying primarily on one card, it’s not a bad idea to have a back-up along — and to have it carried by someone else. That way, if your wallet or money carrier is lost or stolen, you aren’t completely out of luck.
  • Keep your credit card in sight
    Try to hand your credit card directly to the person who will be processing the transaction. You’ll want to avoid situations where someone takes your card out of sight to process a transaction, because that scenario makes it easy for them to steal your information.
  • Be cautious with ATMs
    ATM fees can be extremely steep for international transactions. In addition, many foreign ATMs (especially outside of western Europe) are not as secure as we may expect from their U.S. counterparts. One tip: if you are traveling abroad and you must use an ATM, choose one that is attached to a legitimate business (preferably a bank), as opposed to a “random” ATM.
  • Carry cash or travelers checks as back-up
    Try to carry enough local currency or traveler’s checks to get by each day (but not so much that you’re a ripe target for muggers). Credit cards are convenient, but if yours is declined or stolen and you don’t have an alternative method of payment available, you won’t think it’s very convenient. We strongly advise looking into a discreet carrying pouch specifically designed for passports and money, which is much more secure than a wallet or purse.
  • Document everything
    Keep receipts of all purchases in case mysterious charges are added to your account later. Keeping receipts also helps with expense tracking, so you can stay on budget.

Travel Cards to Consider

Looking for a new card before you head abroad? Consider these important factors for travel-friendly cards include:

  • High levels of security and fraud prevention
  • International customer service
  • Low foreign transaction fees
  • Chip-and-pin cards

You may also want to consider additional rewards that can result from international travel with certain credit cards.

Here are a few cards that are worthy of consideration:

  • BankAmericard Travel Rewards Card
    • No foreign transaction fees
    • Embedded microchip to maximize security and acceptance abroad
    • Additional purchase-based rewards
  • American Express Platinum
    • No foreign transaction fees
    • Airport lounge access at 600 lounges worldwide
    • Refunds of up to $200 for baggage fees or in-flight meals
    • Be warned: this card is only worthwhile if you are a BIG traveler, since the $450 annual fee is enough to more than offset the benefits for occasional travelers
  • Capital One Venture Card
    • No foreign transaction fees
    • Includes Visa Signature benefits such as concierge service
    • Additional purchase-based rewards
    • Lost-luggage reimbursement insurance
    • The $59 annual fee isn’t exactly low, but it’s significantly lower than the American Express card!
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
    • No foreign transaction fees
    • Up to 20% off airfare, hotels and cruises when booked through their rewards program
    • Additional purchase-based rewards and sign-up bonuses
    • The (relatively steep) $95 annual fee is waved the first year

The Bottom Line

This list may have left you a little uneasy. Don’t worry — you’ve already taken the first step by informing yourself. Credit cards are usually part of the solution — not the problem — when you’re traveling abroad. All you have to do is take proper precautions and exercise a bit of due diligence. Just think about how much more relaxing that well-deserved vacation will be, knowing that you don’t have to spend a moment worrying about your credit cards.

Bon Voyage!

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