Tourism is expensive. Why else would cities and countries fight so hard to host events like the Super Bowl, the Final Four, the Olympics and the World Cup? Though these events cost a lot in infrastructure, planning and security, they also boost local economies thanks to increased business at local hotels, restaurants and shops. Thus, whether we realize it or not, a majority of our travel expenses are incurred through transactions with merchants in our destinations. This is true whether you book hotels and day trips before departing or are simply shopping and dining upon arrival. Therefore, you might ask yourself, what is the best way to pay all of these merchants? Is it cash? Is it traveler's checks? Is it a credit card?
TUTORIAL: Credit Cards
While you'll always need some cash, primarily using a credit card for all of your spending needs can significantly simplify overseas travel. Armed with a credit card, you won't really have to deal with converting currency, which means no more worries about converting just the right amount of money, and you will automatically get one of the lowest conversion rates possible. In addition, pick pockets will be less of a threat not only because credit cards are easier to conceal and keep safe but also because even if your card is stolen, you won't actually lose money. Just report your card missing and you'll be off the hook for any unauthorized purchases.
Still, the act of simply using a credit card does not in itself make overseas spending cheaper. You must follow four simple tips in order to truly make that goal a reality. (For more help on smart travel, see Travel Smart By Planning How You'll Pay.)
Tip 1: Get a No Foreign Transaction Fee Credit Card
According to a recent study conducted by The Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit dedicated to informing the public, 91% of bank cards and 57% of credit union cards have fees for transactions made aboard. These fees typically range from 2-3% of each purchase and can therefore result in you paying significantly more than the listed price of anything you purchase overseas.
Therefore, before you depart, check your credit and debit card agreements to see if they include such fees. If they do, apply for a no foreign transaction fee credit card as well as a debit card that does not charge extra for ATM withdrawals in other countries. Such spending vehicles are becoming increasingly popular, but Capital One remains the top issuer of credit cards sans foreign transaction fees. (To help with your search, check out How To Read Loan And Credit Card Agreements.)
Tip 2: Call Your Credit Card Issuer Before Leaving
Once you have the requisite cards, alert your issuer of your travel plans and ask for the number that you can call collect for assistance while overseas. This will not only ensure that your cards do not get suspended because of suspicious activity but will also give you a way to contact your issuer free of charge if something comes up. (To learn about more advantages of using a credit card, see Credit Card Perks You Never Knew You Had.)
Tip 3: Avoid Dynamic Currency Conversion
We all tend to have trouble relating foreign currency to the American dollar, at least off the top of our heads while shopping. Foreign merchants take advantage of this fact at the checkout counter by offering to quote the final price in U.S. dollars and, unbeknownst to tourists, making that conversion at an uncompetitive exchange rate. Avoiding these unnecessary costs is quite simple, however. All you must do is refuse to sign any check or receipt not expressed in the local currency. If you're worried about deciphering the cost of meals and goods during your trip, just brush up on conversion rates before leaving or just get an App for your phone.
Tip 4: Always Carry Your Passport
With the institution of chip-and-pin technology, European credit cards have surpassed U.S. credit cards in terms of fraud security. Cards in the U.S. still use the less-sophisticated magnetic stripe system, which is no longer trusted abroad. As a result, many foreign merchants - particularly those in Europe - will not accept your credit card if you don't have proper identification. As long as you carry your passport, you should be fine, however. Merchants simply want to be able to verify that the person using a credit card is actually the one authorized to do so. (For more travel tips, check out Travel Tips For Keeping You And Your Money Safe.)
While overseas travel can be both confusing and expensive, there are ways to minimize the cost and hassle of spending abroad. As long as you have a credit card with no foreign transaction fee, you notify your credit card company of your travel plans and you only pay for purchases expressed in terms of the local currency, you should be able to avoid post-trip credit statement surprises. In addition, thanks to a recent European Payment Council resolution that restricted the use of magnetic strip credit cards, you must remember to both have your passport on you whenever you go and to bring a debit card that can be used overseas at no extra charge.
In the end, a trip overseas shouldn't be characterized by worries over conversion rates and handling foreign money. So get the right spending vehicles before leaving and allow your focus to shift to its rightful place: having a good time or getting down to business. (For more tips on saving money when traveling, check out Globetrotting On A Budget.)