Editorial Policy

Don’t let these 8 card problems ruin your vacation

Allie Johnson

April 25, 2016

If you’re planning a carefree summer trip, it pays to think ahead about the cards you’ll be bringing. By being prepared, you can avoid card issues that might cast a cloud over your sunny vacation.

Here are eight card problems that could put a damper on your travels, and how to avoid each one:

1. Your card is frozen due to unusual activity. You’re a homebody who suddenly jets off for a shopping spree in New York or a safari in Zimbabwe. If you don’t call your card company beforehand to tell them of your plans, they may spot the deviation from your normal purchasing pattern and freeze your account, says Brad Barrett, a CPA and founder of TravelMiles101.com. “One simple phone call can save a lot of hassle,” he says.

2. A suspicious charge shuts down your card. If a fraudster steals your card info while you’re on vacation, that could render your card suddenly useless until you get a new one.

That’s what happened to Marybeth Bond, a National Geographic travel writer who runs the site GutsyTraveler.com, when she went to Washington, D.C., to visit her daughter. When suspicious charges showed up on her account, her card company texted her and quickly closed the card. The problem: Bond didn’t have a backup. “I can’t believe I only took one card,” she says.

“I can’t believe
I only took
one card.”

— Marybeth Bond,
a National Geographic
travel writer who runs
the site GutsyTraveler.com

Her card issuer did send a replacement, which arrived in less than 24 hours, she says. The lesson: Always carry backup plastic.

3. Your card isn’t accepted at a local eatery. You go to pay for your lunch of wine and cheese at a sidewalk café only to find the shopkeeper doesn’t take American Express cards. To avoid this awkward problem, carry multiple credit cards from different banks and different processing networks, Barrett says.

Carrying both a MasterCard and Visa is smart, says Anthony Bianco, who runs the site The Travel Tart. While both are accepted in most places, Bianco found that in East African countries, such as Tanzania, most merchants and ATMs take only Visa. “My MasterCard was useless most of the time there, so having a Visa definitely saved me from running out of money,” he says.

4. Your credit or debit card is lost or stolen. When you’re traveling, it’s especially easy to get distracted and lose a card, or have one stolen. For example, Bond was pickpocketed once in the Louvre Museum in Paris and lost one credit card and a little cash. That’s one reason it’s smart to not carry all your cards with you at once — leave a few in the safe at your hotel, Bond says.

And, to make it easier in case you do lose a card, store the phone numbers on the back of your cards in your cellphone, says Tiffany Funk of PointsPros, a company that helps consumers navigate miles and points.

Bond suggests emailing yourself a copy of the contact phone numbers for your cards. That way, if your purse gets stolen and your phone is inside it,  you can get on the Internet from anywhere to retrieve the numbers to quickly cancel your cards, she says.

5. Some places take only chip-and-PIN cards. Not having the right kind of chip card put the brakes on New York comedian Dan Nainan’s plans to go sightseeing by bicycle in Paris. Though U.S. card issuers have rolled out chip-and-signature cards, they are different from the chip-and-PIN ones widely used in Europe and other parts of the world. Nainan tried to use one of his cards to rent a bike, but only chip-and-PIN cards were accepted. “It was very, very disappointing,” he says, adding that he ended up walking and taking taxis instead.

Without a chip-and-PIN card to buy a ticket at a kiosk in Europe, Funk had to wait in line to see a clerk for a ticket. As a result, she ended up having to take a later train on a day trip to see tulip fields in the Netherlands. “You have to go to a window with a person, and they’re not open 24 hours,” she says. “It can be a little annoying.” If you want a chip-and-PIN card for international trips, check out Barclaycard’s offerings, Funk says.

6. Your plastic is worthless because only cash is accepted. There are places where you can’t swipe or dip a card at all. In Japan, San Diego Web entrepreneur Keith Shadle found that he could use his cards only at a high-end hotel and a convenience store. Surprisingly, Japan is very cash-centric, and many merchants in Japan don’t take credit cards, according to the Japan travel site BoutiqueJapan.com. Shadle had $25,000 in available credit, but was low on cash at the time, which threw a big crimp into his trip.

“I had to stay at the Hilton and eat my dinners at the corner 7-Eleven,” he says. “But it was OK. 7-Elevens in Japan are awesome.”

To avoid having to eat convenience store fare on your trip, check guidebooks and travel sites to see if credit cards are widely accepted where you’re going, Shadle says.

“Most people
don’t really know
the fine print
of what they have
in their wallet.”

— Tiffany Funk,

7. Shelling out for car rental insurance even though your card covers it. If you’re planning to rent a car, know that a car rental company in another country might not accept the car rental insurance offered by your credit card. Ann Sheybani, a book writing coach in Canton, Connecticut, learned this the hard way in Ireland, where she and her husband honeymooned and bought a second home. Friends tipped them off that by getting a World MasterCard or Visa, they could avoid paying the typical $800-plus a week that many Irish car rental companies charge for auto insurance.

On their last trip, that tactic worked, but the rental company insisted on putting a $4,000 security deposit hold on their card. They had to wait in an airport until U.S. banks opened, then call their bank to pay down the balance on their card to free up enough funds.

One strategy that might help is to get a letter from your credit card company stating your rental car auto insurance is covered, Funk says. “That helps because you can’t expect a rental car clerk in a foreign country to know all the nuances of U.S. credit cards,” she says.

8. Getting hit with high foreign transaction fees. Foreign transaction fees won’t necessarily ruin your trip, but they can definitely sour your memories after you get home. Some credit cards charge up to 3 percent extra for every purchase you make while traveling internationally, Funk says. “A lot of people don’t realize it until they get home,” she adds.

That’s what happened to Linda Waterhouse, an Internet marketing consultant who took a trip to France and Italy with her family, and ended up paying an extra $300 in fees, which was upsetting because she had saved diligently for the trip. “I was really surprised when I saw the fees on our statement after we got home,” she says.

In general, it can be hard to find a card without an annual fee that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, Funk says. But some cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred, charge a “reasonable” annual fee of less than $100, she says.

The bottom line: Think about what cards you’ll carry on your trip, and learn what your card covers and what the fees are before you go. “Most people don’t really know the fine print of what they have in their wallet,” Funk says.

SEE ALSO: 10 ways to protect your cards when traveling

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