Editorial Policy

Expert Q&A: Safe to Take Credit Cards On a Cruise?

Erica Sandberg

June 6, 2011

QDear Credit Guide,

I’m taking a cruise to the Mexican Rivera this summer and want to know what to do about my credit cards. I’m a little nervous because of the crime I’ve been hearing about. Anything specific I should be aware of when using my credit cards on the ship too? Thanks for your advice! Jen

ADear Jen,

How fun! Mexico is lovely. And I’m glad you wrote, because I do have some suggestions about vacationing with plastic, whether in the U.S. or not.

Because I’m not a cruising authority, however, I took your question to someone who is — Wes Rowland, president of the Visalia, CA based company CruiseExperts.com. Rowland believes the dangers of Mexico for tourists have been rather overblown, and that using credit cards there is pretty much the same as in every other international port of call.

He does suggest that when leaving the ship to go on shore excursions, bring cash for shopping. If you do use a credit card, be especially sure to check your receipt, paying careful attention to the exchange rate. You may at first be alarmed to see the cost of a $50 necklace reading at about 582 — but that’s because it will be stated in pesos, not dollars. Also, don’t freak out if the exchange rate isn’t exactly what you expected. “The mistake that a lot of people make is to look at the official exchange rate,” says Rowland. “The real rate is always a little higher.” Ask Erica

As for how to use plastic on board, be aware that if you’re going to use the ATMs for cash advances or withdrawals, you’ll be hit with a higher than average fee — often about $5 per transaction. You needn’t be worried about the safety of charging, though. “Ships are secure. It’s just like being on a hotel,” assures Rowland.

In fact, it might even be safer to use credit cards on a cruise rather than traipsing around on your own because you’re in a contained space. “When you travel on a ship you’ll get a detailed receipt of everything you spend on board,” says Rowland. This makes tracking charges easy, as you’ll be able to view your online account on the television in your cabin. You can also visit the purser’s desk to verify the purchases before disembarking.

And here are my credit card tips for traveling:

1. Get a good idea of how much you will really spend while you are away. The last thing anyone wants is to return to a whole lot of unexpected debt. So if you haven’t started to save for the trip, tuck away as much as possible now. You’ll use it to pay off any bills you come home to. Remember the old adage: when traveling, take half as many clothes as you think you’ll need, and twice as much money.

2. Rid your wallet of any credit cards you won’t be using. That means retail and gas cards, as well as extraneous unsecured accounts. In the event you become separated from your handbag, you won’t have to call so many credit card companies and report the loss before a thief starts shopping.

3. After determining the cards you do want to bring, make sure that they are equipped with enough of an available credit line to pay for all the things you may want or need to buy while you’re away.

4. Notify your credit card companies of your itinerary. This task is not to gloat about your exotic vacation, but so they don’t suspect that someone other than you is purchasing a bunch of silver jewelry, and suspend your charging ability.

And finally, bring your own sunscreen. I paid about $20 for a small tube of the stuff at a Cancun resort. Ouch.