Editorial Policy

Tips for the Road: 5 Credit Card Must-Do for Travelers

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By Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D.
June 16, 2010

Credit cards make it easier than ever to travel overseas on vacation or business trips. With credit cards, there’s no fussing with traveler’s check, no worrying about having a lot of cash stolen, and no concerns about whether or not you’ve brought enough money. However, using credit cards overseas is different than at home, and there are a few things you need to be alert to avoid mishaps. Here are 5 must-do tips for using credit cards on overseas trips.

1. Carry cash as well as your credit card. First rule of using credit cards overseas? Always keep some cash on you as well. Increasingly, European countries, Canada, and even the Aussies down under are converting to a different type of credit card technology known as Chip-and-PIN cards. The upshot is that American credit cards are no longer accepted in all places. Bridge crossings, subways stations, and gas pumps are common places where Americans find that U.S. magnetic stripe credit cards may not be accepted. Always carry some cash in your wallet to be prepared for such situations.

2. Keep the cards you bring to a minimum. Many people carry as much as 3-4 credit cards in their wallet. When travelling, pare down the number of cards to one or two at the most. Carrying several credit cards makes it much more complicated to take steps to protect or close credit card accounts, should your wallet get stolen. In addition, carrying multiple credit cards might cause you not to notice if one or two of the cards disappear. A wallet with six cards feels almost the same as a wallet with seven cards, and many card thieves know that the average vacationer won’t notice the difference until fraudulent charges have already been made.

3. Stay on the Alert. Apart from the obvious, such as locking valuables in a hotel locker and only bringing what you need for the day, look out for more sophisticated forms of theft, particularly credit card skimming. Credit card skimming is an ever-present danger, especially when travelling to poor countries. With a small, handheld electronic gadget, a waiter or hotel clerk can quickly skim the credit card information off the card’s magnetic stripe. Fraudsters then use this information to make charges to the compromised card, or even clone a new credit card.

To avoid credit card skimming, never let your credit card out of sight when paying at restaurants, hotels, or other places. In addition, monitor your credit card account for any unauthorized activity. If an unusual charge shows up, contact the card issuer immediately. Early detection offers the best guarantee of full and fast resolution.

4. Leave your debit card at home. While credit cards offer great fraud protections should the card information fall into the wrong hands, debit card fraud victims are liable for up to $500 if they fail to report fraudulent charges within the first two days after discovering them. The liability could run higher, if fraudulent charges are not discovered and reported within 60 days.

5. Have an emergency plan in place. Nothing is more fun than being stranded overseas with your wallet stolen, no cash to buy food, nor a credit card to check in at a hotel. Believe it or not, should disaster strike, your credit card issuer is one of the first resources you should turn to.

All credit card companies, including Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Discover Cards offer 24/7 emergency assistance to travelers. Major credit card issuers will typically freeze the old account, issue a new credit card, and make arrangement to express deliver it to you. Some credit card companies will even arrange for emergency cash to be wired to a nearby bank or even delivered to you. The emergency travel assistance service of your credit card company may also help get your passport, ID and flight ticket replaced. Some credit card companies, such as Amercan Express, also provide emergency check-in assistance, enabling cardholders to charge a hotel stay to their card, even if has been stolen.

Call your credit card issuer before the trip to find out which emergency travel services they offer. Keep the contact information for the card issuer’s emergency department in a safe place (not your wallet!), so it’ll be on hand should you need it.