Which Cards Are Best for Spend While Traveling Internationally?

Conde’ Nast Traveler‘s Wendy Perrin asks in the comments,

I would like to know which are the best credit cards that waive foreign-transaction fees while also offering the biggest payoff when it comes to miles/points.

The short answer: Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, which does not hit you with any foreign transaction fees and gives you double points on all travel and dining charges (which are quite a bit of the expenses you’re likely incurring outside the U.S.). And the best small business card is the Ink Plus which has no foreign transaction fees plus double points on hotels.

The longer answer…

This is an important question for people who travel outside the United States. Most credit cards tack on a fee – such as 2.7% or 3% – for purchases originating outside the U.S.

And it’s even an important question for people who make purchases that are processed outside the U.S. even if they are made sitting in your living room or office.

Card companies tack on a fee to convert whatever currency you make a transaction in back to U.S. dollars. Sure, they may use a good rate for the conversion but this surcharge is a killer.

And they even charge the fee if the vendor bills you in dollars. Say your hotel in Thailand bills you in dollars, your credit card may still tack on this same fee because the transaction originated outside the U.S.

  • Cards that have no foreign transaction fees can save you a bundle (just how much depends on how much money you spend outside the United States).
  • Converting your hotel, restaurant, or other bills from local currency to dollars does not save you money. And you’re likely getting a bad exchange rate when you do it, so it’s costing you real money. Do not ever do this.

Always pay non-US dollar charges in the local currency, and use a credit card that does not charge foreign transaction fees to make the payment.

Chase Has the Most and Best Cards With No Foreign Transaction Fees

The reason I recommended the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card for foreign transactions is because it both waives those fees and offers among the most useful rewards and bonuses expenses most likely to be incurred internationally.

  • 40,000 point signup bonus after $3000 spend within 3 months. An additional 5000 points for adding an authorized user on the account and making a purchase.
  • Double points on all travel and dining
  • Annual 7% bonus on all points earned
  • Points transfer to United Airlines, Korean Air, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Southwest Airlines, Hyatt, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, IHG Rewards and Amtrak

Probably my personal favorite card, the Ink Plus Business Card, has no foreign transaction fees and earns double points on hotels as well. Points transfer the same way that they do for Chase Sapphire Preferred.

There are several other Chase cards that waive foreign transaction fees, the bank as an overall strategy was an early adopter of waiving these fees – presumably they see it as a strong marketing sales point for attracting high spend customers, and certainly survey suggest such fees are a pain or annoyance point for customers.

For instance,

  • The IHG Rewards Club Select MasterCard — which is worth holding for an annual free night (well worth the $49 annual fee) and the rebate on IHG Rewards redemptions — has no foreign currency transaction fees but I do not consider it to be a good card for spending.
  • British Airways Visa Signature® Card has no foreign transaction fees and earns 1.25 points per dollar on all spend. $30,000 in spend on the card earns a ‘travel together’ ticket, second passenger flies for no additional points when redeeming award travel, although since award availability has to be found on British Airways flights only and since award space has gotten much tougher to come by especially from U.S. West Coast gateways and to Africa, the usefulness of that ticket is probably less than it was a couple of years ago.

American Express Offers Fewer Options, But is Beginning to See the Light

The Platinum Card® from American Express was the first major offering that Amex made with no foreign currency transaction fees. Coupled with the card’s $100 credit for the Global Entry application fee, they clearly want to position it as a strong card for international travelers (who tend to be high net worth and high spenders). Here’s my review of the card from earlier in the week.

But they’ve historically kept no foreign transaction fees as a limited, premium benefit.

I love my Starwood Preferred Guest Card from American Express, I’ve had it for about 13 years. But I won’t use it at any Starwood hotels outside the U.S. because even though I would earn double points, the foreign transaction fees negate that benefit. I pay for Starwood hotels with a Chase card instead.

It seems like American Express may slowly be expanding out their no foreign transaction fee offerings, though, as eliminates those fees effective May 1. They’ll also covert to chip cards as well, making them easier to use abroad and especially in Europe.

Other Cards to Consider

If you do not value points that are best for premium cabin international awards, if you tend to redeem your points for domestic travel, then I’d suggest the Barclaycard Arrival PlusTM World Elite MasterCard®. It earns an effective rebate of 2.2% towards travel (2 points per dollar on all spending, a 10% rebate when redeeming points for travel, and no foreign currency transaction fees).

The BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Card is probably the best no annual fee option.

If you aren’t going to get a strong travel rewards card like Chase Sapphire Preferred anyway, and you don’t travel internationally enough to make it worth doing so just for international use, then I’d recommend a no fee card like this one. It earns an effective rebate towards travel of up to 1.5% as well.

Meanwhile, the Citi Executive / AAdvantage World Elite Mastercard has no foreign transaction fees and also has a current offer of $100,000 bonus miles after $10,000 spend within 3 months. Its $450 annual fee is only worthwhile on an ongoing basis after year one if you would otherwise purchase American’s Admirals Club membership and/or you want to earn 10,000 elite qualifying miles for $40,000 spend.

Final Considerations

For more on purchases outside the U.S., see Will Your Credit Card Work in Europe? What’s a “Chip” Card, and Do You Need a PIN. And note that the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is now issued with an EMV chip.

(Note that cards in this post offer credit to me if you’re approved using my links. The opinions, analyses, and evaluations here are mine. The content is not provided or commissioned by American Express, by Chase, by Citibank, US Bank, Bank of America, Barclays or any other company. They have not reviewed, approved or endorsed what I have to say.)


About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Are there any cards where you think it’s worth paying the fee because the value of the points is worth it?

    I’ve been going back and forth over whether it’s worth it to use the Club Carlson Visa (which has a fee) at Club Carlson properties for the extra 5x.

  2. @PW – Club Carlson card is 10x at their hotel properties. I wouldn’t use the card for 5x on all other spend most of the time, but 10x on Club Carlson hotels is quite good.. but not good enough to pay foreign currency fees. I would rather earn 2.14 Chase points with no fee than 10x Club Carlson points with a foreign currency fee.

    That said, it’s a good card, coupled with 2nd night free on award stays and Gold status is a compelling value proposition for that card in general (but not so much for foreign transactions) *if* Club Carlson hotel properties can work for you. Certainly more upscale lodging options in Europe than the US with that chain.

  3. I’ve always wondered why certain Chase low-annual fee (airline/hotel) cards waive the FTF and why others don’t? I have the United MP Select card that charges the fee along with it’s annual fee, while there are many different branded Chase cards (earning hotel or airline points) with the same annual fee or even less that have waived the FTF. And with AMEX, I’m in the same situation with the Hilton Surpass card, though I only use that for overseas Hilton stays. When I contacted Chase CS via email a few years back, I got a standard reply that I could upgrade to a different card to waive the FTF, but with a higher annual fee. Any recourse or suggestions on what can be done to get it waived? I’d spend a lot more on it if it was gone.

  4. well, if Wendy even needs to ask this question it sounds to me like she’s in the wrong business and she should be looking for a new job… maybe become a Wendy homemaker?

  5. @PT chip is coming for Barclaycard Arrival. Don’t know the timeline yet but they are looking at rollout with Hawaiian. In the meantime, what merchant were you denied magnetic strip use?

  6. I tend to agree with you Lantean. If Wendy Perrin truly does not know the answer to this question, she is completely unqualified for her position. I think anyone who’s taken more than 2 or 3 trips overseas would have figured out the “foreign transaction fee” thing and any travel writer should certainly know about the points they earn on a credit card. If this isn’t Travel 101, it’s certainly not beyond Travel 102.

  7. @iahphx @Lantean – she followed up on Twitter (before I published this post) to say she assumed it was Chase Sapphire Preferred/Ink Bold/Plus but did I have a different take? Her primary focus is not on credit card rewards, so perfectly reasonable to ask someone for their perspective on the best card that marries no foreign transaction fees with most valuable rewards. Which, incidentally, is what a journalist does. ^

  8. @Foot Loops – thanks for this comment. Thanks also for your comment earlier today under the name “Balls McCoy” (with an email address calling me a foul name) and for your comment last week on Delta Skymiles under the name “Fart Machine.” You’ve got lots of personalities here on this blog, and I appreciate what you have to say — even if not the manner in which you choose to say it. best, Gary

  9. I know you do these things in phases, and within a few days you’ll stop with the thrice-daily pimping of Chase cards (until the next round in a few months), but I think it’s only fair that while you’re doing it, you give a H/T to TPG, since you’re essentially using his used-card-salesman tactics

  10. @Rob I do think about credit cards in phases, just like I think about Delta’s changes in phases, etc. And whatever is on my brain I write about, which i also hope is interesting to some people which I also realize won’t be interesting to some people. Hope you’ll stick around for the stuff that’s going to be more relevant content to you. Thanks!

  11. I will stay around, because I know these Chase-pushes go in phases (of which you’re allowed to disclose very little about, so I won’t bother)…. I would just say that myself and I’m sure a not-insignificant amount of your readers come to blogs like yours to avoid the used-car-salesman sleaze found on TPG, MMS etc. I don’t think it’s becoming of your blog to imitate their race to the bottom, even in temporary, short spurts

  12. @Gary

    The problem is that you tarnish your own reputation doing this. We all understand you need to make some $$ but it has really become so much that one has to wonder whether this is a blog that actually does give out useful information, or is this just a page sponsored by Chase to pimp out their business? This topic has been discussed ad nauseam in the blogosphere… Did Wendy really need to ask this or was she just “helping you out” by giving you a reason to write another Chase ad?

    Your pal Lucky does the same thing but not as often and he’s much more nonchalant about it… it’s bearable that way.

    I used to be your big fan but now seriously… you’ve gone all the way down to the level of MMS.

    Please focus on original content and deals like you used to. The referral $$ from apps will come anyway, I promise.
    😉

  13. @Lantean – I realize these posts aren’t everyone’s cup of tea but looking at the blog stats they turn out to be the most popular and widely read posts I write. It may not be new content to you but it’s still new to many, in fact I’ve got about twice as many readers as I had 14 months ago so lots of people who haven’t been around the block so to speak. I do apologize if it strikes you as overly repetitive. And I do try to offer as much content across the board as I can, which is why you usually see 4-6 posts per day (and contra a comment earlier about ‘three posts a day’ I do my best to diversity even within a day, and you usually won’t see a topic multiple times on a single day, and credit card content remains less than 10% of total content over stretches of time even though they represent a majority of miles-earning).

    I realize that none of that may convince you the content is valuable, since it isn’t valuable to YOU and I completely respect that.

    Best,
    Gary

  14. How’s your experience with Dynamic Currency Conversion? I know a lot of Hong Kong credit cards give bonuses on Forex transactions, but they get murdered with the prevalence of DCC in China especially (terrible exchange rate, AND you lose the Forex category bonus).

    Noticed that it started showing up at the Seattle premium outlets in a number of stores too (using a Chase Canada no forex card, would have lost all my benefit if I didn’t catch it)

  15. PenFed Visa® Platinum Cash Rewards Card is available as what they call a Chip Enabled card. To get it in this form you are required to provide a PIN, so I assume this is a true Chip and PIN card. If you already have one (for its 5% cash back for gasoline purchased at the pump), you can call PenFed to get it converted.

  16. I could have sworn you JUST covered this in one way or another.

    I know you say you write about what interests you, but i can’t believe that you find chase bank so interesting that you’ve had posts on now three straight days…

  17. I’m with everyone else here–sick of pimping. C’mon, keep it more subtle, Gary!

    Why aren’t you mentioning PenFed or Navy or any of the other reward cards that charge no FOREX? Inquiring minds want to know…. 😉

  18. @Wowza – I mention best rewards cards, PenFed gets a mention in best category bonuses, if I have a blind spot maybe it’s my aversion to federal military credit unions…! (If your implicatoin is that I’m choosing cards that don’t, please note that the IHG Rewards, Bankamericard Travel Rewards Card, and Citi Executive card do not offer any referral credit.)

  19. @Gary, “my aversion to federal military credit unions” — What’s up with that? The two I mentioned are two of the largest CUs in the nation, and possibly the safest. Is there some reason that you don’t like them?

    My point is that you should include all the good cards in this particular category, which you did not. For example, Navy or Penfed rewards earned with no Forex are definitely better than IHG Rewards points. (Hope you don’t dispute that!)

  20. @wowza I was not recommending the IHG Rewards cards though lots of people do. I do not think those cards are among the best rewards cards with no foreign transaction fees. Just don’t. But by all means please tell me why you disagree.

  21. Gary, is it wrong that I chuckled when I read the name “Balls McCoy”? 😀

    Seriously, if all you people don’t like what Gary posts about, DON’T READ IT. Is anyone forcing you to read it? If so, maybe then you’d have a valid complaint. Otherwise, just go on with your life.

  22. Pentagon FCU has very low ATM fees which make it a great card for that and you can link it to a Thrifty Credit line so you are always flush……….but it requires previous foxhole duty……….

  23. Capone cards – never paid an annual fee or a forex fee. That $95 annual fee for CSP is unneeded when there are so many no cost options.

    If you really prefer chase then Hyatt is a better deal – at least the $75 af gets you a free night worth far more. Hr points are also worth more than most programs.

  24. @justsaying, no foxhole duty required. You might be thinking of Navy, though, where service (or a relative who has served) is required.

    @Gary, Awesome deflection of my comment. Your answer had nothing to do with my commentary about your anti-CU slant.

  25. No, I disagree that those are among the best for spend when traveling internationally. So I did not include them. I do include such cards where they make sense, such as category bonuses. But aside the from the category bonuses I do not consider them especially good rewards cards. And this post was not “here are all the cards with no foreign currency fees.” That wasn’t the point here.

  26. Hi, Gary! I know this is a stupid question but can you convert BOA’s travel rewards card points into airlines miles? I know those points can be applied as cash statement but is there any way I can go around it for miles?

    Thanks!

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