Save Money on International Travel: Paying Bills and Getting Cash

You want a credit card with no foreign transaction fees, and ideally an ATM card that offers that too. Otherwise you’re going to pay a surcharge on all of your transactions, usually 3%.

Personally I want to carry more than one in case a bank shuts me down thinking that my foreign travel is fraud (they should know my patterns better by now).

The basic lessons are:

  • Use a credit card that waives foreign transaction fees. This saves you 3% on all of your foreign purchases.

    The one I like best is the Chase Sapphire Preferred since you not only save the foreign currency conversion fees but also still earn double points on all of your travel (including hotel) and restaurant spending. The Chase Ink Plus small business card has no foreign currency fees and offers double points on hotels as well.

  • Do not let merchants convert bills into your home currency. Always pay bills in the local currency. You do not want anyone to convert your bill to your own currency because they will charge you an unfavorable exchange rate to do so. You’re far better off with your bank’s rate. Even igf you don’t have a no foreign transaction fee credit card, you don’t want the bill converted — your card will still charge those fees because charge is incurred outside the US, even if the bill is in dollars.

  • The best way to get cash is from an ATM. That’s true even if your bank doesn’t rebate ‘out of network’ ATM fees, and even if your bank doesn’t waive foreign currency conversion fees. I’ve been fortunate that my Bankdirect ATM card hasn’t hit me with those fees, even though I think they’re supposed to on non-US transactions. The classic card for waiving these fees comes from Charles Schwab.

  • Some people still notify their card issuers when traveling abroad. Many say this is no longer necessary, and notifying them isn’t a guarantee they won’t see foreign charges as suspicious, so I don’t bother doing it and don’t really have problems (but then foreign charges aren’t really outside my spending patterns so may not raise flags). I like the suggestion to just have more cards from more banks in case any give you a problem, and also to keep at least one card back at the hotel in your room safe.

(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. Interesting comment about not bothering to notify the banks. I had several issues with blocked accounts, but all those were several years ago.

    I’ll probably still do it on new cards as I don’t think they look across cards for spending patterns.

  2. do pay abroad in USD if transaction is priced in USD, otherwise you’ll get screwed if merchant prices in USD and then converts into the local currency for credit card payment, which your bank will then convert back to USD. I paid an extra $10 on $200 with Budget Car Rental in Costa Rica through this USD roundtrip.

  3. Not only several ccs from different banks, but also at least 2 ATM cards from different banks. You don’t want to try to get cash from an ATM daytime hours overseas, only to have your banks system busy updating in the wee hours back home. And if you do get fraud happening on your ATM account, you can quickly close it down and use the other card.

    Plus it’s been known to happen that the ATM either mangles your card beyond use, or simply refuses to return it.

  4. I tested out the theory yesterday when I tried to book a ferry on an Italian website for a future date with my Chase Ink card. It was denied and I got an email immediately from Chase. It was all cleared up in 15 minutes and I gave them my travel notification, but it definitely did not work for me.

    I travel internationally about 1-2 times a year, but am always doing spending on newer cards which is what may have triggered the fraud alert.

  5. Also, do some research as to specifically what ATMs and banks are amenable to use by foreign travelers. Even in the most developed and high-tech places, they simply may have very restrictive rules. For example in Japan many of even the biggest big national or regional banks won’t take a card issued outside of the country, whereas 7-Eleven ATMs will.

  6. All good advice especially the 2 ATM cards……..and even though Chase says it is not needed I still notify my local banker……….and I don’t carry a Cit card because they are such nervous nellies…………

  7. In Japan, the best deal is just use American Express travelers checks (only if you can get them for free), and the convert them at the airport for only 1 yen from the call-rate of that day.

    Japan is a cash economy, and if you have a lot no cash, no need for CCs and the banks that have been destroying the American economy before you through the enabling of counterfeit goods and services.

    Good luck.

  8. Watch out for the Ryanairs of the world, which convert to USD without really informing you. Triple check.

  9. It feels a little deceptive to state that the Chase Sapphire Preferred gives 2x on all travel in a post talking about international travel- some might think that they would use this card exclusively on vacation and earn 2x.

    The stuff about it earning 2x on hotels is mostly moot since few people would seek to book their hotel while overseas.

  10. Gary: I’m surprised that you are a BankDirect customer and yet giving the advice that one no longer needs to call overseas before travelling. I find that BankDirect always freezes my account if I don’t report the travel in advance, and sometimes even when I do report it. Of course what’s worse is that they’re only open on weekdays during Texas time zone hours, so if that’s your only debit card and it’s the weekend or you’re in Asia or something, you are completely screwed in getting money out. This has happened to me many times with BankDirect and now I learn to just carry some emergency cash, since I’m too lazy to open a second checking account.

  11. @Matt It earns 2x on all spend in travel categories — air, hotel, car for instance and also 2x on restaurant spend. I’m sorry if that was somehow unclear, and I fail to see how you jump from that to ‘deceptive’.

    2x earning on hotels is hardly moot at all! It’s not about when you book hotels, it’s about paying for hotels — and paying any foreign hotel at checkout will earn you 2x and avoid foreign transaction fees. What am I missing that would make that moot? [There are WORKAROUNDS where you can earn 2x without having foreign transaction fees be an issue by prepaying your room through a US site, is that where you’re going? That would hardly make this moot. And you may still incur charges on property such as dining or activities where you pay the hotel directly.]

  12. I mean, the post is all about savvy international travel, and the first thing you mention is a card that gives you 2x on all travel – I think it can make a reader believe that all of their travel spend is at 2x…. perhaps deceptive was a poor choice of words, but it seems misleading (I am totally willing to say that wasn’t your intention) to read that.

    Also I would hardly say that it is a ‘workaround’ to pay for your international hotel before you depart, that would be pretty much standard operating procedure based upon my pretty extensive experience of doing that.

  13. @Matt I guess it hadn’t even occurred to me that someone would think buying tickets to a museum would be considered travel spend. I still think that air, lodging, and food represent the largest portion of spend for most people when traveling abroad. And as for lodging, I am highly allergic to prepaid hotel rates since I find I can generally do as well on net without prepaying (but with status benefits or add-on offers) and plans change, better options open, prices go up AND down.

  14. Well, its pretty obvious that the inclusion of an affiliate link is to convert ‘newer’ readers, those less experienced with the nuances of travel. The old hands don’t need a link and a note to say it earns 2x on Travel.

    So, I read it like that, as a newbie, and think there is room for misunderstanding in that way. Just my take on it.

    As for the comment on prepaid, it doesn’t mean you can’t cancel, change, upgrade, add on, etc… it just means its paid in advance. Most people I know like to know their room is paid in advance, and that is standard fare when booking directly or through a third party website.

  15. @stvr–Oh God , Ryan Air.
    I charged tickets to my Amex at an 18 euro fee, after 6pm local time for travel the nect day–at the equivalnt of $793. I was traveling before they ‘open” at 9 the next morning . The only way to change the ticket before the flight is to call them–and there is a fee for every thing. the airport help desk was something righ out of what i recall when Poland was communist. Go to counter, person gets up and leaves. You leave , they come back.
    Anyway, I have found AMEX is the best with not allowing Ryan Air nonsense. Had they been open like a regular airline, for a fee i could have paid to use the tickets for other travel.
    AMEX must be all too familiar with their BS because they didn’t even send me Ryan Air’s justification. They took 30 days, must have looked at Ryan Air’s crap…..and just told then to go away. They credited my account in full.

    As to car rental, I have a terrivle time with this BS of converting at an off-market rate. I just chalk it up as it’s usually $10 more, and it’s not worth my time dealing with it. Aren’t their some good PI attorneys on this blog who would liken a massive class action claim?

  16. Nice idea not to have vendor convert – until they tell they “have to because that’s the only way the cc machine works”

  17. Any suggestions on acquiring small amounts (<$100) of foreign currency stateside? I guess that's what airport ATMs are for, but I like the security of having at least some local cash immediately upon arrival.

  18. I think the lesson here is that “ALL” spend should be at least 5X……..it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to achieve that unless you don’t have a clue who Frequent Miler is………I really think the bigger question is can? (do you have the patience and ability) to stand back from a purchase and inhale the miles that will come your way if you show surgical precision and patience……….it truly is a zen moment to figure out the multiples………and the epiphany of the moment will be so overpowering that you will believe you have died and gone to heaven…….and then you will fall out of bed and hit your head and start again………it just doesn’t get any better than this!

  19. 2X….LOL……..I am so so ashamed if I ever give a card where there is not at least 5X at the counter……….I would hide my face and say “No, no I am Not from Boarding Area……….Liar…..I’m not from there!

  20. @DBest: Avoid going to a local bank for foreign currency unless you like to pay through the nose and have to wait about 2 weeks. They are almost as bad as the airport cash exchanges (which simply suck). The best bet is to swallow the ATM fee upon landing but you will be miles ahead.

    China is a different story. You may want to get around 500-1000 RMB upon landing, but you should change cash for local at the hotel (almost all hotels in big cities are happy to do the exchange). DO NOT use traveler’s checks as it may take up to half a day while they check them out (and you need the original receipt).

    And be aware that except for Canada and Eurozone currencies, whatever you have left in cash is basically a souvenir because the exchange back to USD is horrible (and impossible in some countries regardless of what you may have read).

  21. @Scott – if the vendor tells you that they are lying or incompetent, and you should dispute the charge with your card company

  22. @Matt why would you want to know your room is paid in advance? It doesn’t prevent you from being walked. It just means the hotel (or OTA) already has the money. And if the OTA there’s no guarantee it’s even been passed to the hotel. Not a fan of prepaid hotel rates at all.

    Obviously a post about a Sapphire Preferred Card earning 2x on travel is not targeting that at experts. I have a wide mix of readers, most not nearly as expert as you are (I’d bet 35k people a day would fall into that category). What you impugne as ‘to convert’ newer readers I think it’s useful for a reasonable subset of readers.

    I make all conflicts and potential conflicts of interest clear — in every post and in multiple places throughout the site. That doesn’t make my content wrong in any sense.

  23. Gary, I agree I could dispute the charge, but the < 10% I'd get back on every $50 meal becomes a big hassle. The merchant is probably counting on no on bothering. I probably should try that next time – if there are enough charge backs it might prompt questions from their bank and maybe eventually they'd stop the scam.

  24. I (almost) always get my cash from ATM’s while traveling overseas because that is (almost) always the best option.
    My wife and I recently spent a month in Argentina and while the ATM’s offered about 8 pesos per dollar you could easily get over 11 pesos per dollar on the street.
    I have been to over 60 countries and Argentina was the only place where (I noticed that) you could actually get a better exchange rate for cash rather than the ATM. Gary, have you ever been to another country where this was the case? I suppose this gets away from the credit card/bank angle but could potentially save people a lot of money.

  25. Oh,and as far as paying with your credit card it drives me absolutely crazy when people convert it to dollars without even asking me. Asking you if you want to convert it to USD is essentially a scam but converting it without even asking should be a crime. I had this happen to me at the Hyatt in Mumbai (which I kinda thought would be above those sorts of things). The lady at reception handed me my bill (in rupees) I reviewed it and handed her my credit card. 2 minutes later she comes back with a receipt in USD which was $15 higher than what it should have been at the current rate. I refused to sign it, made her reverse the charges on my card and recharge it in rupees. She was completely dumbfounded as to why I would want to do that so I assume that is just the way the management trains them and the fact that they are scamming all of their foreign customers was lost on her.

  26. @Gary I never use the 5X loaded Bluebird to pay bills thank you….I do use office supply 5X for gas, Starbucks, Nordstrom, etc etc……….And you can continue the madness by going thru a portal to buy a VISA giftcard that is both 5X and cash back and THEN that is the card to use for various other expenses. The “ONLY” exception to the 5X rule has to be when meeting minimum spend and even then because of the sign up bonus it should be far north of the 5X. For those NOT getting 5X, they might want to take a meditative moment and rethink how they conduct their spend.

  27. @JustSaying – again, disagree, (1) bills larger than your gift cards and especially where you cannot do a split tender, (2) online purchases where you cannot set an address for the gift cards to match, (3) having to manage the sheer quantity of cards and liquidate remainder balances. Buying $200 visa gift cards to cover all spend is not going to be a viable strategy for most readers, although I am thrilled that it works well for you.

  28. LOL……Well if you have to have a “larger card “better” than 2X you could also look at the business version of an AMEX gift card…..go up to three thousand and cash back of 3% thru a portal…….buy it with your Starwood AMEX and you end up with 1.25 points and 3% back…….unless of course you value .75 UR points at greater than 3 cents? At 3k a pop you should be creative enough to accomplish a split tender………

  29. “Use a credit card that waives foreign transaction fees.”

    What a terrible phrase and what a clear example of Stockholm Syndrome! The correct phrase is “Use a credit card that doesn’t add foreign transaction fees.”

    There is nothing “normal” with a fee for making a charge 10 miles north of Detroit or 10 miles south of San Antonio.

  30. “Some people still notify their card issuers when traveling abroad. Many say this is no longer necessary, and notifying them isn’t a guarantee they won’t see foreign charges as suspicious, so I don’t bother doing it and don’t really have problems (but then foreign charges aren’t really outside my spending patterns so may not raise flags). I like the suggestion to just have more cards from more banks in case any give you a problem, and also to keep at least one card back at the hotel in your room safe.”

    Texas Capital Bank/BankDirect refused to honor my debit card in Mexico and their help line is unstaffed outside 8-5 Monday to Friday. Essentially useless.

    On return they told me they needed to be told locations and dates outside the US. Cf. AMEX.

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