How to choose the best bank card for traveling?
What to avoid when choosing a credit or debit card for travel
So, you’ve checked to see if there is an unofficial or black market rate of exchange operating in your intended future travel destination. There isn’t a black market rate and you’ve traveled enough to know that travelers cheques are cr*p and that nobody accepts them.
So you’ve decided you’ll need to use a bank card, but which one and what type?
Well, anybody on the internet who tries to tell you to sign up for one bank or card over another is getting paid to do that and is likely providing dodgy advice.
What you’ll find below is not a list of which cards to use but a list of the things you should watch out for when choosing a card as eliminating these fees as far as possible will save you money.
Foreign Transaction Fees
Some cards (or most if you are Australian) will charge some sort of foreign transaction fee. This fee occurs when a transaction is processed outside of the issuing country.
For example let’s say you have an Australian issued card from one of the major banks and you buy something in the USA, either in person with the card or via the internet. Whether you pay in person or via the internet you’ll likely find you’ve been hit with an extra 3% ‘O/S Fee’ when you check your statement.
And if an added 3% on every transaction doesn’t sound like much, it does add up and if you were traveling for let’s say a year in the USA, that 3% would likely add up to more than $1500 for the average person. And that’s $1500+ you could have spent having fun as opposed to paying it to a bank in fees for nothing in return.
Eliminate this one by finding a card that specifically advertises that it has ‘no foreign transaction fees.’ I use Wise because it has no transaction fees and no currency conversion fees. Wise is my go to card in South American and Europe. I’ve traded in my Citibank debit card for the Wise card.
Overseas ATM Fees
The fees charged by ATM operators in different countries are wildly variable. For example, a government owned bank ATM in Uruguay may charge you no fees, a foreign bank in Uruguay may charge $5 USD and a privately owned ATM in Hungary can smack you for €20 Euros or more per transaction.
And in places like Argentina every ATM whether owned by a bank or private individual, will see your foreign card and add a foreign sucker surcharge or gringo tax averaging around $20 USD.
As a general rule of thumb here, steer clear of all privately owned ATM’s in any country you are traveling and only use ATM’s that belong to that country’s major banks. Most privately owned (i.e. not branded by a bank) ATM’s will charge more fees than a large banks ATM.
But it also gets worse and you need to be on guard as to which ATM you use. Most privately owed ATM’s with ridiculous fees are located in and around locations of convenience and more often than not, in places where alcohol is consumed. Generally speaking, they’re hoping you’ve had one too many drinks with a spicy señorita before stumbling up to the nearest ATM and blindly accepting the ridiculous surcharge to get cash for more drinks.
Always know in advance which ATM’s you should use for the lowest fees and only access these ATM’s. To find out which ATM’s will charge you the lowest fees once you’ve settled on which card you may use overseas, you should look to see if that bank has ATM’s or partner ATM’s in your intended destination. You should also thoroughly Google things like ‘ATM with lowest fees for card X in country Y‘ or ‘where to use card X in country Y‘.
To avoid this fee be smart about which card you use and where you stick it.
Currency Conversion Fees and Conversion Rates
This one is a tricky little fee that may or may not be advertised and is generally applied in a misleading way. Some banks will advertise that they have no currency conversion fees, but when you check the conversion rate against the interbank rate on xe.com it will always be 1% (average is 2%-3%) or more lower than the xe.com rate.
Not to be confused with black market cash rates, the currency conversion rates that banks change money at are the interbank rates which a consumer cannot access. The rate that the bank gives the consumer will always be lower as they scalp a set percentage as a type of fee. Some banks are upfront about taking a percentage and others aren’t, but they all do it.
Generally, before settling on a card you want to look at what rate they are giving on the currency you need and compare it to the rate on somewhere like xe.com. And in doing so you can work out what percentage they’re scalping. Based on how much you plan to spend overseas you can also get a rough idea of how much the bank will pocket on your transactions.
To avoid this ‘fee’ compare the banks stated rate with somewhere like xe.com and look for the banks that provide as close as possible to the interbank rate.
In some countries it’s just not worth using your card. Places like Western Union charge a set fee to transfer money to a particular country. And sometimes the exchange rate is better and the fees are lower.
If you open up Google Maps and search for Western Union in the city you are traveling to and see that there a outlets literally everywhere (some places have so many I’ve seen 4 or more on the same block), that’s usually an indication that you should really investigate the rates and fees further.
Sometimes it can be easier and significantly cheaper not to get a card for travel and simply use the Western Union app for your home country and transfer cash straight to yourself as you need it (transfers are instant) and pick it up from a Western Union outlet. In essence treating Western Union like an ATM.
As discussed previously, for countries like Argentina with an unofficial (i.e black market) rate of exchange and stupidly high ATM fees you can effectively double your money by using Western Union and its mobile app like an ATM.