7 Credit Card Hacks That Will Help You Travel On The Cheap

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Affording travel can be tough, but believe it or not, you can have even more trouble with the mechanics behind your bank and credit cards than with the financial practicals of saving up for that next trip to the beach. There are some essential travel hacks for credit cards that you've absolutely got to know before you cross country lines, because I can promise you from experience that being prepared is going to save you a whole lot of stress.

The first time I, an American, joined my Canadian then-girlfriend, now-spouse in Canada, I expected a magical couple weeks of winter wonderland. What I did not expect was, on the first night I was there, to have my card denied when I tried to treat my partner to a movie and dinner. I had more than enough money to cover the bill, and hadn't run into any problems with my card making airline purchases earlier that day, but after trying the card several times, I had to admit defeat.

As it turned out, my bank had blocked my card on suspicion of fraud. Even now, as a permanent resident of Canada who still has a U.S. credit card, I still occasionally have to deal with my purchases being blocked. I'm used to it now, but for folks only spending a short time in another country, the possibility of a card not working on top of considerations like international charge fees and the usual stress of managing a budget can suck all the fun out of a "relaxing" vacation.

Luckily, a little forward thinking is all you need to avoid the majority of credit card-related travel disasters.


Tell Your Provider You're Traveling

This should be rule No. 1, always. Let your bank or credit card company know where you're traveling, when you're traveling, and if you expect to make any large purchases that aren't typical travel purchases. By that I mean, don't worry so much about telling them you're paying for a weeklong hotel stay, but consider telling them if you're going to drop more than $1,000 on something like a boat (hey, you do you) or a piece of jewelry.

Most banks have online forms to notify them of travel plans — Western Union has a handy collection of links to popular banks' forms here.


Bring Cash & Map Out Your ATMs

No two ways about it: Before you leave for your vacation, however you plan to pay for things, you should take out some cash to bring with you. If possible, you should get it converted to the currency of the place you're traveling to; your bank will likely be able to do that for you. Some cash you bring should be for cash-only purchases you expect to make, like street food or a taxi ride, but you should also have an emergency stash.

In case you need more cash, though, you need to know where you'll be able to get it. Check with your provider to see if there are affiliated ATMs near your vacation spot. My bank doesn't charge foreign ATM fees, but many do, so make sure you know if and where you can get cash without the added fee.


Be Ready For Hiccups

Within a few transactions, I realized Canadian payment systems recognized my U.S. Visa debit card as a credit card, opening me up to a whole bevy of problems. Namely, there are lots of stores that don't take credit cards, and even though my debit card is a debit card, they won't accept it, either. So, when you're traveling, be prepared to run into places that don't accept your credit card — and may also not accept your debit card as a backup.

You should also be prepared for just general weirdness, honestly. Even if you inform your bank of your travel plans, your card may be denied. You may hit a situation where a restaurant or theater's payment system just won't take it, whether it's blocked or not. The point is: You should have backups for your backups.


Get Ready To Present I.D.

I've been I.D.'d a number of times while using my card abroad. Always keep some form of I.D. handy — driver's license preferred, but in a pinch a state I.D. will work, as will your passport. In many places, your card may also require that you sign, and sometimes, checkout clerks are told to verify your signature on their slip with the signature on the back of your card. For someone like me, whose signature constantly rubs off their card, this is an issue. Keep your signature fresh, and don't be surprised if someone gets a little suspicious with you. It's not personal; just stay chill and show I.D.


Consider Prepaid Cards

Buying prepaid cards can be a solution to lots of traveling-with-a-credit-card woes. According to Wise Bread, prepaid cards are just as secure as credit and debit cards, since they also use a PIN. They're great if you're worried about sticking to a budget, or if you're concerned you may lose your credit card. Wise Bread does note, however, that as is the case with many credit and debit cards, prepaid cards may have a fee for currency conversion, and that fee could be as high as 7 percent. That may not seem like much, but it adds up: If you spend $1,000, you'll be looking at $70 in fees.


Check Out Potential Rewards

Before you go jetsetting, check out potential rewards your credit card company offers. You may be able to get loads of airmiles, discounts on hotels, and even cash back, depending on your provider, but in order to maximize your kickbacks, you need to know exactly what rewards you're entitled to.

For example, with a Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which according to Forbes is one of the best travel credit cards available, you earn two points on every dollar spent on travel and dining expenses. Those points are then worth 1.25 cents each when redeemed for travel, and "they can be redeemed through the Chase travel portal for nearly any method of travel including air, taxi, cruise, rental cars, or hotel stays," reported Johnny Jet, writing for Forbes. He added, "Or, you can transfer them to boost your loyalty point balance with airline and travel partners like Southwest, United, Hyatt, and Marriott to name a few."


Know How Much You're Spending

This is, hands-down, something you should always do with a credit card. Anyone who's had one knows it's easy to overspend. But when you're traveling, you can rack up even more expenses than you think. The currency conversion fees I mentioned earlier are part of that. My bank's currency conversion fee is 3 percent, and when you're trying to budget, the $30 you have to pay for every $1,000 of purchases can be a huge burden. What's more, the conversion fees take a few days to post to my account, so each time I make a purchase, I have to pull out my phone to calculate how much money I actually have in my account, post-fees.

More than fees, though, there is a very real danger you'll exceed your budget if you don't plan well for vacation. And if you misjudge the amount of cash you need to bring and end up needing to take a cash advance against your credit card, that can seriously cost you. Cash advances come with cash advance fees (2 to 5 percent of the total amount you borrow, according to The Balance), ATM fees for taking out the cash, no grace period, and incredibly high interest rates, reported The Balance.

Vacations can be awesome, but if you underestimate your costs and go in unprepared, they can be the exact opposite of awesome. Give yourself a realistic budget, have backups for your backups, and go in clear-eyed, knowing exactly how to handle any potential trouble that may come your way.