9 types of cards you should pack for your next trip abroad

Nov 13, 2020

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When traveling abroad, what you pack in your wallet matters as much as what you pack in your luggage. The approach to both should be the same: keep it simple and practical. I want at least one credit card that charges no foreign transaction fees, one that earns bonus points on travel, another that offers travel insurance and rental car coverage and a fourth that gets me hotel elite status benefits.

While the pandemic has stopped most international travel, many TPG readers are planning international travel for 2021 and beyond. When that happens, this guide can help you figure out which cards to take along. Here are nine card types you should bring on your next trip abroad.

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In This Post

A card with no foreign transaction fees

When traveling abroad, you should have at least one card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. You’re bound to make purchases, so why pay an extra 3% fee? In many cases, it negates the rewards you’ll earn, defeating the purpose of using a credit card to begin with.

(Photo by LeoPatrizi/Getty Images)

Nowadays, most travel rewards credit cards waive foreign transaction fees, but a few everyday cards do not. For example, the Chase Freedom Unlimited® and Chase Freedom Flex are popular cards that tack on a 3% transaction fee when you use them abroad. Double-check your favorite rewards cards and make sure they do not impose foreign transaction fees. Here are some of our favorite card picks in this category:

The information for the Hilton Aspire Amex card, Wells Fargo Propel, and the Capital One Savor, has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

A card that earns bonus points on travel

(Photo by Witthaya Prasongsin/Getty Images)

If you’re going to travel anywhere, you’ll need a travel rewards card that earns a sufficient number of points. After all, you’re going to be spending quite a bit on hotel charges, restaurants, transportation and more. A travel rewards card can help you get as much as 5x points on these purchases.

The information for the Citi Prestige has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

While it’s easy to go for the card with the highest travel bonus, you’ll want to take a few other factors into account. Namely, you’ll want a card that protects your travel purchases.

A card that offers travel protection

Female tourist with bag waiting airport flight stats
(Photo by martin-dm / Getty Images)

When you’re traveling abroad, a lot can happen. Your travel plans may unexpectedly change, and if you don’t have travel insurance, you could be in a really tough spot. Luckily, you don’t have to separate purchase coverage in every instance.

Just be sure to bring along a credit card that offers travel protection, including trip cancellation/interruption protection, trip delay reimbursement and emergency evacuation and transportation coverage.

The information for the U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Keep in mind that coverage may be restricted depending on where you live or your travel destination.

Related: When to buy travel insurance versus when to rely on credit card protections

A card that offers primary rental car coverage

Photo by Kathrin Ziegler/Getty Images

Rental car coverage is crucial, especially when you’re traveling abroad. The last thing you want is to get into a fender bender and get hit with higher insurance premiums. You can buy primary coverage at the rental counter or get it for free using a card that offers primary rental car coverage.

A card that offers airport lounge access

Traveling abroad means spending quite a bit of time at the airport. You need to arrive several hours before departure and will probably have a few hours to spare. An airport lounge is a great place to pass the time. While lounge offerings are now limited due to the pandemic, airport lounges are still a great place to social distance and grab a snack before a flight.

Amex Centurion Lounge JFK
The new Amex Centurion Lounge at JFK (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Luckily, lots of premium credit cards offer lounge access, though you can also score day passes with a card like the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card.

So what’s the best card for international lounge access? That depends on various factors, but The Platinum Card® from American Express offers the most comprehensive network. You not only get Priority Pass Select membership, but you can also visit lounges within the exclusive Centurion lounge network.

A card that offers hotel elite status benefits

(Photo courtesy of Becca Manheimer/The Points Guy)

Having hotel elite status abroad is incredibly valuable. You’ll not only earn more points on your hotel stays; you’ll save money via perks such as free breakfast and club lounge access. As an elite member, you’ll also qualify for room upgrades, which can be great in places where hotel rooms tend to be on the smaller side (looking at you, Europe). With the right hotel credit card, you can get top-tier status outright or spend your way there.

A card that offers global entry fee credits

Travel has slowed down significantly since the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean it’s always smooth sailing through the airport. When I flew home from Istanbul recently, I was shocked that the plane was full and even more surprised to see a mile-long line at U.S. customs (slight exaggeration). Rather than spending an hour in line, I skipped over to the Global Entry kiosk and was through in a matter of minutes.

Global Entry can save you time and energy when you’re flying back into the U.S. from abroad. (Photo by PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

If you want a smooth experience (and no lines) when returning from your trip abroad, the $100 Global Entry application fee is well worth it. Better yet, get yourself a credit card that offers a Global Entry fee credit and put that $100 toward its annual fee. You’ll get a nice welcome bonus and your Global Entry application fee covered. These credits get renewed about every 4-5 years, in time for your renewal application.

Related: 14 things you should know about Global Entry before your next trip

A card that offers travel credits

Things can get expensive when you’re traveling abroad, but you might be covered if you carry a premium credit card in your wallet. A lot of these cards offer annual travel credits that are either airline/hotel specific, or you can use them for virtually anything.

Ask your beach concierge to set up a Champagne toast.
(Photo by Michael H/Getty Images)

If you have one of these cards in your wallet, you’ll want to pack it for your trip abroad to put that annual credit to use and lower your out-of-pocket expenses.

Related: Is your premium travel card offering enough perks during the pandemic? A card-by-card guide

A debit card that waives international atm fees

Credit cards aren’t as widely accepted abroad as they are in the U.S. It’s not just off-the-beaten-path destinations where you’ll need to carry cash – I’ve come across merchants in fairly large cities throughout Europe that did not accept credit cards. You might find yourself short on cash, in which case a trip to the ATM will be necessary.

Woman withdrawing money from ATM
(Photo by Astrakan Images/Getty Images)

That’s why it’s so important to bring a debit card that charges no international ATM fees when you use it abroad. The Charles Schwab debit card is a great option because it carries no fees whatsoever and reimburses all international ATM fees. You can even use the card for purchases, since it charges no foreign transaction fees.

  • Capital One debit card – Requires a Capital One 360 checking account
  • Charles Schwab debit card – Requires opening a Schwab Bank High Yield Investor checking account.
  • Fidelity Visa Gold Check Card – Requires a Fidelity Cash Management Account.
  • SoFi Money debit card – Requires a SoFi Money account.

Related: 5 cards I take with me on every trip abroad

FAQ

Which cards are best for travel abroad?

The best cards for travel abroad are ones that are most widely accepted, offer robust rewards, travel protection and benefits. While there is no single perfect card that fits everyone’s travel needs, the Chase Sapphire Reserve checks off the most boxes. As a Visa card, it’s also more widely accepted than the Amex or Mastercards we’ve covered in this post.

For those looking for a more budget-friendly option, the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is a great option. It has a $95 annual fee and offers (secondary) rental car coverage and a Global Entry application fee credit every four years. Best of all, you can offset most of your travel expenses by charging them to this card and redeeming Capital One miles for 1 cent per mile.

Do I need a card with a chip-and-pin?

Chip-and-pin credit cards are popular throughout Europe, so you may want to have one in your wallet if you’re traveling abroad. The good news is that many popular reward credit cards are already chip-and-pin enabled, so you may not have to go through the hassle of finding another card to apply for.

What are foreign transaction fees?

Some credit cards impose foreign transaction fees on purchases made abroad. These fees are usually around 3%. We’re all about saving on travel,  so avoiding another 3% charge on top of all your travel spending would be ideal. Get yourself a rewards card without foreign transaction fees and you won’t have to worry about this added expense.

Do I need to let my card issuer know if I’m traveling abroad?

You don’t have to let your card issuer know you’re traveling abroad, but it’s definitely a good idea to do so. That way, you minimize the risk of your purchases being declined abroad. Some banks allow you to submit travel notices online, while others require you to call and speak to a representative. Simply provide a list of countries you plan on visiting and your account will be notated.

Abnormal transactions may still get flagged, but this way you reduce the chances of your purchases being declined.

Bottom line

With a covid vaccine in the works, international travel is close to becoming a reality again. Now is a great time to plan by saving up transferable rewards and making sure you have the right credit cards in your wallet. You’ll save money, earn more points and enjoy a better travel experience. Whichever card combination you end up packing, just make sure it meets all the criteria we’ve outlined above.

For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum Card, please click here 
For rates and fees of the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant Amex Card, please click here
 
For rates and fees of the Amex Gold card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Hilton Aspire card, click here.

Featured image by AnnaTamila/Shutterstock

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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