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

Jul 25, 2021

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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. You’ll 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.

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And now, travel is back. Here at TPG, we have our writers on the ground (and in the air) reporting on what it’s like to be some of the first tourists in some of these reopened countries — from Portugal to Germany to Italy. In long-awaited travel news, Canada will finally start allowing fully vaccinated tourists to enter the country this August.

Related: A country-by-country guide to coronavirus recovery

Regardless of where your first post-vaccinated trip takes you, this guide will run through nine cards that will serve you well on your travels ahead.

In This Post

A card with no foreign transaction fees

When traveling internationally, you should have at least one card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. You’re bound to make purchases when you’re abroad, so why pay (an up to) a 3% fee every time you swipe your card? In many cases, these fees will negate the rewards you’ll earn, defeating the purpose of using a credit card to begin with.

You’re bound to make purchases while abroad, so make sure you avoid those pesky foreign transaction fees with the right card. (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 no-annual-fee 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 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

From metro rides to group tours, you can earn bonus points and miles on your travel-related purchases. (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 many as 5x points on these purchases.

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
If your trip is delayed or canceled, you’ll want to have a credit card that comes with a suite of travel protections. (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 need to purchase travel protection coverage every time you travel if you have the right card.

Be sure to bring along a 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

Decline coverage at the counter and receive complimentary rental car protections with your card.(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 a higher insurance premium. 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 and grab a snack before a flight.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

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

Enrollment required for select benefits. 

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

Hotel elite status can unlock a ton of exclusive perks. (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, but you’ll also 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

Now that international travel is much more of a possibility for vaccinated tourists, you may find yourself waiting in long customs lines when you return to the U.S. Rather than spending an hour in line, I always skip over to the Global Entry kiosk and get 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 (including TSA PreCheck) 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 up to every five 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. Many 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.
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.

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
ATM fees can be costly, and you’ll want to make sure you have ample cash on hand. (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


Which cards are best for travel abroad?

The best cards for travel abroad 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 — but with a $550 annual fee.

For those looking for a more budget-friendly option, the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is a great pick. It has a $95 annual fee and offers (secondary) rental car coverage and a Global Entry application fee credit every four years. Not only can you offset most of your travel expenses by charging them to this card and redeeming your Capital One miles for 1 cent per mile, but you can also transfer your miles to airline and hotel partners.

Related: Capital One announces new 1:1 transfer tier, additional travel partners and more airport lounge details

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 COVID-19 vaccines widely distributed and countries discussing reopening guidelines, 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 picking, 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.

Additional reporting by Stella Shon.

Featured image by Witthaya Prasongsin/Getty Images.

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*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.

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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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