How I Became a Better Credit Card Traveler Going to 52 Places Around the World in a Year

Apr 6, 2019

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The words “security deposit” are all it takes to whisk me back to that traumatic February afternoon in Liberia, Costa Rica. It was my second international stop as part of my yearlong dream job to write about and photograph every destination on The New York Times’ 52 Places to Go in 2018 list. I remember walking off the plane into the hot, dry air of Guanacaste Province and bursting with excitement to explore those beautiful tropics. But mostly I remember the clerk at Thrifty Car Rental telling me he needed to charge me $2,000, including deposit, rental costs and mandatory insurance — maxing out my paltry credit limit. And then having a minor breakdown.

Before becoming the Times’ inaugural 52 Places Traveler, I had never been on the road for longer than eight weeks at a time. As became abundantly clear during that Costa Rica leg, four weeks in, I had nowhere near the financial wherewithal to handle this much global hopscotching.

Over the course of 2018, I racked up around 74,900 total miles, enough to take me a third of the way to the moon, while traveling by myself pretty much nonstop for a year. I chased sunsets in Chile, swam in waterfalls in Australia and paraglided in crisp mountain air in Switzerland. Oh, it was glorious! And I encountered plenty of scenarios like that one in Costa Rica, when a huge, unexpected cost would come up and I had no idea how to pay it. (In that case, I reluctantly used my debit card.)

If you’re looking for a guide to maximizing your points earnings, I can’t help you. Traveling to 52 spectacular, very scattered destinations chosen by editors of The New York Times isn’t a great way to stick to your Delta loyalty program. It does, however, offer plenty of lessons in how to be scrappy about money so you can keep having a great time. Here are a few things I learned.

(Photo by Jada Yuan / New York Times)
(Photo by Jada Yuan / New York Times)

Spending power is the most important part of any trip

You might fret about what toiletries to pack for a long trip, or whether you brought enough socks. I can tell you from extensive experience that the most important thing to have when leaving your house is spending power. You don’t need to go broke, but you do want the option of throwing money at problems. And there will be problems.

First, take that trip when you have a financial runway. Map out your projected costs, and then try to have at least double that in savings that you’re willing to spend, or some form of income while you’re away. A German backpacker I met had talked his job into paying him two-thirds of his salary in 2017 so he could get the final third in steady checks during his sabbatical in 2018. Others posted up somewhere warm and cheap like Chiang Mai, Thailand, to do consulting work, then used those earnings to fund a couple months of travel.

I had three weeks to quit my previous job and put my apartment in storage before heading out on this trip of a lifetime last January. I knew I wanted a Chase Sapphire Reserve as my main card. It offered no foreign-transaction fees, included rental-car insurance, a 50,000-point sign-up bonus (after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months), 3 points for every dollar spent on travel and dining (excluding $300 travel credit), and a travel credit that effectively reduced its $550 annual fee to $250.

Because of dumb rules, though, I had to get rid of my favorite card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, if I wanted the Reserve — you’re not allowed to hold both cards, and there’s a 48-month waiting period between earning sign-up bonuses on different cards in the Sapphire family. I had to apply as a new customer, with a 40-day approval process. That left me with zero cards. I thought the Citi Prestige, another powerful travel card, would be a good stopgap — until I realized too late that it had a completely inadequate $7,000 limit.

As a new Citi customer, I couldn’t raise the limit, no matter how much I pleaded. (Then my autopay got stuck in limbo — another joy of being a new customer — leaving me cardless for two countries.) All through Latin America, I watched my bank balance dwindle as I maxed out my card and paid it off in bits every other day. Those $1,500 rental-car deposits were the norm in every country I visited, and they often stayed on my card as pending charges for weeks. By the time I got to a rental car office in Chile in March, I had only a few hundred dollars of wiggle room on the one card in my possession that gave me rental-car insurance.

The bright light is that I did eventually get my Chase Sapphire Reserve and they gave me a $27,000 limit. The not-so bright light is that I didn’t get it until April. Which brings me to ….

Avoid having anything sent to you

Qualifying for new credit cards was only half the battle. Getting them in hand so I could use them was a whole separate issue. I was moving locations, if not countries, every four to seven days — which isn’t that different from anyone going on a big world tour. And even within each stop, I often switched hotels. That made me a moving target for shipments, unless I could arrange for a hotel three stops ahead to accept and hold them for me.

A backup credit card that was supposed to arrive via two-day shipping to Chattanooga, Tennessee (stop No. 2 on the trip), got sent back to New York when the FedEx driver decided my hotel didn’t exist. I didn’t get it until Florida, two stops and two weeks down the road. The Chase Sapphire Reserve I so desperately needed didn’t get to me, despite multiple attempts, until I was done with Latin America and back in the States after three months on the road — again, to the detriment of my points, spending power and sanity. I had it sent to a childhood friend in Denver, who delivered it to me in person.

A friend who joined me in Southeast Asia faced similar issues when he lost his card at the beginning of his monthlong trip. The credit card company sent him five replacements that all got delayed in shipping and arrived in each stop of his trip after he’d left. He relied on money transfers and borrowing one of my cards until he got back to the States.

There aren’t many workarounds if you need a new card in an emergency, but if you’re trying to acquire cards to use on your trip, start that process as far in advance of your trip as possible to avoid dealing with shipments. Make sure one of the cards you order is an emergency backup with no annual fee and no foreign-transaction fees, like the Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card, and keep it in the lining of the bag you’re least likely to lose.Don’t be like us!

Eliminate your ATM fees

Petty theft is always a concern in travel, which means carrying a lot of cash can be anxiety-inducing. In my case, traveling extensively in South America, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia, though, going cashless wasn’t an option. Cabs, street vendors and housekeeping tips at hotels all require local currency. In Fiji, for example, all credit card transactions, including pricey hotel bills, came with a 3%-to-5% surcharge that could be avoided by paying cash. More than once, in all corners of the globe, I arrived at hotels I’d booked through Expedia or Booking.com only to find out they didn’t take credit cards.

I needed a way to take out little bits of cash at a time without going broke on ATM fees — which could add up to almost $20 for each transaction. That includes fees charged by the international ATM, plus the non-Chase ATM and foreign-exchange-rate adjustment fees charged by my bank.

Enter the Charles Schwab High Yield Investor Checking Account, which reimburses your ATM fees. Knowing I wouldn’t get charged every time I needed money gave me peace of mind to carry less cash and get it out more often. A few things to know: You can only open a Schwab account while in the US, and it took me weeks to set it up and get my debit card, so it’s best to initiate the process well before you leave. Also, the account is only good if you have money in it to withdraw. I transferred in a couple thousand dollars to start and set up an automatic transfer of $500 a month from my primary bank account and that got me through the year — plus, I’m positive, saved me a couple hundred dollars.

Look over your bills regularly

During whirlwind travel, it’s hard to want to set aside time for a financial-wellness checkup. But you’ll be glad you did.

Save big accounting stuff for when you’re home; it’s actually a fun way to remember your trip. While doing expenses and itemizing deductions, I like to create a kind of diary in my Excel spreadsheet to remind myself of what I did between spending money on gelato. While you’re on the trip, though, set aside 20 minutes a week to do a thorough survey of your card activity. I didn’t do this and then in February found fraudulent charges on my card from back in June — six ride shares taken in New York City while I was in Spain. The charges weren’t big, but it was disturbing to know someone had my card number and could have been using it for seven months without me noticing.

Find yourself a chip-and-PIN card

One thing you start to notice as you travel around the world is how annoying it is to have an American credit card. Mine constantly got rejected when I tried to use it at train-station kiosks in France or Korea, and buying gas at the pump, with no attendant on duty, in Iceland and Germany. That’s because American cards require a signature to approve transactions, while most credit cards in other countries use a PIN number.

I often got around this issue by going to a ticket window, or using my debit card, but it came at the cost of high fees, a less favorable exchange rate, loss of points earnings and, often, a missed train, since the charging snafus took time to correct. A chip-and-PIN card (versus a chip-and-signature card) with no foreign-transaction fees is always a good addition to your quiver for these special circumstances. One such option is the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard, which earns 2x miles on every purchase and offers a 5% rebate on redemptions. There’s also the Wyndham Rewards Visa, which could make sense for those loyal to the hotel chain.

Walk softly and carry a pen

This seems like an almost stupidly simple tip. Because so much of the world uses chip-and-PIN cards, I felt like I was living through “Groundhog Day” every time I whipped out my chip-and-signature card. The machine would spit out a receipt I had to sign, and the cashier or server would go on a mad dash looking for a pen, because none of his or her other transactions that day had required one. Often, there was no ink. A few times I had to sign in highlighter.

To avoid this awkwardness (and angry people behind me in line), I started carrying a couple pens I’d cheerily whip out to much relief all around. They also come in handy for filling out customs forms and for making friends on airplanes when everyone in your row is like, “Sorry to bother you, but could I borrow your pen?”

Don’t get a card just because it comes with Priority Pass

Of all the perks that came with my Chase Reserve and Citi Prestige cards, I was most excited about the Priority Pass membership. It offers free entrance to certain airport lounges, with their free snacks, Wi-Fi and ample seating, as well as discounts at certain airport restaurants. I thought it would be essential. Instead, I used it maybe five times my entire trip.

I’m a fan of airport lounges. As a solo traveler, I can leave my bag unattended for a minute and not worry about someone running off with it. And who doesn’t want free (sometimes terrible) wine to take the edge off? More often than not, though, I’d get through security and find out that the one lounge available to Priority Pass members was three terminals away. Or that the snacks were inedible. In Zurich, I got turned away from the first three lounges I tried because Priority Pass members could only enter during certain hours. Similar issues arose at JFK.

Priority Pass is an independent lounge network, but it doesn’t give you priority in, say, an Air France lounge when actual Air France elite travelers are complaining their oasis is too crowded. The very popularity and abundance of Priority Pass has made it useless in many situations (a lot like TSA PreCheck, which often had as long a line as regular security in busy airports). I wouldn’t pay outright for it, or sign up for a credit card because of it — especially when so many airport restaurants offer similar advantages with better food. Consider it a nice thing to have, but never a guarantee.

All photos by the author.

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