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Be sure your credit and debit cards—and the accounts behind them—are as ready for your summer trip as you are. Chances are you’ll be relying heavily on either or both varieties of plastic, and you don’t want any unpleasant surprises, either when you try to use them or when you get the bills. The fact that hardly any one of these suggestions is highly original doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take notice.
Plan to Use Your Plastic
In general, my regular recommendation is that you use a credit card for major purchases—tickets, hotel accommodations, restaurant bills, rental cars, and such—and use a debit (ATM) card for whatever cash you need. If you have more than one in each type of card, plan on having different people carry some of the cards—that way, if one person loses a wallet or purse or has a pocket picked, you’ll still be able to operate. Make a note of the card numbers and the phone numbers to call if you have a problem. And if you’re 65 or over, don’t forget your Medicare card—beyond possible use for medical emergencies, that card opens the door to highly reduced or even free travel on lots of local transit systems around the country.
Do the Obvious
Make sure that any credit and debit cards you plan to use are current, signed, and have available balances or open credit limits. Make sure your photo ID and driver’s license won’t expire.
Notify the Card Issuers
Let each card issuer know about your trip if your use pattern on your trip will vary significantly from your usual uses.
Check the Coverages
Review the fine print on your various credit and debit cards to identify all the “free” travel benefits they may provide. Most important, if you plan to rent a car, make sure that the card you use provides automatic collision coverage. If you have an American Express card, consider signing up for the primary collision coverage option—that avoids any possible hassles with your regular auto insurance. Beyond that, make a list of the other services your card might provide: delayed or lost baggage insurance, roadside assistance, emergency assistance of various kinds, and such.
If you’re headed outside the country, you have to cover a few additional bases. As with domestic travel, I recommend maximum use of plastic. Even in the worst-case scenario, you’ll lose only 3 percent on foreign exchange—less than you’d lose exchanging either traveler’s checks or currency.
If you have more than one credit card, see if any charges less than 3 percent, total, on foreign transactions. Capital One cards and several premium cards from American Express, Chase, and Citi don’t surcharge foreign transactions at all, and cards from some small banks and credit unions charge only 1 percent.
Similarly, check to see which of your debit card issuers adds the lowest conversion or per-transaction fees to cash withdrawals from ATMs. I’ve noted before, if you have a checking or savings account with Bank of America, you can make no-fee withdrawals in local currency from participating banks in several countries; look up the “Global ATM Alliance” for particulars. In the past, I’ve seen reports that withdrawals from Citi accounts at Citi-owned ATMs throughout the world entail no withdrawal charge, but the latest information I have from Citi is that Citi does assess a 3 percent surcharge on withdrawals from foreign Citi ATMs.
Some foreign merchants may offer to bill you in U.S. dollars rather than local currency, as a “courtesy” or to avoid conversion charges. Don’t bite: The object of that courtesy is the merchant’s account, because the merchant can set the exchange at a gouge rate that you won’t even know.
And if you really want to be prepared, get a “Chip and Pin Cash Passport” debit card from Travelex and load it with $100 to $200. Despite the lousy exchange rate, you can use this card where ordinary American plastic no longer works.