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Handling Credit Cards, Cash and Bank Accounts while Traveling Internationally

Written by Jared on March 20, 2011

You’ve done the destination research, crunched the numbers and pinched the pennies. You have a plan that works and fits your style. You shouldn’t let that hard work go to waste by giving your money back to the bank.

Bank fees can be high for international travelers. Odds are your domestic checking account is not a wise choice to take on the road. Unless you want to lose 3% of your money every time you use your card and $5 every time you withdraw money from an ATM.

How you handle your debit/credit cards and cash on the road are also very important. Develop habits that support your financial situation. You also want to protect your money and keep your options open in case of loss or theft.

ATM machineBank Accounts & ATM Cards

Do your homework on to the bank accounts you’ll use while traveling. Fees for banking internationally can be huge. Banks love to charge you for giving you back your money. Luckily, if you can shop around you should be able to avoid most of these costs.

ATM fees and percentage-based fees for international usage are your biggest concern. There are two types of ATM fees, those charged by your bank, and fees levied by the owner of the ATM. You can find out owner fees when you withdraw money from the ATM and you can contact your bank for information about their international ATM fees.

The best bank accounts will not charge any fees for using an ATM and will also reimburse you owner fees. We highly recommend finding a bank that offers this deal. Being able to frequently withdraw money from an ATM will help you stick to your budget and stay safe by keeping a minimal amount of cash.

Percentage-based fees are unavoidable. Every bank will charge you a currency conversion fee for accessing your money internationally. The best you can hope for is a rate under one percent. Bank rates are still better than money changing services, however you should be aware of the current exchange rate offered by your bank if you plan on withdrawing a lot of money.

Credit cards- Budgting and handling money for international travelPlastic

ATMs are pretty much everywhere. Plastic is the traveler’s first choice for accessing funds. It’s safe, easy and widely available. Traveling with a lot of cash is risky. And travelers cheques are quietly fading from existence.

If you’re heading to less developed nations, do your homework first to make sure you will be able to get money from the wall. Travel guides and online resources will be able to tell you this information. If you know you’re heading someplace without ATM access, consider alternative ways to bring enough money with you such as wire transfers or brick and mortar bank withdraws.

Before you leave, tell your bank you are traveling. They may need to “activate” your card for international use. For security reasons, most banks will block your card if they see overseas charges coming through unexpectedly. This is easy to fix by calling your bank, but it can happen at very inconvenient times.

Use a debit card as your primary source of cash. Credit cards always carry extra fees, especially for cash withdraws. Credit cards are good in case of emergency. They usually charge a percentage fee (1-3%) for point of sale purchases but most have the added perk of offering full fraud protection and even limited property, car and travel insurance.

It’s a good idea to have both major brands of cards (MasterCard/Cirrus and Visa/Plus) with you. Some destinations heavily favor one in place of the other. Avoid carrying more than one card on your person. If you need two cards, keep them in separate places.

Write the number of your bank down somewhere other than the back of your card. If you lose a card on the road you’ll want to let your bank know immediately so that they can cancel it. You aren’t usually liable for charges made to your card after you report it stolen.

Cash- Money for travelCash

How you handle cash determines how easy it is to manage your budget. If you’re like us, then you aren’t used to handling cash much anymore. We live in an age of plastic money and online banking that automagically synchronizes with our smart phones, tax accountant, financial software etc. We’re used to being able to keep tabs on our checking account around the clock with minimal effort.

Consider how to manage your daily expenses without relying on a constant connection with your bank account. Outside of the first world, cash is still king. Day to day expenses are handled with hard currency. This isn’t a problem, but if you are used to buying a pack of gum with your debit card, you will have to make some adjustments.

Refer to our article How to use a Travel Budget on the Road for more information about how we manage our daily spending money.


#3 jessicam 2012-08-13 13:29
Ahhhh, call every two weeks??? Run away!!
For checking accounts, we recommend charles schwab. You can set up an account and manage everything online. ATM fees are all reimbursed (so schwab charges nothing, and reimburses what te owner of the ATM charges.) For saving accounts we use ING Direct. Everything can be done online and interest rates are very good compared to other banks. Good luck!
#2 Amy 2012-08-10 23:57
Hey, great post. I'll be traveling soon to eastern Europe and was wondering what banks you might recommend that are reasonable. I use IBC and they wanted me to call every two weeks notifying them where I'll be / headed to.
#1 Trans-Americas 2011-11-09 22:13
Hey guys!

Welcome to the road! We're glad you're on your way and jealous you are in Mexico. We spent 18 months there and drove 25,000 miles but we still didn't get enough.

Nice post--we'd add the following info: Capital One credit cards are the best for travelers from the US. No minimum balance required and no overseas transaction fees. We did a post with all the details....http ://trans-americ 0/10/credit-car d-fees-travel/

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