This is a quick summary of the most important aspects of banking while traveling and I must give credit where credit is due. A lot of this I already knew, and some of these banks/cards I already used, but Nomadic Matt’s book How to Travel the World on $50 a Day goes into more depth and is absolutely worth buying if you’re a budget traveler. If you’re going on a longer trip or frequently travel, his book will very quickly save you enough time and money to pay for itself.
-You’ll get the best exchange rate with either a credit card or using an ATM to withdraw local currency. Exchanging cash at airports and hotels will usually result in the worst exchange rates.
-Take two credit and two ATM cards from separate banks. If one account is compromised you’ll still be able to use your other card. Also, some places may take Visa but not MasterCard or vice versa.
-Use credit cards as much as possible because those companies are most likely to assist you with refunds and disputed charges.
-Make sure your PIN codes do not start with the number “0” as some foreign countries do not permit this and your card will not work in those machines.
-Don’t keep all of your cards and cash together. If your hotel has a safe, leave one set of cards there.
-Your cards will have a phone number on them to call if they are lost or stolen. If your card is lost or stolen you can’t look at it, so email yourself a list of these (and other important) phone numbers before your trip.
-NOTIFY YOUR BANKS OF YOUR PLANS! Almost every bank has a way to do this online now, and if you don’t take this step you’re very likely to have your cards deactivated for suspected fraud. They’ll call your house about the issue, but you won’t be there to answer the phone!
Look for cards that have no foreign transaction fee. After that, look for a card that also gives you travel rewards and has little or no annual fee. My primary card while outside the US is CapitalOne Visa Signature. It meets all the requirements (including travel rewards) and you can even put your own image on the card! I put one of my favorite travel photos on my card to remind me that it’s my travel card (I have A LOT of cards in my wallet when I’m not traveling). The card I use whenever in the US is my Citi AAdvantage MasterCard (50,000 bonus miles when you sign up through that link and and spend $3,000 in the first 3 months). It does have an annual fee after the first year and a 3% foreign transaction fee, but with the number of miles I rack up it’s worth it. I’ll be taking it as a back up card because it includes an EMV chip, which makes transactions more secure and is becoming widely used internationally. Note: I couldn’t find a link to the exact same CapitalOne card but their Venture Rewards card seems to have the same benefits.
Again you want to look for no fees. Charles Schwab has a high-yield checking account that charges no ATM fees AND refunds the fees that any other bank charges you! You have to open a brokerage account with them to get the checking account, but you don’t ever have to put any money in the brokerage account and there’s no minimum balance for the checking account either. (very weird system but it works great and they have the BEST customer service) As a secondary card, I would recommend something from a bank that has international branches or partners, or your local credit union which often times has very low fees. Our local credit union allows for 6 free “foreign” withdraws per month and only $1 thereafter. Since they only have a couple of ATMs, they consider withdraws made inside the US at non-network banks to be “foreign” and recommend convenience stores like Wawa where the ATM owner also charges no fee.
Take a fair amount of US dollars with you as US dollars are readily accepted in many foreign countries. You’ll get better exchange rates with your credit or ATM card, but in the event of an emergency the almighty dollar goes a long way. Hide some extra emergency cash throughout your stuff so that if your wallet/purse is stolen you’ll have a bit of money to tide you over until you can resolve the issue. Go to your local bank before leaving to get fairly new, crisp $20s, $50s and $100s as these are most likely to be accepted internationally.
When I was younger, we always had traveler’s checks on hand. Now that ATMs are easier to find and credit cards so widely accepted, I don’t know anyone who still uses these. While they’re technically “safer” than taking US dollars with you (can’t redeem them without ID), in the event of an emergency nobody wants your weird piece of paper!