The Credit and Debit Cards That Will Save You Money When Traveling

Here’s a good way to burn money when you travel abroad: use just a regular ol’ debit or credit card that charges you foreign transaction and ATM fees.

Most of us (guilty, in my foolish past!) have done this out of sheer laziness. When you’re planning a vacation, daydreaming about plush hotels and tantalizing restaurants and sun-soaked beaches where you’ll dig your toes in the sand, the debit card you’re going to use at some foreign airport ATM is decidedly an unsexy topic of fantasy.

But if you love to travel (and hey, you wouldn’t be reading this article if you didn’t), it seriously pays to choose your plastic wisely. Let’s start with debit cards.

Rebates on all your foreign ATM fees

The easiest, most cost-effective way to get cash in a foreign currency will often be an ATM when you’re traveling overseas. Just say no to currency exchange kiosks at the airport.

Many large US banks tack on a fee when you use a foreign ATM -- for example, Bank of America charges you a $5 flat fee just for using the ATM, then tacks on an extra 3% to the amount you withdraw. That means if you’re like most people, and you don’t withdraw ~exactly~ the right amount of cash the first time you visit an ATM in a different country (and then walk around with a stupidly fat wad of cash), you’re going to have to eat those charges again the next time you hit an ATM. It’s a punch in the wallet before you even spend your money.

That’s why it’s worth banking with someone who doesn’t charge foreign ATM fees. A popular, reliable US choice is Charles Schwab Bank’s High Yield Investor Checking Account, which is actually a misnomer. You do not in fact have to be a “high-yield investor” to take advantage of its sweet, sweet benefits (unlimited fee rebates from any ATM worldwide, no monthly service fees, no minimum balance).

Honorable mentions for reimbursing foreign ATM fees include Capital One 360 accounts (note: this only applies to Capital One’s online-only bank accounts -- not if you use its brick-and-mortar branches!) and First Republic Bank, although the latter is a “fancy” bank that requires a $500 minimum opening balance and charges you monthly fees unless you keep an average monthly balance of $3,500. All of these bank accounts have the added benefit of reimbursing you for domestic ATM fees, too -- so you’ll never again have to navigate out of your way to find your bank’s ATM when you need cash.

Credit cards that know you want to travel and want to help you do that

Now for the credit cards for US-based travelers. These are more fun: this is where you soak up REWARDS! When you compare notes among fellow globetrotters, you start to see the same no-foreign-transaction-fee credit cards come up again and again.

These days, the hot ticket for young, well-heeled travelers is the new, rewards-laden Chase Sapphire Reserve, whose double-take-worthy $450 annual fee actually seems reasonable when you consider all the perks: a $300 travel credit, up to $100 reimbursement to cover TSA PreCheck (valued at $85) or Global Entry ($100 value) enrollment every four years, access to Priority Pass airport lounges (of which there are 900 worldwide), and rapid accruement of rewards points. (Side note: If you’ve ever been busted for drugs -- pot included -- you can pretty much kiss your chance at TSA PreCheck buh-bye.)

When you compare notes among fellow globetrotters, you start to see the same credit cards come up again and again.

Scared by that $450 annual fee or not impressed by hype? Don’t blame you. Chase also offers the less-daunting Sapphire Preferred card, which also offers an impressive range of cardholder benefits (including decent travel insurance!), for $0 the first year and $95 every year after that.

One of the easiest credit cards for redeeming travel rewards is Capital One’s Venture Rewards card ($0 for the first year, $59 annually after that), which allows you to redeem points on any airline, at any hotel chain, on meals, car services, you name it. This is the no-brainer pick for anyone who has better things to do at night than study rewards policies -- and there’s even a pared-down, totally annual fee-free option VentureOne Rewards version.

Of course, the key to all these sweet credit cards is having a killer credit rating -- so if you can’t make minimum payments or you’re always late, pull yourself together before anything else. But if your credit is on solid ground, the opportunities are pretty endless for cashing in on card travel rewards -- especially if you’re uncompromisingly loyal to a particular airline or hotel chain. If you want to get truly obsessive over gaming the system, you can always open up a handful of various rewards credit cards to cash in on their sign-up bonuses, then cancel before ever having to pay an annual fee. (Personally, I’d say leave this to the pros -- too much trouble!)

Once you do settle on these largely one-time decisions for the right debit and credit cards for you, you’ll thank yourself. Because really, what you’re left with is more money for actual traveling -- and who can argue with that?

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Hannah Bae is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. She has worked for organizations such as CNNMoney, Newsday, and the US Embassy in Seoul, South Korea. Follow her on Twitter @hanbae, and check out her Korean food project @oelsbaeseasoning on Instagram.