Travel Credit and Debit Cards for Backpackers

Next week I leave for France for more than nine months, and it’s high time I change my international money management strategy. For too long I have been the victim of budget-killing $5.00 international ATM fees and 3% foreign transaction fees- so I started doing some research to find the best travel credit cards out there.

When I began my credit card search I knew I needed both a credit card and debit card with no international transaction fees. I first went after the credit card that other travelers seemed to adore – the Capital One Venture Rewards card. After my application was promptly rejected, I was terrified (and tearing up a bit).

Luckily Chase accepted my application for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card soon after and now I’m breathing again. Here is a list of all the credit and debit cards I’m taking with me this year, and the ones that best suit my backpacker budget.

 

Best travel debit cards

Best Travel Credit Cards

Charles Schwab debit card – This card is the hands-down the best debit card for travelers. It has no international transaction fees, no currency conversion fees, no monthly maintenance fees and no annual fee. While you will still be charged by other ATMS for taking out money, Schwab will reimburse you for the charges at the end of the month.

Note: by opening a Charles Schwab debit account you automatically open a brokerage account, but it’s no hassle and you don’t have to use it.

 

Best Travel Credit Cards

Chase debit card – This is my go-to card I’ve used for the past four years. This card probably won’t see much action in France considering it charges a 3% international transaction fee and foreign ATM withdrawal fee, but I’ll keep it with me in case of emergency and resume using it when I get home.

 

 Best travel credit cards

Best Travel Credit Cards

Chase Sapphire Preferred – This is a great travel credit card because it charges no international fees of any kind. It also gives you with a killer 40,000 points upon sign-up if you spend $3,000 in the first three months (which translates to about $500 in airfare). And finally, it rewards you with two times the points on travel and dining purchases.

I know the initial $3,000 limit seems high, but three months of backpacking, including the flight, will certainly add up to $1,000 a month, or $250 a week. The only downside? There is an annual fee of $95, but it’s waived the first year.

 

While abroad I would advise carrying at least two debit cards and one credit card. When I was studying abroad in Buenos Aires I was pick-pocketed and ended up waiting three weeks for a new debit card. It was a huge hassle and if I would’ve had a back-up I could’ve avoided the whole situation.

The money management do’s and don’ts of traveling abroad:

  • DO call your bank to alert them that you will be traveling outside of the country.
  • DO have at least two debit cards in case one gets eaten by an ATM or is stolen.
  • DO have your bank’s number handy (like on a piece of paper in your backpack) as well as scanned copies of all of your cards in case they are stolen.
  • DO enroll in online banking so you can check it from anywhere in the world. And be careful about accessing your account in sketchy internet cafés – consider bringing an smartphone or iTouch to check your balance more safely.
  • DON’T use traveler’s checks.
  • DON’T wear a moneybelt.
  • DON’T exchange money at the airport, the rates are always the worst. Wait until you get into town.
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Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is an American travel blogger and freelance writer who moved to Paris at 21 and has been traveling the world ever since. She's usually in pursuit of yoga, languages and perfectly ripe cheese and her writing has been featured in National Geographic, Viator and Jetstar Australia.
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28 Comments

  1. Really interesting article. I really should have thought about getting a better card :P. It’s kind of difficult for me though seeing as I have half of my money in Canada and half in Australia. Are those cards available in the US only?

    I’m curious why don’t wear a money belt? I thought money belts were safer than carrying a wallet around?
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    Reply
    • Hi Brendon, I’m actually not sure if these cards are available to those outside of the U.S…. I should’ve checked into that! I don’t wear a moneybelt because it’s cumbersome, awkward and just not necessary. At least as a girl I feel totally safe with a cross-body purse.

  2. Hi Ashley,

    I used the Schwab card on my last journey (8 months in Southeast Asia) and it was absolutely fantastic. So it has my endorsement, too! It’s funny that you mentioned Chase because I actually brought one of those along too (although it had $0 in the account!).

    One thing that really rescued me was having a Netspend card (pretty much a loadable credit card). Being the genius that I was, I accidentally left my Schwab card in an ATM in Bangkok (incidentally, the same night I met Adventurous Kate McCulley, 20-Something Travel Stephanie Yoder, and Art of Backpacking Michael Tieso!).

    Fortunately, since I had my backup Netspend and Chase, I was able to get my mother to put some money on the account. Being stuck in Southeast Asia without money would have been very bad!

    All of the DO’s you have mentioned are really good points but one minor caveat to the DON’T of using currency exchanges at the airport … actually in London airports, you can pretty much get the best rates around (it’s a law in England) … For the most part it’s 99% true though. Most major banks will send you a small amount of foreign currency for a nominal fee as a courtesy, too.

    Alright enough of my waffling. Great post!
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    Reply
  3. The Chase Sapphire Preferred is killer, we’ve racked up tons of points on it. Also, you can try calling to cancel right before your annual fee comes due…they’ll frequently waive it to keep you as a customer. If they don’t, cancel and sign up for another and get that bonus again. I’ve found that ATMs tend to be the best and most economical way to get cash, just be a bit wary if you’re in dodgy surroundings (the ones inside the banks should be cool). Oh, and you’ll want to get online regularly to check your card transactions. We’ve had our information swiped a time or two, but noticed the odd charges, called the credit card company, and they took care of it. As you note, you’ll want to have those extra cards of course, as the replacement may take a bit to get there. Enjoy the Christmas markets, they’re fun in Paris.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the tips! It is very smart to go inside of the bank to take out money, I always do that but forgot to include it in the list. And yes, I’m so excited for the markets, I can’t wait to see all of the game meats and fall vegetables!

  4. We use the Schwab debit card and can’t be more impressed. We haven’t been charged a fee in two years abroad and whenever we need assistance we get an American on the phone almost immediately. It’s refreshing to deal with them compared to other banks.

    On the credit cards, Capital One has no annual fee cards that have zero foreign transaction fees. They’ve served us well while giving us 1-2% cash back globally.
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    Reply
    • I really like the Schwab card as well! Hopefully someday I’ll be cool enough for Capital One also, haha.

  5. Another good option to consider for both debit and credit cards is CapitalOne. I did A LOT of research into the best cards for traveling and consistently I came back to this company from other travelings swearing by it. Sure enough on both the debit card I have through their online checking account and the credit card, I not only don’t get changed any foreign transactions fee, they also don’t pad the exchange rate at all. This is usually where banks that claim to not charge fees actually still make their money. But I find with CapitalOne I always get just about the bank rate, which is short of amazing. Now every time I arrive in a new country during travels, I just skip bring money with me and having to deal with exchange places and just hit the first ATM. Oh and they refund the fees the foreign ATM might charge as well. And the credit card I choose is cash rewards, meaning you get 1% back at the end of the statement, so they are actually paying you to use it. And no annual fees for anything. And since the checking account is designed around being online only, its a lot more suited to travelers then maybe a physical bank, especially if you are like me and not back in the US much at all. It’s a US company so you probably have to be a US citizen to sign up but there might be some way to work around that.

    Reply
    • Wow, thanks for sharing! I definitely will check out this card- for now I am just using my French card for when I need cash, but once I start traveling again I will definitely look into CapitalOne.

  6. Very good ‘tutorial’ for traveleres, I always get my prepaid VISA when I’m about to leave country
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    Reply
    • Thanks! Visas can be a pain but you have to have them :)

  7. Hey Ashley thanks a ton for all of that great advice. Im about to head off to South America for 6 months and only today realized that foreign transaction fees and atm fees are crazy high and really unfortunate. Luckily I learned that as I was already setting up an account at Chase so I may have to go back and get a credit card there. One question though, why do you say to not use a money belt? Where do you keep it all when youre traveling? Ive talked to people that say they sleep in their money belts so Im just curious. Thanks a lot!

    Mike

    Reply
    • Hey, Mike! I personally just put my money in a cross-body purse, but for men it might be easier to have a moneybelt. I just feel like they’re hard to use and impractical, but I know other travelers love them!

  8. Why not wear a moneybelt?
    I’ve been traveling overseas since 1988 and always use one.
    It’s one of those Eagle Creek slim (no bulk) ones.
    Never been robbed, even though I was chased but a bunch of gypsy kids in Moscow once.
    Was pretty sure they weren’t going to find my moneybelt even if they did take me down.
    I carry a cheap wallet for small money to keep crooks satisfied.
    Money belt is the safest way to carry cash. IMO.

    Reply
    • I guess I just feel perfectly safe with a cross-body bag and felt goofy wearing something like that under my clothes. But whatever works for you is what’s best! :)

  9. That Chase Sapphire Credit Card seems to be pretty loaded with features. No exchange fees is fantastic. It almost pays for itself right there. As for the $3K/year limit, it’s much lower than it seems. A cardholder just needs to setup their cable bill and utlities to direct bill their credit card and VOILA! You have met the limit and done nothing other than paid your daily expenditures. Lovely.
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  10. Ashley,

    Thanks for the debit and credit card advise. We are intending to travel for a year abroad with our 2 young 6 and 9 yr old boys. We are going to spend the first 9 month in Paris. Any suggestion on how to find an apartment before we go. Who should we talk to about bi-lingual schools, if you know?
    thanks
    Jeff

    Reply
    • Hi, Jeff! I’m actually not an expert in that regard at all considering I’ve always stayed with host families but I do know of temporary apartment rentals like Wimdu and Air BnB… sorry I couldn’t be of more help!

  11. Hello Ashely.. Good tips on the debit card for traveling abroad; but I have one question: You mention the Schwab card does not charge any fee. How about exchange rates? Are those fair?

    Saludos, Miguel

    Reply
    • Hi Miguel! To be honest I haven’t personally checked but I’ve heard that the exchange rates are fair. Sorry I couldn’t be of more help!

  12. hi ashley! i’m going to be moving to Germany to au pair in about a month (late May 2014). I really like the idea of a Charles Schwab debit card (i will be backpacking through europe from late may-late june, then starting the au pair position in july, so i won’t be able to open a bank account until i’m settled with the family) did you get the schwab bank account while you were in the US? i tried to ask a customer service rep (in the US) about the perks of opening a checking account, but he didn’t seem to have any answers and directed me to the international schwab website… which also didn’t help. do you think i should just go ahead and open the account now? thanks, great site!

    Reply
    • Hey, Colleen! I´d go ahead and open the account while still in the US. And make sure to do it a few weeks in advance so the card comes in time!

  13. Ashley – thank you for this very useful post that encouraged informative cementers too – all the feedback on charles schwab debit card, carrying two cards, and the Chase (which i do have) were great. I look forward to reading more of your blog as I find it really cool you’ve been posted in NatGeo.

    sure you post this somewhere but if not, what is your camera gear and how do you carry it/secure it when backpacking

    Cheers and thanks!

    Drew

    Reply

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