Key takeaways

  • Before you leave, make sure to inform your card issuer so that your card spending at your destination is approved and not flagged as suspicious.
  • Make sure to take more than one card with you, and go with a card that offers travel rewards and travel benefits.
  • Stay alert, watch out for card skimming at ATMs and don’t use unsecured public Wi-Fi that could compromise your sensitive information.

Vacations and holidays are all about relaxing, so it’s unlikely credit card balances and bills are on your radar.

But if you’re traveling, “checking balances more often is probably good advice,” according to Nessa Feddis, senior vice president for consumer protection and payment for the American Bankers Association. Staying cognizant of your card activity can help you avoid overspending, added fees and any security risks that could arise abroad.

“And because of mobile banking apps, it’s easier to check,” she says.

Want to keep that plastic safe, even as you hit the slopes? Here are seven strategies, plus a few bonus tips, that you can use right now.

1. Let card issuers know you’re traveling

Notify your card issuer before a trip to avoid your first purchase away getting wrongfully flagged for fraud.

“If you’re going to be outside your normal stomping ground, make sure you let your card issuer know,” says Susan Tiffany, who previously spent 17 years as director of consumer periodicals for the Credit Union National Association. “Even if you’re just going to a different state, it never hurts.” And that goes for credit and debit cards, she adds.

If you normally buy shoes on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, and you’re suddenly buying croissants on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, there’s a chance your card could be declined or suspended.

Bonus travel tip: While you have that debit card issuer on the phone, ask if you have a daily spending limit or daily ATM withdrawal limit, Tiffany says. Not every card does, but it’s something you want to know before you leave home.

2. Check your travel perks

You might normally use your credit cards primarily for their cash back or points rewards. But many cards also have extra benefits that can make your travel planning easier.

A few common travel benefits include:

  • Car rental insurance
  • Concierge services
  • Free breakfasts or late checkouts at hotels
  • Free or discounted medical travel insurance
  • Emergency evacuation insurance

And while traveling, make sure to rack up rewards on your spending. Your cash back card with dining rewards can be useful for visiting restaurants while you’re away, while a travel rewards card may help you save on any last-minute car rentals or excursions.

Bonus travel tip: Don’t keep all your cards in the same place when you travel, says Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center. That way, if some cards are lost or stolen, you’ll have others you can use.

3. Watch your spending

If you’re not paying close attention, it can be easy to let your purchases get away from you while on vacation. But any balances you rack up will still need to be paid when your monthly statement is due.

Before traveling, decide on a budget or spending goal and use it to guide your spending throughout your trip. You can adjust as you go, but having a plan for how much you’d like to limit your spending can help keep you in check. That way, you won’t be surprised by a sky-high bill when you return home.

4. Limit ATM fees

It’s smart to travel with cash, whether in case of emergencies or simply for merchants who only accept local currency.

However, going to a new location means you may not find an in-network ATM from which to withdraw money with your debit card. And those “foreign ATM” and “out-of-network” charges can be hefty — sometimes $5 and $6 a pop. Depending on your bank, you may be eligible for refunds on ATM fees, even while abroad, but it’s smart to check with your bank first.

5. Stay alert

Part of the fun of any vacation is shaking up your normal routine.

If you’re visiting places you haven’t gone before, keep an eye peeled for skimming devices before you hit ATMs, says Velasquez.

Scope out your surroundings with an eye toward your personal and financial safety, just as you would at any other time. A money belt or travel purse to keep your belongings close can make life easier while you’re out, too, Velasquez says.

Make sure to opt for credit cards over debit cards for making purchases. “You have more protections,” Velasquez says. Plus, if there are problems, you’re disputing a credit line instead of actual cash.

6. Do your research

Cards from some issuers are more widely accepted than others around the world, and you don’t want to arrive in another country with no way to pay.

It can help to ask your card’s customer service about its acceptance rates where you’re going, but also consider other sources. Before you leave, talk with your travel agent (if you have one) and your hotel, innkeeper or concierge, too. Look for online posts from other travelers or locals sharing their experiences with using the same type of card.

Even if you primarily use one card at home, it can help to take more than one on a trip, especially from different issuers. Plus, if one card inadvertently cuts you off or suspends privileges, you have a backup.

7. Practice safe security

For credit data harvesters, public Wi-Fi is an all-you-can-eat buffet. Ditto for those public-use computers in internet cafes and hotel business centers. Avoid them for anything other than reading the morning paper or checking the weather.

Need to check balances? Use your own cellphone network to try your bank or issuer’s app or mobile site, says Feddis. Or go old school and dial the institution’s toll-free number.

Never put card numbers into websites that don’t have a secure connection, says Velasquez. “My rule is that I use my (own computer’s) secure network for sensitive transactions — and would only use my phone if there was an urgent need and I was certain that the transmission was secure,” she says.

For more travel tips and tricks, check out Bankrate’s travel toolkit.

The bottom line

Traveling is pleasurable, and there are certain precautions you can take to get more out of your credit card while you are traveling. For one, keep your card issuer informed about your plans so that your card use in faraway places passes muster. Cards from some issuers are more widely accepted than others, so make sure your card has broad acceptance at your destination. Also, watch out for credit card skimming at ATMs and other attempts at fraud. And go with a travel credit card whose travel rewards and benefits you can reap.