Key takeaways

  • Make sure your credit card will be widely accepted at your destination, with capabilities for chip-and-PIN transactions.
  • Save money by going with cards that don’t charge foreign transaction fees and offer travel insurance protection.
  • Some cards also offer welcome bonuses that could offset your costs and credits for the Global Entry program that can expedite your entry into the U.S. when you return from your trip.

Europe continues to be a top travel destination for 2024, but even though inflation in the U.S. is slowing, it’s still a factor when it comes to European travel expenses. That’s why it’s all the more important to remember that your dollars (and points) can often go a lot further abroad.

Whether traveling during the high season or snagging off-peak discounts, you can enjoy all the best that Europe offers without breaking the bank. But why just lean on a strong dollar when you can tack on additional savings with your credit card? From covering airfare and hotels to protecting your biggest travel expenses, the right credit card can make your trip cheaper and more convenient.

But with so many card options, it’s easier said than done. Luckily, we have you covered with questions you should ask and the features you should look for as you choose a card for traveling to Europe.

How to choose the best credit card for European travel

The right travel credit card will save you money while making it easy to accumulate and redeem rewards. The following steps can help you narrow down your choices and find the best travel card to add to your wallet before you head to Europe:

1. Compare cards that are widely accepted

First, make sure any credit card you take to Europe is widely accepted. The Visa and Mastercard networks, for example, offer wider acceptance abroad than Discover and American Express.

While you can certainly bring your Amex and Discover cards, it’s best to pack a backup. That way, you won’t get stuck in a stressful situation where you can’t pay for something because your card isn’t accepted.

Does your card have chip-and-PIN capability?

If you use your credit card in Europe, you might be surprised when the cashier asks for a PIN. Chip-and-PIN credit cards are more common in Europe and considered more secure than the chip-and-signature cards we have in the U.S. But not to worry — lots of popular U.S. credit cards are equipped with this technology. They include the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, Citi Premier® Card (No longer available) and Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card.

To find out if your credit card is chip-and-PIN enabled, call your issuer and ask if you can set up a PIN. Many rewards credit cards allow you to set a PIN on activation. The last thing you want during your trip to Europe is for your card to be rejected because you don’t have PIN capability. Find out ahead of your trip and set it up, if possible.

2. Prioritize cards with substantial welcome bonuses

If you’re headed to Europe, consider picking up a new credit card offering a lucrative welcome bonus. Whether you want to cover some of your travel expenses or use your travel spending to meet credit card spending requirements, the timing could work out to your advantage.

A hotel credit card in particular can help you cover a few hotel nights. The Marriott Bonvoy Boundless® Credit Card* is an excellent pick, because it comes with an intro offer of up to 250,000 bonus points for five free night awards (valued at up to 50,000 points each night) after you spend $5,000 on purchases in your first three months from your account opening. The card’s $95 annual fee is reasonable, especially if you’re saving hundreds of dollars on hotel bookings.

An airline credit card welcome bonus can save you even more money by covering the cost of airfare to Europe. For example, the United℠ Explorer Card* offers 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 within the first three months of account opening. This bonus could cover one or more round-trip tickets to Europe depending on fare class and travel dates.

Transferable rewards earned with the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and Citi Premier can provide even more flexibility, allowing you to transfer your points to frequent flyer programs with the issuer’s partners. According to Bankrate’s latest valuations, transferring points to high-value partners is one of the most lucrative ways to get the most out of your points.

The Citi Premier (No longer available) bonus is among the highest for transferable points, offering 60,000 points after you spend $4,000 within the first three months of account opening. You can use those points for flights to Europe through transfer partners like:

  • Avianca for LifeMiles
  • Air France/ KLM for Flying Blue miles
  • Turkish Airlines for Miles&Smiles
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club for Virgin Points

Virgin Atlantic has one of the cheapest award tickets to Europe, starting at just 10,000 miles each way in economy class.

3. Make sure the card’s rewards structure offers bonus points on travel and dining

Like most people who travel abroad for vacation, you might be tempted to splurge a little during your trip to Europe. You’ll want a credit card that will reward you generously for these purchases. Your biggest expenses will likely be travel and dining, which is why a card like the American Express® Gold Card would be ideal to bring along. The card earns 4X points on dining worldwide and 3X points on flights booked directly with airlines or through the Amex Travel portal.

If you’re looking for even higher rewards potential, the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card offers 10X miles on hotel and rental car bookings through Capital One Travel. You’ll also earn 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel and 2X miles on all other purchases. So whether you’re planning to shop till you drop or splurge on hotels, you’ll earn generous rewards with this card.

4. Avoid cards with foreign transaction fees

Earning lots of points during your Europe adventure should be a priority, but not if you have to pay 3 percent or more in foreign transaction fees. You can avoid these pesky fees by opting for a credit card with no foreign transaction fees.

Most travel rewards cards, like the popular Sapphire Preferred Card and the Venture Rewards Credit Card, waive these fees, allowing you to earn points and protect your purchases without an added cost.

But you don’t need to commit to a travel rewards card with a high annual fee to get this perk. Some of the best no-annual-fee cards — like the Capital One SavorOne Cash Rewards Credit Card — also offer no foreign transaction fees when you use your card abroad.

Most importantly, you’ll want to be aware of popular credit cards that don’t waive this fee, like the Citi Double Cash® Card and Chase Freedom Unlimited®*. Avoid the penalty for using your credit card abroad by skipping these cards in favor of ones that waive the fees.

5. Get a card that improves your travel experience

Your credit card should be helpful not just when you’re shopping in Europe, but also while you’re dealing with the hassles and headaches that come from navigating airports, public transportation and more. The following questions can help you prioritize a card that makes traveling less stressful:

What kind of travel protections does this card offer?

Many people who travel internationally, including to Europe, buy travel insurance to protect their trip. And it’s a good idea: If your trip is canceled or interrupted due to illness or other covered reasons, insurance will reimburse any non-refundable travel expenses. This layer of protection can save you thousands of dollars in an emergency.

But you don’t have to pay for this safety net if you have the right credit card in your wallet. Quite a few credit cards include travel protection such as trip interruption or cancellation coverage, trip delay reimbursement, travel accident insurance, lost luggage reimbursement and primary rental coverage.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve® offers some of the most comprehensive coverage available if you charge your travel expenses to the card, including:

  • Emergency evacuation and transportation coverage of up to $100,000 per trip
  • Primary auto rental collision damage waiver of up to $75,000 for theft or collision damage
  • Trip cancellation/interruption insurance of up to $10,000 per person and $20,000 per trip
  • Lost luggage reimbursement of up to $3,000 per person
  • Trip delay reimbursement of up to $500 per ticket

By choosing a card with robust, built-in travel protections, you can at least have peace of mind that you’ll be covered if not everything goes smoothly during your trip.

Will you get a Global Entry fee credit from this card?

Having Global Entry can make your return home from Europe much more pleasant. This trusted traveler program gets you expedited entry into the U.S. While everyone else stands in a long line at passport control, you can skip to the Global Entry kiosk, scan your passport and get waved through in a matter of minutes. If you have Global Entry, you’ll also be enrolled in TSA PreCheck, which gets you into an expedited line for security screening in the U.S. where you keep your shoes and light jacket on.

The Global Entry application fee is a downright bargain at just $100 for five years. However, you can get this fee reimbursed with certain credit cards. They include the Capital One Venture, Chase Sapphire Reserve and United Explorer Card. The Global Entry application fee credit alone offsets the first year’s annual fee on a couple of these cards. While it’s not the only benefit you should consider when choosing a travel credit card for European sightseeing, enough credit cards offer it that it’s worth being mindful of.

Will this card make airport travel easier?

Navigating new airports is often one of the most stressful parts of vacationing abroad, especially if you’re visiting large hubs like those in Paris, Madrid, Istanbul and London. Many premium travel credit cards offer airport lounge access that can make it easier to relax at an airport while you’re waiting on your next flight. These airport lounges can include everything from free food and kids rooms to shower amenities and full-service bars.

The best cards for airport lounge access when it comes to European travel will typically include airline-specific lounge access or access to a broader program like Priority Pass. With Priority Pass Select, you’ll have access to over 1,300 airport lounges worldwide as opposed to those just tied to one airline.

The Platinum Card® from American Express is widely considered a top choice for luxury travel benefits, and its robust international airport lounge access is one of the main reasons why. With this card, you’ll get access to:

  • The Centurion Network, which includes Amex Centurion Lounges and Escape Lounges
  • Delta Sky Club lounges, when flying Delta
  • Lufthansa lounges, when flying Lufthansa
  • Priority Pass Select, which is the credit card-specific version of Priority Pass

Keep in mind that while the Amex Platinum beats out plenty of other cards when it comes to airport lounge access, it also comes with a hefty annual fee of $695. This fee likely won’t be worth it unless you plan on traveling frequently and have the annual spending to offset the fee.

The bottom line

Europe is becoming increasingly cashless, and traveling with a credit card is practically mandatory these days. While you can get by with any credit card, choosing the right one will make traveling much easier for you. You won’t have to worry about your card not being accepted, you’ll earn points as you spend and you won’t incur additional fees in the process. If you take it a step further, you can even improve your travel experience and offset the cost entirely. Best of all, you’ll have peace of mind and can focus on enjoying your trip.

Issuer-required disclosure statement
*Information about the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless® Credit Card, United℠ Explorer Card has been collected independently by Bankrate. Card details have not been reviewed or approved by the card issuer.