Taking your holiday money: using credit and charge cards

Everyone will tell you that credit cards are the thing to use on holiday and they are, most of the time.

The problems with credit cards are that they’re not always accepted, how you get charged depends on how you use them and you can end up with unexpected shocks when you return home and find all the charges you’ve racked up. That said, you’d be very unwise to go on holiday without one.

Credit and charge cards operate in much the same way and the only practical differences are that charge card bills are supposed to be repaid in full at the end of the month and that, usually, they don’t tell you what your credit limit is with a charge card. Don’t believe those stories of charge cards coming with no limit: there is one, it’s just that usually they don’t tell you what it is.

For holiday purposes there are really only five international-use versions that you could reasonably expect to be able to use abroad. By far the most common are Mastercard and Visa which are accepted pretty much everywhere that accepts any card. One thing to watch is that acceptance of both is not universal nor are both equally accepted in all countries: usually Visa is the best to go with if you’re only taking one but in some countries Mastercard is much more widely accepted and shops that accept one do not always accept the other.

Next up is American Express which is widely accepted in America, Canada and the United Kingdom. Outside those three you would be very unwise to try to use it as your only card. The one big advantage it has is that you can get the card replaced if it’s stolen abroad although you may need to trek quite a bit to find the nearest American Express office where they can do that for you.

Finally there are Diners’ Club and JCB. On the whole, it’s not worth considering Diners Club as the acceptance rate is just far too low. JCB is widely accepted in places where you find Japanese tourists but you’d be better going with Mastercard or Visa as anywhere that accepts JCB will accept them too.

Discover isn’t accepted outside North America. Also worth noting is that cards issued in America or by an American owned bank anywhere are not accepted in Cuba or Vietnam. This obviously includes MBNA (owned by Bank of America) who issue a wide range of affinity cards from their various subsidiaries around the world: check your card agreement to see who is really behind it as it doesn’t always say on the card.

Note that acceptance of cards is neither universal nor universally practical. If you are travelling to countries off the tourist routes you can find that cards aren’t accepted or are only accepted in widely dispersed locations. For example, in India I found that using cards simply wasn’t practical and one family that stayed with us found extreme difficulty in using their American Express card in France (the only card they’d brought) as it’s accepted by less than 10% of the banks and few hotels. The easiest way to check coverage is to look at the Visa or Mastercard sites.

Where these cards really come into their own is in booking hotels and renting cars. You usually can’t guarantee a hotel reservation without having a credit card and you can’t rent a car without one either. Outside of those they can be amongst the cheapest means of getting foreign currency available to you. I say “can be” because you need to know how the banks charge you for using them first.

Bank charges on credit cards come in several basic forms. First, there is the interest that they charge on the credit; if you pay your balance in full each month the majority of cards don’t charge any interest. Some very low rate cards charge from the time of purchase even if you pay in full so check if your rate seems unusually low. Second, they charge transaction fees when you use the card to get cash and will usually charge interest from the date of withdrawal. Typically these fees are around 2% with a minimum charge of £2/$2 per transaction therefore it’s best to withdraw amounts of £100/$100 to minimise this charge. In most cases, there is no transaction charge when you buy things using the card so it’s better to do that instead of withdrawing cash. Thirdly, they usually apply a foreign currency charge which is typically around 3% (no minimum). And, of course, there may be an annual fee for having the card.

Despite all that, it’s still usually cheaper to get cash on a card than to buy travellers cheques as your cost will typically be around 5% max compared to the 7% or so for travellers cheques.

Downsides are basically those charges but, if you’re careful, you can minimise them. For those living in the UK, a Post Office credit card eliminates all but the cash withdrawal charges and if you’re in the American military a USAA card works in much the same way and CapitalOne in America also issues cards with no foreign exchange charge.

This is part of a little series on travel money which has already covered taking cash and will be covering debit cards, cash cards, prepaid cards and what to do when (and it will be when) your cards are stolen.

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