There are three criteria that every credit card used for travel must meet for me to even consider it:
1) No annual fees
2) No foreign transaction fee
3) It needs to be a Visa
There are lots of options out there, and several meet all the above criteria. So we are not going to do something foolish and pay an unnecessary annual fee for any credit card.
Also, since I assume many of my readers are interested in leaving their home countries once in a while, we do not want a credit card that charges a foreign transaction fee. For those of you who don’t know, a foreign transaction fee is a standard fee that is charged to every single purchase made in a foreign country. This fee is usually a few percentage points. If you have a card with a foreign transaction fee of 3%, then for every $100 you spend, an additional $3 will be tacked on to your bill for absolutely no benefit whatsoever to you, the traveler.
*Note that the foreign transaction fee may affect you even if you make a purchase from a foreign vendor while you’re still within the United States. I had one instance a few years ago where I made a hotel reservation in Europe several weeks before my trip using my standard credit card. I figured that since I was physically in the United States when making the reservation on the internet, I would be okay. Wrong. The non-refundable deposit did indeed end up having an extra 3% tacked on. So be careful making foreign purchases or overseas reservations even if you’re currently at home in the US.
Based on my own research and the recommendations of other seasoned travelers, the card I use as my primary go-to credit card when traveling is the Capital One Quicksilver Visa.
It has no annual fee, no foreign transaction fee, and has an awesome rewards system where you get 1.5% cash back on all your purchases. No point categories, no airline miles games (here’s a great article discussing airline miles), no esoteric restrictions; just a very simple flat 1.5% on everything.
If you haven’t figured this out already from reading my other articles, I’m a big fan of simple and easy, so this card is perfect for me. There are many cards out there that may offer better rewards in certain categories (airline miles being the big one), but I have no interest in those. They’re too complex, require too much thought and planning, and I really believe that they subconsciously encourage people to spend more money than they would otherwise.
There’s a Visa version and a Mastercard version of this card. Make it easier on yourself and get the Visa. Visa is accepted just about everywhere. Mastercard is not.
All is not glitter and unicorns unfortunately. The Capital One Quicksilver Visa has one potential problem which is very recent and completely self-inflicted by the company itself: they no longer do advance travel notifications on their cards.
In the past, if you were planning on leaving the country for a month, you could either call Capital One or go on their website to place a travel advisory on your card so that they don’t lock your account when there’s a charge made in your home town of Springfield, USA one day and at a random bar in Tokyo the next. These travel advisories do not exist anymore. Instead, what they do now is send you both a text and an email asking you, the card user, if the charge was legitimate. You have to reply to the text or email that, yes, it was a legitimate charge.
If you do not reply to either the text or email, then Capital One locks your card, rendering it completely useless until you contact them. See the problem here?
When I travel outside the United States, I don’t use my cell phone except for browsing the internet on wifi and making the occasional Skype call. Which means I don’t get text messages. And the only time I get email is when I’m connected to free wifi. So if you’re traveling in a foreign country and your card gets locked in a place that doesn’t have wifi, then you suddenly have no working credit card.
I called Capital One to see if there was some kind of workaround for this problem, and the best they could tell me was that if this situation ever came up and the user had no access to text or email, that she can call the international collect call number on the back of the card to reactivate her account. Sounds like a pretty lame solution to a problem that only exists because the company itself inexplicably got rid of what was a very useful tool in the not so recent past.
Because of the above issue, I always recommend taking at least 2 credit cards when you travel.
The second card I use is the Amazon Chase Rewards Visa card. There are two versions depending on whether or not you’re an Amazon Prime member. Both are perfectly fine. This card also has rewards, but it’s a bit more complicated than the Quicksilver card, so I don’t really use it at all except as a backup.
The other reason I don’t use this card regularly is that it takes forever for the money to exit your bank account when you make a payment. The delay can be up to five days, and I don’t like this because I get paranoid about forgetting about my checking account balance and getting hit with overdraft fees. When you make a payment with the Capital One card, the money leaves your bank account the very next business day. Every time.
The Amazon Chase card has no annual fee or foreign transaction fee, so it’s perfectly usable as a travel card. It also still allows for travel notifications which makes it less likely you’ll get stranded overseas with a busted card. But I don’t like the complex rewards system or the massive delay between making a payment and the bank debit, so my preferred card of choice is still the Quicksilver.
One credit card I’d like to briefly mention is the Citi Double Cash card. This card has a simple cash back rewards system that is actually higher than that of the Quicksilver. You get 2% cash back; 1% when you buy something, and an additional 1% when you pay your credit card bill. If you’re traveling within the United States, this is a great card. But don’t take it overseas. It has a high 3% foreign transaction fee rendering it undesirable for international travel. If this foreign fee didn’t exist, this would likely replace the Quicksilver as my card of choice. Maybe a few years from now they’ll eliminate the fee, but I’m not holding my breath.