Use credit cards with care while traveling

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

May 19, 2014

Itís May: The school year is winding down; summer travel plans are revving up. Whether itís a road trip on the nationís freeways or a jet flight across the world, chances are youíll be using a credit card on those travels.

Before you depart, hereís a roundup of some good-to-know credit card travel tips.

CALL BEFORE YOU GO: Especially if youíre traveling overseas, itís always wise to alert your credit card company. Otherwise, if you leave Lodi and start charging purchases in Canada, your credit card company will likely flag those transactions as suspicious. They might try contacting you by phone to verify the transactions. Or they could simply freeze your card, playing havoc with travel plans.

To avoid those scenarios, pick up the phone and call your issuer, using the number on the back of your card. Many card issuers let you do the same thing online. Log onto your account and look for "travel notification" or a similar tab, where you can fill in the dates and countries where youíll be traveling.

"We strongly encourage our customers to contact us when traveling, whether theyíre in the middle of a trip or about to leave," JPMorgan Chase spokesman Rob Tacey said in an email.

In some cases, he said, the company notifies its frequent travelers that itís not necessary to notify the company in advance, because itís already aware their card is often used far from home. But generally, it canít hurt to call your credit card issuer and alert it of impending trips.

KNOW THE NUMBERS: Keep a copy of your cardís toll-free customer service numbers with you, separate from your wallet, in case you need to report a loss or theft. Bury one in your luggage; send a copy to a friend or family member, just in case itís needed.

Also, many travel experts recommend carrying two credit cards, keeping one as your backup in case your main card is lost or stolen.

GET YOUR FREEBIES: Many consumers arenít aware of little-known benefits that come free with their credit cards, said Ed Perkins, a longtime writer, based in Ashland, Ore. Depending on the card and the issuing bank, the perks can range from free referrals if you need a lawyer or doctor in a foreign country (the referral is free, not the professional services) to hotel room upgrades.

Among the best freebies: Coverage for lost or damaged checked baggage, up to $500 beyond what you might receive from the airline. Most U.S. airlines will cover up to $3,400 in cases of lost baggage, said Perkins, but certain items are excluded, including cash, family heirlooms or expensive technology, such as computers.

"If you packed an expensive camera in your checked baggage, some cards will cover up to $250 per lost item. Ö Itís not a lot, but it can make a difference," Perkins said.

The biggest benefit, said Perkins: Coverage for damage to a rental car. If the damage occurs in the U.S., the credit-card reimbursement is generally secondary coverage that kicks in after you first file a claim with your insurer. If itís an overseas rental car, which usually isnít covered by U.S. insurance, the credit card coverage may be your only option to recoup the cost of damages.

"Itís one really big-dollar benefit. It can amount to hundreds of dollars," he noted.

Some card issuers also offer small amounts of compensation for delayed flights.

In all cases, to find out what your card covers, read the fine print in your service agreement or look it up online.

MINIMIZE FEES: Most credit cards add a 1 to 3 percent currency conversion fee to the cost of any purchase outside the U.S., even when you pay in dollars. Some cards however, like Capitol One, have eliminated it entirely. If you have more than one credit card, you might want to check the fees and use the one with the lowest foreign transaction fee.

When traveling overseas, you will likely be hit by ATM fees when youíre getting cash withdrawals in local currency. There are a couple ways to minimize these fees, which can be as high as $5 per transaction.

óCall your card issuer to ask if it has partnerships with bank ATMs in other countries.

óUse a debit card from a credit union, which tends to have lower fees than a bank card.

óWhen doing ATM cash withdrawals, get large amounts so youíre not making frequent ATM stops and incurring fees.

óPerkins said he typically uses a Bank of America debit card, which charges no fees for ATM withdrawals at its partner banks in France (BNP Paribus), Germany (Deutsche Bank), Canada (Scotiabank), China (China Construction Bank), Mexico (Banco Santander), Italy (BNL díItalia) or Britain (Barclays).

In general, Perkins recommends using a debit card to make cash withdrawals (because of lower fees compared with most credit cards). For large purchases, like hotel stays, car rentals, shopping, etc., he says, use your credit card.

And Perkins noted: At all costs, avoid going to a currency exchange office or airport kiosk, which typically charge high currency conversion fees.

CHIP OR NO CHIP? If your credit card has been around a while, itís probably not imbedded with a microchip, a security feature that makes it harder for cyberthieves to steal your credit card info. These so-called microchipped cards are standard in Europe, but many Americans donít yet have one (although theyíre becoming mandatory by October 2015).

In most cases overseas, "a standard old American (magnetic-) striped card will work most of the time, in most places," said Perkins, who uses both chipped and non-chipped cards and rarely encounters a problem. He said certain situations, such as trying to use a self-service gas station or ticket kiosk, may cause a card to be rejected.

Overall, "If your bank offers the option of getting a chipped card, I recommend it because it decreases the chances of running into a problem."

PAY BILLS IN ADVANCE: Donít forget to pay off credit card bills before leaving, so you donít come home to unanticipated late fees or other penalties. Especially if youíll be gone for an extended period, you can pay your monthly bill ahead of time or set up an online automatic payment.

CHECK YOUR LIMITS: If youíll be charging lots on your trip, be sure youíve got enough available credit on your card. Letís say your card has a $1,000 limit and you exceed that while renting scuba gear: Your card transaction could be denied or you could get hit with penalties on your next bill. To avoid those unpleasant surprises, contact your card issuer now about raising your credit limit. Otherwise, monitor your travel spending so you donít go over the card limit.