Carry a Backup Credit Card and Debit Card When Traveling
How many pieces of thin plastic with a chip in them do you take with you when you travel? Do you have a backup debit card? What about a backup credit card?
There I was at the ATM in a big foreign airport, getting my cash out to use the next few weeks for tips, roadside meals, and whatever else I couldn’t put on a card. I got my cash, I got my receipt, hit the “No” button indicating that I didn’t need another transaction and…that was it. My debit card never came out of the machine.
This was just a set of kiosk-style ATMs, with no physical bank branch, and I was leaving the city right away to go on a tour. So I knew I had to kiss that card goodbye. The bank would make me get a new one shipped to my address when I reported that the machine ate it, to avoid anyone else using it. I wouldn’t see another one for more than a month when I was back in the USA to get it from my bank.
Many other times I’ve tried to use a credit card at a restaurant or retailer when traveling and for no good reason, the card has gotten denied. This seems to be especially prevalent with Chase, as it has happened to me with multiple cards of theirs. Then other times I’ve pulled out my Amex card only to find that they won’t accept American Express. Once it even happened with my Amex Hilton card at a Hilton hotel!
Do you have a spare credit card if one gets stolen or denied? Are you prepared if something happens and you lose your debit card? What if you lose both because of theft?
The Backup Credit Card Plan When Traveling
Every few years I get a potent reminder of why everyone needs a backup plan for their travel finances. It’s nice to have a favorite credit card or to favor a new one for getting free flights or hotel rooms from the points, but you’d better be carrying at least two.
Many years ago I was traveling with my Capital One Visa with my family because it was one of the few back then that wasn’t charging everyone extra for a foreign transaction fee. An archaic practice that has mostly died out, but even some airline and hotels cards still charge these extra fees, like the Chase card affiliated with Southwest, for instance. I never leave the country with that one.
I was in the Riviera Maya and Tulum and had been using the card for most of my sizable purchases when I could. After traveling overland to Belize, however, I got an alert from the company that there were suspicious charges on my card. Sure, anyone who travels gets these now and then, and your card can get locked up in the process. But this time there were dozens of charges that were not mine. Someone had gone on a spending spree in Mexico while my card was still in my pocket.
Some restaurant or hotel employee, probably in Playa del Carmen or Tulum, scanned my card and apparently made a duplicate. They then used it for a series of transactions around the Yucatan: hotels, gas stations, an electronics store, and restaurants. Never mind that these were physical places where they would have had to present an actual card and then sign for the charges back then. Obviously nobody checks the signature. Now it’s even easier to use a stolen card: you just tap it.
I never had to pay, but it took a couple of long phone calls with Capital One to sort it all out while I was supposed to be relaxing by the pool and beach at Turtle Inn. Then I couldn’t use that credit card until I got home. By the time they could have shipped a new one to Belize, I would have been on to the next destination.
Since I had two backup credit cards with me though, an Amex and a MasterCard, no worries. I just had to switch to a different card.
Could I have done anything differently to prevent this? I don’t think so. The card never left me except when I used it at hotels where I stayed, one dive shop, a bus station, and two restaurants. Somebody doing the scanning was crooked and whoever got the duplicate card had a grand ole time.
So whatever you do, don’t leave the house for a foreign vacation, especially a long one, without having at least one spare credit card. If you’re a couple that makes it easier, assuming you have different cards. Two versions from the same account won’t cut it since they’re connected.
Credit Cards That Give You Free Travel
If you’re going to carry more than one credit card, ideally they’re giving you different kinds of free travel. True, the Chase Sapphire ones and the Amex Membership Rewards ones with multiple partners can be convenient because you can deploy the points as you need them in different accounts. I prefer the ones affiliated with specific airlines and hotels though because you get far more travel perks with those and in some cases, you can get instant VIP status that will make your trip more enjoyable.
Even if that hotel card that gives you immediate elite status is your backup, you still get the perks from it just because you have it. You’re in the system as a VIP. (This is just one tip we offer in our free hotel upgrade report when you get on our e-mail list.)
Here are some that I use to get free flights and free hotel rooms on a regular basis, multiple times per year.
The best value out there right now, if you ask me, is the Hilton Surpass card from Amex. You get a huge sign-up bonus that will cover several hotel nights, you get Gold status that can get you room upgrades, and you earn more points really quickly when you use the card. See the current offer here.
That one is $95 per year, but they also have a more modest version with no annual fee if you won’t take advantage of the perks. Hilton luxury brands include plenty of top properties you’ll find on our site with the monikers Waldorf-Astoria, Curio Collection, and Conrad.
The one I use the most after that is the IHG One Rewards Premier card from Chase. I’ve had this one for more than a decade and every year I get a free hotel stay on my anniversary, more than making up for the annual fee. Last year I used it to stay at the Intercontinental Buenos Aires and another year I used it to stay at the Willard Intercontinental right next to the White House in D.C. They also have Kimpton hotels.
They’re currently offering a sign-up bonus that gives you four free hotel stays after the minimum spend and you get automatic Platinum status for space-available upgrades (I often get upgraded to a suite) and other perks. See the current offer here.
The airline cards aren’t as generous with the perks, especially the ones from American, but American does let you count credit card spending toward elite status points. That alone could be worth having one for if you’re putting a lot of business expenses on it.
I do have the Delta Amex one and the United Chase one. The Delta Amex one is currently offering a 40,000 point sign-up bonus after hitting the minimum spend and they waive the $99 annual fee the first year. I definitely wouldn’t go for one of their premium cards right now though with a higher fee because they have massively downgraded their frequent flier program and this is on top of making the redemption levels higher last year. Now the points are back to being “Skypesos” again.
The United Explorer card from Chase is a much better value. For one thing, you get 50% more points as a sign-up bonus: 60,000 after the minimum spend. Plus United gives you a free checked back on every flight, not just domestic ones. That’s especially handy for short-haul flights to Mexico and Central America where you’ll usually get dinged with bag fees. You also get two airport United Club passes each anniversary year, a perk that almost completely earns back the $95 annual fee (waived the first year).
See the current United card offer here.
If you are just starting out playing this travel hacking game, I would suggest getting one airline card to earn free flights and one hotel card to earn free stays. Use one until you hit the minimum spend level and then make it your backup credit card except when you’re using that company’s services. Then hit the minimum on the other one. After that you can use either as your primary and the other as the backup. If you add more, then you have other options for which one is the spare.
Why You Need a Spare Debit Card Too
While I couldn’t get back my eaten debit card when the machine never gave it back, there was something I could do that was under my control: have a debit card backup plan. Call me paranoid, but these days I travel with three debit cards: my regular bank, my Fidelity cash account (which reimburses the local bank fees), and a Paypal debit card.
Then when I have my wife along, there’s a fourth one in the mix: she has a Capital One 360 card tied to her checking account. That’s a good one to obtain as a backup debit option because they don’t charge any fees on your ATM withdrawals. (They also don’t charge bank fees.) Schwab has one like my Fidelity one where they don’t charge any themselves and they reimburse the local charges.
If you only have one card and you’ve got some travels coming up, put this on your to-do list. You may be able to get a backup debit card from your business bank account, a transfer service you already use like Venmo or Paypal, or from Wise.com.
One last note on all this: keeping some separation between these cards can be a smart idea too. If a wallet or purse gets stolen, you don’t want your backup cards to all be in the same place as your main one. Keep a backup or two locked up in the safe, in a hidden pocket of your luggage, or in your passport pouch assuming your passport is in a different place. Then you can order a cocktail and relax by the pool, knowing you’ve got a Plan B.