Forget Credit Card Rewards. These Features Mattered Most While I Was Traveling Abroad

Rewards and card perks are great, but don’t forget about these subtle factors that can make your card a breeze -- or a pain -- to use.

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Raina He; CNET

As a credit card editor turned freelance writer, I’m all too familiar with the typical criteria experts use when evaluating travel cards. We love to analyze rewards rates and redemption options, travel perks and trip insurance, and the all-important welcome bonus. But no one talks about the foundational features of a credit card: how well it works as a payment method to use for your everyday spending.

This might sound like a boring focal point, but as I discovered during my eight months backpacking across Europe and Asia, not all cards are created equal in that department.

One card in my wallet earned great rewards but was unusable at many places because the issuer wasn’t accepted. Other cards had useful quality-of-life features that made them convenient to use despite not being top rewards or benefits contenders. 

It’s about more than just rewards and perks

Although rewards and card benefits are important, they’re not helpful if you can’t easily use your card at checkout. There are other factors to consider, too, that could have a significant impact on how smoothly your next trip goes.

Next time you’re looking at a travel card, take a look at its:

Foreign transaction fees

This one is the most obvious but bears repeating. If you are traveling abroad, you need a card without foreign transaction fees. 

Foreign transaction fees are fees charged by some cards (both credit and debit) for transactions made abroad or in a non-US currency. They’re typically charged as a percentage (usually around 3%) of the transaction in US dollars and can add up quickly if you use your credit card for all your spending.

Luckily, it’s not too hard to find a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. Most travel cards -- both premium and ones without an annual fee -- don’t. 

If you’re unsure whether a card charges foreign transaction fees, you can find that information on the issuer’s website in the rates and fees section of the card in question. 

If you can’t get a credit card with no foreign transaction fees before going abroad, consider getting a debit card with no foreign transaction fees instead. 

The card issuer

If there’s one piece of advice I would give to international travelers, it’s this: don’t take an American Express card as your only credit card when traveling abroad. Amex’s most popular travel cards have great rewards and perks, but don’t count on being able to use them everywhere you go. 

Although the card issuer has made strides in its cards’ acceptance rates in the US -- reaching 99% of all merchants that accept credit cards, according to a 2020 press release from American Express -- it still lags behind in foreign countries. 

American Express charges higher swipe fees compared with Visa and Mastercard, cutting into profits for small businesses. 

Though some regions had better acceptance rates than others, I always encountered at least a few merchants who wouldn’t accept my American Express® Gold Card everywhere I went. 

Other times, they would require me to insert my physical Amex card, but offered contactless payments from a digital wallet with my other cards. Weary of the constant gamble of seeing whether my card would be declined at the till, I eventually stopped using it as my default -- despite its high rewards rate on dining, one of my top expenses -- unless I saw a sign explicitly welcoming Amex cards. 

Visa and Mastercard don’t have this problem, and I haven’t noticed a significant difference between the two issuers. Virtually everywhere I’ve been that accepted credit cards has accepted both Visa and Mastercard. I don’t have a Discover card, but Discover’s coverage map shows quite a few countries where its cards aren’t accepted.

That’s not to say you can’t bring your Amex card while traveling abroad or use it as your default card. Just make sure you also bring a Visa or Mastercard you can use if your Amex isn’t accepted.

Security features

When traveling, credit card security should be top of mind.  One of the best ways to protect your card’s information is to use digital wallets and contactless payments instead of your physical cards whenever possible. 

Digital wallets like Google Pay and Apple Pay let you pay merchants through an app on your phone rather than tapping, inserting or swiping your card. You’ll simply tap your phone instead. Merchants need to accept near-field communication payments, but I’ve found that at least in Europe, most places that accept credit cards have this technology. 

Using a digital wallet as your default payment method is safer because your card details are never shared with the merchant. But they also have a less obvious security benefit: it allows you to keep your physical credit card in more secure, less accessible places on your person. 

For example, if you know you’re going to pay using your phone most of the time, you can keep your credit card in a money belt under your clothes rather than in your purse or your pocket. 

It’s more of a hassle to take out your card in the rare case that contactless payments don’t work, which is why you should always keep your card with you if you use contactless payments, but you’re also less likely to lose your card to a pickpocket. 

A virtual credit card, on the other hand, is more useful when shopping online. Some issuers, like Capital One, let you generate a single-use card number that you can use to check out online rather than entering your actual card details. This feature adds an extra layer of digital security and prevents your card details from being stolen during online transactions.

One final security feature that’s really useful to have is the ability to lock and unlock your card at will, ideally through your online account or banking app rather than calling customer service. If your card is stolen or compromised, you can lock it down immediately. For cards I use less often, like my backup card, I find it’s helpful to keep the card locked and unlock it only when I need to use it. 

Keep your stored cards safe

Storing your card details on your phone does make your data more vulnerable if your phone is stolen. To mitigate this, set a strong password or biometric lock on your phone, change your digital wallet settings to require password or biometric verification for all purchases and make sure you can remotely lock or wipe your phone through a service like Apple’s Find My iPhone or Google’s Find My Device.

Customer service

If something goes wrong with your credit card while you’re traveling, the quality of customer service for your card might be the difference between getting the issue resolved quickly or wasting hours of your vacation on the phone.

It’s hard to give an objective evaluation of a company’s customer service quality as a whole since so much of it depends on the individual customer service agent and the issue you’re dealing with. 

But reading a lot of reviews from real users -- forums like Reddit are great for this -- might help you pick out some trends. You can also draw on your personal experience or that of people you trust; if you’ve had a lot of trouble with customer support from a particular credit card issuer in the past, maybe that’s not the card you want to use as your primary travel card.

Something else to consider: how and when you can contact live customer support. A customer service line that’s active only during standard US business hours gets exponentially less convenient when you’re in a different time zone. And for Gen-Z-ers like me who would rather do anything than make a phone call, the ability to reach customer support via live chat is a surprisingly useful feature. 

Before applying for a card, poke around on an issuer’s website to see what their contact methods and customer service hours are like, then check the internet to see if you find a trend of user horror stories about the company. 

One last thing 

I’ll leave you with one more tip: It’s always a good idea to have one (or a few) backup cards in case you can’t use your primary card.

Whether your physical card gets lost or stolen, or your account gets compromised, or you decide to downgrade a high annual fee card to one with a lower annual fee, sometimes situations can arise where you aren’t able to use your primary card.

If you encounter any of those problems, your account might be locked or you could have to wait for a replacement card to be mailed to you. So having a backup card that you can use to pay for purchases until your primary card is up and running again can make all the difference.

If you don’t want to pay annual fees for multiple premium travel cards just to keep some as a backup, consider getting a no-annual-fee card with no foreign transaction fees like the Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card* or Bilt Mastercard®. 

Although these cards may have fewer rewards and perks than ones that charge an annual fee, they’ll still fulfill their basic function as a payment method and you can hold them indefinitely without worrying about whether they’re worth the cost.

I like to keep my primary cards and backup cards in separate locations -- for example, one in my wallet for everyday use and the other in my hotel room. This reduces the likelihood of something happening to both my primary card and my backup at the same time.

*All information about the Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card has been collected independently by CNET and has not been reviewed by the issuer.

The editorial content on this page is based solely on objective, independent assessments by our writers and is not influenced by advertising or partnerships. It has not been provided or commissioned by any third party. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products or services offered by our partners.

Raina He is a contributor to CNET Money. She previously worked as an editor at CNET, focusing on credit cards, banking and loans. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a B.A. in Media and Journalism. Before coming to CNET Money, she was an editor at NextAdvisor, a personal finance news site that shared a parent company with CNET Money.
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