Best Banks for Travelers and Nomads

Friday, August 26, 2011  at 6:58 AM
When Chris and I were planning on traveling abroad, many of the main technical questions we had were about banking.  Which banks were the most travel-friendly?  How many cards should we carry with us?  How could we avoid the majority of fees?  After a ton of research and two months of field testing, here is what we have found.

St Blasien Cathedral by Danalynn C
A beautiful cathedral in the nearby Sankt Blasien, in the Black Forest, Germany

How many cards do I need?

    We have two different debit cards and two different credit cards.  We have two copies of each, except one of the debit cards (we ran out of time in the States to have a second card sent to us). 

Reasoning

    We decided to have two types each of debit and credit cards because in the past we have had a card shut off (a problem with the bank, no fault of ours), which left us in a tight spot at the time.  Because we knew that we would use both debit and credit cards, we opted to have two different cards of each to prevent this exact scenario.

     We tried to get two copies of each card whenever we could so that we would have a spare in case a machine ate our card, a card was lost, or some other calamity occurred.  Our cards are spread fairly evenly between our bags (not all of our eggs are in the same basket) in case a bag is stolen or lost.

What kind of credit card should I get?  Are there any specific points to consider?

    We have made it a point to have both a Mastercard (debit) and a Visa (credit), in addition to our Capitol One credit card.  If possible, try to get a credit card with a chip in it.  Always remember to get the PIN for your cards--even for your credit cards.

Reasoning

    We varied the type of card so we would have multiple options and we would have a lower chance of being in a situation when we wouldn't have a card that could be accepted.  Mastercard (debit) and Visa (credit) are both brands that are widely accepted, while Capitol One is our preferred credit card because it has no foreign transaction fees.

    Most credit cards in the US do not have a chip, but unfortunately many card readers internationally (especially in Europe) cannot read 'swipe' credit cards and can only read cards with a chip.  This is a huge inconvenience especially with automated machines, such as train ticket machines, as they often only accept credit cards and will not accept any other type of payment.  If you do not have a card with a chip in it, you cannot use the machine and you may be out of luck.
 
    While debit cards always come with a PIN, you usually must call in and request your credit card PIN.  Many countries require you to input a PIN when using a credit card, just like you usually must do for a debit card

What banks are the most travel friendly?

    We have two bank accounts: one with BECU (Boeing Employee Credit Union, although no longer only for Boeing employees) and one with First Republic Bank.  We also have a credit card through Capitol One.

Reasoning

    Currently, our BECU account is functioning as a backup account while our First Republic Bank account is our primary.  The fees associated with international travel with BECU are present but not extraordinarily spendy.   We keep this account because we have both banked with BECU for several years and we appreciate their small-bank feel, their quality customer service, the ease of online banking and the lack of fees while in the USA.

    When researching the best banks for travel, however, I was incredibly impressed with First Republic Bank.  This bank is based in California, but after a phone call to a very lovely representative I was able to open an account over the phone.  The necessary paperwork was overnighted to me, in addition to First Republic chocolates, an umbrella, a notepad and a handwritten card (hey, they had me at chocolate!).

    Not only is their customer service exemplary--they have won several awards for it, and whenever I call I am immediately greeted by a live person instead of an automated system--but they charge zero transaction fees internationally.  Not only that, but they will refund all ATM fees, internationally, and there is no limit to the number of ATM transactions per month.

    The catch?  You must have $5,000 in your checking account at all times, or they will charge you $18/month.  No problem, Chris and I now use it as our primary bank account and we have had zero problems with withdrawing money from any ATM that accepts VISA (pretty much all ATMS we have come across).

    Our Capitol One credit card is our day-to-day credit card while traveling, as it has zero charges for international use.  It also lets us accrue miles--we've never done anything with them, but we've heard that collecting miles can be a good thing!  

St Blasien Cathedral Roof by Danalynn C
The ceiling of the Sankt Blasien cathedral was perfectly sculpted and very precise--the play of light on the marble was amazing.

Ok, I have my bank accounts and my cards.  Is there anything else I should do before I leave the country?

    You must call your bank and let them know that you will be traveling abroad.  Usually, you will have to list the countries you will be in and the time period you will be gone, although some banks will let you unlock your card internationally.  If you do not do this, your card will be flagged for suspected fraudulent activity and activity will be suspended.  For every one of our cards, I called not only once, but twice.

Reasoning 

    A few years ago, Chris and I were in Paris and our credit card was suspended for suspected fraudulent activity.  The main problem?  Before we left, we had called to let them know we would be out of the country, but apparently the entry had not made it into the system.  To make matters worse, this happened the afternoon of Wednesday, December 23rd--the bank would be closed the following two days for Christmas Eve and Christmas, plus the next two days for the weekend, plus most of the following week for New Years Eve and New Years Day.  Long story short, we were not happy campers and we had a keen sense of vindication when Washington Mutual Bank went out of business.

    Moral of the story?  Call the bank to let them know you will be traveling, then call again several days (or weeks) later to make sure the account was marked as such.  When preparing for this trip, it was a good thing I had called twice as the international travel note had not been saved into the system for one of our cards.

What are some steps I can take for safer banking when traveling?

    Besides keeping our cards in a safe place, Chris and I have the card numbers written down in a (different) safe location, plus we have a family member in the US who is authorized to access one of our accounts and has all of our card information.  Finally, all of our banking is done via online banking.

Reasoning

    Where we keep our cards varies from location to location.  Generally, we split the cards up so they are not all in one place.  Sometimes we keep them in an interior pocket of our backpacks, sometimes we keep them on our person and sometimes we leave them in another secure location (such as an apartment).  This is dealt with on a case-by-case basis, but do keep in mind that there are some places where you should not carry a credit or debit card on your person.

    We have all of the card numbers with us in case a card is lost or stolen--this will make canceling the card much easier and faster.  We decided that it was a good idea to have a family member at home with this information for the same reason, plus that person is authorized to access one of our accounts in case we get into some unforeseen trouble.

    Online banking is the easiest option and, for us, seems the least risky way to keep track of our money while traveling.  The best thing we can do is try to prevent any problems (hence keeping our cards in safe places, as well as not keeping all of the cards together), but we want to be prepared in case anything happens.

Has anyone come across any great strategies for dealing with money while traveling?  Any other horror stories involving money while you were on a trip?
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