Think ahead and save on common foreign travel expenses

Tips for saving money

We end up traveling and calling overseas more than the average American since our families live in four other different countries. Besides the cost of the plane ticket, there are always other common expenses that pop up that are consistently overlooked. Here some comments and resources on how to save on them so that your pleasant memories of your vacation aren’t ruined by a jarring shock when bills from the trip start rolling in after a few weeks.

Foreign transaction fees on credit cards: If you didn’t know, most Mastercard and Visa credit cards out there charge an additional 3% fee when you use their card for purchases overseas, and this is in addition to any unfavorable foreign exchange rates. There’s a long but regularly updated discussion thread about that I check from time to time. The problem is that credit card reps don’t always know their own policies or companies are always “about to change” their terms and conditions. Currently, it’s rumored that Capital One charges no extra fee whatsoever, and there are a couple of MBNA cards that might only pass through the 1% from Visa without adding anything additional on top.

Whereas we use Citi’s Dividend card for our purchases in the US, for overseas purchases we exclusively use a Visa card issued by our credit union, which only passes on Visa’s 1% transaction fee. Though these rates might not seem like much, they add up quickly, especially after taking foreign exchange rates into account and the human propensity to spend more when traveling than when at home.

So the next time you’re planning your overseas vacation, think ahead about which cards you’ll use while traveling and take the time to double check with your issuing bank about their foreign transaction fees and rates.

Calling from the US to other countries: For calling overseas, we currently use something called the that I bought from a site with the dubious name of . The site’s layout is not ideal, but they have cards for calling to and from almost any place in the world. But here’s a big caveat: most of those phone cards come with hidden charges, in the form of a minimum usage charge per call, calling fees, 3-minute billing (rounding up any call to the next 3 minutes), among other shady policies. Apparently, that’s why the card I use chose to have “superclean” in its title, as in super clean of fees. Each card will have different rates depending on the country or countries it specializes in. For example, I’ve heard of dedicated services or cards for calling India.

I’ve been happy with this particular card so far, both in the quality of the calls and their rates. Charges for per-minute calls to mobile phones in Europe always cost a minimum of 4x more than a call to a regular landline, unlike here in the States, so finding a better rate to call a loved one on their mobile overseas is always a big money saver.

Calling from overseas to the US: There are usually a few alternatives for saving money here, if you’re willing to look. Most foreign cities have “call centers”, a small store where you can call overseas at decent rates. Sometimes these are the best places to go. If you’re looking for a calling card-type service, we personally use . As a bonus, there’s usually an additional coupon online somewhere that you can use to get an additional discount when buying a “PIN” (i.e. a calling card). Once you’ve purchased your PIN, all you have to do is look up the toll-free access number for the country you’re visiting ahead of time, making sure you have it and your PIN handy before you go. This makes calling from airports cheaper and easier than trying to figure out the local system. You can also use Pincity for calling from the US, or within the US, but we’ve found other cards to have cheaper rates.

This is obviously just a brief, introductory list for saving on the myriad of common foreign travel expenses out there. Do you have any favorites of your own to share?


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3 Feedbacks on "Think ahead and save on common foreign travel expenses"

Citi Customer

I too have used the Dividend card as well as a visa card by my credit union. I hate the 3% charge by Citibank but what I’ve noticed is that I get a better Forex rate with them than the credit union. Not sure if it was point-in-time or the general trend. Also wonder what was your experience with rates? Since rates are not exposed, it’s hard to notice that.


Hmm. Thanks for bringing up that observation. I don’t have the receipts from a recent foreign trip with me to answer your question, but the next time we have a chance to run an experiment (maybe as soon as next month), I’ll be sure to post my findings on exchange rates on the two cards here.


Citi Customer: Sorry for the delay, but this is just a quick comment to say that I finally had a chance to compare the two cards, and I think you’re right. I checked a purchase with our credit union VISA (1% cash back, 1% foreign charge) and the exchange rate was significantly higher than what I was being charged on our Citibank MC (1% cash back, 3% foreign charge). Between the cash backs and the exchange rates being used, I think they’re coming out equal. Thanks for pointing this out.