If you’re traveling in foreign countries, credit card transaction fees can add up quickly and dent even the most carefully planned vacation budget. So if you’re leaving the US, it’s time to take a second look (or a first good look!) at your credit cards’ fee structure. Credit card information resource CompareCards, a subsidiary of LendingTree, Inc., recently released a study highlighting the true cost of foreign transaction fees, tips for how to avoid them and other money traps to watch out for when traveling abroad.
The important takeaways…
Foreign transaction fees are high and common. The study found that nearly half of credit cards (75 of the 165 studied) charge foreign transaction fees. The average fee overall is 2.61% on every purchase, with banks averaging 2.97% and credit unions averaging 1.15%.
Some merchants offer you a chance to pay a different fee. This happens when you choose to pay the bill in US dollars rather than the foreign currency. For instance, if you buy a souvenir or a meal on vacation in Paris, the shop or restaurant might offer you the option of receiving the bill in dollars instead of euros to spare you the chore of doing conversion math. If you choose to pay in dollars, that’s called dynamic currency conversion, and you pay a premium for the privilege, perhaps the equivalent of a 3% foreign transaction fee, which you also may be paying.
Don’t trade one fee for another that costs you more. If you have a credit card that spares you foreign transaction fees, keep reading the fine print. Most of those cards charge annual fees that are much higher than the annual fees charged by cards with foreign transaction fees—an average of $86.76 versus $14.99, respectively. If you don’t travel much and/or don’t spend much when you travel, you might be better off with the foreign-transaction-fee card than with the high-annual-fee card. Example: The median total foreign transaction fee paid by travelers who spent $3,500 in Europe last year was $100, which is only $5 more than the $95 average annual fee charged by cards with no foreign transaction fees, and those annual fees are charged every year whether you travel or not.
Paying foreign transaction fees is not necessarily the costliest money move many travelers make. Foreign transaction fees actually may be preferable to some alternatives that many travelers use, which include high out-of-network ATM fees and a 5% fee often associated with the purchase of foreign currency at a US bank before travel. Currency conversion at international airports is even more expensive, according to the study—it easily can cost you 10% or more.
The best of all credit card options. The good news is, there are credit cards that are very attractive for foreign purchases. Many cards, including some of the best all-around cards (and in some cases cards with rewards miles), charge neither an annual fee nor a foreign transaction fee. These no-fee cards include Bank of America Travel Rewards, Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards, Discover it Cashback Match and Priceline Rewards Visa.