Everybody knows about reward credit cards that let you accrue points or miles toward your next getaway. But there are other ways your credit cards — and how you use them — can save you money. You can stretch your summer vacation dollars with these tips — none of which require you to open up a new credit card account or enroll in yet another loyalty program.
1. Smart travelers — especially those whose trips take them outside U.S. borders — know it’s better to have a credit card that doesn’t tack on foreign transaction fees, which generally add 3 percent to the price of a purchase made overseas. But using any credit card will get you a better exchange rate than either getting cash from a U.S. bank before you leave or exchanging money when you reach your destination, according to Odysseas Papadimitriou, founder and CEO of Evolution Finance. He crunched the numbers and compared those three different ways travelers can exchange funds. “When you compare three different ways of exchanging cash, what we found out is there’s almost a 15 percent difference,” he says. Currency exchange kiosks and storefronts were the most expensive, while getting foreign currency from a U.S. bank varied widely in terms of the exchange rate offered. While all were more expensive than the credit card exchange rate, some were within 5 percent of that rate, while others were nearly as high as exchange bureaus
Also, don’t ever use a credit card to get cash from an ATM. Cash advance interest rates are sky-high and they kick in the instant the cash is in your hand; there’s no grace period the way there is for purchases with the card. Plus, you’ll probably have to pay a cash-advance fee on top of that. Just don’t do it.
2. Speaking of overseas travel, Papadimitriou says you’ll get a much better exchange rate if you have transactions processed in the local currency as opposed to U.S. dollars. Visa and MasterCard’s exchange rates are good, he says, but if a cashier performs a currency conversion before he or she processes your payment, you lose access to that exchange rate. Instead, the merchant probably uses a rate similar to that of pricey cash-exchanging kiosks — or even more if they’re unscrupulous and want to pad their bottom line. There’s no way to know what exchange rate you’ll be stuck with if the store converts your payment to dollars, but you can be sure it’s not nearly as good as what you’d get from the payment processing network.
3. These days, a lot of cards have discount programs for dining at certain restaurants, event tickets, theme park admissions and other types of activities. Do some research before you leave, and maybe you can score a cut-rate theme park ticket or dinner at a chi-chi restaurant. “I’d recommend consumers look to their credit cards for those kinds of instant savings at the places they’re already going,” says Laura Gingiss, spokesperson at Discover Financial Services.
4. In addition to discount programs that let you save money up front, credit card reward programs let you earn points or miles at a faster rate. In general, credit card rewards are a double-edged sword because they can help you justify purchases you wouldn’t otherwise make with the promise of an extra few percent off or a cache of bonus points. But if you’re already planning on shelling out for a vacation, take advantage of any rewards for which you’re eligible. “Always check the card’s online shopping portal for online and in-store bonus rewards that can be used for your next vacation or getaway,” says Sukhi Sahni, spokesperson for Capital One. She’s referring to merchant-funded reward programs, which have increased in both number and scope recently. Some even include discount travel-booking sites and major hotel brands. In addition, it’s worth enrolling in any short-term accelerated rewards your card might offer, since many let you earn a higher number of points or miles for purchases in travel-related categories like gas and hotels during the summer months. Just watch out for caps on how much you can earn in these accelerated categories.
5. For those of us who don’t travel often, it’s likely we have credit card benefits we don’t even know about, says Leah Gerstner, spokesperson at American Express. “Really think about more of the hidden benefits,” she says. For example, a number of cards — generally airline-affiliated or generic travel cards — offer airline credits that eliminate fees for things like checking bags, or ordering food and watching movies in-flight. “Those kinds of things add up, especially if you’re a family of four traveling,” Gerstner says. In addition to eliminating those annoying — and pricey — baggage fees, Credit.com’s Harzog says many cards include other travel-related perks like rental car insurance coverage, breakdown assistance and purchase protection (in case that terrific souvenir breaks the second you get it home).