Choosing the right card to travel
Consumers can expect some pretty hefty charges for using credit cards overseas ... a little investigation beforehand is worthwhile.
By Shaheen Pasha, staff writer

NEW YORK ( -- It pays to be selective when choosing a credit card to use on your next vacation abroad.

A $336 million settlement reached Wednesday by credit card providers over foreign currency exchange fees closes a drawn-out chapter in litigation for the industry but highlights the fact that consumers can still expect to pay some pretty hefty fees when using their cards to make transactions overseas.

For the credit card industry, fees linked to foreign-made purchases provide a nice line of revenue. MasterCard (Charts) and its competitor Visa charge bank issuers 1 percent for every purchase consumers make abroad - a fee that most banks are happy to pass along to consumers. But it doesn't stop there.

Banks jumped on the bandwagon, charging a fee of 1 to 2 percent of their own on top of the fees passed down by Visa and MasterCard.

While the class-action settlement will provide some consumers fee reimbursement and the promise of better disclosure regarding these practices, currency conversion fees are here to stay, and it's ultimately the consumer who pays the price.

But that doesn't mean that consumers should forgo using credit cards overseas.

Linda Sherry, spokeswoman at consumer rights group Consumer Action, said credit cards and ATM debit cards still make a lot of sense for travelers, who can enjoy the benefits of making purchases without the hassle of locating a currency exchange bureau.

And, considering that banks and exchange bureaus often charge exorbitant exchange rates of more than 7 percent on currency conversion, credit card fees are modest by comparison.

Shop around

"Credit cards are still the best ideal for travelers but you can definitely get a better deal if you shop around," Sherry said.

She advised consumers to contact their credit card providers to find out what kind of fees they may incur; it may make sense to switch providers if you travel a lot.

But, keep in mind, too many credit cards can lower your credit score, so it may be a good idea to assess the overall benefits of the cards you have before adding another one to your wallet.

To get you started, here's a sampling of the policies of some of the nation's top credit card players:

Capital One (Charts), for instance, doesn't charge consumers one dime in currency exchange fees for using its cards abroad, said spokeswoman Diana Don.

She said the company doesn't even pass on the 1 percent fee it is charged by Visa and MasterCard.

"It's been a real competitive advantage for us," Don remarked. "Consumers that do travel abroad find that they can save substantial amounts of money."

Bank of America (Charts) and Citigroup (Charts), by comparison, charge their consumers a 3 percent currency exchange fee. For a $1,000 purchase, that adds up to $30 in additional fees.

Consumers may also want to check out credit card companies that aren't on Visa or MasterCard's network.

Morgan Stanley's (Charts) credit card business, Discover, doesn't pass along any currency exchange fees, while American Express (Charts) charges a 2 percent fee for using its card abroad, according to spokeswomen for both companies.

Navigating the world of debit cards

ATM debit cards are also becoming an increasingly popular choice among travelers. But here, too, consumers should check their banks' policies.

Bank of America, for instance, will charge consumers the same fee if they use the debit card like a credit card.

But the bank charges consumers a flat fee of $5 for using an ATM machine to withdraw funds plus Visa's 1 percent currency conversion fee. Those fees are waived however if the consumer uses a machine affiliated with its Global ATM Alliance - ATMs at banks such as Barclays in London and Deutsche Bank in Germany, according to spokeswoman Betty Reiss.

Citigroup, which has a huge international presence, charges no ATM fees for cash withdrawals that Citibank customers make at any of its ATMs worldwide. But using an unaffiliated ATM will result in a $1.50 flat fee plus the 1 percent conversion fee from MasterCard.

Consumers that use a Citigroup debit card to make a purchase will only be charged the 1 percent MasterCard fee.

Consumer Action's Sherry said using a credit card overseas is a convenient way to travel, but a little investigation beforehand could save consumers a ton of money upon their return.


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