Credit cards provide the cheapest means of currency conversion. Hold on, before you balk at this statement and argue that someone working for a credit-oriented blog would of course make such a claim, let me tell you something: I have the facts to back it up. In fact, credit cards have the potential to save international travelers as much as 15% on currency exchange, according to a recent Currency Exchange Study by Card Hub.
Card Hub – using both online fact finding and anonymous phone calls – was able to determine the U.S. dollar-to-Euro exchange rates offered by Visa and MasterCard, the credit card networks with by far the largest coverage areas worldwide; 15 of the largest consumer banks in the United States; and Travelex, the most significant airport currency exchange service in the world. And aside from the mere fact that the payment type most conducive to international travel is a credit card, this study revealed that:
- On average, credit cards without international transaction fees save travelers 14.7% as compared to airport services and 7.9% relative to major banks.
- The best banks for currency conversion are Northern Trust and Harris Bank
- The worst banks for currency conversion are U.S. Bank and Fifth Third Bank
- Consumers should never convert cash at the airport
But what does this really mean for travelers? How can we translate the study’s findings into real-life savings?
I’m glad you asked. First, it’s important to note that even if you aren’t traveling to a country that uses the Euro, the study’s findings should still be applicable. Credit card networks, banks and currency exchange companies all set their rates based on what each currency is trading at on a particular day, and the companies that tend to inflate these standard rates will likely do so across the board, and the converse. So your best bet is to stick with the company that tends to offer the best rates.
With that in mind, the first step in actually saving on currency exchange is to open a no international fee credit card on the Visa or MasterCard network. Just make sure to open such a card before booking any flights or making any reservations as these transactions are likely to be made with foreign companies, triggering the 3% fees that 90.2% of credit cards charge for purchases processed abroad.
Next, either open a low-international-fee debit card or exchange some cash with whichever local bank is offering the best deal. Card Hub found that an 11.9% disparity existed between the banks with the best and worst rates (exchange rate plus fees), so it really does pay to price out a few different options.
Now you’re almost ready for take off. I say almost because you still need to notify your credit card company and debit card issuer, if applicable, of your travel plans. Make sure to tell them every single country you plan on visiting, including countries where you will have a layover, because if suspicious charges show up on your account, your card might get suspended.
That’s it for the pre-flight checklist, so to speak. You’re ready to go and ready to save. Just make sure to avoid merchant exchange rate inflation while you’re in your destination, and all you’ll need to worry about is avoiding a sunburn and having too good of a time. Happy travels!
[Disclosure: Some of the links within this article point to CardHub.com, which is owned by the same parent company as Wallet Blog.]