The Best Travel Credit and Debit Cards for Backpackers

by stephmylifetravel

When you’re travelling outside your home country, it can be really confusing to figure out the best way to get your foreign currency. Should you pay by cash or card? Debit or credit? Bring cash to exchange or withdraw it while you’re there? Maybe you should carry travellers’ cheques (not in this century!) – or is it safe to draw out cash from ATMs as you travel? You’ll get all the answers in my guide to the best travel cards.

Most backpackers are on a tight budget, so of course, we want to squeeze every last drop of value out of our savings while on the road. We know that treating ourselves to a night in a good hotel could cost us two weeks of travelling in India, and one drink in a Bangkok bar could cost three times the price of a Chang from the local 7-Eleven. But many of us are paying unnecessary international banking fees because we don’t know any better. Well, now you can! Keep reading to find out how to become a more savvy traveller and stop handing your hard-earned money right back to your bank.

 

What fees am I paying for a regular debit/credit card?

All bank cards are different, but generally, there will be three ways in which you will be hit financially by using your regular day-to-day banking debit or credit card abroad. These three fee amounts vary slightly from bank to bank, but I have used the average fees below. Most banks publish their fee structure on their website, so to find out what your bank charges you to use your card abroad, look on their website.  For example, here are the fees I would pay to use my First Direct card abroad.

1. Foreign Transaction fees

These fees are paid on any transaction that is made abroad – whether you’re withdrawing cash or paying by card. The exact fee varies depending on who you bank with, but usually, they are about 3%.

This may look like an insignificant amount of money per transaction, but think about how much they can add over time. If you have saved €20,000 for a 6-month trip and use your regular bank card,  €600 of this will go on transaction fees alone.  That’s €600 just handed straight back to your bank.

2. Withdrawal fees

Your bank charges These fees when you withdraw cash from an ATM.  Again, these differ from bank to bank, but they usually start at 2%, and there is a set minimum and maximum amount for this fee. This fee is charged in addition to the 3% transaction fee outlined above.

To use HSBC / First Direct as an example, the cash withdrawal fee starts at £1.75 and is capped at £5. This means that on top of paying 3% extra for your cash with the transaction fee, you’re also paying at least £1.75 to take your own money out of the ATM abroad.

Both of these fees will usually appear on your bank statement or online banking app alongside the transaction details.

3. Foreign Exchange Markup

Most people already know that using their bank card abroad comes with a set of fees. These are easily identifiable on your online banking statement, so you are aware you are paying them. However, not as many people are aware that your bank will also charge an exchange rate markup when you are taking your cash out abroad.  This is not as easily spotted on your bank statement, so most people don’t even realise they’re paying this.

Here’s how this works:

When you take out cash abroad, your bank will apply an FX rate to the local currency you withdraw to convert it to your home currency and subtract this amount from your total balance. Usually, they will apply a markup to this rate, meaning you are charged more than the mid-market exchange rate.

For example, I just paid for something for $6 USD with my First Direct account. They applied their FX rate and charged £4.65 to my current account. If I go to Wise.com and use the FX calculator on their homepage, I can see that Wise would have charged me £3.85 for this transaction.  This means I have paid 80p more for this item just by using First Direct’s FX rate. On top of this, First Direct also charged me a Foreign transaction fee of 12p, bringing the total I have overpaid to 92p.

Imagine this is happening day in and day out. These three fees, of varying amounts, are applied to every cash withdrawal or chip-and-pin transaction you make. For every online purchase you make in a different currency (don’t forget about those!), Think about how much more you spend daily using your regular bank card abroad. All this while you are using budgeting apps, haggling to keep costs down, and saving pennies here and there just to give them right back to your bank. This is precisely why we started using travel cards.

 

How do travel cards differ from regular bank cards?

Travel cards are very similar to your regular bank card. The setup is a little different (you have to preload the card), but the day-to-day use is the same (use it in an ATM or pay by card in a shop). Here are a few of the main differences between travel cards and regular bank cards.

You need to preload a travel card.

The main difference in using a travel card versus your regular bank card is that you need to pre-load money onto your travel card before you use it; the card is not just hooked up to your bank account (although some of the cards can be used like a regular current account).

When you open an account with one of the banks below, you will be given an account number and BSB / sort code for your account, which will be easily found in the app. Set this account up as a payee with your regular bank, and you can transfer money using your bank’s app to send it to your travel account. It’s incredibly easy and doesn’t require a laptop or any phone calls; just using your bank app.

Preloaded cards are nothing new, but what has changed in recent years is that technology is so much better! It’s now quicker and easier to transfer your money onto your travel card –  I often do it when I’m standing at a till paying for something.

But this means you have less exposure if your card is stolen

The benefit of using pre-loaded cards is that if your card is skimmed or stolen, the person who stole it will only have access to the limited amount of money on the card when they got access to it. They can’t hook into your current account and drain it; they can only take what is on the travel card.

This is why I transfer money weekly instead of monthly onto my travel card and never transfer a large sum.

You pay less fees and better rates.

The most important difference between regular bank cards and travel cards is the fees you pay. Much like banks, all travel cards are slightly different in terms of fee structure. Lucky for you, we have tried quite a few, and I have a detailed outline of the fees for different cards below so that you can compare them. Here is a quick look at the fee differences between travel and bank cards.

Bank Cards v Travel Cards at a Glance:
  • Most travel cards don’t charge foreign transaction fees; most bank cards charge around 3%.
  • Most travel cards don’t charge cash withdrawal fees unless you hit a certain cash limit (starting from €200 per month); most bank cards charge withdrawal fees on every cent you take out AND have a minimum fee so you can’t avoid this charge by taking out small amounts.
  • Travel cards offer better foreign exchange rates than standard banks.

As you can see, using travel cards can save you a lot of money over time. They won’t completely eliminate all costs associated with spending your money abroad but will bring them down considerably.

The apps are much more sophisticated.

I first started using travel cards to save money on fees, but I’ve continued using them because the technology is so good! Travel card companies have invested heavily in tech, creating incredibly sophisticated apps that they are constantly updating and improving – which put my regular banking apps to shame!

You can easily analyse your spending, create a budget, a savings vault, order new cards, lock your card if you can’t find it – and unlock it when you find it again, open accounts in various countries, and send money to other people and accounts. All of this can be done in-app, giving you much power over your money and how you spend it. The security features in these apps were what I found so impressive to begin with. After so much time spent on hold with First Direct to unlock my card, it was great to be able to do this so easily.

Wise is my go-to for sending money anywhere in the world or finding out the best FX rates. Even if you don’t end up ordering a card, you can still download the apps below and have a look through the features.

 

The Top Travel cards at a glance

Here is an outline of the best travel cards we used so you can see the fees you pay and the different services they offer. There are links where you can apply for the cards; some of these offer you cash in return, and others are standard links.

Revolut

  • Card issuer: Mastercard
  • Available to anyone living in the European Economic Area (EEA), Australia, Canada, Singapore, Switzerland, and the United States.
  • Free to create an account and order your first card but £4.99 standard delivery charge is charged.
  • Fee-free cash withdrawals up to £200, 2% thereafter
  • No transaction fees for overseas payments
  • Interbank exchange rate with no markup (except Thai and Ukranian, and at weekends)
  • Location based security – if this feature is switched on and your phone is not nearby then the transaction will be declined.
  • Multi-currency accounts
  • Premium accounts available with perks like travel insurance
  • Great mobile app with features like savings ‘vaults’, spending analytics
  • Supports Apple Pay

Sign up for Revolut here!

 

Wise (formerly Transferwise)

  • Card issuer: Mastercard
  • Available worldwide
  • Fee-free cash withdrawals up to £200, 2% thereafter
  • No transaction fees for overseas payments
  • Interbank exchange rate + small currency conversion fee
  • Multi-currency accounts
  • Real bank account details in GBP, EUR, USD, NZD and AUD
  • Allows you to send money internationally at low rates
  • Top bank for digital nomads
  • Mobile app allows you to view transactions, manage card security, convert between currencies, send money internationally

Sign up for Wise here!

Starling Bank

  • Card issuer: Mastercard
  • UK residents only
  • Fee-free cash withdrawals with no limit
  • No transaction fees for overseas payments
  • You can create a joint account for shared spending
  • Supports Apple Pay

Sign up for a Starling card here

 

Should I still bring cash with me if I have a travel card?

Luckily, these days most countries have a good ATM network, meaning you’re never too far from cash as long as you have a debit or credit card. Drawing out money as you need it means you can avoid carrying loads of cash everywhere (or leaving it in a hotel room), which would make you a target for thieves. You also avoid local money exchanges, which often make their money ripping off tourists with terrible exchange rates and in some cases run scams to extract even more of your hard-earned dough. We tend to arrive in a country and take out cash at the ATM when we arrive.

Having said that, you should always have a bit of cash hidden away in case of an emergency. US dollars are the most globally accepted currency, so we tend to bring $100 cash with us when we travel – just in case we’re ever stuck.

 

Do I need to tell the bank that I’m travelling or where I’m going?

Unlike regular banks, travel card providers kind of assume you’re going to be jet-setting around the world when using their card. There’s no need to notify them when you’re going away or where you are going.

 

Where can I use my Travel Card?

Mastercard powers all of the above cards, so they can generally be used worldwide at any ATM or POS where Mastercard is accepted.  There are some countries where Mastercard is not accepted, which are:

Afghanistan, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo and DR of Congo, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Palestinian Territories, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen.

 

What if I lose my travel card while I’m abroad?

The only major downside to relying on a travel card as you travel is that if the card gets lost, blocked, stolen or eaten by an ATM, you’re pretty much stuck. Card skimming is rife in major travel destinations, meaning that even if you’re super careful if you travel for long enough, you’re bound to have a card blocked at some point. It’s tough to get a replacement card sent to you when your current address is some hostel dorm bed and you don’t know where you’ll be in 3 days!

For that reason, I recommend getting multiple travel cards so that you’ll have backups if you lose one. All of the companies in this article offer free accounts with cards, so sign up for a few and keep the cards in separate places in case you lose a bag or your wallet gets stolen. If you’re travelling with a partner or friend, make sure they do the same – that way you’re unlikely ever to be stuck without any usable cards between you. Several of these cards have monthly limits on free withdrawals, so signing up for a few also means you have a much higher limit before you start having to pay to withdraw your money!

 

Help! I have a travel card, but I’m still being charged ATM fees

Some ATM operators will charge you their own fees, regardless of the type of card you’re using. Your card provider does not control these fees, so you’ll be forced to pay them even if you’re using a travel card.

In some countries (such as Thailand) this is standard practice across all ATMs, so these charges are unavoidable. In this case, the best thing to do is try to pay by card when you can and to draw out as much cash in one transaction as possible so you only pay the fee once.

Most often only commercially-run ATMs will charge these fees, and bank ATMs will not charge any. These commercially-run ATMs are common around Europe and should be avoided wherever possible. Just remember, as long as you haven’t hit your monthly cash withdrawal limit, you won’t be paying any fees to your travel card provider.

 

Steph’s tips for using your travel card

We have been using travel cards for a few years now, and here are some tips and advice I have for anyone using them for the first time:

  • Always pay in the local currency if you’re asked at the till or an ATM. Paying in the local currency means that your card provider will apply their own better exchange rates. Otherwise, the merchant will apply their (terrible) foreign exchange markup to the conversion, and you’ll end up paying more for your item. The merchant/ATM will usually make it look like they’re offering a better deal by charging in your home currency, but this is misleading. They want you to choose that option because it makes them a lot of money – a travel card or even a standard bank card will almost always offer a better exchange rate.
  • If you are travelling in a couple, don’t share a card / account. As you can see above, cash withdrawal fees kick in when you take out more than €200 / £200 per month. Having two accounts means that you are essentially doubling your cash free allowance to €400 / £400!
  • For the same reasons as above, we have Revolut cards, Wise cards, and Starling cards. This means we never pay cash withdrawal fees, and if one card gets lost / stolen / damaged we have many backups!
  • If your card is skimmed or stolen, go into the app and freeze it immediately. If you’re worried about card security, like I was in Bali (card skimming is common there), here’s what I used to do. I would keep my card frozen all the time. Each time I would go to an ATM, I would unfreeze my card, take out my cash, freeze it again. It was the same for when I was paying by card. This may seem overkill, but we had five cards skimmed, and I was down to my last one! I don’t do it in Thailand.
  • When you’re booking trains / flights etc as you travel, pay attention to the currency you pay in. Many booking websites in Asia automatically charge in the local currency, but you can switch to your local currency to pay. Often when you opt to pay in your home currency, they charge an FX markup here so you end up paying more than if you paid in the local currency with your travel card. This is something to be mindful of.
  • If you use Revolut, you can switch on a feature that rounds up all of your purchases and puts the extra pennies into a savings vault. You barely notice the difference when you pay, but this money all adds up and you can splurge on a better hotel or activity you want to do.
  • Wise has a great travel card, but they are also excellent for transferring money to different countries. When we left Australia, we wanted to move our savings back to our accounts in the UK. We looked into it and realised it is so expensive to take money out of Oz.  To avoid fees, we opened an AUD account with Wise, which gave us an Australian account number and BSB.  This way we could transfer our money from our Commonwealth bank account to the Wise AUD account with no fees, and transfer that money again from Wise to our UK account. It saved us hundreds of pounds! If you are living abroad and want to send money home – check out Wise.
  • Always turn on spending alerts, so that you get a notification when you buy anything with your card. This was how we found out our card was skimmed each time and we were able to instantly lock it down and prevent more money from being taken.

Hopefully I’ve shown you how useful travel cards are, and why you need them for your next trip. Whether you’re going backpacking or just like to take shorter trips away, I recommend getting one of these cards. You’ll save a lot of money, and also be able to keep your money more secure as well as make it go further!

 

For more money management tips, check out my post 10 Simple Ways To Save Money For Travelling.

 

Thanks for reading!
Steph

 

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3 comments

Karen January 23, 2023 - 11:53 am

Wow, this is the most comprehensive & straightforward blog on travel cards. We’re off to South America in 5 weeks and I’ve just ordered 3 cards! Thank you so much for the info. Happy travels.

Reply
valentina jacome September 20, 2023 - 12:45 pm

What an excellent post Steph. All the questions I had were pre-empted by the text. Thank you because it takes time to compile this time of information.

Reply
Mike King January 14, 2024 - 4:03 am

Excellent up to date blog Steph. We are world traveller’s like you so have learned the hard way and endorse everything you have said plus gained some useful tips as every day is a school day. Well done ! You’ve spent time on this and will save your Western folk a lot of money.

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