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Credit card postcards from Europe: Volume I

Emily Crone

After trekking across four European countries in two weeks and using my $300 stimulus check to benefit foreign economies (oops), I have returned without encountering a single incident of pickpocketing or credit card blockage. Score two for me! I did accidentally almost end up on a plane to Cuba when I was supposed to go to Germany, but isn’t that the fun of traveling? While on my trip I took endless notes in a Moleskine journal, documenting my experiences with credit and debit cards abroad. Here is the first installment of things I learned and encountered:

Postcard from EuropeFlagging my bank accounts
Earlier this year, one of my colleagues returned from a stateside trip with a horror story: Her multi-state travels triggered fraud alerts and her cards were frozen. To prevent this from happening to me, I called my banks and asked them to flag my accounts with a note stating I would be using my card in Europe.

With Capital One, I was placed on hold for a long time and had to repeat my information to two people, but I had zero problems using that credit card abroad. Then I called Bank of America and had my credit card account flagged easily. To do so with my checking/debit account, I had to speak with a different department, and they required me to answer security questions. The basic birthday and address questions were easy, but then they got harder.

The customer service rep first asked if my account had been open for more than five years. That sounded right — my mom helped me open that account when I started college around five years ago — so I said yes. He asked if I was the only person on the account. I said yes, because only I use the account — I totally forgot my mom’s name was still technically there. He asked how many accounts I had with BofA, which I may or may not have answered correctly (I have many). The rep said I answered too many questions wrong so I needed to do it in person instead. The horror! This was two days before my departure and I was a mess. I had work the next day and still so much packing to do.

Emily with a bagpiper in Edinburgh, ScotlandI started crying and pleaded with the man to ask me different questions. He had no sympathy — to him, I was a potential identity thief. I had to stop by the bank the next day during lunchtime and fortunately, it took a banker merely one minute to look at my identification card and place the notice on my account. I encountered no problems while using my Bank of America credit and debit cards abroad. Phew! But now I know to take care of those things earlier, when I have more time for surprises — and to make sure to answer my security questions correctly.

Associated banks = no ATM fees
When I called Bank of America to flag my credit card account, the customer service rep gave me a wonderful tip. Many major banks have associated banks abroad. When you use them, you pay fewer, if any, fees. For example, in the U.K., BofA is associated with Barclay’s. In Germany, it’s Deutschbank. In France, it’s BNP Paribas. There are similar partnerships with banks in China, Mexico, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

If you use your card to withdraw cash from an associated bank’s ATM, you don’t have to pay an ATM fee, which can be very costly. I got in a pickle and had to use a non-associated bank’s ATM on one occasion, and the fee was $5. More on that later. Depending on the card, you may still have to pay a foreign transaction fee, but it’s usually only 2 or 3 percent of the total. Before you go abroad, talk to your bank and get a list of those you can use fee-free. Believe me, it’s worth it.

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By the way, my post “Consumers cut back, fear worsening finances” made it into the 161st Carnival of Personal Finance! Thanks to The Budgeting Babe for hosting.

See related: Credit card postcards from Europe: Vol. II, Credit card postcards from Europe: Vol. III, Credit card postcards from Europe: Vol. IV

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