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Credit cards and a Cannes-do lifestyle

by Peter Andrew

It's that time of year again when Hollywood stars migrate from Rodeo Drive to the Croisette, and desert the Sky Bar for the cocktail lounge of the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie probably don't have to worry too much about how to pay for things when they're at the Cannes Film Festival, but when we mere mortals venture overseas, it's generally a good idea to plan credit card use ahead of time.

Here are four tips for using credit cards abroad:

1. Credit card terms overseas

If you think your credit card terms are punishing when you're at home, wait until you get overseas. Most credit cards charge 2 percent to 3 percent on all foreign purchases, which can be a nasty shock when you get home. American Express and some other credit card companies offer products that don't levy charges on foreign purchases. In addition, some debit cards don't charge for foreign ATM withdrawals, and you should check if yours is one of them before you go.

2. Credit card companies need to know you're going

Tell your credit card companies about your itinerary (dates and places) before you leave. If you rarely or never leave the United States, and a charge suddenly and unexpectedly appears on your card from a bar in Prague, your card issuer is likely to call you to check the transaction. Miss that call, and your account could be frozen, which could cramp your style and potentially ruin your vacation.

3. Expect transaction processing problems

Many parts of the world now use chip-and-pin technology in place of the magnetic strip that still appears on the back of American credit cards. Theoretically, this shouldn't be a problem, but in practice it can pose difficulties, especially when you're using machines to buy rail tickets, pay highway tolls and so on. Keep a little more local currency on you than you normally would to cover these eventualities. And also carry your passport everywhere. Some merchants demand bullet-proof identification when processing transactions that don't involve a chip-and-pin credit card.

4. Don't be a victim

There's usually no need to be paranoid when you're overseas. Depending where you are, crime rates are often lower in other countries than in the U.S. However, as a tourist, you may be at particular risk of being targeted by thieves, and taking measures to avoid being a victim and to cope if anything does happen are both intelligent steps to take. Here are four steps you can take:

  1. Make copies of all your key documents (including passports and credit cards) and keep them separate from the originals. Keep them in a hotel safe if you can.
  2. Make a list of the numbers you would need if your cards were to be lost or stolen. Remember that it's not always possible to dial some numbers (800 numbers in particular) from overseas locations. Check with your card issuer's website or call center for a number that will work where you're going.
  3. Don't carry extraneous personal information, such as your social security number, because it could be useful to an identity thief.
  4. Don't let your credit cards out of your sight when you pay for things. You may be as likely to find crooked merchants, and skimming machines that facilitate card cloning, in Bogotá and Barcelona as you are in Boston and Baltimore.

And, whether you're Brad and Angelina or just plain, old John and Mary, bon voyage.

Published 05/20/11 (Modified 04/20/12)


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