Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Oh là là – we are in France again and some awesome money advice for foreign travelers

We just spent three blissful and freezing days in Paris, along with very good friends from New York – it was a passionate rendezvous after a year of separation. To make the most of it, we dove into endless eating, drinking and shopping in the overpriced shops of Le Marais. We even managed to see some of the sights that eluded me the last time I visited the great city of romance 5 years ago when I was pregnant and moved around like an asthmatic camel. On the last night, after walking for eternity in search of the elusive “non-commercial, non-touristy” restaurant in St. Germain, we ended up in possibly THE most touristy one of them. Completely nonplussed, we immediately ordered copious amounts of wine and food. Soon, the goods began arriving, carried by a spritely young lad. As is his habit and to confirm some suspicions, the Diplomat asked him where he was from and (would you know it) the server turned out be from Bangladesh! To his utter amazement, both the Diplomat and I became unnaturally delighted about his origin for no apparent reason. And then his amazement turned into complete stupefaction when I asked him in crystal clear Bengali how long he has been there, whether he is married, where he lives and what is his visa status in the country – you know, the usual questions for a South Asian man. Bursting with joy, he told us his life story in about 4 minutes and promised to come to the American Embassy once he comes back to marry his first cousin in January to get an American visa. I am not sure why.

After we bid a tearful adieu to our good friends Mr. and Mrs. V, we promptly rented a car (using points accumulated on our credit card within less than a month) and immediately set out to explore the beauty and alcohol traditions of the Loire Valley. Which reminds me to write about something I have been meaning to for a long time, namely – using American issued credit and debit cards overseas without paying exorbitant foreign transaction fees. There are 2 cards the frequent foreign traveler needs – (1) a credit card that does NOT charge you foreign transaction fees, and (2) a debit card which you will use for cash and will NOT charge bank fees.

Credit cards with no foreign transaction fees

1. CapitalOne: The best one on the market is CapitalOne’s Venture card, or the notorious “What’s In YOUR Wallet??” card. It’s VISA, so it is welcomed everywhere (Visa charges much less in merchant fees than, say, AMEX). It converts the foreign currency using a decent exchange rate. And it does not charge any fees. There are no minimums, no maximums, no need for certain balances, no swearing your life, $60 annual fee. It also accumulates you points that you can cash for just about anything travel related (they work with Expedia and divide the price of travel goods by 10 to get the amount of points necessary). We used our points to book a rental car for 2 weeks in France now. It’s that awesome. That’s it. Now go get the card. No, they are not paying me for this. I wish.

2. Citibank: Citi offers the Citi ThankYou Premier Card and the ThankYou Prestige Card with no foreign transaction fees. We used to use the Premier Card a lot before we got the Venture card. The cool thing about that card is that you get reward points both when you buy things, as well as miles from flights booked using the card. For example – say, you bought a plane ticket to fly from NYC to Paris, which cost you $1,000. The miles you get on your frequent flyer program are, say 3,000. So, on your Citi card you will get both 1,000 points from the money you spent, as well as 3,000 from the flight itself. It doesn’t have to be tickets just for you – you can be buying tickets for your grandma to come see you and cook your favorite pie since you are so awesome and too lazy to make your own pie. You still get her miles. The thing about that card was that the annual fee is a whopping $125. So, we switched. Not until we went to India on the accumulated points, though…

Debits cards for cash overseas

1. USAA: Their debit card reimburses you 100% for all foreign ATM fees. It is awesome. It has one tiiiiiiiiny little problem though – it is not available to the general public. Only to the military and certain governmental employees, like the Foreign Service folks (yey!). Sorry rest of the world. But if you can get it, GET IT!

2. Charles Schwab: if you open a High Yield Investor Checking Account (it only sounds fancy, it has no minimum balances or fees), they offer unlimited fee rebates from any ATM worldwide. Which is awesome.

3. HSBC: they are a global bank as they love to tell you in humongous posters all over every single airport I have ever been to. They don’t charge ATM fees at any of their ATM machines worldwide, and they have branches everywhere. Even in Dhaka. Whoa! So, that is another option to get fee-less cash abroad.

Further Awesome money travel advice: (a) use your no-fee credit card as much as possible. Credit card companies get the best foreign exchange rates (no matter how enticing the exchange rate looks like at the exchange bureau manned by 2 burly locals next to your hostel in Burkina Faso); (b) when you get cash from an ATM (if not without fees), get a bunch – the fees are not a percentage, but a set amount, like $5 and it doesn’t matter whether you will be getting $100 or $1000. So, there is no need to pay ATM fees every day for small withdrawals.

Final Awesome Foreign Travel money advice: get yourself a credit card with DIVERSE travel rewards. The above mentioned Venture and Citi cards are a good example – you can use their points for any airline, a myriad of hotels and car rental companies. Do not get a card that ties you to just ONE airline – those days of exclusivity with American Airlines or Southwest Air are over, my friends. Another GREAT option is a credit card linked to a particular world hotel chain like Hilton, Starwood or Marriot – you can use that card for your domestic purchases and then cash your points to stay anywhere within the chain for free. We do it all the time. Not to mention that a higher balance makes you a higher level member and you get perks at the hotel, like free bottled water, internet in your room (usually, the price of gold) or even fruit baskets!

I hope this was helpful. As we move slowly through the Loire Valley, overdosing on châteaux and local wine, I will try to recount for you some of the highlights (which include elderly British ladies in microscopic biking outfits, baguette sandwiches with ham and cheese and endless wine tastings). But since I have just gulped yet another half a bottle of Vouvray with my sumptuous dinner of locally produced organic something or the other difficult to pronounce French foods, I must head to bed at this point.


  1. If you have high enough FICO score/ credit rating you can qualify for Chase's Sapphire Preferred credit card (MasterCard). Also comes with no foreign transaction fees, dedicated line for the members - their call center is in the US and they tell you which city they are in when you call them up, absolutely no wait time for the call to be picked up. Does come with annual fee of $95 which is waived in the first year. The card is heavier than your usual credit card - it's metal. You can book travel through Ultimate Rewards website or you can book individually and get statement credit. There's also annual 7% points dividend.

    I think there are some deals now that you can get 40,000 points for signing up.

    Review is here: http://www.dailymarkets.com/creditcards/chase-sapphire-preferred/

  2. a good account! u are in a wrong profession, u should be in the marketing division of the foreign service, where america can be marketed well to gullible emerging economies! enjoy all the wines and holiday!