These are some of the best credit, ATM, and perk cards for traveling.
There are others—which I also own for their frequent flyer mile benefits—, but generally I travel with only four sources of money: a main credit card, a main ATM card, a backup credit card, and a backup ATM card.
This article discusses how to create your own card set-up to:
- Avoid international ATM fees
- Avoid credit card foreign transaction fees
- Bypass US customs and TSA security lines
- Access airport lounges
- Obtain a personal concierge
- Get student discounts
TRAVEL ATM CARDS
This is my main ATM card. With no account minimums, no monthly service fees, no ATM withdrawal fees, and free online transfers, it’s the perfect international bank account (except for its low interest rate). I’ve lost my ATM card three times, in three different countries, and Schwab shipped a new one every time. For free.
American Express Blue Bird — FREE
This is my backup ATM card that also has no ATM withdrawal fees. I keep it separate from my Schwab card in my hidden pocket. Before international trips I load it with US$500 in case my main ATM card is lost or stolen.
TRAVEL CREDIT CARDS
Chase Sapphire Preferred — FREE 1st year, then US$95 annual fee
This is my main credit card. It earns two highly valuable Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on travel and dining purchases, which are the majority of my transactions on the road. With no foreign transaction fees, I use it exactly as I would within the United States. The sign-up bonus is also enough for a free international round-trip ticket—but that’s a rabbit hole we’ll go down at a later date.
American Express Merecedes Benz Platinum — US$475 annual fee, with US$500 reimbursed 1st year
This is my backup credit card. It offers so many benefits that I need to use bullet points:
- No foreign transaction fees
- Chip-and-Pin Enabled — required for many European transactions
- US$200 in airline credits per calendar year — I received US$200 in 12/2012, then US$200 in 1/2013
- Free international round-trip ticket with the Membership Rewards sign-up bonus
- Free Global Entry and TSA-Pre Program — the US$100 fee is reimbursed
- Free access to 600 airport lounges with Priority Pass
- Free Platinum Concierge Service
- Full list of benefits: here
TRAVEL PERKS CARDS
Priority Pass – FREE with American Express Platinum cards; plans from US$99 to US$399 without
Gain access to 600 airport lounges around the world. This card makes you feel First Class…even when flying economy. Free food, free drinks, fancy lounges, and leather couches are my new norm during long layovers. During short layovers I always enter to grab juice and a snack too.
International Student Identity Card (ISIC) — Prices vary by country, usually less than US$20
Get student discounts around the world. While working at a Costa Rican university I was issued the teacher version, which conveniently leaves off the expiration date. For the past seven years I’ve saved hundreds and hundreds of dollars on discounted museum, movie, sporting, transportation, and accommodation fees. The card is not pictured above.
Passport, Printed Photocopy, and Digital Backup — FREE
My passport has been stolen twice. Luckily, I had both physical photocopies and scanned copies in my inbox. You cannot fly or cross borders with a copy, but it will expedite the reissuing process at your local consulate. When going out at night I carry only a photocopy, unless in country like Japan where by law you must have a passport with you at all times.
Driver’s License — Prices vary, usually less than US$30
To rent cars is the obvious reason to travel with a driver’s license. The not-so-obvious reason is to have a second official ID should your passport disappear. Imagine being unable to return home or missing a flight because you can’t prove you are the name on your ticket. International Driver Licenses are a scam. If renting a car abroad, contact AAA to learn about International Driver Permit requirements.
Global Entry Identity Card — FREE with American Express Platinum cards; US$100 without
This is a government ID, though I doubt bartenders and doormen would recognize it officially. Homeland Security personnel, on the other hand, will allow you to bypass their security lines when you flash it — as long as you entered your Trusted Traveler membership number into your flight’s booking reservation or airline’s frequent flyer profile.
Visa Photos — FREE if printed at home
Many countries process “visas on arrival,” which means you pay fees and fill out forms at the airport/border crossing. These forms almost always require photos. You don’t have two passport-sized head shots? No problem, they’ll happily charge you exorbitant prices for their photography skills. Since entry requirements are ever-changing I always carry two photos with me.
Curious about what’s in my backpack? Here’s my gear list