For just over a week now, my wife and I have been on an extended European adventure. We have visited the French Riviera, Milan, and are currently in San Marino, with more to come, including Rome, Florence, and Ireland. You can read a bit more about ur plans here. As part of our preparation for the trip, I settled on a pared-down set of credit cards for use while across the pond. Normally I carry 8-12 in my wallet at any given time, and I trimmed us down to only 6 between the two of us. The main reason is security; I don’t want to have to call too many banks to cancel a bunch of cards if one of our wallets is stolen. Right now we would have to call Amex and Barclays if mine was taken, and Chase if hers. Let’s hope this planning is unnecessary.
Each card was selected for specific reasons. We are staying at hotels with 4 different major chains, so I was initially thinking we would bring each of those co-branded cards. However, I decided to only bring a Hilton card and my SPG card. I figured any extras could be purchased with one of our other cards at the Hyatt and IHG hotels. Card number 3 is my United MileagePlus Explorer, only because we are still finishing the sign-up bonus. Kelsey’s Chase Sapphire was selected as the 4th because it has a large credit limit and has 2x on travel purchases. Cards 5 and 6 are her BarclayCard Arrival+ and my no-fee Arrival.
The card du jour for this trip will certainly be my wife’s BarclayCard Arrival+ MasterCard. She just recently obtained it, and we still need to hit the spending bonus (for 40,000 “miles” that we will use to cover a hotel night and our train travel in Italy). This was an important enough reason to bring it along, but there are three other ways in which it is helpful:
- Chip + Pin Support. Credit card transactions in Europe (and a whole lot of the rest of the world) use a different technology than we do in the United States. Many U.S. cards still use the old mag-stripe technology, although newer ones are chip-enabled. However, although U.S. cards now have a chip, they are chip-and-signature. This means that although transactions are processed using the chip (instead of the mag-stipe), they still only require the signature of the customer. European cards use chip-and-pin technology. Instead of a cardholder signature, they require entry of a pin code (like a U.S. debit card at an ATM). Most U.S. cards are not pin enabled. This normally isn’t all that much of a problem in Europe because both mag-stripe and chip-and-signature technology usually work just fine for the bulk of transactions. However, there are some automated kiosks and other merchants that only accept chip-and-pin cards. This makes the BarclayCard Arrival+ a great card to have because it is chip and pin enabled. We already ran into a Milan metro kiosk that wouldn’t process my Chase Visa.
- No Foreign Transaction Fees. We have quite a few cards now with hits perk, so this isn’t really a make-or-break issue. We could just as easily use the Chase Sapphire Preferred. However, even among cards with no foreign transaction fees, some win out over others. Which brings me to point number three…
- Lower MasterCard Exchange Rates. One thing I didn’t know until this past week was that the different credit processing companies (Visa, Amex, MasterCard, etc.) have different currency exchange rates. These can fluctuate daily, and one may be better than another at any given time. From a few sources, I have heard that MasterCard’s exchange rates are on average the best, although this may or may not be the case on any given day. Our own experience has shown them to be essentially equal. Doing the math on our purchases over the last few days, the Visa and MasterCard rates are essentially the same (0.900 EUR per USD). I may run receipts from a few more dates for fun as the trip progresses to see if MasterCard is indeed the better option. The savings are still small, however, and they are completely negated when I make stupid purchases.
The BarclayCard Arrival+ is a decent card to have in your wallet for international travel. I don’t consider it a great card overall (you can find no-fee 2% cash back cards), but the benefits it provides while overseas may help make it worth the premium. Plus, having either it or the no-fee version allows for some extra point accrual through the BarclayCard travel community.