travel credit cards

Travel Credit Cards

One of the cheapest ways to spend abroad

Overseas travel is still seriously disrupted, though there are moves to open things back up. But if you are planning an overseas trip in the coming months, or you're regularly buying from overseas websites, a specialist travel credit or debit card is the cheapest way to spend as it gives near-perfect exchange rates worldwide. This guide includes best-buy cards, the cards to avoid, and how to check what your card's charging you. 

Cheap travel money alternatives:

Not sure what's right for you? See Cheap Travel Money Tips.

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How do travel credit cards work?

Specialist travel cards are so good for spending abroad and on overseas websites because they don't charge exchange fees. Use your everyday plastic while on holiday and you could be hit by a host of hidden charges.

These include adding a non-sterling transaction fee of around 3%, cash withdrawal fees and interest charges even if you pay off in full (for full details, read the hidden holiday spending charges note).

Use this checker to find out what you'll pay when using your existing card and check out our top pick cards below to find cards that don't charge.

Important. We're in the process of updating the tool below. In the meantime, it's worth double checking the info with your card provider directly. 

The 7 need-to-knows when spending abroad

Before you go on holiday, there are some things you need to know about how credit and debit cards work overseas. Get this wrong and it can cost you large, so please read the following (even if you only have time to read and remember the headlines, it should help protect your pocket).

  • When abroad you want to pay for only what you buy, yet using any bog-standard card means you're paying to pay, too. Here's how much spending €1,000 actually cost, in pounds, when we made comparisons in July 2019 using our Travel Money Comparison tool (we assumed five €100 cash withdrawals and 20 transactions on the cards).

    • On a specialist credit card repaid in full: £912 
    • Cash, via UK's cheapest bureau (pick up in London): £923 
    • Cash from M&S (non-cardholder): £933
    • Top prepaid card: £923
    • Using a debit card from hell: £972 
    • Change at airport (Gatwick South Terminal, ICE Travel Money, not pre-ordered): £1,030

    As you can see, the differences can be massive, yet the winners are simple. Apply for a specialist overseas credit card, then use it every time you go.

    However, it's worth noting you don't usually get the rate on the day you spend. You actually get the rate on the day the transaction is processed by your card provider, which is usually a day or two after you used the card, but could be up to a week later.

    This is important, as if there are movements in the currency markets between you making the purchase and your card provider processing it, then you could end up paying more (or less) for what you bought than you thought you were going to.

  • Specialist overseas credit cards can be the best way to spend when you're on holiday, but can turn into one of the worst ways if you're not disciplined enough to pay them off. Always follow the golden rule: 

    "Set up a direct debit to repay in full every month, or the interest charges dwarf the cheap-currency gains."

    Direct debits may be marked 'inactive' if a card hasn't been used in a 13 month period – so if your hols have more than a year between them, check the direct debit is still in place. 

  • Many overseas hotels, shops and ATMs ask this when you pay by card. If you choose pounds, the retailer does the currency conversion – but rates can often be poor compared with letting your card do it – see Martin's euro analysis for how this worked for him on a European trip.

    If you've got a top overseas card, ALWAYS choose the local currency, as your card does the exchange and it's unbeatable.

    If you're using a bog-standard credit or debit card, it's touch and go. Sometimes the card machine will show you the 'non-sterling cash fee'. If this is under 2.5%, go with pounds. If it's over, pick the local currency.

  • Let's make this plain: do not use the cards mentioned in this section for spending overseas, particularly outside Europe.

    Thankfully, new regulations mean spending fees now CAN'T be charged for purchases made in euros in the EU, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway (the European Economic Area/EEA). But the cards below continue to charge 50p-£1.50 for transactions in other countries and currencies – meaning it's still best to avoid them.

    Here's how these cards differ...

    With most debit cards, you pay a non-sterling transaction fee for spending, typically around 3% of the transaction, and a charge if you withdraw cash abroad.

    But these cards have another sneaky charge for spending: a fee of 50p-£1.50 each time you use your card. Imagine you buy something for £5 in a shop. With the worst of these cards, it can end up costing £6.60 with the fee and charges.

    The cards from hell

    IF Debit Card (existing custs only)

    Spending penalty: £1.50 (except on payments in euros within EEA) | Load fee: 2.25% | Cash withdrawal fee: £1.50

    Bank of Scotland Debit Card

    Spending penalty: £0.50 (except on payments in euros within EEA) | Load fee: 2.99% | Cash withdrawal fee: 2.99% + £1.50

    Lloyds Debit Card

    Spending penalty: £0.50 (except on payments in euros within EEA) | Load fee: 2.99% | Cash withdrawal fee: 2.99% + £1.50

    Halifax Debit Card

    Spending penalty: £0.50 (except on payments in euros within EEA) | Load fee: 2.99% | Cash withdrawal fee: 2.99% + £1.50

    The cards below don't have a specific spending penalty, but instead charge a minimum exchange fee, meaning these are hell for small spends. Without this, a £5 spend on these cards would cost £5.14, but this minimum exchange fee bumps it up to £6.50...

    Clydesdale/Yorkshire Debit Cards (existing custs only)

    Spending penalty: none | Load fee: 2.75%, min £1.50 | Cash withdrawal: 3.75%, min £1.50 (except on transactions in euros, Swedish krona and Romanian leu within the EEA)

    Full list of charges for major UK credit and debit cards.

  • If you've a top overseas credit card, spending is almost always cheaper. Even on cards with no cash withdrawal fees, you'll usually still pay interest on the withdrawal until you pay it off.

    This goes double for non-specialist credit cards. You'll pay the non-sterling transaction fee on all transactions overseas, but you'll also pay a fee and interest on cash withdrawals.

    On debit cards, spending is still cheaper as while there's no interest on a cash withdrawal, there's often still a fee (as well as the non-sterling transaction fee) when you use a cash machine.

    Should I withdraw my travel money in the UK or overseas?

    If you're going to get the cash out on a specialist overseas card, then it's better to wait until you're there.

    However, if you're just planning to use a normal card or convert pounds when you're out there, there's no guarantee you'll get a better rate – and certainly changing in most hotels is normally a bad idea as they give poor rates. Overall it's safer to use TravelMoneyMax and get the cheapest rate while you're here.

    Does withdrawing cash on a credit card affect my credit score?

    Any cash withdrawals you make on a credit card will be recorded at the credit reference agencies. On their own, they shouldn't matter too much, but if you have a history of poor credit, or you're looking to make an important credit application soon, they're best avoided.

    Because it's usually quite expensive to withdraw cash on a credit card, lenders may see it as you being desperate for cash, and will count it against you if you apply to them.

    For more information on the pros and cons, read our guide to withdrawing cash on a credit card.

  • When you spend abroad, your bank gets an almost perfect rate when it does the exchange for you. It exchanges at Mastercard's, Visa's or Amex's wholesale rate, all of which are pretty close to the spot rate that the currency markets suggest (the perfect rate).

    When we last compared exchange rates, Mastercard's tended to be slightly better, though there's really not much in it.

    Most banks then charge you for having them make the exchange for you, and this is where the up-to-3% non-sterling exchange fee comes in. That's why you should always get one of the specialist cards in this guide, which don't add fees on top.

  • With travel credit (or debit) cards, you get the rate when you spend or withdraw on the card – or to be completely accurate, the day the spend or withdrawal is processed, which could be a couple of days later. While there's nothing inherently wrong with this, if you're worried about currency swings a Prepaid Travel Card might be a better option.

    Some prepaid cards allow you to lock in a rate ahead of time for certain currencies  so you can effectively convert your sterling into euros/dollars before you head away. While there's no way of knowing if buying currency in advance will work out cheaper than getting the rate on the day, it may give you peace of mind.

Top travel credit cards

All the cards in this section have no exchange fee when you spend on the card, though only a couple also have fee-free and interest-free withdrawals. 

We've marked whether each card's a Mastercard or a Visa as it does make a slight difference to their exchange rates (see Mastercard vs Visa vs Amex rates for more). 

Top travel credit cards for new cardholders 




Barclaycard Rewards Visa
The top pick - if you can get it - as it charges no fees or interest on spending AND overseas cash withdrawals repaid in full. Plus, you get 0.25% cashback on spending worldwide. Sadly we can't check your eligibility for this card, but Barclaycard has its own check so you can see your chances of acceptance before applying.

- No fees at ATMs
- No interest on cash w/drwl if paid IN FULL

- 22.9% rep APR

Apply


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Halifax Clarity Mastercard

The Halifax Clarity is a long-term top pick as it has great feedback, no fees on overseas spending and low ATM interest. You don't get charged interest on spending abroad as long as you repay IN FULL, but you will if you make cash withdrawals (5p-ish per £100 per day) – so try to minimise these.

- No fees at ATMs
- 19.93-27.95% interest on cash w/drwl

- 19.9% rep APR

Check eligibility
Apply*
Next best specialist travel credit cards - here are quick details of decent alternatives
118 118 Money Mastercard
for poorer credit scorers
- No fees at ATMs
- No interest on cash w/drwl if paid IN FULL
- 34% rep APR if not paid in full
Check eligibility (1)
NatWest Mastercard

- 3% fee (min £3) at ATMs
- 26.9-29.9% interest on cash w/drwl
- 12.9% rep APR
Apply
Virgin Money Mastercard

- 3% fee at ATMs

- 27.9% interest on cash w/drwl
- 21.9% rep APR (2)

Check eligibility
Apply*
Zopa Credit Card Visa

- £3 fee at ATMs

- 34.9% interest on cash w/drwl
- 34.9% rep APR

Check eligibility
Apply

See all official APR examples. (1) 118 118 Money has told us you have a better chance of getting its card if you go via our eligibility calculator, but if you prefer you can go direct to 118 118 Money* instead. (2) All accepted get 0% for the first nine months on spending.

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Top overseas debit cards

It's also possible to get debit cards that don't charge a non-sterling transaction fee, but you'll usually need to open a bank account. It's questionable whether it's worth switching bank for this (as you're forgoing other bank account perks – see Best Bank Accounts), which is why we favour opening an account separately so you can use it alongside your existing account.

We've also marked whether each card's a Mastercard or a Visa as it does make a slight difference to their exchange rates (see Mastercard vs Visa vs Amex rates for more). 

Top travel debit cards

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Starling Bank Mastercard
Fee-free spending and cash withdrawals anywhere in the world. In addition, Starling's a good choice if you're not sure whether you'll get the account as it will only do a 'soft' credit check to see if it wants you as a customer (unless you also apply for an overdraft) - so if you don't get it, other lenders won't be able to see you've applied and there'll be no permanent mark on your credit report.

If you're thinking of switching to Starling, or using it as your main bank account, read our full Starling Review

- No fees on spending or at ATMs

- ATM limits: 6 per day, max £300/day

Apply*

virgin money card image
 

Virgin Money Mastercard

Fee-free spending and cash withdrawals worldwide, but requires 'hard' credit check. As an added boon, it also pays a decent 2.02% interest on credit balances up to £1,000.

It also offers a £150 experience day voucher if you want to switch to the account, but read our full review first to check it's right for you. 

- No fees on spending or at ATMs

- ATM limits: N/A

 Apply

currensea card image
 

Currensea Mastercard

Currensea is a good option if you don't want to open a whole new bank account - though its rates are slightly worse than the two above. Spend or withdraw on Currensea's debit card instead of your normal one and it'll take the payments out of your linked current account. There are no ATM fees, though it does charge a flat 0.5% markup on the interbank/Mastercard exchange rates it uses.

This is complex, so read full info on how Currensea works.

- No fees on spending or at ATMs

- ATM limits: £500/mth, £300/day

Apply*

While the cards above are our top picks, here are some other options to consider:

  • Monzo: With its current account, Monzo charges no foreign transaction fees for spending, but the ATM withdrawal fees you pay depend on how you use your account. If you use Monzo for everyday banking, you can make unlimited fee-free withdrawals in the UK, EU, Iceland, Lichtenstein and Norway. If you use it more casually as a spending card, cash withdrawals are fee-free up to £250 in any 30-day period (3% fee above, more information here).

    If you’re anywhere else in the world, you’ll pay a 3% fee on withdrawals over £200 in any 30-day period, regardless of how you use your Monzo account. You'll need to operate the account via the app – it's available on iOS and Android.

  • Nationwide Building Society: The Nationwide FlexPlus debit card charges no fees on overseas purchases or cash withdrawals. However, FlexPlus is a packaged bank account and charges a £13/mth fee – so unless you'll use the travel insurance, breakdown and mobile phone insurance, it's not worth getting just for free overseas spending. Read more on Nationwide FlexPlus to see if it's the right account for you. 

  • Cumberland Building Society: If you have a Cumberland Plus current account with Cumberland Building Society, it charges no foreign exchange fees or cash withdrawal fees on the debit card that comes with the account. However, you need to live in its operating area – it covers Cumbria, south west Scotland, West Northumberland and North Lancashire.

Coronavirus credit card help

If you're struggling to pay off debt on an existing credit card due to coronavirus, lenders should provide support. Yet the blanket payment holiday help that used to be available has ended.

So if you're struggling to pay your credit card debt now, or you're coming off an agreed payment holiday, lenders are now supposed to provide 'tailored support'. Under this, you could be offered a (further) payment holiday or a period of reduced payments, reduced interest or a repayment plan – lenders should take into account how much you can afford and how your finances are likely to change in the near future.

Providers are expected to report any support they give you to credit reference agencies, which could affect your future creditworthiness. Yet don't let that put you off from contacting your provider – missing payments or defaulting is likely to have a far worse impact.

For the latest updates and full information on the support available, see our Coronavirus Finance & Bills Help guide.

Want to complain about your credit card?

If your card company has charged you the wrong amount, charged interest when it shouldn't have or its service has been atrocious, then you don't have to suffer in silence. It's always worth trying to call the card company first to see if it can help, but if not...

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