Your bags are packed, your reservations are made, and spring break looks like it's going to be legendary. But legendary can go both ways. So the question is, will you remember your vacation because it was one of the best weeks of your life, or the worst?
After all, while there are many factors that can make or break a vacation, from bad weather to a bad cough, it's often how you treat your silent vacation partner - your credit card - that can make your trip a success or a bust.
That may sound a little shrill, alarmist or, gee, awfully convenient coming from a credit card website, but it's true. Your credit card can be your best friend on a trip, or, if you don't pay attention to it, your worst enemy. Before you head out the door, if you want to aim for the best vacation ever, keep the following in mind.
Get to know your credit card
First step: make sure it's active. If you and your credit card are close-knit pals, you probably don't have to worry about this. But if you only use your credit card on special occasions, like the holidays and, well, vacations, you'll want to call your credit card company, go to its website or go to the store and make a test purchase. That's because sometimes credit card accounts are closed if the card has been inactive for awhile. Or your limit may have been lowered, and so you should also verify how much bandwidth you have to spend. In other words, if your credit card is a big part of how you plan on paying for your vacation, and you two haven't hung out for awhile, you'll want to get reacquainted before the trip - just in case.
Second step: check for foreign transaction fees. You can skip ahead to the next section if you aren't going to another country, but, boy, if you are, you should definitely check out your card's foreign transaction fee situation.
Fortunately, it's easier and easier to find credit cards without foreign transaction fees, and in this competitive credit card market, that's one fee that's disappearing more each day. But if you've had your credit card for awhile, you may have a foreign transaction fee.
You'll definitely want to investigate the fine print to see if you do. Foreign transaction fees often range from one to three percent. That may not sound so bad, but if you jet off to Europe and put, say, $7,000 on a credit card, if you have a three percent foreign transaction fee, you'll actually spend $7,210 on your trip. You could save that money by instead getting a travel rewards credit card without a foreign transaction fee. (Just make sure that there isn't a hefty transfer balance fee if you're going to transfer any money from your old credit card to a new one.)
Research any travel discounts offered by your card
You may have applied for some travel rewards credit cards in the past and picked one out, excited about the possibility of earning miles, collecting points and getting discounts on car rental, hotels or tourist attractions only to forget about all of that once you began using the card. Sure, you've been busy, and you're crazy busy planning your vacation, but get on your credit card's website or give the customer service department a call, tell them what you're up to, and ask if there are any special deals, partnerships, perks or rewards programs you can take advantage of.
Or maybe you never got a credit card that does much of anything. If this is a big trip, and you're going to be spending a lot of money, this would be a good time to start comparing travel rewards credit cards or, really, looking at any rewards credit cards that give you points or miles or cash back for spending. Or if you're, say, a junior or senior in college heading off to spring break, perhaps you'll want to look at some student credit cards and apply for one that offers rewards points for your spending.
Obviously, you want to be smart and not start researching student credit cards or rewards credit cards if your finances are shaky, and you don't want to ignore the other important components such as whether there is an annual fee that makes the rewards less rewarding. However, you are about to go on a big vacation and spend a lot, so if you can responsibly earn some rewards while doing so, why not?
Call ahead and ask your hotel or rental car company about hold amounts
This is getting to be less common than it used to be, but sometimes hotels and rental cars will put a hold on your credit card. In other words, let's say you're spending $1,000 for several nights at a hotel. Your hotel might put an extra $500 hold on your card. You'll likely end up paying for $1,000 when all is said and done, but that extra $500 may be "blocked," as they sometimes call it. It's money that the hotel is reserving in case you end up charging room service or destroying your room.
But it could destroy your vacation budget if you aren't aware that a hotel or rental car is going to do this, and you need that $500. Again, this is becoming less common, but to be safe, you should call and ask. You'll especially want to do this if you're paying for a hotel or a rental car with a debit card; holds are even more common with debit cards.
Tell your credit card company where you're going
You tell your family and friends about your plans. You may have asked the postal service to hold your mail. You found someone to watch your pets. Add your credit card company to your list of people and places who want to look out for your well-being.
Your credit card company, whether you realize it or not, is always on guard for the possibility that somebody has stolen your identity - and that's a good thing. Now, if you're making airline and rental car purchases with a travel rewards credit card, and it's clear from the purchases paper trail that you're traveling from one place to another, whatever algorithms are monitoring your purchases will likely realize what's happening. But, especially if you use several credit cards, you could be in for an unpleasant surprise. It's very easy to imagine a credit card company noticing that for the last year, you've been making purchases in Rhode Island until suddenly, somebody's living it up in Rio de Janeiro. And then your well-meaning credit card, not realizing you're the one living it up, cancels your ability to pay, and, well, you're stuck. (But, hey, at least you're stuck in a beautiful city.) So just be safe and call your credit card company to put a travel alert on your card. In fact, many issuers will allow you to take care of this via your online portal.
And while we're thinking about identity theft…
Think about actual theft
It isn't fun to think about, but the world is filled with some crazy characters, and your wallet or purse could be stolen. Before you leave home, you'd do well to make a list of your credit card account numbers and card issuers' phone numbers. Keep this in a safe place - maybe locked away in the cloud somewhere or left with a trusted family member. Then if something does happen and you have to report your stolen credit cards, you'll have all of the information you need.
And, hey, if you're worried about other things being stolen and have expensive jewelry or other belongings with you, there are premium credit cards that will reimburse you for your things if you're robbed. Or maybe you're more or less in my situation, and your suitcase is full of things nobody would want, like Hawaiian shirts and loud swimming trunks. Yeah, my daughters spend most of our vacations shaking their heads and pretending not to know me. Actually, now that I think about it, they do that when we aren't on vacation…
And the most important thing…
However you manage your credit card there's one important thing to remember. It may be obvious, but as you're trying to pack everything at the last minute, and making phone calls and calling Uber for a ride to the airport, there's one thing you may forget to bring, and if you do, you could find yourself feeling very sheepish later and soon realizing that your spring break is going to be one of those legendary bad vacations. So before you leave, remember…
Don't forget to bring your credit card.