Protecting Your Credit Card (and Wallet) While Traveling

Cole Mayer

My wife and I took our honeymoon to Italy in November 2015. My wife, hoping to avoid any issues, told her credit card lender that we would be traveling. In theory, this is a good practice, as it won’t trigger a fraud alert. On the other hand, I did not tell my bank, a different lender than my wife’s card. Ironically, my bank did not lock my card, but my wife’s card went on fraud lockdown within 24 hours of landing. Thankfully, we’re the outlier, and you should still inform your bank of any overseas travel. Let’s look at some basic rules for credit cards and wallets when traveling.

Table of Contents

Fraud Alerts

Your first move to ensure security while traveling is to inform your lender, as my wife did. Unless you are incredibly unlucky, like us, they will make note that you are traveling and not immediately lock your card out. This is one of the best ways to avoid credit card fraud, as lenders also use a computer with advanced algorithms that identify your spending patterns. If something looks off, knowing you are traveling, your lender will take steps to prevent any loss of your money — important if your budget is tight. The fraud alert function of your card is priceless in this regard.

If this does happen, your lender should have a 24-hour customer service line to call and reverse the fraud alert.

Sleight of Hand

We’ve gone over the possible frauds and cons you will encounter, but let’s take a closer look at one of the most ubiquitous ways to lose your card or wallet: pickpocketing. The sleight of hand takes many forms, from someone shoving a menu in your face while an accomplice slips their hand in your pocket, to cutting open a fanny pack while you aren’t looking. Misdirection is key, so you won’t notice your wallet missing until it is too late.

The old idiom is to not put all of your eggs in one basket. If you drop the basket, you will break most or all of the eggs. For the same reason, do not keep all of your cards and cash in one place, especially on your person. You may have a wallet with some cash and one card, while a secret money belt holds more cash and a different card.

If your hotel or hostel has a safe, use it. Keep cash and a spare card there. Be sure not to forget to check before leaving, though, or you will have to drive four hours from Bologna back to Milan to retrieve your wife’s iPad and then drive another five hours to Rome in the same day, which is less than ideal. If this is your first major trip out of the US, losing an expensive piece of electronics can sour the entire travel experience.

If you are traveling with someone, especially someone you share an account with (like a sibling or significant other) try to have cards that do not overlap accounts. When one of you is targeted by pickpockets, at least all of your accounts will not be compromised.

Limit Usage

If at all possible, limit usage of your cards. Countries vary between whether cash or credit cards are used more often, so traveling with both is always advised. However, for security reasons, if you aren’t at a hotel or larger store, you should stick with cash. A small shop or hole-in-the-wall restaurant might be a weak link in security practices, and you will find your card numbers used within hours or your identity stolen.

But, this also means carrying more cash, or more visits to an ATM — both of which carry their own risks. The key in either situation is to be aware of your surroundings, and don’t let your card out if your sight. If possible, check your credit card statement as often as possible to catch fraud early.

Damage Mitigation

If you have followed all of this advice, any potential damage done to your wallet or accounts should be minimal. Going abroad with a credit card is only a security nightmare if you aren’t careful.

Spreading your cash and cards out will help if you are targeted. Carrying a dummy wallet can help, as well, especially if you carry it where you normally carry your regular wallet. When your hand goes to check it, which could be noticed by pickpockets, they will go after the dummy.

Overall, constant vigilance will be the best damage mitigation to your funds. Be careful with your cards, inform your bank you will be abroad, and keep a bit of cash on hand, just in case.

Looking for more advice on how to use a credit card while traveling? Visit our credit card resource center for more tips and guides.

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