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Published January 14, 2014, 10:57 AM

Column: Don't get stuck abroad with wrong credit card

Americans run into big problems when they travel outside the country because their credit cards are not high-tech enough and because some issuers charge high fees for foreign transactions.

By: Mitch Lipka, Reuters, INFORUM

Americans run into big problems when they travel outside the country because their credit cards are not high-tech enough and because some issuers charge high fees for foreign transactions.

In the wake of a large data breach at retailer Target Corp , you're going to be hearing more and more about embedded chip technology used overseas, along with personal identification numbers for credit cards.

Pay attention: if you don't plan ahead, you're going to run into extra charges while traveling that could add up to hundreds of dollars. You may even get stuck without a payment method in places that won't take your low-tech American card.

That's what happened to Lance Longwell, 37, of Ambler, Pennsylvania, when he tried to pay for a meal in Ireland in October. "We tried one card... and then another," says the co-author of the Travel Addicts blog (). "I had a Visa, an Amex and a MasterCard on the table."

None worked. The waitress looked at one of the cards and commented: "It's an antique.'"

Longwell paid in cash.

Longwell and other U.S. travelers to Great Britain, Denmark, France, Italy, Brazil and other countries tell similar stories of being unable to make purchases with their old-fashioned credit cards, secured only with a magnetic strip and their signature. Travelers say the problem is becoming more pronounced.

The most persistent problems are reported by those who try to make purchases at kiosks for such things as train tickets and bicycle rentals. The good news is that a little pre-trip planning can help avoid such snafus.

"There's really no excuse any more to travel abroad carrying an ugly American credit card," says Daniel P. Ray, editor-in-chief of CreditCards.com.

Foreign transaction fees are typically about 3 percent, says Bill Hardekopf, chief executive officer of LowCards.com. A traveler who charges $10,000 on a trip would be looking at about $300 in fees.

As far as security technology goes, many credit card processing machines are set up for cards that have a microchip embedded in them - commonly known as EMV - and require a PIN from the user. Chip cards, particularly those requiring a PIN, are much safer from fraud, says Erik Larson, president of NextAdvisor.com, which compares cards and services.

Larson adds that in some areas that cater to tourists, you're more likely to find places that will still accept the standard U.S. card, but there's simply no reason to limit yourself like that.

If you end up in a store or restaurant that doesn't accept a credit card with a magnetic strip, you could be washing dishes. "It is your responsibility to ask if that merchant takes your card before proceeding," Hardekopf says.

CARDS TO CONSIDER

While U.S.-issued cards with EMV technology and a PIN are hard to come by, they do exist, and most major card issuers have a card that has at least a chip, if not a PIN.

Before traveling, consumers should ask to replace an existing card with one that has the chip technology, if available.

To find a new card, Ray, of Creditcards.com, says consumers can visit credit card comparison web sites to find information.

Larson suggests looking for cards associated with a loyalty program. Some examples of cards that offer chip-enabled versions and also reward loyalty program members are Marriott Rewards Premier and Citi's Hilton HHonors Reserve. Because they're aimed at travelers, cards associated with hotels or airlines are more likely to be available with chips.

Larson suggests getting two cards instead of just one. Carry a back-up card in case you lose one or have a problem with the main card you are using.

You might have the best luck with banks and credit unions aimed at serving U.S. government workers and military, including USAA, State Department Federal Credit Union and Pentagon Federal Credit Union. These credit unions allow members of the public to join by making a small donation to specific non-profits.

Other cards recommended by the experts include the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. It has no foreign transaction fees and is chip-enabled. It also comes with an introductory offer of 40,000 bonus points after you've spent $3,000. That works out to $500 in credit toward hotels and airfare booked through Chase's rewards program.

Travel and dining also earn double points. The card does have a $95 a year fee, but it is waived for the first year.

In addition, Bank of America has a Bank Americard Travel Rewards card. That card has the chip technology, no foreign transaction fees and no annual fee. If a user makes $500 in purchases in the first 90 days, they get 10,000 bonus points, which would qualify for a $100 statement credit. Money charged on the card during travel earns points at a rate of 1.5 for every dollar spent.

No matter what card you pick, the experts recommend that you notify your credit card company when you're going to leave the country to avoid a fraud flag - potentially freezing your account - because of charges that are out of keeping with your normal use.

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