Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

On the art of travel spending

I am in an epically bad mood this morning, owing mostly to the ineptitude of both KLM (the airline) and Chase (the bank). I have spent hours on the phone with both this week over what boils down to the same issue: The fact that the American banking system is light years behind the European one.

The backstory

In short: European banks have switched to EMV chip technology (that is, “chip + pin” or “chip + signature”), and American banks haven’t. In the Netherlands, this technology is so widespread that you can now find stores in Amsterdam that only take chip + pin – no cash, no magnetic strip, nothing. In Haarlem, a smaller Dutch town about 20 minutes away by train, most shopkeepers (including large chains) have banned customers from using magnetic strip cards.

My first reaction to this was annoyance at the Dutch for compromising their own tourism industry, but after a bit more processing, I began to become angry at American banks for not just getting their shit together. Speculation as to why they haven’t varies, but some pundits seem to think that it’s a matter of not wanting to confuse Americans. Well, for fuck’s sake.

In any case, with all of my frequent travel to the Netherlands, it has become imperative for me to get my hands on a chip card. Travelex offers a pre-paid one, but as I’ve never been much good with careful budgeting, I knew I needed a more permanent option. And so the research began.

As it turns out, a quick Google told me that Chase, my bank of choice (not because I actually like them, mind you, but because they’re locationally convenient and have a partnership with United, my airline of choice but not preference) offers EMV chip cards. Hoorah! So on Monday, I called them and after nearly an hour of an older customer service rep fumbling around and thinking aloud, I managed to talk to a “senior” rep, who offered two choices: Either upgrade to a bank account I can’t afford, or for free(!), accept a Disney-themed card. Begrudgingly (and while giggling), I took the latter.

Thinking I was all set, I began to deal with the KLM issue, which is: When you book a KLM flight online, the website defaults to the country that you’re in, and only offers you flights originating in that country. That is, in order to book a flight originating in Amsterdam from the US, you have to switch to the Netherlands country page (which, thankfully, is at least offered in English as well). So I did, and was able to book my flight to Geneva just fine…until I got to the payment page, where I discovered that my choices were to pay by bank transfer or iDEAL (a Dutch payment system) for free, or with a credit card for a fee of 7,50 EUR. Since Chase charges me for international bank transfers, I took the credit card option. I then complained loudly to @KLM on Twitter who, to their credit, responded with an attempted explanation. But ultimately they (implicitly) agreed with my conclusion: Their system privileges Dutch customers.

7,50 euros poorer, I came to work today expecting my Disney card + chip in the mail. And lo, the package had arrived…but when I opened it, I was loathe to discover that the card did not, in fact, have a chip. So I called Chase: As it turns out, I got banksplained*. Even though I said the word “EMV chip” about a hundred times, the “senior” customer service agent interpreted it as some other technology, which the Disney card supposedly has. So back to the phone with Chase, where I was told by another “senior” customer service agent that the only Chase card with a chip is in fact a credit card. Well okay then – on to the next rep, who (after attempting to send me to several nonexistent URLs and acting sheepish about it) tells me the only one offered is the JP Morgan Palladium card…which comes with a $595 fee. Ugh! So I do a little of my own research, only to find that Chase offers several reasonably-priced credit cards with a chip. Marriott Rewards card (with no foreign transaction fees, thankfully) it is.

The art of travel spending

Problems solved, right? And yet, I’m feeling incredibly annoyed, and duped, and somewhat shocked at the ineptitude of Chase’s agents. So, I’m going to attempt to reframe this, and offer a few lessons on the art of international travel spending (or rather, saving). Here goes:

  • You need a credit card with no foreign transaction fees.  And if you’re traveling mostly to Western Europe, you might as well make that a card with a chip + no foreign transaction fees.  NerdWallet has a list of all of the chip cards available, but the best one I was able to find was, in fact, the Marriott Rewards card with chip: $85 annual fee (waived for the first year), no foreign fees, plus Marriott rewards.  
  • Better yet, of course, is a good card with airline rewards.  I go with the United Club card, which has an insanely high annual fee ($395) that I argued to get waived for the first year (which is not as hard as you’d think), but is worth it in the end because of the lack of foreign transaction fees and the 1.5 miles per dollar (not to mention all the free airport lounge drinking).  If you are actually loyal to an airline as I am, then the math is worth doing.
  • And of course, your mileage program itself is a money-saver.  I flew to Rio de Janeiro and Stockholm from SFO, round trip, last year on miles alone.  It is absolutely worth signing up for every single mileage program out there (though not typically worth doubling up within an alliance – i.e., don’t do both United and Lufthansa, as both are Star Alliance).  Also, within Star Alliance, note that Aegean’s program gets you to Star Alliance Gold faster than any other airline’s.  You’re welcome.
  • Think about exchanging your money beforehand at your bank.  I never used to do this, but after my most recent trip to the Netherlands (in which I removed 250 euros—the max daily limit—three times, incurring excessive fees on both ends), I’m reconsidering.  If you withdraw cash at your own bank, then exchange at your own bank (with no extra fees incurred), you do actually save money.  Of course, if you lose cash, you’re fucked, so be cautious with this one and only do it if you know you’ll need actual paper money (which I knew I would).
  • Don’t use your US phone abroad!  David Sasaki has some great tips here, and this is what I do: I have an unlocked Samsung Galaxy Nexus that I use with T-Mobile when I’m in the States.  When I’m abroad, I either buy a local SIM card and flip it as soon as I get off the plane, OR I use a generic, refillable European SIM (you can buy these at numerous sites, this is the one I have).  Sometimes you will save money, sometimes you will not, but you will never be surprised by a bill reaching into the thousands of dollars.

That’s all I’ve got for now.  Any additional tips?  Do share them below!

3 Comments

  1. A few things:

    1.) You need a chip in your ATM card, which is the real problem. Machines in some countries (Malaysia, etc) *only* take chip cards (so your US issued cards won’t work in the entire country). While stripe credit cards are accepted, it’s cash only for food and it’s kinda hard to eat plastic….

    2.) Daily Limits are placed by your home bank, so you know who to call/blame on that one.

    3.) Cash is still king in most of the world, especially in places where the banking systems aren’t connected (Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Cuba if you’re an American, etc), filled with crooked employees (Nigeria, Ghana, etc), or just offer extremely poor rates (Burma up until a few months ago, etc).

    • Hi John,

      A couple of responses:

      1) Indeed, and yet there’s not a single mainstream back in the US that offers it. The chip credit card will solve the European problem, for now anyway.

      2) Actually, no – the limit was placed by the Dutch bank from which I was taking out money (many Dutch banks have a daily limit of 250 Euros, whereas my bank has a daily limit of $500). I could have gone to a different ATM to take out additional cash, but would also have incurred additional fees that way.

      3) Yes, I’m aware. I travel plenty, but recently most of my travel (and problems) have been European.

  2. Same in the UK. You can’t pay by signature in most places here (as far as I know). In fact, we have paywave (contactless credit card payment) in loads of shops and on buses now.

    And yes, your banking system is light years behind the rest of the world. So is your telephone system. How is it possible that some networks have phones that don’t have SIM cards? We dumped that in 1995.

    I have a (possible) solution. I *think* you may be able to apply for a UK bank account or a credit card if you can get/borrow a UK address the next time you’re here. Most UK banks don’t charge account fees, so you could hold on to that card, and use it whenever you travel in the EU (and pay your bills by bank transfer from the States).

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