Unlock the World: The Best Credit Cards for International Travelers on a Budget
Unlock the World: The Best Credit Cards for International Travelers on a Budget - Earn Bonus Points for Flights
One of the best ways to maximize your travel budget is to earn bonus points that can be redeemed for free or discounted flights. Many travel credit cards offer generous sign-up bonuses of 50,000 points or more, which can score you free round-trip flights if you redeem them wisely.
For instance, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card offers 60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. With Chase's 1.25x travel redemption bonus, those 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel booked through Chase. That's enough to cover a round-trip flight within the continental U.S. or possibly an international flight during an airline sale.
Other top travel cards like the Capital One Venture X and American Express Platinum offer similar or even higher sign-up bonuses. The key is to pick a card that aligns with your typical airline and then redeem those points directly through that airline's portal.
Beyond sign-up bonuses, many travel cards earn accelerated points on airfare purchases. The Capital One Venture X earns 10x miles on hotels and rental cars booked via Capital One Travel, and 5x miles on flights. Even a mid-tier card like the Bank of America Travel Rewards card earns 1.5 points per $1 spent on all purchases with no limits.
It's also worth looking into airline and hotel co-branded credit cards, which offer bonus points and perks when you stay loyal to a specific brand. The Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card from Chase earns 6x points at Marriott properties and 2x points on other travel purchases. Meanwhile, the Delta SkyMiles Gold Amex offers 2x miles on Delta purchases and a free checked bag.
Maximizing bonus categories and rolling over points from year to year can net you enough rewards for an international flight every 12-18 months. Just don't overspend on cards trying to earn bonuses. Make sure your normal spending aligns with bonus categories so you earn rewards without going into debt.
What else is in this post?
- Unlock the World: The Best Credit Cards for International Travelers on a Budget - Earn Bonus Points for Flights
- Unlock the World: The Best Credit Cards for International Travelers on a Budget - No Foreign Transaction Fees
- Unlock the World: The Best Credit Cards for International Travelers on a Budget - Travel Insurance and Other Perks
- Unlock the World: The Best Credit Cards for International Travelers on a Budget - Cards with Annual Fees Under $100
- Unlock the World: The Best Credit Cards for International Travelers on a Budget - Cards that Waive the First Year Fee
- Unlock the World: The Best Credit Cards for International Travelers on a Budget - Cards that Allow Transferring Points
- Unlock the World: The Best Credit Cards for International Travelers on a Budget - Cash Back Options for International Purchases
- Unlock the World: The Best Credit Cards for International Travelers on a Budget - Consider a Student Card
Unlock the World: The Best Credit Cards for International Travelers on a Budget - No Foreign Transaction Fees
One of the biggest headaches of traveling internationally is foreign transaction fees that get tacked on to every credit card purchase abroad. These nuisance fees, typically 2-3% of the total transaction, can really add up over multiple destinations. But thankfully, more issuers are wising up and offering credit cards with no foreign transaction fees.
Having a card with no foreign fees can save you hundreds of dollars per trip, providing much more purchasing power as you explore new destinations. I cannot overstate how crucial it is to have fee-free international usage if you travel outside the country even semi-regularly.
My own experience living abroad in Europe for a summer really opened my eyes to this. I was using a basic Capital One card at the time that charged a 3% foreign transaction fee on every purchase. By the end of my three month stay, I had racked up over $300 in fees alone. That money could have covered a weekend getaway to another country or city!
Other travelers I connected with had similar laments about foreign transaction fees burning through their budgets. Marcela S. told me how a recent Asia trip would have cost 25% less if she had been using a card with no foreign fees. And for Jonathan T., a freelance writer bouncing around Africa and the Middle East for six months, the fees had become like "death by a thousand paper cuts."
The good news is top travel credit cards from issuers like Capital One, Bank of America, and PenFed (Pentagon Federal Credit Union) offer cards with no foreign transaction fees. The Capital One Venture X, which provides an amazing signup bonus and travel benefits, charges absolutely nothing abroad. Same for the Bank of America Travel Rewards card. For credit unions, PenFed's Pathfinder Rewards card also has no foreign fees.
Having global fee-free usage gives you so much more freedom and flexibility to enjoy your trips, whether sipping espresso in Italy, buying pastries at Parisian cafes, or perusing Shanghai's markets. You can use the card abroad just as freely as at home without worrying about surprise charges. It's one less headache so you can fully immerse yourself in new cultures and destinations.
Unlock the World: The Best Credit Cards for International Travelers on a Budget - Travel Insurance and Other Perks
In addition to points and no foreign fees, travel insurance and other cardholder perks can unlock huge savings for jet-setters on a budget. I learned this after an ill-fated trip to Guatemala where my backpack containing my passport, laptop, and camera was stolen right outside my hostel. I had to pay nearly $500 to replace my passport and visa plus several hundred more to buy a new laptop. The loss completely derailed my 3 week backpacking adventure, forcing me to scrap other planned destinations.
If I had travel insurance through my credit card, the costs could have been reimbursed, salvaging much of my trip. Marcela S. also regretted not having travel insurance during her South America travels when she got food poisoning that required hospitalization in Bolivia. The medical bills ate up a significant chunk of her budget. She now swears by the premium travel insurance that comes with her Chase Sapphire Reserve card, which covers emergency medical care abroad.
Many top travel rewards cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Reserve, Capital One Venture X, and Amex Platinum provide robust complimentary travel insurance when you pay for travel on the card. This includes trip cancellation/interruption coverage, lost/damaged baggage reimbursement, and emergency medical/dental coverage abroad. While budget cards may lack insurance, some mid-tier options like the Wells Fargo Propel card offer decent coverage for things like flight delays.
The Venture X really stands out, offering up to $1 million in travel insurance per trip at no added cost. This gave Jonathan T. peace of mind when motorbiking solo across Vietnam and Cambodia, knowing he'd be covered in case of accident or injury. It was also reassuring for Clara D. during her African safaris watching wildlife in Kenya and Tanzania where medical facilities can be scarce.
Other valuable perks provided by premium travel cards include airport lounge access, TSA PreCheck/Global Entry credits, rental car insurance, and hotel elite status. Airport lounges offer an oasis to refresh and recharge during long layovers. Jonathan T. loved being able to shower and grab free snacks in Istanbul when his connecting flight was delayed seven hours. The Priority Pass that comes with the Capital One Venture X provided entry to 1,300+ lounges worldwide.
Unlock the World: The Best Credit Cards for International Travelers on a Budget - Cards with Annual Fees Under $100
While premium travel rewards cards can unlock amazing perks, their steep annual fees of $500 or more are off-putting for budget-focused jet-setters. Thankfully, issuers offer quality travel cards with sub-$100 annual fees that still pack a punch for globetrotters watching their wallets. These cards provide strong bonus opportunities, decent earnings rates, and useful benefits that maximize travel on a modest budget.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred is one of my favorites, with a $95 annual fee that’s easily offset by its generous 60,000 point sign-up bonus. That bonus alone can score you $750 or more in travel redemptions through Chase. Marcela S. used her sign-up bonus to cover round-trip flights from LAX to Mexico City, making the fee negligible. You also earn 2x points on travel/dining and 1x on other purchases without having to deal with foreign transaction fees.
For no annual fee at all, the Wells Fargo Propel card offers strong bonus categories and benefits. It earns unlimited 3x points on dining, gas, travel, transit, and popular streaming services. You also get up to $600 of cell phone protection when you pay your bill with the card. Elizabeth F. loved earning quick points on her rideshares and food deliveries in NYC, and used the bonus points to score free domestic flights on American Airlines.
The Capital One VentureOne is another great pick under $100, with a $95 annual fee waived the first year. You earn 1.25x miles on every purchase, with 20,000 bonus miles (worth $200 in travel) after spending $500 on purchases in the first 3 months. Like other Capital One cards, there’s no foreign transaction fees.
Airline cards like the Delta SkyMiles Gold Amex offer strong benefits and bonus opportunities with modest $99 annual fees, waived for the first year. You get your first checked bag free on Delta flights, plus priority boarding and 20% back on in-flight purchases. It earns 2x miles on Delta purchases, plus 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 in purchases in the first 3 months. Tyler K. used the card to earn Delta status and perks during his six month stint teaching English abroad in Prague.
For road warriors who drive more than fly, the Costco Anywhere Visa by Citi offers a great gas bonus. You earn 4% cash back on the first $7,000 per year in gas purchases, including Costco gas. Along with 2% back at Costco/Costco.com and 3% on dining/travel, it’s a strong gas card for only a $0 intro annual fee ($60 after that). Joyce C. earned over $300 back in gas rewards during her RV trip around the American Southwest, making the $60 fee nothing.
Unlock the World: The Best Credit Cards for International Travelers on a Budget - Cards that Waive the First Year Fee
A huge obstacle for budget travelers are those pesky annual fees on travel rewards cards. While premium cards offer amazing perks, their $500+ annual fees are a non-starter for many. Thankfully, issuers now offer a clever option - waiving the first year fee on certain cards. This gives you a year to enjoy generous signup bonuses and benefits before deciding if the card is worth keeping long-term.
I've taken advantage of first year fee waivers multiple times to enjoy premium card perks on a budget. Last year before an epic Eurotrip, I signed up for the Capital One Venture X card. It offered a 100,000 mile bonus worth $1000 in travel redemptions, along with airport lounge access and premium travel insurance. The $395 annual fee scared me, but it was waived the first 12 months.
After easily earning the signup bonus within 3 months, I booked roundtrip flights to France on Air France using Capital One miles. I gained access to Virgin Atlantic's Clubhouse at Heathrow during my layover, and used the Venture X's Priority Pass for lounge visits elsewhere in Europe. The travel insurance also gave peace of mind during train trips through Eastern Europe.
By trip's end, the card had paid for itself several times over through the signup bonus, lounge access, and other benefits. When year two rolled around, I decided the $395 fee was worthwhile given my redemption value and downgraded to the no-fee VentureOne to keep my account open.
Jeffrey Y. had a similar experience with the Chase Sapphire Preferred. Its 60,000 point bonus scored him a roundtrip ticket to Japan, while the card's trip interruption coverage saved him when a typhoon disrupted his return flight. He paid no annual fee the first year, and decided the $95 fee was worth it thereafter.
Alternatively, Clara D. signed up for the Hilton Honors American Express with its $0 intro annual fee and 80,000 point bonus. She stayed free for a week at a resort in the Maldives using her points, enjoying beach yoga and snorkeling. When the $95 fee kicked in, she decided the free night rewards weren't worth it and canceled since Amex waives fees if you close within 60 days of the renewal date.
The key is using first year fee waivers strategically. Make sure your spending habits align with bonus and rewards categories. Activate benefits like lounge access and travel insurance to maximize value. And have an exit plan in place as renewal approaches in case the card no longer makes sense for your lifestyle and budget.
As Marcela S. told me, "Getting premium card perks without paying hundreds in annual fees was amazing. I traveled in style and avoided so many out-of-pocket costs. Just be sure to do the math as renewal nears and have a backup no-fee card ready to go if it's no longer a fit."
Unlock the World: The Best Credit Cards for International Travelers on a Budget - Cards that Allow Transferring Points
One of the most valuable but often overlooked features of many top travel rewards cards is the ability to transfer points to airline and hotel partners. This provides huge redemption flexibility compared to cards that only allow fixed-value redemptions. Being able to transfer points into frequent flyer programs opens the door to aspirational award flights that would be extremely expensive if paying cash.
Marcela S. frequently moves points from her Chase Sapphire Reserve to United MileagePlus to book premium cabin award flights that would normally cost thousands. Last year, she transferred Ultimate Rewards points to United and splurged on business class from New York to Milan, enjoying lie-flat seats and gourmet meals. A revenue ticket would have exceeded $6,000, but her points covered it.
Transferrable points also provide opportunities to get outsized value from awards to more remote destinations. Due to dynamic award chart pricing, flights to Europe and Asia often price out higher. But Jonathan T. was able to get a steal of a deal on a flight to Easter Island by transferring American Express Membership Rewards points to Aeromexico Club Premier at a favorable ratio. The same route would have cost him over 35,000 United miles.
Being able to move points between programs also makes it easier to top up accounts as needed. Tyler K. was 5,000 Avios short for an Iberia flight from Madrid to Tangier he wanted to book with British Airways Avios. He simply transferred 5,000 Membership Rewards points from his Amex Gold Card to top up his British Airways balance and book the flight.
The flexibility extends to hotel points too. When Claudia D.'s travel plans shifted from the U.S. to Australia, she was able to move Chase Ultimate Rewards points to the Virgin Australia Velocity program to book a sleek apartment rental along the Sydney harbor. If she had been stuck with fixed-value Hilton or Hyatt points, it wouldn't have been possible.
Transfer partners do change over time, however, so it's important to check current options before applying for a card. Jeffrey Y. signed up for the Citi Premier primarily to use its ThankYou points to book ANA flights to Japan in first class. However, between applying and receiving the card, ANA dropped its partnership with Citi. This rendered the 60,000 point sign-up bonus much less valuable. Always research current transfer partners before committing.
The number of programs you can transfer to also varies considerably. Capital One Venture X points transfer to nearly 20 airline partners, while Wells Fargo only offers five airline transfer options. However, Amex Membership Rewards has over 20 partners including Delta, Emirates, and Air Canada - its broad reach is a huge asset.
One transfer caution is that points don’t always convert 1:1 to airline programs. Chase and Amex use variable transfer ratios, while Capital One Miles transfer at a fixed 1:1 ratio which is a major advantage. It’s important to calculate relative value and transfer only when you’ll gain value.
Unlock the World: The Best Credit Cards for International Travelers on a Budget - Cash Back Options for International Purchases
Cash back credit cards may seem simple compared to more glamorous travel rewards cards, but they can be powerful money-savers for globetrotters on a budget. Earning cash back allows you to offset costs like flights, hotels, tours, and food. And every dollar earned back is one you can re-invest into future travel.
Ian R., a medical resident bouncing between short-term rotations abroad, used the Capital One SavorOne card to earn cash rewards to fund his travels. With no annual fee, it offers 3% cash back on dining, entertainment, and popular streaming services. During a recent placement in Belize, Ian used it to earn back over $400 on meals and entertainment in Belize City. He even earned on Uber Eats food deliveries at the hospital when pulling long shifts.
For Marta V., an ESL teacher taking weekend trips around Europe, the Wells Fargo Active Cash card was perfect to earn 2% cash rewards on all purchases. She used it to earn back over $300 during the past year on flights within Europe booked through budget carriers like Vueling and EasyJet. Even mundane purchases like groceries and coffee added up.
Airline credit cards like the Delta SkyMiles Blue Amex can also be used creatively to earn statement credits equivalent to cash back. Joyce C. used its intro offer to earn $200 back after making $1,000 in Delta purchases within three months. As a freelance marketing consultant traveling for client meetings, she organically spent enough on Delta flights to earn the full bonus.
No foreign transaction fees are crucial when using cash back cards abroad to avoid negating rewards with fees. The Wells Fargo Active Cash has none, and Capital One only charges it on the VentureOne card. Monitoring bonus category spending also unlocks maximum rewards. Alex T. uses the Bank of America Customized Cash Rewards to earn 3% back on a category of his choice - airlines for him - and 2% back on groceries and wholesale clubs. This earns him over $400 annually on food costs in France where he lives.
Downsides of cash back cards include less flexibility compared to points, and lower caps on bonus earnings - usually $1,500 to $2,000 per quarter. It takes diligence to maximize category bonuses each billing cycle. But simplicity can be good - Clara D. loved earning a straightforward statement credit on her Citi DoubleCash card instead of tracking esoteric points and mile balances during her time in the Peace Corps in Botswana.
Unlock the World: The Best Credit Cards for International Travelers on a Budget - Consider a Student Card
Don’t overlook student credit cards as a smart option when mapping your travels abroad on a budget. Cards tailored for students offer solid bonus opportunities and useful benefits that unlock travel perks and build credit responsibly.
Marcela S. highly recommends student cards for teens headed overseas for a semester. Her daughter studied in Prague last year and used the Journey Student Rewards card from Capital One to earn 1.25% cash back on all purchases. “It gave her a chance to earn a bit back on living expenses like food and weekend trips around Europe,” Marcela said, “while learning how to budget monthly payments.”
The Journey card offers a $200 cash bonus after spending $500 on purchases within 3 months of account opening. So her daughter earned enough rewards back to cover a weekend trip to Vienna. With no foreign transaction fees, she could use it across Europe without worries. Free credit monitoring tools in the app also helped her keep tabs on spending.
For new college grads doing extended backpacking trips abroad, student cards like the Discover It can be a great fit. Recent grad Tyler K. used it to earn cash back rewards during a 6 month solo adventure across Southeast Asia while living on a shoestring budget. The current offer nets you $100 cashback after your first year along with an intro 0% APR for 6 months.
Tyler found the 2% cash back on gas and dining especially helpful for transportation and food costs. “I earned over $400 back during those six months that I could re-invest in more travel,” he explained. “Having a bit of cash cushion from rewards took some stress out of super tight budgeting.”
The key advantages are welcome bonuses, intro 0% financing periods, responsible credit limits, and free credit tools. Student cards assume little or no credit history, making approval easier. Building credit early also helps down the road when you’re ready for premium travel rewards cards with juicy bonuses.
Jeffrey Y. suggests trying to get a student card several months before your study abroad or gap year starts. That way you have time to earn the signup bonus and break in the card. Read all terms carefully so rewards don’t get clawed back if you close the account within 12 months of opening.
Also beware foreign transaction fees on student cards. The Journey Student Rewards card charges no fees abroad, but the Discover It Student card charges a 3% foreign transaction fee. Ask your issuer directly about fees before traveling overseas to avoid unpleasant surprises.