*Important disclaimer here. This is not financial advice and you should not rely on it alone – it is just some general information to help you find some options that you can look into further.  I haven’t researched every card and I do not know your personal circumstances. It should only be a starting point.

Also – I wrote this in May 2019 and did my best to provide accurate information. There could be mistakes, however, and these prices may change. Please confirm yourself to make sure this is still accurate.

A friend of mine recently contacted me about what is the best card option for Australians travelling overseas. I realised that it’s been some time since I researched this question, and wondered if my trusty 28 Degrees/Citibank combo was still the best way to go. Now, this may not be the sexiest travel-related topic, but I love saving money (that can then be used to buy fun stuff).

Nothing annoys me more than unnecessary fees when you travel abroad, and hoo boy do the banks like charging them. You’d think in this day and age accessing your cash overseas would be relatively straightforward — it can be, but it can also be incredibly expensive. If you don’t choose your travel cards wisely, you may end up paying exorbitant fees.

This is annoying enough during your week-long holiday, but if you’re planning to travel for an extended period of time it can really add up. You could lose hundreds of dollars with the wrong card. Now that’s money that could be better spent on useful things, like red wine.

So, in this guide I’ll be taking a very close look at the best options for travel cards for Australians. I hope this information is helpful for finding the best card for you to travel overseas – fee free!

PS – if you just want to cut to the chase and find out what cards I use when travelling, click here.

How much can you save by choosing the right card?

How long is a piece of string?

Yeah, I know it’s a cliche – but it’s true. The savings will depend a lot on how much you spend and what you spend it on (i.e. whether you’re mostly withdrawing from ATMs, or using credit card purchases).

For rough illustration purposes (this could vary a lot depending on your exact card/the exchange rate), here are some figures comparing some average charges of a ‘big four’ bank to the ING Card and the 28 Degrees card.

Lady burning money
Don’t burn money (although it makes for a cool photo). Research!

Withdrawing $300 USD from an ATM

Regular Bank CardING Everyday Card
ATM Fee from your bank$5.00ATM Fee from your bank$0.00
ATM Fee from other bank$5.00ATM Fee from other bank$0.00*
MasterCard Transaction$437.15MasterCard Transaction$437.15
Conversion Fee (3%)$13.11Conversion FeeN/A
TOTAL$460.26TOTAL$437.15

*Reimbursed – and assuming you’ve met the free ATM threshold.

That’s a saving of over $23 in ONE transaction. If you were to travel for twelve weeks, withdrawing from the ATM once a week, that would add up to almost $250.00!

Spending $300 USD on card

Regular Credit Card28 Degrees Card
MasterCard Transaction$437.15MasterCard Transaction$437.15
Conversion Fee (3%)$13.11Conversion FeeN/A
TOTAL$450.26TOTAL$437.15

That’s a saving of over $13 in one transaction! Extrapolating this out, if you were to spend $10,000 on your card during your holiday, you could save $300.

Common fees and charges you’ll encounter with travel money cards

Before we get started, let’s take a quick look at what the common charges are associated with travel cards. This can help you to make the best decision for you about what is the best travel card for travelling overseas.

Foreign transaction fee

A foreign transaction fee is the fee that your bank charges you for the privilege of converting your Aussie dollars into something else, or using an overseas bank network.

Yep, even if you pay in $AUD overseas (which is almost never a good idea – check my tips at the end), then you will still be charged if the bank is based elsewhere.

If it’s applicable, then it’s almost always charged as a percentage of the transaction. I’ve seen fees as high as 3% – ouch.

ATM fees

Most of us are probably familiar with the good ol’ ATM fee – the cost of the bank “allowing” you to use your own money. Yay!

You may already get charged ATM fees at home, and abroad they are often higher – sometimes $5 or more. Plus, you can often get hit with a double whammy, as the bank whose ATM you use might also charge you for the privilege of getting your money.

Oh, to be a banker.

Exuberant stock image lady with credit card
Avoid currency conversion fees and you too can be as overly excited as this stock image lady!

Conversion rate

This is a bit of a hidden cost – it’s basically the formula that your card/bank uses to calculate the exchange from Australian dollars to the foreign currency.

You might think that you are getting the “pure” exchange rate – you know, the one you see on sites like XE or the news. Nope – banks often set their own rate and pad it out a bit, in much the same way the “Buy” and “Sell” rates at currency exchanges aren’t fixed.

Therefore, you need to be on the lookout for sneaky markups here.

Account keeping fees

Phew, so now we know that banks will charge for using your money – but what about just keeping it where it is?

Nope, some banks charge for that privilege too. They want to slug you with account keeping fees, as well. I hate account keeping fees for personal accounts (and commercial ones too, but that’s a different ballgame).

So yet another charge to be aware of is account keeping fees.

What about perks?

So, it’s not all doom and gloom with the banks (although it is mostly). It’s worth mentioning that some cards also come with perks, as well. It’s worth looking closely at this, because they can help make the card better value, depending on your circumstances.

For example, some cards offer free travel insurance, which is pretty cool. Just make sure to check the T&Cs before you rely on it.

In addition, some cards offer cash back or other rewards for using them. This article isn’t about reward cards (I have mixed feelings about them), but some regular credit and debit cards do throw in some extra sweeteners.

Options for travel money

Now we’ve talked about the common types of fees that are associated with cards. Now, let’s take a look at your  broad options for what kinds of plastic you can bring with you on your overseas jaunt.

Person at an ATM

Debit cards

This is probably the one you are most familiar with.

A debit card is connected to a bank account, and lets you withdraw your own money. Depending on your bank, you may have an overdraw facility which lets you go into negative balance, but as a general rule, you’ll only be spending your own cashola.

ProsCons
Usually the cheapest way to withdraw cash overseasIt can be a painful process to get back money if it’s stolen
Great for keeping you disciplined – it’s much harder to overspend with a debit card

For me, the biggest problem with debit cards when travelling overseas is the risk of theft. I’ve personally had my card skimmed overseas, but luckily it was my credit card. This meant I could just report it to the bank and they dealt with it.

If money is taken from your debit card, however, things can be a little more difficult. Even though debit cards are often protected by money-back guarantees for fraudulent transactions, it can be a pain to try to get your money back.

One way to mitigate this risk (that I personally use) is to have two accounts and only transfer small amounts into your debit card at any time. I never have more in my account then I can afford to use, and always some back up in another account, just in case.

On the other hand, debit cards are usually your best option for withdrawing cash. Credit cards usually charge extortionate prices for “cash advance”, so you’ll generally want to be withdrawing from a debit card instead.

The other benefit of debit cards are that they force you to be a little more responsible. There’s less chance of total shock when your credit card bill comes in!

Pre-paid travel cards

You might have heard of travel cards – well-known ones include the Travelex card as well as ones issued through banks like the National Australia Bank.

They work by allowing you to load up the foreign currency you’re planning on using, thereby locking in the exchange rate. You can then use it like a regular debit card overseas.

ProsCons
Easy to get, and usually on-the-spotNot available in all currencies
You can lock in the exchange rate so you’re protected against fluctuationsFees can be higher than other options
Keeps you disciplined in the same way a debit card doesIf the exchange rate goes up in your favour, you can lose out

Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of travel money cards. They’re often sold to novice travellers, but in my experience, a good travel debit card (like the ones I’ll be listing shortly) far outperform them.

That said, I will confess I do carry an empty Travelex card stuffed in my wallet just in case everything else goes to sh*t and I need money. You can literally just pop into the Travelex office and get one, so I figured there was no reason not to.

There is some peace of mind that comes with knowing exactly how much USD, Euro or Baht you have – however, I don’t think that peace of mind is worth paying for. Unless you have some good reason to think the exchange rate is about to tank, then I don’t really see it as a “plus” myself.

Pre-paid travel card vs debit card – the numbers

My biggest reason for this is that the fees and charges on travel cards are usually way higher than debit cards. This is especially if the card is coming from a currency conversion company – the way they make money is on the mark up.

To illustrate, let’s compare the pair!

It’s hard to do an exact comparison because it depends a little on what currency rate you locked in and very much on what card you get. However, for argument’s sake, let’s pretend I got a Travelex and Citibank card today, and used them both for a $100 USD purchase on this same day.

In this example, the Citibank purchase, in AUD, would be $145.65. To buy the equivalent in USD via Travelex would be $149.00, and that’s before you take into account that they also charge 1.1% of the balance you transfer on (i.e. if you transfer $1000 AUD, you only get $989 worth on the card).

It might not sound a lot, but that really adds up if you are planning on spending thousands (or even tens of thousands) on your holidays.

Credit cards

We all know what credit cards are, right? They’re that piece of plastic your Mama warned you about!

Of course, if you use credit cards responsibly, they can be a great option for travel. You’re essentially running up a tab with the bank, which can be paid back all at once (<< my advice) or more slowly (just watch out for the massive interest rates).

How much of a tab you can run up depends on how much the bank approves you for.

ProsCons
It’s usually fairly easy to claim back fraudulent transactions, so long as they don’t totally max out your card.If you’re not disciplined, you could overspend
Gives you some flexibility in the case of emergenciesAre usually no good for withdrawing money from the ATM as they charge cash advance fees
Many credit cards have extra perks to tempt you in (in the hopes you’ll overspend, but you don’t have to)Unpaid credit card balances snowball quickly. Beware so your dream holiday doesn’t turn into a financial nightmare.
Can be more difficult to obtain

As you can see, there are a lot of pros and cons of credit cards when travelling.

I always travel with at least one credit card. I like the flexibility it gives me and I feel more secure knowing that I can dispute fraudulent charges, and scammers won’t get their hands on my cold hard cash.

That said, there are downsides to credit cards. The biggest one is the obvious one, but it shouldn’t be underestimated.

It’s really easy to overspend when you’re using a credit card. Never fall into the trap of thinking your credit limit is free money – it isn’t, and it comes at a big cost if you don’t pay it off quickly.

The other downside of credit cards is they suck for getting cash out of the ATM. A long time ago the 28 Degrees card was an exception, but it now imposes a hefty fee, too. As a general rule, credit cards are not a good idea for ATM withdrawals.

Traveller’s cheques

Just kidding. No one uses these anymore.

So what option is best?

As you’ll see from my analysis, there are pros and cons for every option.

I personally travel with one of each.

“But Georgie, didn’t you just trash travel money cards?” – well, yes, I did. But as mentioned above, I do have one just as an absolute last resort. I keep it hidden away in my bag, just in case everything else I own is stolen and I need some money to survive. I don’t think I’ve ever actually used it.

Otherwise, I keep things pretty simple – I use my credit card for as many purchases as possible, and withdraw cash with the debit card.

Specifically, I have a Citibank (spoiler alert!) saver and transaction account, and I transfer about $300 at a time over to the transaction account for ATM withdrawals as needed. I try to avoid using cash, however, and put as much as I can on my credit card.

Blue debit card

The best travel debit card(s) for Australians

Well now that I’ve bamboozled the crap out of you with information, here is the main event – the cheapest debit cards for travel for Australians.

Citibank Plus Everyday Account

TypeTrans. feesATM feesConversionAcct FeesNotable Perks?
MasterCard0%$0*Mastercard RateNoneWine at some restaurants

*At most ATMs – you could still be charged by the ATM, though.

I personally have the Citibank Plus Everyday card and I am very happy with it. As you can see from the above, it ticks all the main boxes in terms of fees.

As this is a debit card, it’s easy to get although you will need to go through a bit of a process to open your bank account online. I’d recommend leaving at least a few weeks before you go to do this, and preferably more.

I’ve never taken advantage of the extra perks you’re supposed to get with this card, but if I ever do, I’ll keep you updated! Even without it, I think it’s a pretty good deal.

ING Everyday

TypeTrans. feesATM feesConversionAcct FeesNotable Perks?
Visa0%$0*Visa RateNoneATM fees refunded*

* Includes overseas ATM fees if you deposit more than $1000/make 5 transactions per month (woo!)

I also have the ING Everyday Card (thanks, Barefoot Investor!) as I actually use it as my everyday card back at home when I’m not gallivanting around the world. That is one big plus for this card… you might already have it!

The other big perk of this card is they refund overseas ATM fees. Yep, that’s the ones that get charged by the other bank. This is great news, as I’ve been slogged with $5 or more (ouch).

The catch for this is you must deposit at least $1000 a month and make 5 transactions (of any size) per month. Essentially, this card works great when you are receiving a salary and using it as an everyday card.

The only people it might not work for are those who are planning to travel on career breaks and therefore may not reach the relevant limits.

Ubank USaver + Transaction Account

TypeTrans. feesATM feesConversionAcct FeesNotable Perks?
Visa0%$0*Visa RateNoneGood interest rate

As of August 2018, UBank has also joined the club of banks offering no transaction fees and no ATM fees overseas. They also honour the VISA conversion rate (or at least that’s how I interpret it in clause 6 on page 24 of their PDS – but I can’t guarantee this as I don’t have the card.)

As I haven’t used this card I can’t give a personal recommendation, however I must admit the 2.87% interest rate also looks good. If you’re willing to step away from the two big names in fee-free cards, I’d recommend taking a closer look at this one.

HSBC Everyday Global

TypeTrans. feesATM feesConversionAcct FeesNotable Perks?
Visa0%$0*HSBC Daily Exchange Rate or Visa (depends)NonePre-purchase currency

*Overseas ATMs may still charge.

This one is a bit confusing – I wasn’t quite sure whether to put it under the “prepaid” or “debit” card option. However, since it can easily be used as an everyday transaction account, here we are.

This is another card I haven’t personally tried, however I like the sound of it. Like a prepaid travel card, it allows you to “lock in” currency and hold up to ten different currencies (including USD and Euro) in your bank account. This means it will give you the peace of mind of a prepaid travel card.

(At the time of writing, the Mastercard exchange rate for AUD to USD was 0.689 and the HBSC rate was 0.675, so there is some difference there.)

If you’d prefer, you can keep everything in AUD and it will just convert it at the time.

The HSBC/Visa rate distinction seems to be a little confusing… if you are looking at this card, I recommend discussing it with them and having a read of the PDS so you can figure out exactly which rate applies, when.

Unlike most prepaid travel cards, though, it has the competitive pricing. You will get real time exchange rates (that are quite competitive compared to other banks I looked at), and there are no ATM or transaction fees.

So, if you like the sound of locking in your currency beforehand but don’t want to pay the fees of a provider like Travelex, I’d take a look at this option.

Options compared and my pick

As you can see, all three of these are good options if you’re an Australian looking for a debit card for overseas travel or purchases.

Personally, if you meet the $1000/month threshold, I’d suggest going for the ING Bank card as the overseas ATM fees back is pretty awesome.

If you’re travelling long-term and don’t expect to meet that threshold, then you can really take your pick out of the three. If you go with the HSBC Everyday Global or UBank card – let me know how it’s worked for you, as I’d love to hear more about it!

Credit card
Repeat after me: A credit card is not free money!

The best travel credit card(s) for Australians

GE Money 28 Degrees Card

TypeTrans. feesATM feesConversionAcct FeesNotable Perks?
MasterCard0%3% or $4MastercardNoneFree wi-fi at Boingo hotspots; lounge access if flight is delayed

Ah, the oldie but a goodie. Once known as the “Wizard” card, which I thought was pretty apt, this used to be every traveller’s go-to card.

Yup, when I was young and rosey-cheeked, this card gave free cash advances which meant you could use it at ATMs. That’s long gone, however the GE Money 28 Degrees Card is still a pretty damn decent credit card – and we’ve already seen that there are many credit options for debit cards.

It’s still a stalwart in my wallet and my go-to overseas credit card. Although it’s no good for cash advances (aka ATM withdrawals), it is great for paying for things in card. And nowadays, you can do that practically everywhere.

Plus, there are a few perks like access to Boingo wi-fi networks worldwide, and a lounge pass if your flight is delayed by 2 hours or more (you’ll be hoping for a delay!)

You also get up to 55 days interest free, which is always useful to have (but note that this does not apply to ATM withdrawals).

Zero Platinum* Mastercard

TypeTrans. feesATM feesConversionAcct FeesNotable Perks?
MasterCard0%2% or $4MastercardNoneTravel insurance (max 6 months, with return ticket)

* Important: the Platinum card has a minimum credit limit of $6,000. The standard card ($1000 minimum limit) charges a transaction fee of 2.75%, boo.

This is another one I haven’t tried, but after doing some research, I like what I see.

As you can see from above, in terms of fees it’s really on par with the 28 Degrees Card. However, one big plus for the Zero Platinum Mastercard is that it comes with complimentary travel insurance (subject to T&Cs, of course).

Not everyone likes using credit card travel insurance, and I personally get mine through my American Express card. However, this could be a good way to save some extra dosh.

Like with all credit cards, they will charge you a lot extra for cash advances, although it is very slightly less than the 28 Degrees Card. Also like the 28 Degrees Card, it has up to 55 days interest free.

My Pick

Both of these options are neck and neck, really. I intend to stay with my 28 Degrees card, mostly out of convenience and because I like the idea of being put up in a lounge if my flight is delayed.

That said, you might be swayed by the free travel insurance, in which case I’d take a closer look at the Zero Platinum Mastercard.

Euro notes

The best prepaid travel cards for Australians

I’ve already mentioned the HSBC Global Everyday Card which does give you the ability to lock in currency conversions.

However, let’s take a look at some of the other big names in travel cards and highlight a few that offer competitive rates, convenience, and low fees.

NAB Traveller Card

If you want to avoid ATM fees with a prepaid travel card (and who doesn’t), then I’d recommend the NAB Traveller card. You’ll get free ATM withdrawals just about everywhere you withdraw “home currency” (except Australia, notably).

It uses its own rate for you to buy currency; at the time of writing, 1 AUD = 0.662 USD, where Mastercard rate was 1 AUD = 0.689.

They also don’t charge load-up fees, which is appreciated!

Qantas Travel Money Card

The main thing I like about the Qantas Travel Money Card is that you can collect Qantas points, which is great if you are a frequent traveller who is loyal to one airline.

They do charge ATM fees, but they are lower than the Cash Passport card.

I also like that there is no currency conversion fee. That said, they do seem to set their own rate rather than use Visa or Mastercard (at the time of writing 1 AUD = 0.6725 USD, compared to 1 AUD = 0.689 for Mastercard).

Cash Passport Platinum Mastercard

The Cash Passport Platinum Mastercard is available in AUD, USD, CAD, EUR, GBP, HKD, JPY, NZD, SGD, THB and AED.

ATM fees can be pretty hefty with this card – you’re looking at €2.50 for Euros, £2.00 for Pounds and $2.50 for USD.

I do appreciate that this card does not charge anything to load or reload (being charged to put money on a debit card – as well as take it off – is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard).

Looking out over Parra Wirra Conservation Park
Always on the lookout for ways to save money

In conclusion – what cards do I use?

Phew, that was a lot of information. If you’re still reading – good for you. Or, if you just skipped down to this section, I like your style too.

I personally use a combination of the Citibank Plus Everyday Transaction card, the ING Everyday Debit card and the GE Money 28 Degrees Card. All of these have zero transaction fees, zero ATM fees (at many, but not all, ATMs), and use the MasterCard or Visa exchange rate.

If you are only looking to get one debit card then I recommend the ING Everyday Debit card, so long as you can deposit more than $1000 a month into your account. The main reason for this is because ING is not only charges no ATM fee, but will actually reimburse you for third party ATM fees.

For credit cards, then both the 28 Degrees Card and the Zero Platinum Mastercard charge no currency conversion fees. They are similar in terms of fees – the main differentiation is that the 28 Degrees comes with the perk of free wifi + lounge access if your flight is delayed by more than 2 hours; while the Zero Platinum card comes with complimentary travel insurance.

My top tips to save when using debit and credit cards abroad

  • Never, ever, ever agree to let the ATM/EFTPOS machine charge you in your home currency. It might sound like they’re doing you a favour, but they will almost invariably mark-up the cost and whack on extra fees. Plus, you will likely be charged an overseas transaction fee (if applicable) even if it was charged in your home currency.
  • Have multiple money options – I like to travel with at least one Visa and Mastercard, as well as one credit/debit card, and a backup option. You’ll be prepared for anything this way! Add in some cash to the mix (USD, preferably) and you’re all set for the apocalypse.
  • If you’re planning to withdraw money from an ATM, slowly transfer it bit by bit from a savings to a transaction account as you need it. This is not only more secure, as it limits the amount of money that can be stolen, but it also slows down your spending.
  • Never get cash advances on your credit card, unless your life depends on it. You’ll almost invariable be slugged with big fees AND crippling interest from day dot. If, for some reason, you must do it – be sure to pay it off as soon as you possibly can.
  • Actually, that goes for credit cards altogether. I’m all for using credit cards as they are often the cheapest way to make overseas purchases – but be sure to pay them off before interest is applied. I only put purchased on my credit card if I know I have the cash, at the time, to pay it off. No way am I paying for anything twice or three times over!
  • Read the Barefoot Investor. That guy is a legend.

Save this for later!

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3 Comments

  1. Fabulous Georgie, great information and great tips. I’ll be sending this on to my niece so she can work out what will be best for her upcoming US visit. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Sandy! I’m glad you found it useful and I hope your niece has a great time in the US! 🙂

  2. Really great information, thanks for the share and insights! I will recommend this to my friends for sure.

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