This week’s question (Do you have to have a credit card to travel?) is a hot topic in the travel world. Since we didn’t have a credit card during the first two years of our own travels, we thought it was a great question for us to tackle.

Do you have to have a credit card to travel? No, of course not.

Do you need to have a financial cushion when traveling? Yes! You never know when something unexpected is going to come up. There have been several times we were on a road trip, where unexpected car issues hijacked us, and we had to fork over anywhere between $40 and $1,500. If we hadn’t had an emergency fund, our trip might have ended abruptly.

Do credit cards have benefits for people who travel a lot? Yes! For starters, it is often tricky using a U.S. based debit card internationally. Many businesses around the world do not accept them, and when a debit card can be used, there can be tricky fees assessed. Additionally, many credit cards have partnered with airlines, car rental agencies, hotels, and other businesses in the travel industry. This gives you the opportunity to earn points for every dollar that you spend, so that you can earn back cash or gain benefits that can be applied towards more travel.

money_2traveleverywhereDuring the first two years of our travels, the only way we accrued those coveted airline miles was by signing up directly through the airline, when we booked our flight. When we traveled, we either withdrew local currency from an ATM or used our debit card.

After tens of thousands of miles logged, we started doing our research, and we realized we had been missing out on racking up the points by not using a credit card with a frequent flier miles or other rewards program.

We signed up for a Chase United MilagePlus Card. It’s been one of the best choices we’ve made as long-term travelers. Now, when we look back, we cringe at all the miles we didn’t earn. (Whenever we cried, as the costs of our wedding quickly added up, we would often joke, “Well at least we’re earning miles, right?”)

In order to maximize our miles now, we use our credit card for everything we need. We then pay the balance off in full each month. (This is key, so that you don’t go into debt or get bogged down interest.)

Using a credit card this way is one of the best ways to rack-up the miles.

But, if you don’t have a credit card/don’t want to get a credit card, then here are our tips for traveling without one:

1.) Build up a cushion of more than you think you will need to cover those unexpected costs, if they come up (trust us, they will come up!). The last thing you want to do while you are traveling is worry about getting stranded somewhere.

2.) Don’t keep all your money in one bank account. There have been several times, where either our bank card got stolen, or the bank froze our account, because of all the travel we were doing. We would have been in a jam, had we not had money in several different banks with the ability to transfer money efficiently between accounts.

3.) Notify your bank you are traveling (you should do this with your credit card company too!), so that you minimize the possibility that your account will get frozen due to suspicious activity. Just be prepared, that they may not log your travels correctly into their system. We’ve sometimes had to call several times.

4.) Talk to your bank ahead of time about raising your daily maximum withdrawal on cash. This will minimize the amount of times you have to take money out of your account, therefore decreasing the number of ATM fees you will endure. (If you are not careful, these really accrue quickly.)

5.) Don’t keep all your cash in one place. Put some in a safe in your room, and use special cash belts like this one to carry it around to prevent it getting pick-pocketed. 

6.) See about using a bank that reimburses at least some of the ATM fees. (One of our banks, USAA, reimburses ATM fees up to $15 a month.)

7.) Beware if you are a U.S. citizen traveling in Europe. We came across several places that wouldn’t take our credit or debit cards, because it wasn’t a European-style chip-and-pin card. (Read this article from Rick Steve’s to learn more about that.) 

8.) Look into other ways of earning points that can be used for miles. There are still a few banks that offer banking and debit cards that help you earn points (according to this article), and there are dining and hotel programs affiliated with various airlines that allow you to earn points, without a credit card.

Here’s a list of some of the ways you can earn more points without credit cards:

For more, check out this list of the best of 2014-2015 airline rewards programs. 

If you are interested in using a credit card to gain miles, there are many resources available online. Here’s some of our personal favs:

Tips On Picking A Travel Credit Card, from Nomadic Matt

The Travel Hacking Cartel

This website from The Points Guy, is a wealth of information.

Whether or not you decided to go down the credit card route, there is no reason you can’t start building points! We picked United, because we fly them and their partners under StarAlliance,  so it made the most sense for us. There’s many options out there. If you are a regular traveler or someone who dreams of traveling more, it’s crazy not to start earning points today.

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