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Should I Use My Debit Card on My Overseas Vacation?

Ask Savvy: Should I Use My Debit Card on My Overseas Vacation?

Dear Savvy,

I am taking my first international vacation ever to the Caribbean. I have saved up money for my expenses, but I'm not sure if I should keep all of that money on me, get traveler's checks, or rely on my debit card.

I'm going to St. Maarten and Saba in the Caribbean. I think I might have to change currency for St. Maarten (they have a Dutch side and a French side) and Saba takes US dollars but only has one bank on the island. I also don't want to get hit with a bunch of not-my-bank ATM charges. Any ideas?

Savvy says: You're going to love the Caribbean. It's relaxing and beautiful, and sitting on the beach doesn't cost a dime — at least you'll have one low-cost activity! See my tips for dealing with your spending money when you



While some people might disagree with me, I wouldn't rely on traveler's checks because they can often be more of a hassle than they're worth and it can be difficult to locate a reputable exchange counter. Bring some US dollars with you to have to start you out in Saba, and then stick to your credit and debit cards while keeping these pointers in mind.

  • Try to avoid exchange counters and visit a reputable bank's ATM instead. While you'll pay a surcharge at the ATM, you won't lose the additional percentage on every dollar exchanged that some counters charge.
  • Because of the transaction fees, you may want to take out more cash than you need immediately, but only do this if you have a secure place to lock up your cash and won't be carrying it around on you.
  • Before you leave the country, contact your bank and credit card company to alert them of the time you'll be out of the country. If you don't do this, you might be exposed to security alerts that freeze your cards and create a great big pain for you while you're away.
  • While you're on the phone with your bank and credit card companies, ask them about the fees applied for overseas transactions. Some people like to rely on their credit cards to avoid ATM transaction fees, but many credit card companies apply fees to purchases made in foreign currencies so check with yours to see how their fee would compare to the ATM surcharges.
  • If you own several cards, check with each about their fees on foreign purchases and use the card with the lowest fees.
  • If you find yourself in a bind and need cash, steer clear of the counters at airports and train stations, especially, and remember that exchanging at a bank is your best bet. If you have leftover foreign currency, exchange it in the Caribbean because the rates will be better than what you'll get back in the US.

Safe and happy travels!

Image Source: Getty
Join The Conversation
marcied23 marcied23 7 years
Ha! that's awesome zivanod!
Zivanod Zivanod 7 years
I always use my debit card to take out money when I travel. Of course in Canada, debit is more commonly used then cash. Before I go, I check with my bank to see what their partner bank in that country happens to be so I can get a better exchange rate. For instance, I am with Scotia in Canada, and their American partner is Bank of America. And I've been lucky twice and not had the money removed from my bank account at home. Now I always hit up the Bank of America ATM machines in Times Square when I am in NYC, just in case it happens again.
PinkLizzie PinkLizzie 7 years
When I was in St. Maarten in 2008, I had no trouble using US dollars.
syako syako 7 years
One more thing, shop around when it comes to exchanging money. We were in London and for the same US dollar amount we had offers for 380 to 420 pounds. That's a HUGE difference (40 pounds = roughly $70 and I don't throw around $70 lightly) so don't just settle for the first quote.
snarkypants snarkypants 7 years
i agree with all of savvy's advice. nobody uses travelers checks anymore! and do not skip the calling your bank step! have fun. i'm totally jealous!
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