A Traveler’s Guide to Protecting Your Money and Financial Security

After health and safety, money is my biggest worry when I’m traveling. I worked hard to save up for my life, my family, my vacations, and my future retirement. I don’t want to be without credit while on vacation or to return home from a trip and discover that I’m the victim of identity theft. That would most certainly undo the rejuvenating benefits of taking that vacation. As a result of my extensive travels over the last 20+ years, I’ve identified 5 essential ways that help me protect my vacation money, travel documents, and good credit.

Travel Secure Money Guide infographic

A Quick Story About My Own Credit Card Mishap

Recently while on vacation in Boston I was stopped from using my credit card to make a purchase. I needed a replacement piece of luggage and was in a hurry to pay and get back to exploring American colonial sites. My card came up “declined” which came as a huge shock. The store couldn’t tell me the reason why so I was forced to pay with my remaining cash. Fortunately I had enough cash in my wallet but that meant I had to find an ATM quickly.

I headed back to my hotel to call my bank to find out exactly what happened. My first thought was, did I do something wrong or was I the victim of credit card fraud. After passing a couple of phone customer service security checks, I was told that a block was placed on my credit card. They flagged my recent shopping activity as “suspicious, ” whatever that means. Fortunately all the recent charges they tallied were my own and Citibank was able to instantly unblock my card.

Whew! Travel disaster avoided this time, but will I be so lucky next time? This prompted me to write this ultimate guide to how travelers can protect their finances before, during, and after a vacation.

5 Steps to Make Every Vacation a Financial Success

You surely have your own financial freak-out stories when booking a trip, while on an otherwise relaxing vacation, or after you return and have to clean up a financial mess. Since I take a vacation a month and have traveled to over 30 states and 50 countries, I am well versed in the ways to keep my money safe while traveling. Now it’s time to document and apply them. Let’s get started…

1. Turn On Bank Transaction Email Alerts

I absolutely want to know when money is being deducted from my bank account or added to my credit card balance. It’s my money and I want to be the first to know! Whether you bank with Citibank, Chase Bank, Capital One, or the rest of the big banks, you probably have access to an online feature that configures email alerts. Go now and TURN ON  all the debit spending alerts. Really… do it!

Card Services Menu Set Travel Notification

With email alerts turned on for EVERY transaction posted to your account, you’ll know the minute anything is amiss. Think of it like getting a tap on the shoulder every time someone puts their hand in your purse or wallet and takes a bit of your money. It’s insane to wait until the monthly statement, assuming you even look at those, to find out that a transaction is wrong or fraudulent.

You might opt for SMS or text message alerts instead of or in addition to email. I prefer email myself, especially because if I am traveling in a foreign country I may not have access to text messages. For example last time I was in Australia I bought a local mobile provider’s SIM card to get cheap calls and data while on vacation. While my email could be read at a click, text messages would be left undelivered (or purged) until I returned from vacation and inserted my home SIM card.

So what kind of situations are you going to be notified about while booking a trip or when away from home on vacation? Here are a few examples to help you understand the benefits of turning on instant cash and credit card email alerts.

  • An online purchase of clothing or electronics is made without your knowledge. Was it your partner or was it fraud?
  • Your debit card was used to make a contactless payment at a coffee shop or gas station. Was it you? Read about contactless payment while traveling.
  • A hotel or rental car agency has just authorized a booking deposit or charged a toll against your card. Were you expecting this?
  • A restaurant bill at a restaurant that you signed to charge the total, including tip, came up more than what you wrote down on the slip. It happens.
  • You charged souvenirs or high-ticket items in one currency, but the US dollar amount doesn’t seem to add up as expected.
    Read about credit cards with zero currency conversion fees.
  • When your partner is traveling solo, they’re use of a credit card or withdrawing cash from an ATM informs you that they have safely arrived at their destination.
  • A tour or activity that you just booked was charged twice by to your card. It can happen by mistake like clicking the “Book Now” button more than once, so you want to catch it sooner rather than later.
  • You finally realize that your credit card is missing (maybe you left it behind at a shop) after your phone lights up with email alerts for purchases that you would NEVER make.

Here are two screenshots from my Chase Bank account alerts screen. I’m thrilled they offer so many distinct options to get notified as I wish.

Bank Email Alerts - Withdrawal Transaction

For my credit card alerts, I enter $1 as the minimal amount that will trigger an email alert. That means I’ll know about every transaction seconds after they happen.

Bank Email Alerts - Credit Card Purchase

Be smart before you travel and turn on spending email and/or text alerts so you can be the first to know when something suspicious occurs and to verify your travel purchases are 100% accurate. Don’t wait until you return from vacation to discover the discrepancy.

2. Set Credit Card Vacation Notices

Now that you have made your vacation plans and the time off work dates are set, tell your bank and all your financial providers that you’ll be traveling. With most banks you don’t even need to make a phone call. Search for the vacation notice option which is usually available online in the self-service area.

The reason you should tell your banks about travel plans is twofold. First you want them to not treat as suspicious, any transactions that are outside your normal spending patterns. That means purchases in a far away city or different country and possibly large payments made to travel companies. For example if you booked a tour or hotel stay but only made a deposit, making the final payment may seem suspicious.

The other reason why vacation notices are critical is so that your bank or credit card company can contact you anywhere in the world. For trips within the USA (for U.S. residents at least) you will surely have your cell phone handy and be reachable. However for international trips you may not carry your phone at all times or it may be turned off for extended periods. In many countries it is cheaper to purchase a SIM card locally which means you can’t receive calls to your home cell number. While you need to check and respond to fraud alerts promptly, setting a travel notice can prevent the situation in the first place.

To set a vacation notice with each bank and for each credit card that you plan to put in your wallet or money belt, login and search for the Set Vacation Notice feature. I’ve found it under Customer Services or Secure Messages or the self-help forms area on my banks’ website in the past. The exact way to do this will vary, so call them if you are unsure how vacation notices are handled especially when you have an extended multi-country travel itinerary.

Bank Travel Notification Online Form

Set Travel Notification example form from Capital One Bank with a reminder that they do not charge foreign currency conversion fees (yes!)

Enter the dates of your trip (start and end dates) and which places or countries you’ll be visiting. You may also be able to enter additional information into a text box such as your contact number while traveling or notes about your journey. Make good use of this form field to provide multiple ways in which to be notified in case there is a problem with your credit card account while on vacation.

3. Have a Vacation Finance Backup Plan

How do I reduce the risk that I’ll find myself without money or have to drop everything to deal with a financial emergency? I have a backup plan and follow it every time. It’s like buying travel insurance knowing there is a small chance that something bad will happen. The big difference is that travel insurance costs money (well worth it for these type of vacations) while a vacation finance backup plan costs next to nothing.

Here is my checklist of items that helps me prepare for every week or longer vacation with fewer worries.

Travel Finance Backup Plan - Money, Contacts, Accounts

Backup Plan Step 1: Pack Multiple Credit and ATM Cards

It makes financial sense to maintain multiple bank and credit card accounts. While the rewards such as cash back and frequent flier miles are awesome, you should also have at least 2 ATM cards and 2 credit cards for backup purposes. Make sure the backups card are for separate accounts or have different account numbers and are not just an authorized user card for an existing account. Fortunately more banks today are issuing authorized user cards that have a different printed number than that of the primary card holder. This is wonderful for the situation where my card is cancelled due to fraud while my wife’s card can still be used for everyday purchases and travel.

When I am at home I tend to carry just one credit card so I don’t tempt myself with easy credit, but while traveling I always have an alternate way to get cash and charge vacation expenses. It is for these two critical reasons:

1. Lost or Stolen Bank Card

It’s more difficult to replace a lost or stolen credit card when you are actively traveling and not present at your home address. Your bank may not be willing to send a replacement card out of the country or to the address where you happen to be right now. In the meantime you’ll need a working debit/credit or ATM card so that your vacation is not stopped in its tracks due to a lack of funds.

2. Credit or Debit Purchase Denied

When you need to make a purchase while on vacation and if for any reason your primary credit card is denied, blocked, or not compatible, a second credit card is essential. If I had a backup credit card in the situation I described at the start of this article (my fault for leaving it in the hotel room safe), my luggage purchase would have been a less stressful situation. Another common situation is at a self-service kiosk where it may reject one card but the transaction gets approved using the other.

Backup Plan Step 2: Carry an Emergency Contact Numbers List

Being away from home and at a vacation destination means that you won’t have your financial paperwork and files at your fingertips. It could take a lot work of to figure out who to call when you lose your credit card or if you are prevented from withdrawing cash at an ATM machine in a foreign country. Carrying an emergency contact list for your banks and financial institutions is essential.

When I’m on vacation I want to feel confident that I can quickly deal with anything that affects my time, my money, and my hard-earned vacation mindset. Take the opportunity to prepare a contact list containing all the important numbers so you can refer to it if disaster strikes. Make sure you have both the 800 or 888 toll-free number as well as the customer service number which you can dial from overseas using the country code and possibly by calling collect.

Vacation Emergency Contact List - Financial

I make my list in Microsoft Excel using a very small font so I can print it out as a pocket-sized piece of paper. Print multiple copies so you can carry one with you, give one to your spouse or travel partner, and hide one in your luggage. Every 6 months or so update your list since you may have new credit cards or moved banks or the contact numbers may have changed.

Backup Plan Step 3: Know How to Login Safely While Traveling

The final part of your backup plan is to figure out how to access your bank and financial accounts while on vacation. It has become nearly impossible to remember multiple complex passwords which are necessary for securing access to your online financial accounts. It’s obvious why you should NEVER be carrying around a piece of paper with your passwords written down.

So how can you login to your bank website on your phone, at a hotel computer, and using unprotected Wi-Fi while traveling? As with all travel finance advice, it requires a well-thought-out and tested plan just in case. There’s no foolproof way, but here are the precautions I use.

* Secure Your Smart Phone From Theft

Phone theft has become a common crime happening on city streets so that is why you need to make sure your phone is secured. I turn on all the security features even when they make the phone slightly less convenient to use. For example fingerprint unlock, text or numeric unlock passwords (not just the finger pattern swipe), and idle auto-lock features.

* Encrypt Your Passwords for Travel

Sometimes you need to take your passwords with you. Clearly you don’t want to write them down in plain text. There are many solutions for storing passwords in an encrypted file or in the cloud. This is your reminder to pick the app that works best with your phone and meets your travel needs. Popular password apps include KeePass, LastPass, and RoboForm. Which do you recommend?

* Add Multiple Layers of Security to Email and Banking Accounts

Your email account is your lifeline when on vacation and you run into a financial emergency. Do you know how to login securely from not just your phone but also using a hotel computer or Internet cafe without compromising your text password? Remember that if you need to reset a banking password or receive private notifications while traveling, email is the most common way. Heed the warning that if someone hacks your inbox, they can more easily gain access to your online financial accounts by resetting your passwords. It can happen quickly so add a second layer of security to your email account.

Bank Secondary Authentication Logon Mobile CodeFor example with Gmail as your email provider you can turn on two-factor authentication to prevent a thief from logging on if they steal your password via a compromised computer. The secondary authentication is a random number generated by an app on your cell phone or sent by text message. However if you also lose your phone, keep a printed copy of your backup codes with you while you travel. Those are also critical for getting into your email account when your phone is lost, stolen, or broken.

For your banking and investment accounts, ask if they offer a secondary authentication option. This can take the form of a mobile app, authentication codes sent by text message, or a key fob device that displays a time-stamped login code. For example E*Trade Financial makes “unauthorized logon virtually impossible” by offering both a “Mobile Security ID” for your phone as well as “Security ID” which is a key-ring version that you carry with you.

4. Be Reachable by Phone While On Vacation

When you are away from home make sure that your bank and credit card companies can reach you without fail. They probably already have your home, cell, and possibly work phone number, but international travel might make it more complicated. Will they leave a message on your home answering machine or voicemail if fraud is detected? Will you have your mobile phone turned on all times (not in airplane mode) so you can receive urgent calls or texts? What about when you are outside the country?

To stay in touch with your banks when traveling internationally, you’ll have to research the cell plans and add-ons for roaming. Go online or talk to your mobile company if your travel will take you outside the country.  For example with T-Mobile international plans you can type in a country name to see if talk, text, and data roaming is included and at what per minute or MB cost.

Often the cheapest way to stay in touch and be online while vacationing in say Switzerland or Australia (my own examples) is to get a local SIM card for your phone. This option isn’t compatible with all phones since some are locked into a contract so find out first. When you swap in a country-specific or travel SIM card that means you’ll have a completely different phone number.

For all these situations you need to make it possible for your bank to call or send you a text message and be able to check your voicemail regularly. Here is how I do it.

Forward Your Calls and Texts to Google Voice

Google Voice has been around for many years but I believe it is still only available to US residents. It’s free to sign up and lets you make calls over the internet for free in America. You are assigned a phone number from area codes that have lots of excess unused numbers. Skype offers a similar paid service, but I’ve never bothered to try it as an alternative.

The idea behind Google Voice is to get people to use it as their main phone number and set it up to forward all calls (or select calls) to your cell phone or home phone or work phone (or all three). That way regardless of what phone you have access to and turned on, people calling your Google Voice number can reach you or leave a voicemail message.

One of the most amazing features with their voicemail is their voice to text transcription technology. Your voicemails can be played as an audio file of course. In addition you can read the voicemail transcript in your Gmail inbox or using the Google Voice app on your smart phone. The transcription is far from perfect and often laughably wrong, especially when you have family members with a thick Brooklyn accent like I do 🙂

Google Voicemail - Fraud Alert

The best way to use Google Voice while on vacation is a bit different to how you would use it at home. The main difference is that you cannot forward (redirect) calls to an international SIM card’s phone number. However you can accept calls via voice-over-IP (VOIP) when on a WiFi network or using a hefty roaming data package depending upon your settings. I usually leave it on the do-not-disturb mode (turn forwarding off) and wait for the voicemail to arrive so as not to disrupt my vacation mindset too greatly. When online my phone will buzz to notify me that a message has arrived (also it sends and receives text or SMS messages sent to my Google Voice number) so I can deal with any financial troubles while out of the country.

Check Your Voicemail Using Skype’s Low Rates

While on vacation you may need to check your voicemail in case an urgent alert message comes in from your bank or credit card fraud team. First make sure that all your accounts have both your home number (if you still have a landline phone) and mobile number so they have both options to reach you while on vacation. Just in case a call comes through on my home phone or if my cell phone is turned off or I’m using a local SIM card while traveling overseas, I call to check my voicemail at least once a day.

It’s easy and often free to call your voicemail checking number if you are traveling in the U.S. or have a free roaming package. When that isn’t the case like when you swapped out the SIM card in a foreign country, Skype landline calling cheap rates comes to my rescue. I set a reminder to check my voicemail in the morning and evening when traveling in Europe or Asia where there is a huge time zone difference.

Since I stay in hotels that offer free internet, I use Skype over Wi-Fi to call my voicemail access number to check for new messages. It only takes a minute and catches situations where my bank calls me about potential fraud while my phone is on silent or in airplane mode or with a local SIM card inserted. I also worry about credit card fraud alert emails ending up in my spam folder by mistake. Therefore checking voicemail daily is one more way to respond to and resolve fraud alerts promptly while on vacation.

Send and Receive Text Messages Online

You also can use Skype or Google Voice to send and receive text messages so if you choose either of those calling options you are all set. Just make sure that your bank has your Skype or Google Voice “landline” phone number as one of your contact numbers. While Google Voice is currently free, Skype charges a small fee to secure a fixed Skype online phone number in one of several area codes and countries.

Google Voice Text - Flight Alert

Another option is to sign-up for a software solution that allows access to your text messages from a desktop computer. These services let you gain access to your important text messages not just from a computer, but also from an app on your iPhone or Android phone. That means if you swap SIM cards or are waiting for a replacement phone, you can still receive critical bank and credit card texts (and flight change notifications too) while staying in touch with friends and family.

> Learn More: How to Send SMS Messages From Any PC or Mac (How-To Geek article)

Forward Your Itinerary to Family and Friends

It also makes financial sense to share your travel itinerary with friends and family. They might need to get in touch with you about a financial or household emergency like your house alarm going off or a tree falling on your home. Whichever way you create your day-by-day trip itinerary, look for an option to share a copy via email. There is always a way whether you use Google Docs, Evernote, TripIt, or some other online tool. You may need to save to PDF or copy and paste to your email client. Also avoid including sensitive or personal information in your shared itinerary.

At a minimum your trip itinerary should clearly list where you will be during each day of your vacation. Try to include flight confirmation numbers, hotel contact information, and your departure and arrival times for each part of your trip. Also remember to set expectations on how long it may take you to return calls or emails. Destination time zones are another thing to list as you may be asleep and your phone set to silent when an important email or text arrives.

5. Secure Your Travel Money While Traveling

We’ve all heard the stories about people who were on vacation and had their wallet or purse stolen. It could be from your hotel room, by a robber on a motorcycle, a pickpocket in the crowded street, or while sitting on your beach towel. Whether it’s happened to you in the past or not, take a few simple steps to protect your money and travel documents when on vacation.

Separate Your Cards and Travel Documents

When about to leave on vacation my first inclination is to collect all my travel reservations and credit cards and money and ID cards and put them into one big pile. That way I know exactly what I’m packing to check it off my list. However don’t pack them together if you want to prevent a total loss. Consider what would happen if your wallet or passport holder or travel folder got lost or stolen. Here’s my approach to separating items to reduce financial risk while traveling.

  1. Identity hidden pockets in my jacket and travel clothing as well as in my bags (never the ones I check) like a backpack or carry-on piece of luggage. Include your money belt in the list of places to securely store stuff.
  2. Tuck away a stash of emergency money into one of these pockets or hidden containers.
  3. Store a backup credit card and/or ATM card into another “secret” pocket.
  4. Make photocopies of critical reservation confirmations, travel documents, and passport or photo IDs and store them in my carry-on luggage, separate from the originals.
  5. Give to my travel partner (my wife loves to travel too) a different set of credit and ATM cards plus emergency money to store where she feels is most secure and least likely to get lost or stolen if her purse is snatched.

Wear a Money Belt, but Not As a Fashion Accessory

This is the most basic piece of travel security advice that you’ll even receive, but it is still valid and needs repeating. A money belt is a slight inconvenience and discomfort to wear, that is true. To avoid becoming a victim of the most common crime that befall travelers, get used to wearing a money belt. To be clear, I’m not talking about fanny packs and those unsightly wrap-around money belts that advertise to the world that you have your valuables hanging around your waist.

Luckily money “belts” come in a wide variety of sizes and forms to meet any preference and still be hidden away from prying eyes and hands. I prefer the money belt style that loops onto my belt and is hidden in my pants. You may prefer an around-the-neck model that is held against your chest or attached to your bra. There are also leg belts and around the waist style ones as well as more secret designs like a pants belt that has a hidden zippered compartment. Most are washable and sweat-proof and some are waterproof too.

Make sure to pick out a model that can hold all your travel documents like a passport or ID card, a backup credit and ATM card, excess cash, emergency numbers, and perhaps a USB stick. My advice it to buy two or three so that you can separate your cards and money and have your travel partner wear their own money belt. Plus you want to pack the style of money belt that’s right for each type of trip whether tour of Europe, American road trip, outdoor adventure, beach holiday, or global exploration.

Check out my recommended money belts and travel security products by Eagle Creek on the Amazon store. PacSafe also comes with high marks with RFID blocking features, though I haven’t personally tried their security wallets and packing supplies yet. To make your selection easier, here are my top picks of money belts on Amazon.


Bonus Tip: Carry a “Fake” Wallet

To further thwart would-be thieves, carry two wallets in addition to your money belt. Put your daily spending cash and one credit or debit/ATM card in your main wallet in your most secure pocket or purse location. Take a second wallet and include a small bit of cash as well as a couple of expired credit cards that you didn’t throw away. Consider including a store rewards card or empty gift card to make the fake wallet look like your real wallet. So if you get pick pocketed or someone grabs your wallet and runs, they’ll hopefully be in possession of your decoy wallet.

Treat Your Phone Like a Wallet

I’m tied to my awesome Nexus 5X phone not just for email, calendar, Google Maps, Facebook, Evernote, and TripAdvisor, but also for organizing my trip and finances. Not only is it expensive to replace a stolen smart phone, you may be putting your vacation in financial risk if your phone goes missing. Keep these points in mind when you find yourself in a place where you need to use your phone while keeping your wits about you. It’s far too easy to be in the vacation mindset and let your guard down.

  • Never tuck your phone into your back pocket or anyplace else casually sticking out.
  • Avoid walking while looking at your phone, for example following mapped directions.
  • Secure your phone with a password, auto-lock, and remote tracking or disabling. Find My iPhone can also help to erase it remotely.
  • Don’t leave your phone charging out of sight like at the airport terminal, hotel lobby, or on the floor of a restaurant.
  • Carry a digital camera for taking photos instead of using your phone as a camera in a crowded street.
  • Don’t walk around with a selfie stick attached and extended. You are only making it easier for a thief to grab your phone, selfie stick and all. Plus you run the risk of annoying all the other travelers around you who are trying to appreciate the scene without getting whacked in the face 😉

Use the Hotel Safe?

When I’m traveling internationally and need to bring my passport, I always search for hotels that have free Wi-Fi and a (personal) safe in the room. Reservation sites are getting better at filtering for these and other security features. Many hotels seem to offer a safe at the front desk (will store your valuables in the shared hotel safe), but not all offer a safe in every room.

Make sure the hotel listing says “In-Room Safe” or “Personal Safe” or “Electronic Safe” before booking. If you are unsure or the direct booking website says one thing and Expedia or Booking.com says another, email or call the property to double-check.

Personally I trust in-room safes most of the time despite my nagging concern that a rogue staff member may be able to open the safe without my knowledge. When your hotel doesn’t have a safe or if you prefer not to trust it (like when it isn’t bolted down or seems dodgy – read more on Fodors Discussion Board), your only option may be to use a hidden spot in your hotel room instead. That is if you cannot or prefer not (for safety and convenience reasons) to carry your valuables on you at all times while on vacation.

* Travel Hack: Make A Hotel Hidey Spot

To build your own in-room hotel hidden storage spot that may be less likely to get noticed and targeted for theft than sitting on the nightstand or in hidden in your luggage, consider this alternative idea. Put your cards and passports into a sealed zip-lock bag. Using packing or masking tape, tape it to the underside of a dresser drawer or behind a painting on the wall. Don’t pick an obvious place like under the mattress.

Each hotel room is different so search around for the least obvious place. Try to find a location that isn’t likely to be disturbed by the cleaning staff and isn’t visible to the naked eye. This tactic is not without risk, but the greatest risk is probably forgetting to grab your valuables from the hidey spot or the in-room safe when checking out. Set a timed reminder on your phone so it buzzes well before you check out without your travel documents.

Now it’s your Turn… Add a comment below if you have tips on how to protect your money, passport, and financial security while on vacation.