The 4 best credit cards to use in Europe

Woman in Bratislava after choosing the best credit cards to use in Europe. Woman in Bratislava after choosing the best credit cards to use in Europe. Image:

In a Nutshell

Heading across the pond and wondering what's the best credit card to use in Europe? We looked for cards that meet some basic requirements and then dug deeper to find rewards that could be particularly beneficial for travel in Europe.

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At a glance: The best credit cards to use in Europe in 2018

Best sign-up bonus  Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
Best no annual fee card  Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Best for free hotel nights Marriott Rewards® Premier Credit Card
Best for short flights within Europe British Airways Visa Signature® Card

Before choosing a card for your trip, consider how you plan to use the card, whether you can meet the signup bonus requirement without breaking your budget and what type of rewards you want to earn.

See below to learn how we choose these credit cards to use in Europe.

While there’s no “best” card for every traveler, here are four good options for travelers trekking to Europe.

Best sign-up bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card 

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Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

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Who’s it for?

Travelers who want flexibility when redeeming their rewards.

Why we like it

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card offers a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. This bonus is worth $625 in travel if you book through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.

You can also transfer your points to participating frequent travel programs, including Flying Blue AIR FRANCE KLM and British Airways Executive Club, IHG® Rewards Club, Marriott Rewards® and World of Hyatt.

Watch out for

You must spend at least $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening to get the sign-up bonus.

There’s also a $0 intro, $95 after first year annual fee.

Some travelers prefer the newer Chase Sapphire Reserve® , which offers cardholders more points per $1 spent on dining and a higher value when redeeming the points for travel.

The card currently has the same sign-up bonus and its higher annual fee isn’t waived the first year, but if you spend a lot on travel and dining, Chase Sapphire Reserve® may be worth it to you.

How to use it

To make the most of your points, compare their value when you redeem them for travel versus transferring them to partner loyalty programs.

Several of the partner airlines are based in Europe, so transferring points could be a convenient option. Also, with access to multiple hotel programs you’ll likely have the option to redeem at several different hotels.

Matthew Greenspan, who lives in Europe and is a content manager for the Canadian travel site FlightNetwork, says he was recently able to transfer Ultimate Rewards® points to Avios points, which you can use to book British Airways and Iberia flights.

For just 8,250 points and 27.80 euros (about $30) to cover taxes and fees, he booked a flight from Amsterdam to Madrid on Iberia in May 2017.

Best no annual fee card: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card

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Who’s it for?

High-net-worth travelers who want to earn rewards but don’t want to keep track of different bonus categories or pay an annual fee.

Why we like it

You can earn an unlimited 1.5 points for every $1 you spend on purchases. Plus, you can get a 10 percent customer points bonus on every purchase if you have an active Bank of America® checking or savings account.

And if you’re a Bank of America® Preferred Rewards client, you can earn a 25 percent, 50 percent or 75 percent rewards bonus (depending on your qualifying combined balances in your Bank of America® banking and/or Merrill Edge® and Merrill Lynch® investment accounts).

You can redeem the points after a certain threshold for gift cards, cash rewards or statement credit to offset travel costs such as airfare, hotel stays, vacation packages, cruises, rental cars or baggage fees.

If you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 3 days of account opening, you can earn 25,000 online bonus points — worth a $250 statement credit toward travel purchases — as a sign-up bonus.

Watch out for

Your benefits could vary depending on which version of the card you receive. Both the Visa Signature® and Platinum Plus® accounts include auto rental coverage, common carrier travel accident insurance, roadside assistance, and travel and emergency assistance.

However, the Signature version, which you’ll receive if the issuer approves you for a credit limit of at least $5,000, also offers lost baggage insurance and increases the common carrier travel accident insurance from $100,000 to $250,000.

Also keep in mind that to earn the 25,000 bonus points, you’ll need to spend $1,000 in purchases in the first 3 days of your account opening.

And if you spend a lot on your credit card each year, you might be better off with an alternative travel rewards card – even one that has an annual fee – if it offers a higher rewards rate.

How to use it

The Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card is most rewarding for cardholders who have an active banking or investing relationship with Bank of America® – particularly for those with a high net worth.

If you have an active Bank of America® checking or savings account, you’ll get 10 percent more points on every purchase.

Alternatively, your points could be worth up to 75 percent more with the Preferred Rewards program, which you are eligible for if you have a Bank of America® personal checking account and 3-month average combined balances of at least $20,000 in your qualifying Bank of America® banking accounts and/or Merrill Edge® and Merrill Lynch® investment accounts.

Best for free hotel nights: Marriott Rewards® Premier Credit Card

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Marriott Rewards® Premier Credit Card

From cardholders in the last year

Who’s it for?

Travelers who want to focus on hotel-related benefits. Marriott Rewards® Premier Credit Card offers five points per $1 spent at Marriott Rewards® and SPG® hotels, and two points per $1 spent at car rental agencies, restaurants and airlines. You’ll get one point per $1 spent everywhere else.

Why we like it

The Marriott International and Starwood Hotels & Resorts merger means you can easily transfer points between the rewards programs (although they’ll remain separate until at least 2018) to book free nights at around 600 Marriott and Starwood hotels throughout Europe.

With this card, you’ll also get Silver Elite status with Marriott Rewards®, which you can use to get a status match in the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG®) and The Ritz-Carlton Rewards® programs.

Watch out for

There are two versions of the card, and only the Visa Signature® version includes trip cancellation or interruption insurance.

Also watch for the $0 intro, $85 after first year annual fee, which isn’t waived the first year. The sign-up bonus’ minimum spending requirement is $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from your account opening.

How to use it

Bring the Marriott Rewards® Premier Credit Card on your trip so you can get bonus points when you use it for incidentals at Marriott® or SPG® hotels or to book a room using points and cash.

Best for short flights in Europe: British Airways Visa Signature® Card

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British Airways Visa Signature® Card

From cardholders in the last year

Who’s it for?

You’re planning to hop from one country to another by plane.

Why we like it

Greenspan recommends using rewards to fly with British Airways and its partners while in Europe.

“It uses a distance-based award chart, making it easy to use your mileage points to travel around Europe for free (aside from the fees), since the countries are close.”

Avios points are easy to redeem for flights on British Airways, Iberia and other oneworld® alliance partner airlines, including American Airlines.

Using Reward Flight Saver flights, you can book round-trip flights within Europe starting at 8,000 Avios points and 35 pounds (about $45). (You must have earned at least one Avios point in the previous 12 months to qualify.)

If you have points left over, you can get a great value by redeeming them for short flights within the U.S.

Watch out for

The card has a $95 annual fee that isn’t waived the first year. But you’ll earn 50,000 bonus Avios after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening.

If you spend an additional $7,000 within 12 months (for a total of $10,000), you’ll get 25,000 more Avios. And you could earn yet another 25,000 bonus Avios after you spend $20,000 total on purchases within your first year from account opening. All together, that’s a 100,000 Avios offer—albeit with a pretty high spending requirement for the first year.

British Airways may charge a high fuel surcharge in addition to the taxes and other fees that most airlines charge on rewards flights.

Combined, the fees with British Airways could cost over $1,000 for trans-Atlantic trips. While they likely won’t be that high within Europe, you may need to do some research and planning to find ways to avoid or minimize the fees.

Also, this card has some travel and purchase coverage, but it may not have trip interruption or cancellation insurance.

How to use it

Get the card before your trip starts so you have time to meet the minimum spending requirement and get the Avios points, which could take up to eight weeks to get into your account.

If you have another card that offers trip interruption or cancellation insurance, you may want to use that one to book your travel to Europe then switch to the British Airways Visa Signature® Card to make everyday purchases once you’re overseas.

What to look for in a card when using credit cards in Europe

While there are many travel credit cards to choose from, if you’re traveling abroad you’ll almost certainly want a few features: no foreign transaction fees and an EMV chip. All the cards above meet these two criteria.

The former can save you money on each purchase you make outside the U.S. and the latter may be a requirement as some shops can’t accept cards that don’t have an EMV chip.

Using these features as a starting point, we narrowed the options further by looking for cards with the following three characteristics:

  • It’s a Visa® or Mastercard®: Although major retailers may accept a variety of cards, more foreign merchants accept credit cards from Visa® and Mastercard® than cards from other issuers.
  • It offers travel benefits: A robust travel credit card offers features such as lost luggage reimbursement, emergency assistance services and auto rental insurance.
  • There’s a rewards program: Just because you’re traveling doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get rewarded when making purchases. 

Bottom line

If you’re looking for new credit card offers for an upcoming trip to Europe, try to avoid cards that have foreign transaction fees and don’t come with an EMV chip.

Then, you may want to start by planning your itinerary. Those flying from one country to another, or looking to book hotels in several major cities, may want to choose a credit card that aligns with those goals. Otherwise, cards with a less stringent rewards program might make the most sense.

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