And the winner is … United Mileage Plus. And cash.
This year, "More for Your Money" has concentrated on credit cards that can be used abroad. It can be tricky because U.S. cards, which have a magnetic stripe, aren't always accepted abroad. Much of the rest of the world uses credit cards with a smart chip that require a PIN to complete a transaction.
U.S. cards are supposed to work abroad but don't always, readers have told us (and I know from my experience). So we've been hot on the trail of chip and PIN cards available in the U.S. (the choices for leisure travelers are slim) and other financial tools to cover your bases.
A recent trip to London and a short trip to France gave me a chance to try out some of the alternatives. I took with me a USAA Chip and PIN Platinum MasterCard, the new Travelex Multi-currency Cash Passport Prepaid MasterCard; a Chase Sapphire credit card, a United Mileage Plus credit card, an American Express card (those three magnetic striped); a British Airways Chip and Signature card, plus ATM cards.
Bottom line: After all my wailing and gnashing of teeth, I had consistent success with the United Mileage Plus card. No chip, no PIN, just an old-fashioned (although new to me) card. The other tools in my financial tool chest proved problematic. Note that I never used any of these cards in an automated kiosk, which is where the magnetic stripe sometimes can be problematic.
Here is a brief report card, by no means complete, on what I found.
Prebooking Eurostar tickets online, London-Paris: I tried to use my USAA Chip and PIN card; it did not work, but I wasn't concerned because I had read that Chip and PIN doesn't always work well for online purchases. I turned to the Chase Sapphire card, which worked and presumably earned me double points for my travel purchase.
Thumbs up: Chase Sapphire, which doesn't charge a foreign transaction fee.
Thumbs down: USAA Chip and PIN MasterCard. For details, see below.
Prebooking train tickets on First Great Western rail service, London to Newbury, England: Buoyed by my success with Chase Sapphire, I tried to use that. No dice. Tried the USAA card. No dice. Finally succeeded with my United Mileage Plus.
Thumbs up: United Mileage Plus, which doesn't charge a foreign transaction fee.
Thumbs down: Chase Sapphire and USAA. When I called Chase to find out why the Sapphire wouldn't work, the representative didn't have an explanation.
When I called USAA after returning to the U.S., the rep said I hadn't activated my card. But my records show that on May 11, I did just that and, in fact, knew my PIN number (because I had set it up). This was resolved ultimately, but if you have a new card, it's a good idea to check it out before you leave the country.
Buying two SIM cards in London from a mobile phone shop: The Travelex card, preloaded with pounds and euros, worked like a champ at the Paddington Station T-Mobile (a.k.a. EE) in London. It also worked for train tickets to Chatham, England, and admission to a museum there.
Thumbs up: Travelex card
Thumbs down: Mobile phone companies that won't unlock your phone because you have a year left on your contract.
Admission to Musée d'Orsay, Paris: My chance to use the euros on the Travelex card (and, by the way, Eurostar offers 2-for-1 admission to many museums in Paris). Not only was it rejected, saying carte morte, but it also brought down the ticket seller's computer on a busy Saturday morning. I tried to use it again in the gift shop with the same result. A Travelex MasterCard rep says it might have been the card (and offered to send me a new one, but I was home by that time), or it could have been the museum's system. In both cases, I resorted to the United Mileage card and had no problem.
Thumbs up: United
Thumbs down: Maybe the Travelex preloaded card or maybe Musée d'Orsay's system, but definitely the museum-goers who looked at me murderously.
Dinner at Bizarro, London: This little Italian joint on Craven Road not far from Paddington Station was a port in a storm, but a tasty one. My United card worked with no problem and, a couple of days later, also worked at the Mandarin a little farther down Craven Road.
Thumbs up: United, Bizarro and the Mandarin
Dinner at the Victoria pub on Strathearn Place, London This was the easiest transaction of all. First, it was cash. And second, I let my sister pay.
Thumbs up: Sister with enough cash to pay the bill
Some cards never left my wallet, including the British Airways Chip and Signature card (my card for ultra emergencies, which I didn't have) and my American Express Green card, which charges a foreign transaction fee. I carried enough cash (about $200) to make small purchases and, of course, had my ATM cards for my checking and savings accounts.
I'm not sure I have yet hit on the correct combination of tools to ensure smooth sailing in every situation, unless, of course, it's a charitable, local-currency-carrying sister.