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Choose the best credit card for summer travel

Picking the right credit card for summer travel could save you a bundle of money, rack up rewards, and avoid embarrassing situations.

By John UlzheimerContributor / June 22, 2013

A man pulls out his credit card to make a purchase at a shop in Colombo, Sri Lanka, earlier this month. Choosing the right credit card for travel can save you loads of money.

Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters/File

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Your bags are packed, the tank is full, and hotel room reserved. Have you chosen the right credit card to take along?

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Simply grabbing any credit card just won't do. If you are strategic with your choice of credit cards, not only can you rack up on rewards but you may also be able to save yourself a bundle of money and avoid embarrassing situations.

First and foremost, whatever credit card you take with you has to be open and usable. That might seem obvious, but credit card issuers have a habit of shutting down credit cards because of long-term inactivity. If the card is closed for a reason other than something negative on your credit reports, no notice of the closure is required. So, before picking a card you haven't used for a while, call the bank to confirm it’s still open.

While you’re on the phone, confirm the card's credit limit and interest rate.

The reason you’ll want to confirm the credit limit is two-fold. First, you want to know the card's spending power (no point in having a $500 credit limit on a $2,000 vacation). Second, if the credit limit is too low then your summer travel spending could either max out the credit line or, at least, leverage it heavily. Neither of these things is good for your credit scores.

Consider choosing a card that has the highest credit limits – or, if you plan on carrying a balance from one month to the next, pick the card with the lowest interest rate. Again, this sounds obvious but most people have no idea what their current interest rate is. You can find your interest rate on your most recent statement or you can call the issuer and ask.

If you're driving to Canada or Mexico, look at cards that don't charge extra for foreign transactions.

If you don’t have any decent credit cards, then it might be time to open a new one in advance of your travel. Credit card incentive programs change often but many issuers are offering zero interest introductory periods ranging from six to 15 months to applicants who have solid credit reports and credit scores. That means if your travel debt cannot be paid off in full before the due date you’ll at least avoid paying interest.

Some credit card issuers will even give you reward bumps or bonuses if you use your card at gas stations, hotels, and other retailers commonly frequented while you’re on the road. This is a good way to get maximum reward value from purchases you were going to make, anyway.

– Formerly of FICO, Equifax, and Credit.com, John Ulzheimer is senior contributor for Credit Card Insider, a credit card website, and writes frequently for SmartCredit.com and Mint.com

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