Bank transfers are a safe payment method that may be used in most instances as an alternative for a credit card payment or other form of payment. While international money transfers via banks are less common than card payments, they could pose a cheaper alternative and for the most part.
Paying for international travel: bank transfer vs credit card
Credit cards provide a secure and convenient way to make payments internationally, and are the default way for most to handle their overseas travel expenses, but they are not always the best solution. The cost of using a credit card abroad consists of three different fees that make credit cards, in some instances, cost more than 10% of the transaction’s total value.
We often get caught up in simply racking up credit card points and miss the “hidden charges”. During my research for this post, I realized how much “extra” I have been shelling out during my international trips.
I recall paying upwards of $1,000 for my Airbnb in Savannah, an easy $5,000+ for my Kenyan safari holiday, and so on and so forth using my local Indian credit / debit cards. Sometimes, it may not be possible to use any type of electronic payment. Some smaller cities like Kuching (in Malaysia) or Guangzhou (in China) were pretty much just cash only for me. In countries like Cuba, for example, I would only ever recommend carrying cash in US dollars.
It’s possible to save on fees by paying via international bank transfer and, these days, it’s increasingly common for tour operators and cruises to accept a transfer to their bank as a payment method. However, it’s important to consider the pros and cons. Does paying via a bank transfer come with more risk? Is it worth the extra hassle? And are there any alternative payment methods worth considering?
What are the costs of using a credit card internationally?
When using a credit card in a foreign country, there are three types of fees to look out for, all of which can have a big impact on the amount you pay. This is something even I wasn’t aware of and I have been traveling on my own for over a decade.
These are the factors impacting foreign exchange charges on cards:
- The foreign transaction fee applied by your credit card supplier. On average, it’s around 3% for using a credit card abroad. Most credit cards have a foreign transaction fee but there are some credit cards which apply none (this heavily depends on your country – more on this later).
- The FX markup applied by your card provider on the currency exchange. Visa and Mastercard actually convert the FX at quite a modest FX markup – around 0.25% – but some card issuers add an FX markup on top of this. Be sure to check with your provider as this fee is ‘hidden’ in the exchange rate and won’t be specified in your policy documents like other fees due to it being a ‘fluctuating rate’.*
- Card surcharges applied by the merchant for accepting credit cards. Merchants themselves are charged higher fees for accepting international credit cards and oftentimes throughout Africa, Asia and America they will add an extra fee to customers in order to cover this. Merchants in the UK & EU are now, by law, prohibited to add card surcharges but in other countries they’re usually between 2-5%.
Let’s take an example where a Balinese travel tour adds a 3% fee for accepting international credit cards.
|Tour Cost||Foreign Transaction Fee||FX Markup||Merchant Credit Card Fee||Total Fees|
*If your card has been issued in the EU, regulation requires credit card companies to provide you with information that enables you to compare their FX markup with the actual exchange rate (as issued by the ECB – European Central Bank).
What are the costs of using a bank transfer internationally?
A tour operator will incur significantly less charges for accepting a bank transfer than they would a credit or even a debit card. Therefore, they are unlikely to add any extra fees for accepting a bank transfer. What’s more, there’s no chance that you’ll be stung by a foreign currency transaction fee, like the 3% which is usually applied for using a credit card abroad and even when using debit cards internationally.
The one major fee that will remain however is the FX markup. And, depending on the provider you use to make international bank transfers, can vary anywhere from 0.5% to 7%. The FX markup might also be accompanied by a fixed international wire fee.
Therefore, the payment provider you choose will heavily influence how much you’ll have to pay in international bank transfer fees.
The only times I have used bank transfers is to pay for expensive tours like our trip to Switzerland, safaris in Africa & India. Also it depends on who you are paying. If it’s a trusted safari company like – Pugdundee holidays, I can pay with confidence.
Also when I pay in person – by visiting the tour office, it is easy to build trust and pay using bank transfer – this ensures safety as well as saving on unnecessary card fees.
Be sure to check if any extra fees apply for sending money via bank transfer from your country. Frustratingly, India introduced a tax on all foreign remittances, including when sending money abroad for overseas tour packages, where the buyer is taxed at 5% at source (when PAN is furnished), or at 10% (where PAN is not furnished)!
What are the costs of using a Wise transfer internationally?
International money transfers are provided by a multitude of providers, all of which are trying to take business away from banks by offer a cheaper alternative to sending money internationally. The best known company supplying such services nowadays is Wise- a company specializing in money transfers multi currency accounts, who are also offering an international debit card.
Let’s revisit our example of paying a £1,000 Balinese tour operator bill using Wise or a service like Wise…
|Paying With a Bank||Paying With Wise|
If you made the transfer with Lloyds Bank, a 3.55% FX markup is applied.
In addition to the FX markup, Lloyd’s charges a £9.50 fixed payment fee for transfers to Indonesia.
A £1,000 bill in Bali would incur an additional £45.50 in charges.
If you made the transfer with neobank Wise, a 0.56% FX markup is applied.
In addition to the FX markup, Wise charges a £0.46 fixed payment fee for transfers to Indonesia.
A £1,000 bill in Bali would incur an additional £6.06 in charges.
By removing two of the three major fees associated with international credit card transactions, it is no surprise to see the cost has reduced, and in both instances, an international bank transfer proves cheaper than using a credit card abroad. However, savings are not as much when you use a normal bank like Lloyds vs a currency specialist like Wise.
In this example, the cost of paying for the Balinese bill with a Wise bank transfer is just £6.06, compared to credit card fees of £96.60. That’s a difference of £90.54. An increasing number of tour operators are specifically advertising that they will accept Wise as a payment method (more on this below).
Victoria, from MyAustraliaTrip, says
“What most people don’t know is that you don’t even need to have money in your own Wise account to make a transfer. You can transfer directly from your own bank account and use Wise to send the money anywhere in the world. This makes Wise incredibly useful when it comes to travelling and I often use it to directly transfer money for accommodation or other payments which I normally wouldn’t be able to do if I didn’t have a local bank account.”
Be sure to do your research to see if Wise is available in your country and understand exactly what they can and can’t offer.
In India, I can register with Wise for bank transfers as a payment method but there are still limitations on the service. The Wise multi currency account (you cannot load INR to a Wise account) and Wise debit card is not available. Travellers from the UK, Europe, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand seem to have no problem accessing any of their services. There are other services who do accept customers from India like Currencies Direct who have an office in Mumbai.
Is a bank transfer with Wise the cheapest way to pay for travel expenses?
While the information above demonstrates that in some situations it is definitely better to use bank transfer as a payment method and select an operator or a currency broker to make that payment, it really does depend on your credit card and your overseas recipient to make a final determination on this topic. Not all money transfer companies are alike and there are many different components to consider.
Whilst the majority are, not all cards are expensive as an international payment method. Below we have sampled specific cards from various countries to show you how different their offering and fees are:
Credit Card FX Fees
Take a look at some of the standard credit card fees around the world as we continue with our example of a 3% merchant fee applied for accepting credit cards.
Are Low-Fee International Card Payments Possible?
With the right credit card and no merchant processing fees, yes.
You’ll never know for sure if the merchant will apply a credit/debit card processing fee and ultimately, aside from avoiding tour operators who apply one, you have little influence over the fee charged by the merchant if you decide to pay by card.
You can, however, reduce the fees charged by the card issuer if you select the best possible credit card for international use.
The majority of credit cards levy a foreign transaction fee and apply an FX markup above the rate applied by Visa or Mastercard when using a credit card internationally. Nevertheless, there are a handful of very good options, and if you’re a frequent international traveler, they’re certainly worth exploring.
Daniel of Layer Culture explains why a Revolut card is one of his main travel companions, “When it comes to travelling and spending money abroad, transaction fees can easily rack up without you fully knowing. When travelling with a debit card and you are from the UK, a Revolut card is your best friend since there are no fees when it comes to paying for items abroad.
Not only that, but you also get the Mastercard/Visa rate of the day when it comes to local currency conversions.”
To conclude, the key thing to watch out for when using a credit card internationally is the merchant card processing fee. Even low-cost FX credit cards are expensive when one is applied. When they’re not, they prove an excellent low-cost option.
Top tip to choosing a travel credit card
Credit cards that provide airline or hotel points aren’t necessarily the cheapest when used abroad. Look specifically for credit cards that charge no international transaction fees if your aim is to reduce cost.
Credit cards offers more protection than bank transfers too
While using credit cards abroad do prove more expensive, they generally offer a greater level of protection compared to other payment methods, though this depends on the country your credit card is issued.
The UK provides some of the best protection to consumers through section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act. There is no equivalent regulation in the USA, but market forces see top credit card companies provide similar protection schemes.
Section 75 in the UK provides protection for credit card purchases between £100 and £30,000. The Act stipulates that credit card providers are jointly responsible, along with the supplier of the goods or services, for any breach of contract or misrepresentation. It doesn’t matter whether you bought something in the UK or abroad, you still receive the same protection. So if a tour operator has scammed you or did not deliver the service they promised, you should be protected under section 75.
You may also be covered under section 75 for the total cost of a bill (between £100 and £30,000) even if just the deposit was paid via credit card. So it can be a good idea to use your credit card for your deposit and pay the rest of your bill by a lower-cost alternative.
However, there are some important things to be aware of:
- Section 75 does not apply when you book a hotel, tour or holiday through a payment processor or third party like PayPal or Hotels.com (check to see if they have their own buyer protection policies).
- Services must be booked in the name of the cardholder. So if your partner has booked a tour and your credit card was used to pay for it, section 75 would not apply.
- You’re not covered if you use your credit card to withdraw cash and use the cash to pay for a good or service.
- The country that your card is issued may not have an equivalent to section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act in the UK
In addition to consumer credit protection schemes, which may or may not be available in your country, there is another form of protection that covers both credit and debit card transactions. This is known as the ‘chargeback’ scheme. It is not enforced by law but is part of Card Scheme Rules, which participating banks subscribe to. Rules may vary between the Visa, Mastercard and American Express networks. Both Wise and Revolut work with Visa/Mastercard to operate the chargeback scheme should something be wrong with one of your transactions.
Unlike section 75 in the UK, chargeback doesn’t mean there is joint liability on the card company. As a result, you can get your money back from the merchant’s bank if the money is there to be recovered but there are no guarantees.
Ashlea J. Russell of She Roams About stresses the importance of safety,
“When booking hotels I always prefer to make my reservations by credit card. Most banks and credit card providers have dedicated teams to help you if fraud happens. They can conduct an investigation, reverse the charges, and cancel your card immediately and issue you with a totally new one.”
Does this mean bank transfers come with increased risk?
Whilst bank transfers have clearly demonstrated they’re often a cheaper payment method than using credit cards internationally, it’s important to consider the risk vs reward.
Paying via cash, cheque and bank transfer offers the least amount of buyer protection.
Take into account when paying via bank transfer:
- You’re more open to human error. There’s a chance you may accidentally key in the wrong details and your money is sent to the incorrect account. If this happens, you may not get your money back.
- If the tour operator, cruise or whatever merchant you’re paying is not legitimate or the service is not as promised, no protection is afforded when paying via bank transfer.
For these reasons, if you do opt for a bank transfer, be sure to double or triple check the details you’re paying before you send and only pay via bank transfer to organizations which are highly reputable and you trust. Always ask for a copy of the invoice and ensure you’re provided with a receipt once the transfer has gone through.
Where can I pay via an international bank transfer?
You’ll find that higher value excursions can generally be paid via bank transfer. Though it will always depend on each provider and it’s worth confirming what payment methods are accepted before you book.
Some of the options you get to pay Safari’s include:
- Debit/Credit Card. Our research shows that operators add somewhere between a 3-5% fee for accepting card payments. Lion King Adventures in Tanzania adds a 3% credit card fee. Dim Tours in Sri Lanka adds a 3.5% credit card fee. Joagro Safaris in Tanzania adds a 5% fee.
- PayPal. Depending on where your operator is based, it might be possible to pay via PayPal. However, be aware of hefty PayPal fees which can make payments to other countries a costly 8% of your transfer. As demonstrated by this guide on how to withdraw money from PayPal to your bank.
- PesaPal. This is East Africa’s answer to PayPal. The operator usually sends you a PesaPal link and you can make payment via card. Usually, as demonstrated by Kabiza Safaris in Uganda, a 3.5% fee is applied for PesaPal.
- Bank Transfer. Safari companies usually allow you to settle your booking with a payment to their bank. Remember, you don’t have to use your bank to conduct a bank transfer. You can still use a specialist company like Wise to achieve a much smaller FX markup. There may still be a small payment fee and in terms of the speed of the transfer, it will still take a few business days.
- Wise Transfer. This is quickly becoming the preferred payment method for tour operators and customers alike. Fees are usually around 0.5%. Tour companies in South Africa, East Africa, Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia are now accepting Wise transfers. Lifetime Safaris in Uganda even allow you to pay in a variety of currencies with Wise, including GBP, EUR, USD, AUD and NZD. There will be no other payment fees and transfers are made almost instantly.
The majority of safari tour operators prefer to use their bank as a payment method or receive funds to their Wise account. If you’re paying for a tour in Africa, there’s a strong chance you’ll have to pay the operator in USD. So you can either arrange the currency conversion with your bank (expensive) or a specialist provider like Wise (cheap).
A fast-growing number of operators now have their own Wise account and accept transfers over the Wise network, removing expensive international payments fees and guaranteeing a fair currency exchange markup in the process.
Cruises tend to accept quite a variety of payment methods, including bank transfer. Big cruise lines, like P&O, have sophisticated client portals which allow you to view the outstanding balance of your cruise and manage your payments accordingly.
Payment methods for a cruise include:
- Credit/Debit Card. Most cruises accept debit and credit cards. However, depending on the total cost of the cruise it may not be possible to pay in full. For protection, it can be a good idea to pay your holding deposit via credit card. Some cruises like Princess will charge your card monthly for an agreed amount until it’s paid.
- Bank Transfer. It’s very common for cruises to accept bank transfer, particularly if you are settling the total value of the cruise in one. Be sure to include any references required so the operator can allocate the funds to your account. In the US, Viking Cruises offer a 3.3% discount if you pay via bank transfer – another way of saying credit cards will be more expensive.
- Direct Debit (UK ) / Local Equivalent. Given the often sizable cost of a cruise, a number of cruise operators, like ROL, allow you to pay monthly via direct debit. Cruises often prefer this as it prevents their customers from forgetting to pay.
Given that cruise companies tend to be big organizations, it’s unlikely that they’ll have a Wise account to receive payments. Despite Wise being a superior service, Wise has only really gained traction with SMEs for now, which is why it’s more common among safari companies.
You can still use Wise to pay a cruise company via international bank transfer, it’s just faster and cheaper when the tour operator also has a Wise account. You’ll still likely make a significant saving on the FX markup but there may be a small payment fee and the transfer will take the usual longer length of time that a bank transfer does.
Car Hire companies may accept the following payment methods:
- PayPal. Convenient but should only be used if the car hire company is in your country, otherwise the same applies with regards to expensive international transfers on PayPal.
- Credit/Debit Card. Usually the only payment method that many car hire companies accept.
- Cash. You may have to jump through some more hoops to pay by cash.
Auto Europe only accepts card payment (but cannot charge more due to legislation).
Discover Cars accepts both PayPal and card payment (again will not charge more as they’re a European business).
Hertz accepts debit and credit card payments. Cash is possible but you’ll need to register for their Cash Deposit ID card.
It’s unlikely you’ll be able to pay for car hire via bank transfer.
It’s not often that hotels accept bank transfer as a payment method. You’ll likely have to pay for a hotel by the following methods:
- Credit/Debit Card. Whether you pay in advance or at the hotel, this is by far the most common method of payment. At some hotels, they’ll place a hold over your card for any breakages or use of the mini-bar.
- Cash. Even if you prefer to pay in cash, you might have to provide a credit card so the hotel can take a hold over the card for the duration of your stay.
- PayPal. If the hotel allows prepayment, popular online booking websites will let you pay via PayPal. This is most often in the country you’re from, which makes this both low-cost and convenient.
Before using a credit card in a foreign country, always ask yourself:
- Does my card provider add a foreign transaction fee?
- Does my card provider add a foreign exchange markup above the rate that Visa/Mastercard exchanges the currency?
- Is the operator going to apply a processing fee for paying via credit/debit card?
Ultimately, if the merchant does add a card processing fee, using a credit card internationally is expensive and you’ll pay more for using a card than you would a low-fee money transfer.
This is true, even if you have a low-fee international credit card which takes only 0.25% in fees, as card processing fees applied by a merchant are usually a minimum of 3%. Meaning total card fees will begin at 3.25%. If there is no merchant fee then 0.25% is a good deal, and even paying via bank transfer would cost you around 0.5% with Wise as standard and, to beat 0.25%, you’d need to negotiate a rate with a specialist currency company.
So overall, there’s no doubt that paying via bank transfer in some instances can prove worthwhile, especially if you have to make a fairly substantial payment for a trip excursion. Rather than losing money on fees to a financial institution, you can make your money go further for you.
However, weigh-up the cost-saving benefits against the potential risks of not paying with a credit card. Take into account whether it’s an organization that you trust and the level of credit card protection that is afforded to you in the country your card is issued.