Your credit card can probably help you get cash, a replacement card, or a place to stay during an emergency abroad. Here's how it works.

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When you’re travelling abroad, there are two cardinal rules: Never run out of cash, and whatever you do, don’t lose your passport.

But things happen. Whether you lost your wallet in a piranha-infested river while getting into a dugout canoe or had your purse stolen from a hotel room, suddenly being in a foreign country without cash is a scary situation that could happen to anyone.

Fortunately, Visa, Mastercard, and American Express have you covered. They all offer a surprisingly rich set of benefits to assist stranded travellers. It’s better to avoid needing these services, though, so this guide will also help you prepare for the unexpected.

Confirm information on file before you go

Before you travel, call your banks to notify them that you’re doing so, and in which countries you plan to use the cards. This allows them to update their records so that your purchases aren’t incorrectly flagged as fraudulent. It also allows you to verify the information they have on file for emergency cash purposes.

If you need to obtain emergency cash or a replacement card, the information you provide needs to match the bank’s records exactly. You don’t want to wait until you’re stranded in the Seychelles to discover that your details aren’t up to date with the bank.

Keep a copy of your cards

Without pulling out your wallet, can you name every card in it, along with the card numbers? If not, it’s a good idea to take a picture or photocopy of all of your cards before you lose them, so if necessary, it’s easier to cancel them later. While you’re doing that, it’s also a good idea to make a copy of your passport, consular visas, and other important travel documents.

Travel with multiple cards (with no foreign transaction fees)

The first rule of international travel is to avoid foreign transaction fees. The second rule is to expect the unexpected.

This includes your small, local credit union suddenly freaking out and shutting off your cards because there’s no possible way that you could really be in Japan. Right before a long holiday weekend. Even though you’ve been to Japan at least once a year for the previous three years. And because it’s a holiday weekend, there isn’t anyone around to turn your card back on. NOT THAT THIS HAS NEVER HAPPENED TO ME (and I definitely didn’t spend four days in Tokyo visiting only free places to which I could walk, and eating only vending machine food).

Even if you carry a really great debit card, like my favourite ATM-fee reimbursing Charles Schwab debit card, it’s still a good idea to have more than one bank account (with different banks) and different ATM cards. And, of course, more than one credit card, of more than one type. Don’t just bring two Visa cards; bring a Visa, a Mastercard and/or an American Express card. That way, in an emergency, you have multiple ways to get help.

Reduce your attack surface

In some cases, it’s unavoidable: You’re in transit, and at your most vulnerable. However, once you are established, it’s a good idea to leave most of your cards in a secure location (such as in the hotel safe at the front desk) and take only “walking around money” with you when you leave. This can make all the difference between a minor hassle and a major problem.

When you’re carrying everything, and at your most vulnerable, it’s best to distribute your money and cards in multiple locations. That way if some of your valuables are lost or stolen, you won’t lose all of them.

Emergency cash vs emergency assistance vs replacement cards

Getting help from your credit card companies should be viewed as an emergency service, not a cheap service. It’s there if you need it, and generally very good, but it’s better to avoid needing it in the first place.

Visa, Mastercard, and American Express all offer a concierge for Emergency Assistance. The specific services available will depend upon your card (the more premium your card, the more services are offered). However, the basics needed by most stranded travellers are covered by every card product: food, shelter, emergency transportation and emergency medical care. All three card companies can assist you in arranging these, which will be charged as purchases to your account.

The good news is, Emergency Assistance services can really come through in a pinch. Service providers who work with credit card companies are used to dealing with stranded travellers.

Better yet, the credit card companies don’t charge to provide emergency assistance to stranded travellers; these services are just part of the benefit of carrying the card. The bad news is that credit card providers are most focused on convenience, acceptance of their card product as payment, and the ability to do business in the English language. This means that the pricing isn’t always as cheap as you could otherwise find online and you’ll be limited in your selection. And, since these services are subject to your credit limit, it’s best to carry multiple cards to ensure sufficient funds.

Emergency cash is a service you can request through the concierge. If you ask for emergency cash, your credit card company can send you a wire via Western Union, MoneyGram, or similar. While you can pick up cash in local currency, and in as little as two hours, this service is not cheap! You’ll be charged for a cash advance plus wire transfer fees plus foreign transaction fees billed by the wire service (these are significant in the case of Western Union and MoneyGram).

Additionally, it’s harder to get banks to approve this service than other emergency services because cash is a higher risk to them. This service is subject to your credit card’s cash advance limit, and may be subject to additional limitations.

Emergency card replacement is exactly what it sounds like: Usually within 48 hours, a new card will be delivered via express courier to your hotel or guest house. While you generally won’t be charged for the card replacement service, you’ll often be billed about $US50 for shipping.

For example, suppose you were expertly pickpocketed on the train, and you’re now stranded in a strange city with no wallet or money. One call to the concierge, and your credit card company comes to the rescue! You’re put up in a 4-star hotel with a restaurant and gift shop, both of which allow you to charge purchases to your room. They will send a car to pick you up, billed to your room of course. You’ll have everything you need, but it won’t be cheap – it’s all conveniently billed to your credit card account. Your bank wouldn’t approve emergency cash (only emergency purchases), but 48 hours later, a replacement card shows up, along with a $US50 shipping charge for each. It was a lot more expensive than you planned, but your vacation wasn’t ruined, and the experience will be something to laugh about later.

How to get help

The following are phone numbers that you can call to get help:

  • Visa: 1-800-VISA-911 (1-800-847-2911)
  • Mastercard: 1-800-MCASSIST (1-800-622-7747)
  • American Express: For replacement cards, call 1-800-964-8542. For Global Assist, which can help with emergency cash, you can call 1-800-554-2639

You might notice that these numbers are all US toll-free numbers.These are not reachable when calling from outside the US, but there’s a workaround: Skype! You can use Skype to call US toll-free numbers at no charge, even when calling from overseas. Note that the phone robots can be very frustrating to use with Skype, so it’s best to just dial 0 until you get a human.

Visa, Mastercard, and American Express also offer local numbers in many countries around the world. It isn’t a bad idea to call in advance to ask for the local phone number in the country (or countries) where you’ll be travelling. That way, you can call from a local phone for help.

Despite the advertising, don’t expect your bank to show up in a helicopter ready to save the day. Instead, expect them to provide a limited set of services designed for stranded travellers or those with medical needs. They will be executed relatively well, but they won’t be cheap!

Find the right credit card for your needs, travel or otherwise, with CreditCards.com’s free CardMatch tool »

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