A reader wrote to me:
For credit cards, HSBC is by FAR the best for foreign purchases but not sure if it is because it is HSBC Premier rather then regular HSBC. HSBC Premier gives me the same exchange rate as what they get when exchanging money between other banks with no mark-up. It is crazy how much I save. I’ve found Chase to be the most expensive and American Express somewhere in between. The difference in exchange rates negates any benefit from earning miles etc even though all the cards say no foreign transaction fee.
Many American credit cards charge a 3% fee when the origin of the charge is foreign. This is frustrating, and swamps the value of the miles you earn usually since one mile is rarely worth three cents.
You’ll get hit with the fee even when the charge is in dollars, as I found out when I paid a 3% fee on the taxes charge on an Avios booking made at BA.com in dollars.
But there are several cards that advertise no charge for foreign transactions. The Sapphire Preferred, Ink Bold, and Ink Plus all mention the benefit in their marketing.
But there are two ways banks make money on foreign charges. The first is the fee they might charge. The second way banks make money on your foreign purchases is by converting the purchase into dollars at a bad rate for you. This is what the emailer suspected Chase was doing.
To test out how much of that was happening, I’ve made two purchases with my Ink Plus in New Zealand.
The first purchase was NZD 260 for a 440 foot bungee jump. The second was NZD 109 for a Milford Sound cruise. In both cases, those amounts were the exact amount charged to me since New Zealand follows the enlightened practice of including all taxes in quoted prices.
Both are showing as pending in my Chase account online.
Doing a little math, the conversion rate was 1 NZD to $0.8289. (I’ll be using “$” to denote US dollars and “NZD” for New Zealand dollars.)
How does this compare to the prevailing rate? The easiest way to check is to google “1 NZD to USD.”
Google says I would need to spend 84 cents to buy 1 NZD. Chase sold me 1 NZD for less than 83 cents! For whatever reason, Chase offered me a better deal than the prevailing rate.
Maybe you could see this more easily if we look at one $1 should buy me according to google and Chase.
Google: $1 = 1.19 NZD
Chase: $1 = 1.21 NZD
Chase is clearly giving me an incredible deal. Even more so when you compare it changing money on the street.
Banks throughout Auckland and Queenstown show their prices for buying and selling dollars. The one I saw today in Queenstown would sell NZD for $0.8815. This is about 4% worse than the prevailing market rate according to google. (Remember the fewer dollars we spend for 1 NZD, the better.)
If I had taken dollars to a New Zealand bank and changed them to NZD to book my tours, I would have needed 369 NZD total. That would have cost me $325.27 at the bank. Chase charged me only $305.86.
Today in Queenstown, New Zealand, I was way better off paying for tours with my Ink Plus than I would have been changing American dollars or using another card with a 3% foreign transaction fee.
I’ve made that conclusion very specific because I am very surprised by the results of my experiment. I expected Chase to offer me about the same rate than if I had changed at a bank.
Clearly my results were different than the emailer’s experiments of splitting foreign charges halfway between Chase and American Express cards. He found both to offer a bad rate with American Express offering a slightly better exchange rate.
I do think New Zealand’s banks and change houses offer bad rates for cash, implying about a 3% fee. I generally notice rich world countries offer way worse exchange rates than developing countries. For instance, in Arequipa, Peru there are dozens of change shops that have only a 1% spread between their dollar buy and sell prices, meaning they are only shading about half a percent on each side.
Today in New Zealand dollars, I got a better deal by charging to my Ink Plus than I would have gotten from an exchange house. Your exchange rate may not be as good when you use a credit card for a foreign transaction.
But I was very happy to see that a “no foreign exchange fee” card like the Ink Plus didn’t try to make up for that lack of a fee with a bad exchange rate. A reader’s email made me fear that “no foreign exchange fee” cards might be a scam, but in my experience they aren’t.
I got a great exchange rate and paid no foreign exchange fee.