Last Updated on September 18, 2019 by Jeremy
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The issues that go along with spending upwards of $75,000 on a vacation is not something most travelers ever have to consider. But for our 18 month trip around the world, we were faced with some new challenges for this same reason.
While the argument for how much a journey like this should cost is best served for other articles, one of the biggest struggles long-term travelers have to face are the bank fees that are associated with such a large amount of spending.
After many years of paying comically high fees without any other recourse, banks are finally starting to understand the fact that people do not want to pay foreign transaction fees to access their money. We thought we found a great policy with our bank, PNC, but the honeymoon was soon over just 6 months into our journey as the terms were recently changed back to the archaic fee structure we were trying to get away from.
A Long History of Being Screwed
In the past, it was practically impossible for travelers to get an ATM card or credit card that did not charge a minimum of 3% in foreign transaction fees. That would mean that the $75,000 trip mentioned above would have no less than $2,250 going to various different banks (not to mention the extra fees non-branch ATMs sometimes charge).
Considering $2,250 is as much as most travelers will spend on a whole two-week vacation (or longer if traveling domestically), we cannot help but feel insulted by paying this just to access our own money when we want.
Credit cards were first to start charging 0% in foreign transaction fees, with Capital One being the best for several years. While the reward points were non-existent, it was a start. Since then almost every major travel rewards card we've opened for our points run has charged 0% in foreign transaction fees, and we've been using them more than ever while abroad. (Ironically, this now makes Capital One a useless brand for travelers, too).
But having a credit card with no foreign transaction fees still doesn't cover the large amount we'd still have to pay to access our cold, hard cash.
PNC Comes In And Saves The Day, For A While
In recent years we've been banking with PNC. Their staff were always wonderful, call centers seemed to actually be managed in the USA, and overall had no issues with our free accounts.
Instead of the 3% fee other banks charge, we had the perk of having a $5 flat rate at foreign ATMs. While a large amount on the surface, this would be less than 3% as long as the withdrawal was for more than $167 US, something we can easily handle in most countries.
But for the 18-month trip, being faced with hundreds of $5 charges, likely to the tune of $1,000+, was still not something we wanted to experience. Since we had trouble opening a Charles Schwabb account, the only free service available as of now that has 0% foreign transaction fees, we decided to stick with it and deal with the fees.
To our surprise, when we called PNC to put the foreign travel notification for the trip, they offered us an account upgrade that had NO FOREIGN TRANSACTION FEES and up to $8/month in foreign ATM fee returns.
The catch? All we had to do was keep $1,500 in the account over the month or else pay a $10/month fee each month we were under. A low amount and a fee that is the same as only two ATM withdrawals? You cannot ask for much better. Even if we said screw the minimum limit, our trip would only cost $180 in bank fees at most.
Now we're talking.
For the first 6 months of our trip, we were enjoying paying absolutely $0 to any bank to access our money. Then overnight, it all changed.
We received notification from PNC that the rules were changing, and our account was forced into a minimum balance requirement of $2,000 per month to be free and only two ATM withdrawals a month would be free. After that we're back to the $5/withdrawal charge.
To continue receiving unlimited free withdrawals, we'd have to upgrade to the account with a minimum balance of $5,000, something we are not comfortable with being linked to a tangible card we carry on the road. Taking into account the number of withdrawals needed to balance out the monthly fee for being under the minimum on that offering, we decided it wasn't worth the hassle.
Frustrating Is The Only Word
With no other alternatives we are staying with the account. We feel incredibly screwed over by the sudden policy change that was so eagerly upsold to us just a few months ago. As much as it is within a bank's right to change their rules, any time we are affected it hits close to home, and now having to pay $200 to $300 in ATM fees over the next year is not something we can take very lightly (afterall, they just took 2-5 days of travel from us in an instant after offering us all of our fees back willingly at the beginning of this trip).
Now it seems that the Charles Schwab online account is the only one that still offers 100% foreign transaction fee refunds (as of Dec 2013). We can't switch until we get home, but you can rest assured our PNC account will be canceled and we'll switch the moment we are able.
So I hope PNC enjoys the $200-$300 they get from us on this trip, because after we've finished traveling they will never see another penny from us again.
Perhaps it would have been better for them had they not offered an upgraded account to us in the first place. We'd be paying higher fees, of course, but at least we would be oblivious to the alternative. Now we're just angry.
We can only hope that there are other travelers who feel the same way as us, and give the banks a message that this fee is completely unacceptable. Only then will they start realizing that people do not want to pay insane fees to access their money when they want.
About the Author: Jeremy is a full-time travel writer based in Pittsburgh and primary author of this site. He has been to 70+ countries on five continents and seeks out new food, adventure activities, and off-the-beaten-path experiences wherever he travels.