Eight Ways to Keep Your Cards Safe During Vacation Travels

Travel season is theft season. While you're checking in, debating over dinner or worrying about the exchange rate, criminals could be targeting your cards.

"When it comes to protecting your plastic on vacation, a lot of it comes down to common sense," says Peter Greenberg, author of "Tough Times, Great Travels: The Travel Detective's Guide to Hidden Deals, Unadvertised Bargains, and Great Experiences."

You already know the basics of card safety: Keep your cards with you. Be aware of what's going on around you. Hide card and PIN numbers. Hang onto those receipts.

But since it's your vacation, make it a point to try a few new things. Here are eight ways to help safeguard your cards from thieves, whether they're Australian spielers, German langfingers, Brazilian ladrãos or good ol' American crooks:

No. 1: Consider sharing your itinerary with your card banks.

If you live in Manhattan and try to charge dinner in San Francisco, your card issuer may suspect fraud and suspend your card.

Giving a card issuer a rough itinerary of an upcoming trip has become "a no-brainer" for travelers, especially for those going abroad, says Greenberg.

One pro tip: Pad an extra few days or even a week onto your return date, says Amy Chen, online editor at Frommers.com. That way, if something happens and you can't get home as planned, you have the resources to book extra hotel nights or make new travel arrangements, she says. "When you're stranded is when you really need your credit card," she says.

No. 2: Pack smart.

Pack your wallet the way you pack your suitcase: Take only what you actually need. You probably don't need every card.

One lineup veteran travelers recommend:

  • A debit or ATM card. They're good for getting cash and especially handy if you want to receive your money in a foreign currency.
  • One or two major credit cards that are widely used. Check before you leave to be sure your picks are typically accepted where you're going.
  • A backup credit card. Just in case.

One strategy: Carry credit cards issued by different banks. That way, if one card goes haywire, you still have options.

No. 3: Think about lowering your cash withdrawal limits.

Debit cards are handy for getting cash, and they're also one of the best ways to change currencies, says Danielle Fagre Arlowe, senior vice president with the American Financial Services Association.  And "most debit cards, especially if they have a MasterCard or Visa logo, will work at cash machines abroad," she says.

With an ATM or debit card, your bank probably places a limit on how much cash you can withdraw in any 24-hour period. You might want to call up and temporarily lower that amount if you're going to be traveling with the card, says Greenberg.

That way, if your debit card or card information is stolen and you're quick to report it, "you've mitigated your loss," he says.

Another smart move: Have a special travel account that's not linked to your regular checking and savings accounts, says Chen. Deposit only the money you want to spend on vacation, and use that debit card during your trip. That way, if someone cleans out the account, your vacation money is gone, but you won't be destitute when you get home.

No. 4: Jot down emergency phone numbers.

Your wallet's gone. Maybe your phone, too. Now you need to report those stolen cards. What number do you dial?

Keep "a list of phone numbers for your credit card companies in case your wallet is lost or stolen, so you can immediately put a hold on those accounts," says Greenberg. "And keep that list separately from your other cards." See CreditCards.com's Wallet Recovery Kit for details.

In a pinch, an Internet cafe and your issuer's website can provide the phone numbers you need. But having everything at your fingertips makes a tricky situation that much easier.

No. 5: Ask hotels about card security.

The hotel industry accounted for 8% of card hacks in 2011, down from 38% in 2009, but still a substantial number, according to reports from Trustwave, a data security consulting firm. To protect yourself, "always use a credit card, not a debit card," so your bank account is protected, Greenberg recommends.

Also ask if the hotel computers "have either encryption or tokenization technology, which protects private information," he advises.

Watch your own back, too. "It's your responsibility as the cardholder to check your statement every month, and keep an eye out for several smaller charges," says Greenberg.

Want to check your account or card balances while you're away? Don't do it at Internet cafes and public computers, where security may be lax, says Chen.

One smart move: Set up alerts that will email or text you when your cards are being used or when your balance hits a certain amount, she says.

No. 6: Don't put all your cards in one basket. Or wallet.

Good advice any time, but especially when you travel. "Keep at least one card in a separate location," says Greenberg. That could mean splitting cards between you and a spouse or family member, using the room safe or just putting one card in a different pocket or bag.

The upshot: If your main cards are lost or stolen, you still have a backup.

When you carry cards, keep them close to your body, says Arlowe. That means a front pocket (rather than back), if you're a guy. And if you're a woman carrying a purse, keep it with you -- don't put it down. "And always keep it zipped or closed so that no one can just reach in," she says.

One strategy to consider: a money belt. "There are some cute and stylish ones out there," says Nikki Junker, social media coordinator for the Identity Theft Resource Center.  On a recent trip, she found one that was both thin and beautiful. "I wore it the entire time."

No 7: Practice safe ATMing. 

When you hit a cash machine, keep your wits about you. That means selecting ATMs in safe, public areas and visiting during daylight hours. You can also opt for machines that are in a lobby, rather than out on the street, says Chen.

As you do at your hometown bank, look out for people who could be cribbing card numbers or peeping PINs. Beware of strangers plying the "did you drop this?" maneuver, she says.

No. 8: Use your eyes (and some tech).

Do you sign receipts without reading them? That can add up to one expensive habit. Instead, give receipts a once-over before you leave the store or stall, says Arlowe. Verify the amount, make sure everything's filled in before you sign it and check that you got your card back before leaving the store, she says.

Some issuers are putting the numbers on the back of the card (instead of the front), so those digits aren't visible when you slap that card on the counter, says Chen, "It's another way the banks are helping people protect their personal information," she says.

If your card doesn't do that, when you make a purchase, place your plastic on the counter number-side down, she says.

And pocket those receipts so that you have them when the bills arrive stateside.

Confused by receipts in another currency? Before you leave for your trip, pick up a smartphone app that will do the math for you. You can play with it as part of your trip prep, so you get the hang of using it on the fly.

That way, on your vacation, you can focus on important things. Like finding the best place for your next meal.