03/01/2012 06:37 am ET Updated Apr 30, 2012

Spring Is Near, Learning How to Save on Summer Vacations Is Right Here

Regardless of what dumb old Punxsutawney Phil has to say on the matter, spring training camps are open, which indicates to me that spring is here. That, of course, means it's time to start planning summer vacations (especially if you have international destinations in mind) because simply hoping to find cheap flights and hotel rooms won't cut it and spring not being eternal means summer will be here before you know it.

Before flight bookings, hotel reservations and possibly even choosing a destination, people interested in traveling abroad need to figure out how to avoid losing their hard-earned U.S. dollars in translation. Many people decide to simply exchange some cash at a local bank or hit an airport kiosk, and for them, this is when the costs associated with international travel start to rise unnecessarily.

"According to a Card Hub Currency Conversion Study, card networks (i.e., Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover) not only automatically offer some of the lowest exchange rates available, but they'll help you save around 15 percent compared to airport cash exchange services and 8 percent relative to trading in cash at a local bank. Given that Visa and MasterCard boast far broader international acceptance than AmEx or Discover, that means a Visa or MasterCard credit card should be your main spending vehicle while out of the country.

Before you cross "get foreign money" off your to-do list, it's important to understand that the Visa or MasterCard credit card currently residing in your wallet may not do. You see, over 90 percent of credit cards assess 2-3 percent surcharges for purchases made overseas or through foreign-based businesses, according to Card Hub data. You therefore need to make sure you have a Visa/MasterCard no foreign transaction fee credit card not only prior to departing, but also before making any bookings or reservations through foreign merchants.

But wait, what about cash?

If you find yourself asking this question, your concern is well placed. You won't be able to use plastic for everything while vacationing abroad. Interestingly enough, that's why you need a debit card. By getting a debit card on the Visa/MasterCard network that has low fees for international ATM withdrawals, you'll garner the low card network exchange rates, the ability to take out cash as you need it, as well as some peace of mind. Pickpockets are a common concern for international travelers, and not only does having a debit card mean you don't have to walk around with as much money as you would otherwise, but even if your card gets stolen, you won't be liable for any unauthorized charges. Cash is gone for good once lost or stolen.
Simply choosing the right vessels for converting money and spending it while on a summer vacation abroad will therefore save you a lot of green, both by lowering the cost of necessary expenditures and by decreasing liability. But make no mistake about it, there are other ways to save, or perhaps more fittingly, ways to avoid seeing costs rise unexpectedly.

One of the most common causes of post-trip bank account statement shock is something called dynamic currency conversion. This is when merchants offer to convert prices from the local currency into U.S. dollars. Don't be mistaken, this is not a courtesy; it's a sneaky way to profit off you. Merchants tend to use very high exchange rates when converting prices, which means you'd essentially be paying a hefty premium for relatively simple math. Using a cellphone or small pocket calculator to get a sense of how much things cost would be just as effective and much, much cheaper.

Ultimately, we all know the value of using travel comparison websites to find the cheapest flights, cheapest hotels, etc. When you combine the savings gleaned from such sites with the tips outlined here, you can basically watch your foreign travel bills shrink before your eyes. Just don't forget to inform your bank of your travel plans (or your cards will be suspended due to suspicious use) and, most importantly, have an amazing time!

By Odysseas Papadimitriou, CEO of Card Hub, a website that helps consumers compare credit cards.