The credit card I’ve used exclusively and highly recommended for use during your international travels is the Chase Sapphire Preferred. But what has always bugged me is whether or not the card truly offered no fees on foreign exchange transactions, since even if there are no outright fees, they could still give you a poor exchange rate (ie, your US dollar doesn’t buy you as many Rupiah as it should). There is no transparency on this on your credit card statement either. So I decided to do an analysis of my transactions with the card across multiple countries over the last three months to figure out if there was any hidden fee getting skimmed off the exchange rates. I found that generally you should expect to get a rate 0.2% to 0.5% worse than you would find on the open market, with some country specific exceptions. This is about $2 to $5 per $1000 spent, which I think is still pretty good, but I wonder whether other cards manage to get even closer to truly free and fair. I’ve provided my full analysis below.
Before hitting the numbers, some explanatory information upfront. Foreign exchange transactions are actually processed by Visa, not Chase. So Visa actually determines the rate, but in theory Chase should make sure they have not loaded any fees into it and remove them if they had. Visa also processes the foreign conversion on the settlement date, or when your transaction is actually processed, which is usually a couple of days after the actual date of purchase.
I also needed to determine what constituted a “fair” exchange rate. If you were to trade currency on the open market, the best rate you could get would be the “bid” rate on a given day, which includes a small fee to the intermediary but is unavoidable even for professional traders. So I’ve based fair rates on the historical closing bid rate on each settlement date according to oanda.com.
For my analysis, I have analyzed 11 transactions across 4 different countries, using the settlement date of each transaction to calculate my realized exchange rate, which is the (foreign currency amount charged / $ credited from my card). I compared this to the oanda bid rate on that day to provide the percentage difference from market rates. In all cases the fx rate is how much 1 US $ buys so higher is better. Here’s what I found:
Australia fx realized rates and true costs
|Settlement date||US$ cost||Australian $ cost||Implied FX rate||Oanda
Indonesia fx realized rates and true costs
|Settlement date||US$ cost||Indonesian Rupiah cost||Implied FX rate||Oanda
Singapore fx realized rates and true costs
|Settlement date||US$ cost||Singaporean $ cost||Implied FX rate||Oanda
Vietnam fx realized rates and true costs
|Settlement date||US$ cost||Vietnamese Dong cost||Implied FX rate||OandaBid Rate||Difference|
Overall, 8 of the 11 transactions were worse than fair market value, with an average cost of 0.3%. However the variations are notable, especially in Vietnam where I basically got rates that were fantastic and at about the midpoint of the fair market value instead of at the bid rate. The consistency by country was also interesting – though I can’t really imagine using a different credit card by country!
Given the variation sometimes included positive surprises, I have to conclude that the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a great card for international travel, even if on average I’m probably paying a hidden 0.3%. But at some point I would still like to compare the Capital One cards to see if there’s any notable difference.