By Robert McGarvey
The best bank for the business traveler just may not be a bank. But understand this is a story where such claims carry asterisks with qualifiers.
What does a business traveler need from a bank? Nowadays it comes down to ATM access in most cases. I can tell you how to get the most free ATM access and will in a bit. I am a purist about this. I can tell you all the times in the past six years I paid for ATM access – exactly once. I quiver with rage at the thought of paying $3 or $5 or more to get $100 out of a machine. Plain wrong. Free is the only price I will pay.
And yet there I was five years ago in Las Vegas on a business trip and I had to do a wire transfer – it had to happen that day – and it occurred to me I had sufficient funds in a Chase account. I glanced at the website, decided not to bother with it, got in a cab, rode a few miles to a Chase branch and, whoosh, the money was on its way. Chase could not have been cooler about processing a six figure transfer. Yes, the money was going to a known mortgage escrow company, not a cousin in Albania, but still, this was frictionless. I maintain a Chase account and probably long will.
Nonetheless that’s not the institution I recommend for business travelers.
Look at most articles about why credit unions won’t work for you and, in most cases, a decisive reason is the sparseness of the ATM fleet. In truth a credit union with a fleet >100 is a rare beast. Some have just a single digit count of ATMs.
Yet I will tell you that a well chosen credit union will give you the broadest, deepest ATM access in the nation.
A 2016 count of bank owned ATMs found Chase with the most, around 18,600. B of A had a tad over 16,000. Wells Fargo had 12,800. PNC had about 9000.
But don’t think that therefore Chase or B of A or Wells is necessarily your best bank.
Much better is a credit union that belongs to the CO-OP ATM network or the CuLiance (nee CU24) network. CO-OP has around 30,000 ATMS in its network. CuLiance says it has more.
Joining either network requires the credit union to give fee-free ATM access to members of other, participating credit unions.
It’s a credit union perk that it is difficult to see how banks could match. You just don’t see Chase, B of A and Wells pooling their networks. No way.
Thousands of credit unions do. But not all. When opening a new account, always ask, are you a member of the CO-OP or CuLiance fee free ATM network?
There’s one more credit union perk: CO-OP shared branching which allows members of participating credit unions to conduct business in other participating credit unions exactly as though they were home. Need a wire transfer? You got it.
My principal credit union is in the shared branching network (and, no, I could not do the transfer through it because I did not have enough dough in that account).
CO-OP claims its network gives it 5600 shared branching locations. It says 1852 credit unions participate and that gives their 62 million members what amounts to a cross country branch network. (Wells Fargo has the largest branch network in the US with 5900 locations. Chase is second with 5200. But heads up. Big banks are shuttering locations so these numbers are dynamic.)
Does this mean a credit union is the best choice for the business traveler?
For many, yes. Not for all.
The exceptions are those with heavy international travel. Few credit unions offer enticing services for international travelers.
But Capital One 360 does, per Nerdwallet. It imposes no foreign transaction fees and it also does not charge for foreign ATM access (the machine owner may and probably will). It also has no account fees so it’s a good card to keep for just the occasional foreign trip.
That’s key by the way: I advise most of us to have several accounts. I do. One with Chase, one with a large credit union. I have a third account that bounces around so I can explore institutions (it had been with Capital One 360 but I moved it to a small Phoenix credit union and probably it will go in motion again – but I’m a banking nerd and don’t recommend this kind of shuffle to any who aren’t).
So there you have it. Have a credit union account – literally thousands offer free checking with no minimum balance – and also a Capital One 360 account and you are well covered, domestically and internationally. You will pay minimal or no fees, get the service you need, and may even start cussing about how rotten your bank is.