Summer vacation spending leads to debt hangovers

That post-vacation return to reality might be even more of a jolt once you see the credit card bill.

A little more than two-thirds of vacationers said they overspend on vacation, according to a new Experian survey of 1,000 adults. Half said they spent so much that they accumulated credit card debt.

Credit cards are often travelers' first choice of payment while on vacation. According to the Experian survey, they beat out cash and debit cards as the most-used method for lodging (68 percent), airfare (67 percent), entertainment (47 percent) and dining (40 percent).

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"If you're not going to overspend, a credit card is the tool to use," said Odysseas Papadimitriou, chief executive of CardHub.com. Protections against theft and fraud are stronger, foreign currency exchange rates are superior and there are often money-saving cardholder perks like free checked baggage and car rental insurance coverage. "There is no other spending vehicle that comes close," he said.

But accumulated debt doesn't bode well for consumers. In the first quarter of 2015, the average household had $7,177 in credit card debt, according to CardHub.com data. That's $339 less than in the fourth quarter of 2014, but up $254 year over year. Overspending on vacation puts consumers in a more precarious position to rack up debt during the holiday season and carry even higher balances into 2016, said Papadimitriou.

Shanghai taxi driver taking credit card payment
Karl Johaentges | LOOK | Getty Images

"We're just climbing up and up and up," he said. "It all looks good until the music stops."

The best strategy is to budget and save for those vacation expenses, said Bruce McClary, a spokesman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. "Start thinking about next year's vacation this year," he said—not just airfare and hotel, but meals out, amusement park tickets, souvenirs and other incidentals that can add up fast. Then it's fine to put those charges on a credit card to take advantage of fraud protections and other perks. "You can use your savings to immediately pay off the card when you return," he said.

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Make sure you bring the right credit card, too—one that offers perks you can use, and has a low interest rate should you end up carrying a balance forward. Check in with your issuer about fees that could make that vacation spending even more painful, said McClary. Almost two-thirds of cards, for example, charge a foreign transaction fee that can add 3 percent to every purchase, according to a CreditCards.com survey.

But if you're prone to overspending, it's probably best to set strict limits. That might mean using a prepaid or debit card despite the less-stringent fraud protections, Papadimitriou said, or asking for a credit line decrease on a credit card so you can't spend too freely. Just be careful about using a card with too low of a limit, said McClary—going overlimit can trigger fees and penalties, and damage your credit score.