Traveller’s checks might sound about as outdated as Walkmen, but you’ll be surprised to find that they do still exist.
While fewer and fewer places accept them, and fewer and fewer banks dispense them, you shouldn’t dismiss them entirely.
Here’s a quick guide to the elusive traveller’s check in 2015:
What is a traveller’s check?
A traveller’s check is a way to replace money so you don’t need to travel with cash, and hail from a time when ATMs were nonexistent. Basically, you go to your bank and get checks issued for a predetermined monetary amount that you can then — technically — exchange anywhere for cash. Should they get lost or stolen they can easily be replaced, plus your money is safe as no one else can cash those checks but you.
While nowadays not all banks still issue traveller’s checks, there are modern updates on them out today, like prepaid credit cards that act as traveller’s checks. More on that below.
When should I use them?
Traveller’s checks were a product catered to an ATM-less market. Today, it generally only makes sense to use them when you’re in a place where ATMs are few and far between, or if you’d be losing a lot of money on ATM fees with each withdrawal.
There are also times when a foreign ATM simply will not accept your card or PIN. Traveller’s checks are a good backup should that happen.
Another situation in which to use them is when you’re travelling somewhere dangerous, and are legitimately concerned about getting mugged. Traveller’s checks can only be cashed by you, and will require your presence and signature, thus saving you the hassle of having to cancel all of your cards should they get stolen, or having your bank accounts emptied.
It might also be a good idea to give traveller’s checks to kids and young adults who are travelling solo and don’t have their own credit cards.
Finally, they might be put to good use in destinations with fluctuating exchange rates. Since traveller’s checks can be purchased in different currencies, they will help you avoid seesawing rates. In the same vein, they’re good to have if you’re going to have a layover in a different country (say, a day trip off a cruise ship) and only want to change minor amounts of money.
Even if traveller’s checks aren’t your primary mode of money, having a few emergency ones on you in case of an emergency isn’t a bad idea. If someone steals your credit cards and empties your accounts, you’ll still have some emergency funds to tide you over. And if you lose them, they will be replaced.
However, you should never rely solely on traveller’s checks either, as not all businesses accept them these days. They should be used in addition to cash or credit cards. Also note that some banks will also charge you for cashing your checks, so make sure to ask in advance.
How do I use them?
Since fewer and fewer businesses accept traveller’s checks, be prepared to have to primarily cash them in at banks, especially since the businesses that do still accept them might be reluctant to accept large checks for small purchases.
However, some banks will also try and limit the amount you can change. Note that this also means adhering to banking hours.
You can also try your luck at hotels.
Another safe bet is to use only globally recognised brands — checks from American Express, Visa, or Thomas Cook in the UK are more widely accepted around Europe.
Unless you’re travelling alone, make sure to use checks that allow for two different signatures to get cashed, so that your travelling companion can cash them as well if need be.
Also, don’t buy too many, because if you don’t use them all you’ll have to change them back to your home currency. Getting a whole bunch of different denominations helps too.
Where do I get them?
Amex still has paper checks. They also won’t charge card holders any commission. You can find the nearest place to buy them through their website, though Chase and Apple Banks are a safe bet.
MasterCard offers a prepaid card, and one that’s accepted worldwide — or anywhere that accepts MasterCard. It looks like a debit card, but like with traveller’s checks you’ll get your money back should it get lost or stolen, as the card has a “zero liability” clause that protects you from unauthorised purchases.
Travelex sells Amex traveller’s checks, but also has something called a “cash passport,” which is basically a modern-day traveller’s check in the form of a chip and pin enabled debit card that’s easily replaceable, and not connected to your bank accounts. The twist here is that one card can carry up to six different currencies, which is great for world travellers or multi-stop trips.
Visa sells traveller’s checks, but they also have something called the Visa Travel Money Card, which is essentially a debit card versions of traveller’s checks — prepaid reloadable Visa debit cards that are accepted any place that takes Visa. Similar to traveller’s checks these cards will be replaced along with their balance within around 24 hours. That said, reloading and ATM fees may still apply.
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