Financial Travel Tip #114: Don’t Use Travelers Cheques

by Nora on May 23, 2014

 

Although travelers cheques used to be the most common option for traveling with currency and getting the best exchange rates with the lowest fees, they no longer are. In fact, using traveler’s cheques can be a big mistake.

A reader emailed me recently about having taken travelers cheques with her to Europe, and how much trouble she had:

“I unfortunately traveled with travelers cheques from American Express in Euros. You’d think Euros were Euros but they are not. Have not been able to cash them despite going to 12 banks. And there is no Amex office…”

 

Even when I lived and worked at a hostel in Hawaii in 2008, we accepted travelers cheques the (very) few times they were offered, but begrudgingly so, as they entailed more work than reward.

 

 

The Decline of Travelers Cheques

According to Wiki, travelers cheques have been going steadily out of favour since the 1990s, with alternatives like credit cards, debit cards, and ATMs becoming more common, convenient, and cost-effective.

They also pose security risks for retailers, who would rather fork out commissions to accept credit cards instead.

Now travelers cheques (as my reader above discovered) are difficult to cash, even at banks.

And travelers cheques aren’t even all that secure for travelers either. At one point in time, they were a viable alternative to carrying large amounts of cash. But these days, your cash is best left in your bank account (or travel savings account), and accessed when you need it via credit card or debit card.

 

 

How do I Pay for Stuff Abroad?

I am a fan of credit cards. I get a decent exchange rate, a record of my purchases, the security of not carrying huge wads of cash, and of course, frequent flyer miles. (And for the record, I carry two credit cards).

However in Peru where I am currently stationed, Panama where I recently was, and many places in Asia where I’ve been like Vietnam), credit cards aren’t as widely accepted, and I’ve been subjected to foreign ATM withdrawal fees (at $5 bucks a pop) that piss me off. So I’ve just switched my bank account from the no-frills value account option to the highest all-inclusive account option which includes unlimited foreign ATM transactions for free. The catch: a hefty monthly account fee. The loophole: Maintaining a certain balance in my bank account waives the fee.

 

Have you used Travelers Cheques abroad? How do you prefer to pay for stuff?

 

Other Money-Management Travel Tips

Scroll through this resource for other tips for managing your money on the road:


 

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Emily May 23, 2014 at 12:29 pm

When we were preparing for our trip some people suggested traveler’s cheques and we immediately turned that down knowing how much of a pain it is after talking to other folks on previous trips. Sometimes the withdrawal fees are insane ($8 here in Argentina – arggg!) but if you have the right cards/plans it’s not a big issue and so nice compared to the hassle of those traveler’s cheques!

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2 Nora Dunn May 26, 2014 at 12:28 pm

Emily – You pinned it; you can get a bank account/card that reduces or eliminates withdrawal fees. Works like a charm. 😉

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3 Dana May 24, 2014 at 8:21 pm

As a fellow Canadian, and therefore not eligible for Charles Schwab, I’m curious about the bank account you mentioned (even though I’m pretty sure the minimum balance required to waive the monthly account fee is quite likely more than my current life savings!).

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4 Nora Dunn May 26, 2014 at 12:39 pm

Hi Dana,
I use TD, but it’s certainly not the best deal out there, especially when it comes to the minimum balance to qualify for free foreign ATM withdrawals. (I’ve had it since I was a kid, and have a strange compulsion/laziness to keep it).
I know other Canadians who like HSBC (with lots of ATMs around the world and little to no fees), others who like Scotiabank (again with offshore ATMs, and possibly one of the better deals for all-inclusive plans).
Here’s a post written by a colleague who did some great research on the topic:
http://www.wandertooth.com/best-canadian-bank-for-overseas-travel/

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5 Deia @ Nomad Wallet May 25, 2014 at 9:39 pm

I have a $50 travelers check that I won from a contest a couple of years ago. I’ve heard some people say they can be useful in more secluded areas, but I haven’t been in a situation where I have to use that one check yet.

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6 Nora Dunn May 26, 2014 at 12:42 pm

Deia – Ha ha, maybe it’s a better souvenir! 😉 Does it expire?

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7 Anna May 26, 2014 at 5:42 am

I have a Russian Sberbank debit card (it’s a semi-federal bank) and I use it as CC in the US and pay very little in fees/exchange rate losses. However, my BFF just went to Spain with her US Santander card and she is paying exorbitant amounts in transaction costs. A flat fee AND a percentage, not to mention a screwy exchange rate. You never know…

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8 Nora Dunn May 26, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Hi Anna – No matter where you live, I think it pays to do your research. There are so many different banking rules and policies! Glad you’ve got yourself a good card.

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9 Drew | The Hungry Partier May 27, 2014 at 1:05 am

Haha great post! This is so true. My parents warned be about bringing travelers checks, and it’s so outdated these days! Thanks for sharing 🙂

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10 Nora Dunn May 27, 2014 at 12:51 pm

Drew – good thing you got the head’s up! 😉

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11 The Guy May 27, 2014 at 2:18 am

I must admit that I’ve not used travellers cheques in a very long time. I don’t see them advertised anymore and Bureau De Change don’t publicise a cashing facility.

I’ll always be thankful for them though. 21 years ago my travellers cheques were stolen from me whilst on an overnight train to Prague. Thankfully my receipt was elsewhere so when I arrived at the train station I was able to begin the process of reclaiming my money. I was reunited with my money within few hours. Something you can’t do with cash.

Like you though Nora I tend to now travel with credit and bank cards plus some cash.

At times it can be difficult to find an ATM (such as in India) but I’ve survived thus far.

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12 Nora Dunn May 27, 2014 at 2:13 pm

Hi Guy,
I never like to carry too much cash (just enough to get me to the next ATM), and I stash it in a few places. I don’t think I ever used travelers cheques, but I know they were certainly the currency of travel 20 years ago, so I’m not surprised they served you well.

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13 Jonathan Look, Jr. May 28, 2014 at 12:09 am

I am just back from Burma and everyone told me, “take lot’s of cash because there are no ATMS and no one takes credit cards. I think that advice was about three weeks old because, except in the tiniest of places, I had no trouble finding ATMS at all. I too never even knew that you could buy travelers checks anymore.

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14 Nora Dunn May 28, 2014 at 12:51 pm

Jonathan,
Ha ha – well then, I’m glad you weren’t stuck in Burma with travelers cheques! 😉
I find ATMs are generally common, but they don’t always work with my cards. Always best to have some cash on hand just in case.

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15 Andy May 28, 2014 at 9:39 am

I would say travelers cheques are definitely on the outs. It seems that they have just been over taken by so many other forms, but mainly credit card. The internet and the ease of finding an ATM has just made traveling so much more simple.

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16 Nora Dunn May 28, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Hi Andy,
I agree – plastic is best!

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17 Alouise May 31, 2014 at 11:36 pm

I remember we used some travelers cheques when we went to California back in 1997, and then when I went to Seattle in 2005 I had some, but when I tried to use them even the sales cashiers were confused. I prefer a combination of cash and plastic (credit and/or debit). Just makes everything easier.

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18 Nora Dunn June 1, 2014 at 12:28 pm

Hi Alouise,
I think I had one go at using travelers cheques, and it was probably before the year 2000 – and even then they didn’t seem practical. But I know there was a time when they were the best thing going. (Just not any more!)

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19 Tim June 3, 2014 at 4:03 pm

Many moons ago I used travelers checks but even then they were a pain. Today I think the best option as someone mentioned is a credit card from Schwab (if you can get one) since they actually reimburse ATM fees. Second in the U.S. is Capital One Platinum or Chase Saphire, I think they both offer free international withdrawals depending on the particular offer you get.

One caution is that Debit cards are not as safe as credit cards. Most Credit cards have fraud protection above $50 or so. And they will simply credit the charge back to your account while you are waiting for it to be resolved. But debit cards require that you convince them to return your money, which is already gone from your account, so even if you win, you don’t have the money in the interim. (and it’s harder to win).

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20 Nora Dunn June 7, 2014 at 3:30 pm

Hi Tim,
Great observation about credit vs debit cards. I agree completely – yet another reason to travel with credit cards!

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21 Craig Warren June 3, 2014 at 4:24 pm

Hey Nora, I always travel with wads of travelers checks. I hide them in the case of my Walkman.

Craig

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22 Nora Dunn June 7, 2014 at 3:34 pm

Craig – LOL!

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23 Teewai shotokhan October 29, 2016 at 12:17 am

I was in Africa some weeks ago and I had similar problems, went to so many banks and was told that it will take me long working days, like almost 2 weeks to cash them but still later told me that it’s not in vogue again. I believe traveler’s checks are on the outskirts too. Credit cards and other forms of carrying cash had overshadowed the act.

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24 Nora October 29, 2016 at 1:20 pm

Hi Teewai – I’m sorry you had a tough time with travelers cheques in Africa. Indeed, it seems that credit cards and bank cards are much more practical these days.

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