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Whatever Happened to Traveller’s Checks?

Written by Nickel - 30 Comments

When I was a kid, my parents went to the bank to get traveller’s checks before every major vacation. And yet… Now that we’re in the final stages of planning for our Disney cruise, it struck me that my wife and I never get traveller’s checks before we travel. And I suspect that we’re not alone. As a wise man once told me, travellers checks are so 1987…

I’m guessing that the big difference is the prevalence of credit and/or debit cards now vs. then. Since we put pretty much everything on our reward credit cards, there’s little need to carry much in the way of cash or traveller’s checks. And yet… While the situation will be much the same on our cruise in that we’ll be able to charge pretty much everything to our cabin and/or pay with a credit card, I still find myself thinking about picking up some traveller’s check before we depart.

What about you? Do you use traveller’s checks? Why or why not?

Published on February 12th, 2008 - 30 Comments
Filed under: Banking, Credit Cards, Travel

About the author: is the founder and editor-in-chief of this site. He's a thirty-something family man who has been writing about personal finance since 2005, and guess what? He's on Twitter!

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30 Responses to “Whatever Happened to Traveller’s Checks?”

  1. 1
    chet Says:

    We always pick up a couple hundred dollars worth of traveller’s checks when we travel internationally. Just in case the credit card mysteriously stops working. Change them for local currency when we land, then hustle to spend the caish money before we leave. End up using much less than we bring. ATMs are everywhere anymore.

  2. 2
    b Says:

    Traveler’s checks are inconvenient today. I backpack pretty extensively, and the benefits of cash debit cards far outweigh those of traveler’s checks.

    For instance, I have a online bank account with HSBC specifically for traveling- the interest rate isn’t as high as some other banks, but they have branches in almost every country in the world, and there is no fee for using “out of network” ATMs. And ATMs are everywhere.

    For those handful of times when I’ve been stuck without access to an ATM (once on an island with two ATMs, one broken and one that wouldn’t accept my debit card!), cash is king. I always carry about $300 US as emergency cash, which is about 1 weeks worth of money. You can ALWAYS find somewhere that will accept or change US$, replenishing the emergency cash (finding more US$) is always easy, and you don’t have to worry about being charged HUGE conversion fees if you happen to be at a merchant that wants to overcharge you.

    This is not the case with Traveler’s checks- there are very few places that change them (especially in less developed countries- but even in modern cities it’s difficult to find a place to change them now), it’s hard to buy more on the road, and some of the places that DO change them charge exorbitant fees.

    I’ll be sticking to cash, even though it’s a little less secure.

  3. 3
    razmaspaz Says:

    If I’m not mistaken, the original idea behind travelers checks was that they could be used like a check when a personal check was not possible (like when out of town and using a local to your home bank). I don’t write checks, ever, except to pay a couple of odd bills. Why would I need travelers checks if I don’t need regular checks. Plastic does the trick for me. I have literally adopted the attitude that if you don’t accept Visa, you don’t want my business. International 3rd world travel can get tricky, but then if they don’t take credit, they probably don’t take traveler’s checks either.

  4. 4
    Fiscal Musings Says:

    If I remember right, traveler’s checks were typically american express. You used them instead of a regular check since local checks aren’t always accepted.

    You can now take an American Express credit card, or any other credit card for that matter, and you should be fine.

    That is, unless you’re going somewhere strange and out of the way that doesn’t accept major credit cards. If this is the case though, you’d probably better bring some raw oats to barter…

  5. 5
    ChristianPF Says:

    yea, I am all for using a credit card rather than travelers cheques when travelling… they just don’t seem to be very practical with the ease and prevalence of credit cards. Granted, it very well could lead to more spending than with travellers cheques but a little self-discipline should take care of that…

  6. 6
    freecia Says:

    It depends on the country I’m traveling to. Always check for what the normal method of payment is before going.

    For a trip to the Caribbean, credit card and cash for tipping tour guides should be fine. Be sure to use your credit card for any jewelry/large purchases and always at the cruise approved vendors. You might be paying more but hopefully the goods will be good.

    BTW, AAA issues travelers checks for free (some places charge a fee).

  7. 7
    Ron@TheWisdomJournal Says:

    I think that once most banks de-regulated enough to allow them to be linked by ATM network, traveler’s checks lost their appeal.

    I can remember working at a bank in 1986 and selling 20,000 in Amex Traveler’s checks to a guy who was going to Egypt to work on the Suez Canal. He had to sign his name 200 times since they were in $100 denominations. We always required customers to sign them right there before they left and he wasn’t very happy about it.

  8. 8
    kitty Says:

    The main reason I stopped using traveller’s checks was that you get a much better exchange rate when you use either credit cards or ATMs. Sure, many credit cards (not all) charge for foreign conversion, but the exchange rate is so much better it is still worthwhile.

    Similarly, for cash expenses ATMs also provide much better exchange rates than currency/traveller’s checks exchange places or banks. ATM charge is fixed not a percentage, so I plan my cash/credit card expenses in such a way that I can mazimize amounts I withdraw from ATMs. This way I minimize the charges. I have a separate checking account with just enough money I may need for cash expenses on a trip.

    In places where ATMs aren’t common and credit cards aren’t accepted (except for in overpriced stores and tourist traps), traveller’s checks aren’t much help, either. In these places what you normally need are crisp new dollar bills. In these cases, I simply take cash and make sure that all my bills are new and clean.

  9. 9
    plonkee Says:

    I haven’t used them for years.

    The only place I ever used to use them was in banks abroad – but now I find that anywhere that will exchange traveller’s cheques will take a card.

  10. 10
    Anitra Says:

    Last time I used traveler’s checks was in 2002 when I traveled to London for two months (for school, so I had no income). Even then, I used a credit card a few times – the traveler’s checks were mostly a way to make sure I stayed on budget, and safer than cash.

  11. 11
    Danna Says:

    I travel a lot for work and I always use a credit card. I also carry cash. Usually small bills for tips. No more than $100. I find credit cards to be easier and it also helps to have the statements to verify my expense checks and make sure I didn’t miss anything.

    I can’t remember the last time I used travelers checks…probably 1987.

  12. 12
    dogatemyfinances Says:

    I got my passport in 2000, and I have been all over the world. I have never even SEEN a traveler’s check.

    No, I take that back, when I worked retail in the 90s as a teenager, I had to reject one.

  13. 13
    mapgirl Says:

    I have only used them internationally when I was uncomfortable carrying lots of cash but the destination country was primarily a cash economy. I know the last time I went overseas in 1999, I started using my debit card to pull out cash from foreign ATMs. I think if I was traveling in other countries, I’d still get them. It’s a decent way of budgeting if you aren’t keeping close tabs on your bank balance back home and the current exchange rate. I wouldn’t want to accidentally overdraw at a foreign ATM and mess with my bank balances at home.

  14. 14
    Funny about Money Says:

    I didn’t even know you could still get traveler’s checks! Last time I used them was 15 or 20 years ago, when I spent three months hiking the outback in Canada & Alaska. You had to go to a bank to cash them, and you didn’t get the greatest exchange imaginable. A credit card was a lot more convenient.

    They had the security feature that if you kept careful track of which checks you had and some were stolen, the bank would cover your losses. In those days you could buy them for no cost at AAA or a credit union; but I think that’s not true anymore–you can’t get them without choking up a fee, can you? Why pay to spend money?

  15. 15
    Susan Says:

    I keep a travel blog and recommend $100 in traveler’s checks to overseas travelers. If you lose your debit or credit card, it’s easy enough to find a hotel or bank who will cash them in for you. It’s a scary proposition to be without any money in a foreign country and no way to get it. Other than that, they’re not very practical.

  16. 16
    Mike D Says:

    I travel to Japan on business often and take only traveler’s checks. Japan is a cash-based society and hardly no one takes credit cards. The company gives me a cash advance and I go to the bank to receive it in Traveler’s Checks. As soon as I arrive in Tokyo and get past immigration – I cash all of it into yen. Crime isn’t a problem in Japan and I’ve never felt worried about my safety.

    I have to admit, it is kinda strange dropping the equivalent of a $100 bill for a pack of gum – but that is how their society works sometimes.

  17. 17
    Carrie Says:

    I usually get a few hundred dollars (USD) in traveler’s checks when I travel internationally. But since ATMs are generally better, I keep the checks only as a backup plan, in case the ATM eats my card or something crazy happens. If I don’t need them, I just deposit them back into my bank account when I get back home.

  18. 18
    shuchong Says:

    I still use traveler’s checks, because I travel to China at least once a year, and I hate, hate, HATE the idea of being charged 3% or so off the top for each ATM transaction I make. Many credit card companies charge ridiculous fees for the privilege of using plastic overseas. I have a bank account in China, I cash my traveler’s checks there as soon as I arrive, and I live off a local debit card attached to the account. Yeah, I get charged for changing currency, but it isn’t nearly as much as the per-transaction charge that I incur with a credit card.

  19. 19
    kitty Says:

    ” I hate, hate, HATE the idea of being charged 3% or so off the top for each ATM transaction I make”
    But thare are charges for changing traveller’s checks and cash. Additionally, the exchange rate is worse. So you win 3% on ATM fee and loose 5% on exchange. When you exchange look at “buy” and “sell” rate in the rate table. Notice how these are different. This is the spread which allows the exchange places to make money. When you use ATMs you get the actual rate – a wholesale business rate.

  20. 20
    Sharon Kugler Says:

    We forsook traveller’s checks for plastic decades ago; international ATMS have proliferated so that it’s been easy to identify the ones that won’t charge a fee, and we just get small amounts of local cash as needed.

  21. 21
    shuchong Says:

    Kitty,

    I looked up the rates for China today, and you’re right, it looks like it might actually be better for me to use a credit card… if the only fee I’m being charged is a 3% fee. And if the dollar/yuan rate doesn’t continue to drop precipitously. (I was there for about six months last year, and it seemed like my dollars bought less and less each week). I will definitely call up my credit card company before I go next time, and see exactly what it is they’ll charge me. Thanks for setting me straight!

  22. 22
    Nick Says:

    I have never used TC, yet it seams to me they have the security of detaching you from your account and assets. Where as your CC can be copied and used without your knowledge. You may have hard time connecting your bank while abroad.

    Just a thought.

  23. 23
    kitty Says:

    @shuchong – different cards charge different rates, so it is indeed important to shop around. Credit unions don’t charge fees normally as well as a few other places. Here is an interesting article from bankrate on the subject: http://www.bankrate.com/brm/news/cc/20010416a.asp

    Of course, if you expect dollar to drop, the rate on card could get worse by the time the bill is posted. But it’s difficult to predict.

  24. 24
    JD Says:

    Who uses traveler checks anymore? Probably just old people. I probably spend at least 1/3rd of the year traveling outside of the US on business and I never even considered traveler checks and all the other frequent travelers I know don’t use them either. All the big banks are global, even in a place like Vietnam I can use any ATM machine or use my credit cards. Why on earth get something as inefficient as a traveler check?

  25. 25
    Tim Says:

    I remember when I was young my parents used travelers checks. The only thing I remember about them is that we were traveling in Florida and tried using them at a gas station which refused to accept them, although they are considered the same as cash.

    the fees are too high for me vice credit card or debit card even with the 1% intl transaction fee my bank charges. however, the fee is the “insurance” guarantee of the traveler’s check. however, there are some weird rules from country to country regarding traveler’s checks, so it is just too much of a pain. i have bought traveler’s checks overseas to safely carry lots of money when i’ve come into money overseas.

  26. 26
    Erik Says:

    traveller’s checks are outdated. The fees that currency exchange booths take from you is unbelievable. Just use your debit or credit card! The bank will calculate the the exchange rate for that day and convert the amount on your statement. Plus, most banks only charge you a flat $3.00 fee for international withdrawals, which is MUCH less than what rip-off exchange companies charge if you’re changing a decent amount of money.

  27. 27
    Coyote Says:

    I used traveler’s checks while studying abroad last year. Even though ATMs were abundant, TCs still seemed sensible to carry as an emergency source of money should something have happened to my debit card, an alternative to running up a large bill on my credit card, as well as safer than carrying a large amount of cash.

  28. 28
    js Says:

    I prefer CASH when traveling in the U.S., not plastic or travelers checks.

  29. 29
    suzanne Says:

    i have carried travelers checks for over 20 yearsdo they ever expire?

  30. 30
    suzanne Says:

    where can i can series e bonds?

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