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Traveler's Checks

(Travelers Cheques)

travelers cheque

Not long ago, a reader asked: "Is anybody still using traveler's checks?" Good question. Today's conventional wisdom is that ATMs have made it unnecessary to carry large amounts of cash or cash substitutes. Automated Teller Machines also give a better conversion rate than banks and exchange counters do (or so the argument goes). And with an ATM card, you don't have to pay a fee of 1% or more for the safety of not carrying cash.

If only the answer were so simple! In reality, using ATMs can be almost as expensive as using traveler's checks at least some of the time, thanks to ATM conversion fees (see our article) and transaction fees that can add 5% to the cost of a modest cash withdrawal. The real benefit of using an ATM is convenience: Instead of waiting in line at an exchange window, you simply insert your card, enter your PIN number, and get your cash.

Still, there are times when it could make sense to carry traveler's checks (or "cheques," to use the spelling favored by our British readers and some vendors). For example:

  • You'll be visiting a country for only a few hours (e.g., while waiting to change planes or on a shore excursion from a cruise ship), you want to change a small amount of money at an exchange window, and you prefer not to carry cash.
  • You're low on cash and the ATM network is down. (This seems to happen most often at night or on weekends.)
  • The ATM won't accept your PIN, or the machine lacks multilingual instructions and you can't figure out how to get cash.

Caution: There are risks in relying excessively on traveler's checks. In the 21st Century, not all businesses take travelers' checks, and younger clerks may not even know what they are. Our recommendation: If you insist on carrying travelers' checks, use them as a supplement to an ATM card and credit cards, and be prepared to change them in banks if local businesses refuse to accept them. (For what it's worth, we haven't used travelers' checks ourselves since the early 1990s.)

What kind of cheques to buy

Let's assume that you've decided, out of nostalgia or habit, to carry a modest stash of travellers cheques for use in emergencies. What kinds of checks should you buy? And in what denominations?

Next Page: Buying and using travelers cheques



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