Traveler’s Checks: When it Might Be Smart to Travel 19th-Century Style

by Jessica Sommerfield · 2 comments

I recently saw traveler’s checks mentioned and thought “What? Those are still around? What exactly are they, anyway? Checks are becoming rare. Shouldn’t traveler’s checks be obsolete now that we have credit cards and electronic banking? Well, here’s what I found.

American Express started issuing traveler’s checks in 1891 as a convenient, secure way for international travelers to carry funds. Of course, once banks started offering international services and online banking, and credit card companies cranked into full swing, traveler’s checks fell by the wayside — but didn’t disappear completely. AMEX is one of the few institutions that still offers them in check form, while Visa and others offer modernized equivalents that work like pre-paid debit cards.

Not only have they survived the paperless banking revolution, traveler’s checks can still save the day (or at least some money) in certain traveling situations.

When They Come in Handy

  • They could protect you from financial loss.

Identity or financial theft is always a risk, but the risk is heighten when you travel. About 20% of travelers who reported in Experian’s 2015 study had financial information lost or stolen while away from home. Traveler’s checks aren’t linked to your account and require a matching signature and/or ID to cash, so they’re useless when lost or stolen. They’re also immediately refundable, unlike charges on a stolen credit card that can take months to recoup. Even card-based versions like the MasterCard “Cash Passport” have safety measures built in.

  • They can save the day.

A lost or stolen credit card is frustrating enough at home, let alone when you’re far from home with no way to pay for anything. Even if you plan to use your credit card, it might not hurt to take along a few checks for extra security.

  • They can be helpful in places where ATMs are scarce.

If you’re going off the grid, old-school traveler’s checks can save you the grueling search for an ATM. After all, even small towns have banks that will cash your check.

  • They can be used as a budgeting tool.

Paper traveler’s checks are made out for set amounts, and card versions require you to load funds before making purchases. Some people find this reduces the temptation to make impulsive purchases during a trip. So, in a way, they can used as a budgeting tool.

  • They can eliminate overseas credit card and exchange fees.

Some credit card companies charge extra fees for international service, so traveler’s checks might be cheaper. You can also purchase them in the currency of your destination, so you won’t have to deal with confusing exchange rates or extra fees when you get to the foreign country.

  • They can be a good option for traveling minors.

Kids sometimes need to travel alone, but it’s risky to send them with too much cash. Traveler’s checks could be the perfect answer for this situation.

The Downsides

There are downsides to traveler’s checks, of course. First, fewer and fewer financial institutions are accepting them, so you’ll need to research your destination to make sure they won’t be useless once you get there. Secondly, it might be harder to find a bank or currency exchange than an ATM — certainly less convenient.

Traveler’s checks won’t be your go-to currency choice in most cases, but they’re at least worth considering in certain traveling situations. Long live the traveler’s check!

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  • joyce says:

    Back in 1983, I fell for their advertising. I had most of my cash turned into Traveler Checks (cost me $3 per $100) for my trip to S.F. S.F is one of the most visited places in the world and they see all types of payment I thought.


    Every cafe and clerk questioned my traveler checks like I had printed them in my basement. They would turn over the check and ask me what it was.

    I ended up using all the cash I had taken with me . When I got home, went to the bank were I had gotten the checks and cashed them. Since then, when ever I hear someone getting ready to travel, here and overseas, not to get them and then tell them my story.

    • David @ says:

      Wow that must have been a nightmare! Good thing you had enough cash to last the whole trip. I’m sure that was the last time you got travelers checks huh?

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