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Are Travelers Checks ... Dead?
Once upon a time, you couldn't travel without them

As recently as the 1990s, travelers checks were so common you would never think of 'leaving home without them', as actor Karl Malden said in the classic American Express ads. And Amex weren't alone on the market.

Travelers checksAlive but not kicking. Can Pac Squire via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

This is no longer quite the case.

Travelers checks are becoming harder to cash, especially in countries where ATM machines are everywhere. Even a few years ago, you could easily use checks in shops or hotels but increasingly, hotels are refusing them. As for shops, I haven't found any in years that would take one.

Travelers checks (or travellers cheques in some countries) are dying but not quite dead. American Express still sells them, and in some countries (like China) they are still used, even where ATMs are plentiful.

Here's why:

  • They are safe. You need identification to cash them, and if you've kept a copy of the serial numbers (of course you have!) somewhere safe you'll be reimbursed, often within 24 hours, if you lose them. If you lose your cash, on the other hand... it's gone.
  • They're simple to get. You can purchase them at your bank, or in a specialized agency like American Express.
  • They make a great alternative to ATMs when the power goes out - and in some parts of the world, this happens a lot.
  • They often cost less than using your credit card abroad.
  • They're relatively easy to cash in countries where they are accepted, although the number of countries is dwindling fast (American Express has an online locator so you can check before you go).

The disadvantages of using travelers checks

  • Remember those interminable minutes at the bank, painstakingly signing each individual check, until your signature started to look like the illegible scrawl of a three-year-old? And your hand would go numb? That hasn't changed.
  • You actually have to go to a bank or change office to cash a traveler's check because most hotels and shops no longer accept them. If you're stuck on a weekend with no money, that could be a problem.
  • If you lose your checks - despite the 24-hour refund promised - it may take a few days longer before your replacement checks arrive, especially if you're not in a big city.
  • They can be more expensive: you pay to buy them, and you pay a commission and fees when you cash them (these vary by country and institution).
  • Travelers checks increasingly uncommon. In some countries, especially in Europe, you'd be hard-pressed to find a place to cash one outside a change office.

While they were once the gold standard for travel money, these days they've been dethroned by the credit card, the debit card and the ATM machine.

So - how should you carry your money when you travel?

Consider a mixture.

If you're going somewhere checks are common and you're planning on spending a lot, then take some, by all means.

No matter what, you should carry regular or prepaid credit cards, debit cards, and a bit of cash in the local currencies.

If you run out of money or your cards get lost, stolen or compromised, you can always get a money transfer overseas through a bank, change office, or a service like Western Union.

Bottom line? I no longer carry checks although I like the system. If I could cash them easily I would probably still use them. Instead I have some cash, stashed away either in my money belt or in my trusty bag, and a couple of cash cards. I haven't needed more.