Top Money Safety Tips for Travelers
by Denise McCluggage
army may travel on its stomach, but tourists travel on money. How do you make
sure you have enough of it ready in the right currency, but not so much to make you nervous carrying it?
checks: Forget the tearful
ads featuring travelers who have been deft-fingered out of their vacation
funds at the beach. Or have left their wealth on the seat of a disappearing
cab. Here are the facts, maam: Travelers checks are not the answer.
the real world travelers checks are often more trouble than helpful, and
can cost you more than the alternatives. True, if your travelers checks
are lost or stolen AND you have the serial numbers written down elsewhere you
can get the checks replaced. Sometimes quite quickly with a minimum of anxiety.
Despite what you have been told by Karl Malden and others, travelers
checks are not universally accepted. Good as cash? Try telling that, for instance,
to a restaurant cashier in the Detroit airport. (Yes, airport!) She just
kept shaking her head no, no, no.
checks cost money, with some exceptions, to buy; if your name is as long as mine
you can get writers cramp signing them, and, with some exceptions, it costs
again to render them into cash. American Express Travelers Cheques can be
cashed free at an American Express office, but how convenient is that?
in England when our group was about to leave the hotel to go to the motor races
at Silverstone I thought I would cash a travelers check for some walking
around money — a spot of tea or a minor souvenir perhaps. Everything else was
paid for and departure was early the next morning so I didnt want much.
But I had to laugh: the hotels fee for cashing a small travelers check
would have eaten all but a few pence of the cash.
In Venice I found that only tourist-y places were certain to accept travelers
checks. One tiny restaurant far from the trodden tourist paths preferred
comping me my lunch rather than being bothered with the silly piece of blue paper,
which would require them giving me some change. (I returned the next day for lunch
with actual lire and paid for both repasts. It was worth their surprise.)
Another time I misplaced $200 worth of travelers checks. Bother. I
couldnt find the numbers either. OK, careless me. American Express was adamant
- no numbers, no refund. So, bye-bye two bills. I figured then that I could lose
my money directly without a middleman. Ive not bothered with
travelers checks since.
with the wide acceptance of credit cards and the relative pervasiveness of ATM
machines — worldwide — who needs travelers checks? I am glad to avoid the
fuss. Now I rely on well-concealed cash (carried on the person
in small bills of assorted currencies), credit cards and ATM cards to smooth my
cards: I take two with me and carry
them in separate places. Visa is the most widely accepted. Choose American Express
or MasterCard for the other. Forget Diners Card (unless you want
points for trying to pay for dinner only to have the card rejected.)
keep your cards protected in anonymous paper sleeves. Thats not only to
keep them from prying eyes but to help safeguard their magnetism. The consequences
of the cards losing their magnetic coding are something youll want to avoid
while far from home. For instance, if you have an eel-skin wallet dont tuck
your cards in it or they might be worthless when you go to use them. Honest. And
keep the cards away from in-store devices meant to de-magnetize the security attachments
on garments. Dont pocket them with magnetic hotel keys either, just to be
least one of my cards has my photograph on it and both are mileage
cards in that the dollars spent earn me credit on a frequent flyer plan of one
airline or another. American Express now offers a program with miles good on any
the use of the cards if you choose — say one for food, lodging and transportation
and the other for shopping and gifts. Or use one for everything and designate
the other as backup.
Suggestion: Before you set out, inform your credit card company
that you will be using the card in places other than your usual haunts and probably
for greater amounts than customary. I once had a credit card suspended because
I was suddenly using it far from home and buying gas in improbable amounts. (I
was filling a borrowed RV.) Having my card rejected was a serious
inconvenience and gave rise to the always-carry-two rule.
companys position was that it had my interests at heart protecting me from
unauthorized use. I thanked them though I knew they were really
protecting themselves because I would be legally responsible for only $50 of any
charges not my own. To avoid fall-out from a busybody credit card company, however
well meaning, let it know when you are taking your card on a spree so the assumption
will not be that it has been kidnapped.
overseas, keep in mind that the exchange rate for purchases will be calculated
when the credit card charges are posted to your account, not when the purchase
was made. This theoretically can save you a little money if you use the card in
a country with serious inflation. However, talk about quick. These
transactions usually take full advantage of electronic transmission and the bill
may be in your mailbox before you get home.
expect credit cards to be refused in countries where inflation is runaway. That
was the case when I was in Argentina with inflation running at near 1000%. A tour-booking
company, a restaurant and a shop all refused a credit card. I was prepared for
that eventuality and had the cash available.
credit cards are also good for acquiring cash from ATM machines so be sure you
have a PIN number assigned before you go. (You can request it by phone but they
mail it to you so allow adequate time.) If you cant be sure that youll
remember the PIN number encode it or hide it in plain sight. A good
way to remember such numbers is to write them as part of an address in a fake
entry in your address book. Who knows you have no Aunt Dora at (xxxx) Bank Street
in New York?
Warning: There is no more costly way of borrowing money, short of from a loan shark
with bent-nose enforcers, than with your credit card. The interest is arguably
usurious and it starts accruing the minute the cash hits your hand. You are far
better off using your ATM (automatic teller machine) card.
Card: If you dont have one, hop to your bank and get one. Paper-sleeved for protection with PIN firmly in your head (or
lost in your address book) your ATM card should be readily available.
bank ATM card is the best way to get cash when you are away from home in the US
- why carry checks? - and the best way to exchange currency when you
enter another country. Inquire of the tourist office or consulate of a country
you plan to visit about the prevalence of ATM machines in that country and plan
accordingly. Most airports and train stations have them. And Visa or MasterCard
list their locales on the Internet.
advantages of an ATM card:
get the best, most current exchange rate.
avoid the service charges of hotels or banks.
money is already yours so you pay no interest.
using an ATM abroad, follow precautions you do at home:
may be charged for each use of the ATM card — sometimes by both the
bank whose machine you are using and your own bank. If you want to know for certain
what charges to expect check with your bank before leaving home and check with
the bank whose ATM machine you will use. Since the charge is per transaction —
my bank charges $1.50 — the larger the sum of money you withdraw at any one time
the more widely the charge is spread. Its up to you to balance the advantages
of that thrift measure against the disadvantages of walking around bulging with
cash. Nor do you want to overload on a particular currency if you are moving from
country to country. As most of Europe turns to use of the Euro you will have far
fewer currencies to cope with there.
more thing — PIN numbers in Europe are numeric so if you have letters only or
a mixture, translate your PIN to all numbers (using the touch pad or a telephone
pad) before you go.