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Cash, Credit and Currency on the Road

Top Money Safety Tips for Travelers

by Denise McCluggage

An 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?

Traveler’s 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, ma’am: Traveler’s checks are not the answer.

In the real world traveler’s checks are often more trouble than helpful, and can cost you more than the alternatives. True, if your traveler’s 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, traveler’s 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.

Traveler’s checks cost money, with some exceptions, to buy; if your name is as long as mine you can get writer’s cramp signing them, and, with some exceptions, it costs again to render them into cash. American Express Traveler’s Cheques can be cashed free at an American Express office, but how convenient is that?

Once 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 traveler’s 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 didn’t want much. But I had to laugh: the hotel’s fee for cashing a small traveler’s 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 traveler’s 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 traveler’s checks. Bother. I couldn’t 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. I’ve not bothered with traveler’s checks since.

Furthermore, with the wide acceptance of credit cards and the relative pervasiveness of ATM machines — worldwide — who needs traveler’s 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 way.

Credit 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 Diner’s Card (unless you want points for trying to pay for dinner only to have the card rejected.)

Ideally keep your cards protected in anonymous paper sleeves. That’s 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 you’ll want to avoid while far from home. For instance, if you have an eel-skin wallet don’t 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. Don’t pocket them with magnetic hotel keys either, just to be safe.

At 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 cooperating airline.

Vary 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.

The company’s 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.

When 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.

Also 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.

Your 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 can’t be sure that you’ll 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.

ATM Card: If you don’t 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.

Your 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.

Some advantages of an ATM card:

  • You get the best, most current exchange rate.
  • You avoid the service charges of hotels or banks.
  • The money is already yours so you pay no interest.

When using an ATM abroad, follow precautions you do at home:

  • Check your surroundings and the people nearby. If you are uneasy with the layout find another ATM or wait until the surrounding activity is more to your liking. Preferably, choose machines that are in a relatively busy indoor location and use them in daylight hours — not at night.

  • As you enter your PIN number shield the pad with your other hand. (Just as you should when using codes on a phone.)

  • Make certain you have returned your card to its safe location before moving on and put your cash out of sight immediately.

You 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. It’s 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.

One 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.

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