The traveller's cheque was a great idea in its day, but that day is done.
Meet its replacement, the reloadable travel credit card. For myself, I'll go with credit cards and my bank card when travelling. But those who feel nostalgic for traveller's cheques and their benefits should consider these reloadable travel cards.
The newest and most interesting one is from Travelex, a global foreign currency specialist. The Travelex MasterCard Cash Passport can be filled with U.S. dollars, euros or British pounds for amounts roughly equivalent to between $200 and $10,000 at any one time. You can use the cash passport wherever MasterCard is accepted, or to withdraw cash at roughly one million ATMs around the world.
Jon Dario, president of Travelex Currency Services Inc. said the safety aspect of the card is one of the major benefits. "If it's lost or stolen, it's easily replaceable," he said. "It fits the old place that traveller's cheques used to hold. Traveller's cheques have become so difficult or expensive to cash overseas."
Check out some online travel forums if you're curious about the practicality of using traveller's cheques these days. Some sample comments:
-"I stopped carrying them when a lot of places stopped accepting them. Last time I had them (years ago) I couldn't find anyone who would accept them or who would cash them."
-"The problem is that in many European countries it is difficult to exchange them now and most places give much worse markups than 3 per cent [bank and debit cards mark up your charge by 2.5 per cent and apply a wholesale exchange rate]"
- "You will often need to go to currency exchange kiosks or banks to convert travellers cheques. These places can often be hard to find or open limited hours."
My favourite comment on traveller's cheques was made in a discussion on my Facebook page: "It's the only form of payment accepted in Jurassic Park."
The problem with reloadable credit cards as a traveller's cheque alternative is fees. Depending on the card, you'll need to watch out for purchase fees, maintenance fees and inactivity fees among others.
Travelex's MasterCard Cash Passport does away with most of these charges. Instead, it makes money through the exchange rate you get when you buy your card. The Travelex website showed that $1,000 would buy €670.30 on Monday. An independent current exchange place in downtown Ottawa would have given you €698 per $1,000.
If you're okay with the non-cutting edge exchange rate, you can buy a MasterCard Cash Passport card free at any of Travelex's 50 or so stores in Canada (find them at travelex.ca). After you've spent the money stored on the card, you can take it back to the store where you bought it to reload or do the transaction by phone (online transfers are coming next year). There's no charge for reloading a card, just as there's no cost for using the Cash Passport as a credit card or an ATM card for cash withdrawals. You will pay a fee of about $2.50 per month if your card is inactive for 12 months' straight.
To replace a lost or stolen card, just call a toll-free number and make arrangements for a replacement to be sent to you. Travelex says it can get you a new card in as little as 24 hours, and it won't charge you for the service. Note: These cards keep your money safe with embedded computer chips requiring users to key in a PIN when making a transaction.
Besides The Travelex MasterCard Cash Passport, the choice of reloadable cards available in Canada includes Visa products sold by Vancouver City Savings and Credit Union and its Citizens Bank of Canada division, as well as Money Mart stores. Another option is Bank of Montreal's Prepaid Travel MasterCard.
These are Canadian dollar cards, and shouldn't be purchased without first familiarizing yourself with all the fees. Some fee examples: The Vancity Enviro Reloadable Visa costs $14.95 to buy and has a $4.95 monthly maintenance fee. BMO's card cost $9.95 and will cost you between $1.50 and $4.50 for cash advances from ATMs.
Mr. Dario said Travelex has been selling its reloadable travel cash cards in the U.S. market for a few years and demand has been rising at a rate of 100 per cent annually. In Canada, he expects big demand from snowbirds who want to lock in a favourable exchange rate before they travel south for the winter. "This is a great way to store the funds on the card so they can be used for a vacation later on."
The pros and cons of reloadable travel cards:
Pro: If stolen or lost, they can be replaced promptly without you losing money.
Con: Mega fees in some cases, including the potential for purchase fees, monthly maintenance fees and cash advance fees.
Pro: New U.S. dollar, euro and British pound cards from Travelex let you lock in a favourable exchange rate for a trip coming up in the future.
Con: The Travelex cards are all about convenience – you can get better exchange rates elsewhere (on the plus side, there are few fees with this card).
Pro: Useful for parents with kids who are travelling.
Con: May not be useable for cash withdrawals at all foreign ATMs.