Guide to Traveler’s Checks

By Sheryl Nance-Nash · August 06, 2023 · 9 minute read

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Guide to Traveler’s Checks

Once upon a time, traveler’s checks were considered vital for keeping your money secure and helping you spend when traveling internationally. But as digital payment options have emerged and ATMs have popped up on street corners around the world, traveler’s checks have become less popular.

However, while perhaps not your primary source of funding while overseas, traveler’s checks may still have a place when you take a trip.

A key benefit of traveler’s checks is that they are very much like using cash. Many businesses will accept traveler’s checks, whether you are paying for a spa treatment or a pair of sandals. But, unlike cash, if your checks were to get lost or stolen, you can (phew!) get your money back.

Read on to learn why you might want to take some of these checks on your next trip, including:

•  What are travelers checks

•  How do traveler’s checks work

•  Where to buy traveler’s checks

•  Pros and cons of traveler’s checks

•  Alternatives to traveler’s checks.

What Is a Traveler’s Check?

Traveler’s checks are paper documents that can be used as a traditional paper check and also like cash. They are intended to aid tourists and are typically used by people on vacation in foreign countries.

Issuers print checks in varying denominations, such as $10, $20, or $50, and they are available in a range of currencies. There may be a fee to purchase these checks and/or exchange them when you are traveling; this varies with the issuer.

Here’s a bit more about how to use them:

•  You can use these checks just like cash to pay merchants for goods and services, as long as they accept traveler’s checks. Typically any change due back to you will be given in local currency.

•  You can also get the checks converted into cash in the local currency at many banks, hotels, and foreign exchange offices, which can be a major convenience when you want some spending money (say, when hitting an outdoor market).

•  If traveler’s checks get lost or stolen, the issuer will replace the checks or give you a refund.

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How Do Traveler’s Checks Work?

Traveler’s checks are issued by a bank or other financial institution. Right after you purchase your checks, you sign each one. When you are ready to use the check, you fill in the payee and date, and then sign the check again.

For the second signature, the person or business you’re paying must be present to watch you sign. The two signatures should match. This is a deterrent to would-be criminals who for that reason may think twice about stealing them.

Though traveler’s checks function like cash, they also are similar to paper checks in that each check has a unique check number. If that check is lost or stolen, the issuer cancels it and issues you a new one.

Recommended: Where to Cash a Check Without Paying a Fee

Where Can I Get a Traveler’s Check?

You can still buy traveler’s checks in the U.S. and other countries. In the U.S, companies that still issue travel checks include American Express and Visa.

You can also purchase traveler’s checks online from the American Express website, but you will need to be registered with an account. In addition, Visa offers traveler’s checks at many Chase and Citibank locations nationwide, as well as at several other banks.

You may also be able to get traveler’s checks from your local bank. If your bank offers them, you may be able to get them for free. If you are buying them elsewhere, you will likely pay a 1% to 3% purchase fee, which could exceed the cost of using an ATM while traveling.

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Pros and Cons of Traveler’s Checks

Traveler’s checks are handy for tourists who do not want to risk losing their cash or having it stolen while abroad. But they come with a few disadvantages as well. Here’s a look at the pros and cons.

Pros of Traveler’s Checks

They keep your money safe. If something should happen to your traveler’s checks, they can be quickly replaced, typically within 24 hours.

They don’t expire. If you bought them and end up not taking your trip, you can use them, or redeem them, at any time in the future.

They protect your identity. Traveler’s checks are not linked to your bank account or line of credit and do not contain personally identifiable information, thus eliminating risk of identity theft.

Cons of Traveler’s Checks

They aren’t as widely accepted as they once were. You could find yourself not able to spend them as freely as you like. Outside of major tourist regions, you may find that few shops or hotels accept traveler’s checks as payment.

They can be hard to get. There are a limited number of issuers today, and the paperwork involved in obtaining them can be time-consuming.

You may have to pay a fee. Unless you’re getting them from the financial institution where you have an account, you’ll likely have to pay a fee to purchase a traveler’s check.

Here’s this intel in chart form:

Pros of Traveler’s Checks

Cons of Traveler’s Checks

SecureNot as widely accepted anymore
No expirationCan be hard to obtain
Protect your identityMay charge a fee

Do I Need Traveler’s Checks When Going Abroad?

You certainly don’t need them, but they may come in handy–depending on where you’re traveling.

Before purchasing traveler’s checks, it can be a good idea to research how widely this form of payment is accepted in the city or region you are planning to visit. You can simply Google something like, “Where can I spend traveler’s checks in Paris” to get this information.

As an alternative, you might consider:

•  Using a prepaid travel card, which is the modern-day version of a traveler’s check. You can load the card with money from your bank account and then use it like a debit card at an ATM (to get local currency), or a credit card at stores and restaurants.

Like traveler’s checks, prepaid cards are not linked to your bank account, which prevents anybody from draining your checking account if the card gets lost or stolen — and you can’t go into debt.

•  Another alternative to traveler’s checks is your debit card, which you can use to get local currency at ATMs and also to make purchases.

However, when using a debit card in another country, you may want to watch out for fees, which may include both an out-of-network ATM fee, as well as an international ATM fee, for every withdrawal you make.

•  Your credit card is another option. These cards can offer you fraud protection and possibly rewards, such as miles vs. cash back. However, there may be fees involved with using your card overseas, called foreign transaction fees.

And, unless it’s an emergency, you’ll likely want to avoid using your credit card for getting cash at an ATM. When you perform a cash advance from a credit card, you can get hit with a fee (around 5% or more), as well as interest, which can run around 25%. You may also pay an ATM fee of several dollars.

Recommended: Ways to Be a Frugal Traveler

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What Can I Do With Old Traveler’s Checks?

Because traveler’s checks don’t expire, those that you have tucked away in a drawer can be used for your next adventure.

You can also redeem traveler’s checks, no matter how old. Some banks allow account holders to deposit their traveler’s checks (including foreign currency traveler’s checks) into their bank account. It’s a good idea to check with your bank first, and also find out if they will charge a fee for clearing the checks.

You can redeem your unused American Express Travelers Cheques online at the company’s website.

Recommended: Here’s What You Can Do with Leftover Foreign Currency

History of Traveler’s Checks

Travelers checks have a long history. They were first issued in England in 1772 (yes, that’s over 250 years ago). They were popularized over the centuries by the Thomas Cook company in 1874 and by American Express, whose president in 1890 found it difficult to cash checks while in Europe.

They became a popular travel mainstay for Americans for years, before technological advances made other payment techniques possible.

4 Modern Alternatives to Traveler’s Checks

Do people still use traveler’s checks? Today, traveler’s checks are less popular as there are other ways to pay when traveling to another country. Here are some alternatives.

Credit Card

You can likely whip out your plastic to pay when traveling. However, keep in mind that you are basically borrowing money, will pay an interest rate, and there may be foreign transaction fees involved. Credit cards do typically provide good fraud protection.

Debit Card

Your debit card may be accepted at many places when you travel. It will pull funds out of your checking account to pay for goods and services.

Prepaid Debit Card

As you travel, you may be able to pay with a prepaid debit card. You load money onto the card when you purchase it, and then you draw down those funds as you spend.

Mobile Wallet

This digital edition of your wallet may enable your spending as you travel. It can electronically hold your credit card, debit card, and other financial information to allow you to scan and spend while on vacation.

The Takeaway

Traveler’s checks are a form of payment issued by financial institutions such as American Express. These checks function like cash but are more secure since you can get your money back if the checks are lost or stolen.

While traveler’s checks can be handy for tourists who do not want to risk losing their cash or having it stolen while abroad, they are not as widely issued or accepted as they used to be.

Today’s travelers may prefer to use a prepaid debit card, which functions in a similar way to a traveler’s check, and/or their credit cards to pay for expenses while traveling overseas.

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How does a traveler’s check work?

A traveler’s check works by purchasing a check in the denomination you want (a fee may be charged) and signing the checks. Then, when you want to pay with the checks while traveling, you would sign them again. This double signature is one way that these checks present a secure way to spend when you’re on a trip.

Why are traveler’s checks not used anymore?

As technology has advanced, other methods of payment while traveling may be simpler. For instance, you might just swipe or tap your credit or debit card versus making a special trip to buy traveler’s checks before you head to another country.

Can you cash traveler’s checks?

Yes, you can cash traveler’s checks when traveling, but there may be a fee involved. When you return, you may also cash or deposit any unused checks.

Photo credit: iStock/AndreyPopov

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