If you’re above a certain age, you probably remember traveler’s checks (or cheques). Until a few of decades ago, they were a very popular and useful tool when traveling, especially to a different country.
Back then, not everyone had (or, in the case of merchants, accepted) credit or debit cards. Instead, if you were planning on traveling, you could pay a bank, AAA, American Express, etc. whatever amount you wanted, and get traveler’s checks issued in whatever currency you needed (U.S. dollars, pounds sterling, Japanese yen, French francs [remember those?], etc.).
Traveler’s checks were as good as cash in local currency. So when you needed to pay for something during your travels, you could use a traveler’s check. If you were in London and something cost, say, £74, you could pay for it with a £100 traveler’s cheque and get £24 cash in change. Or you could give a traveler’s check for, I dunno, ¥5,000 to the front desk of your hotel in Tokyo and get that amount (in this case, in yen) in cash.
Since you had paid for your traveler’s cheques up front, they were considered guaranteed money. From Wikipedia:
The incentive for merchants and other parties to accept them lies in the fact that as long as the original signature (which the buyer is supposed to place on the cheque in ink as soon as they receive the cheque) and the signature made at the time the cheque is used are the same, the cheque’s issuer will unconditionally guarantee payment of the face amount even if the cheque was fraudulently issued, stolen, or lost. This means that a traveller’s cheque can never ‘bounce’ unless the issuer goes bankrupt and out of business. If a traveller’s cheque were lost or stolen, it could be replaced by the issuing financial institution.
The use of traveler’s checks started declining in the 1990s. More people had credit and/or debit cards, plus pre-paid currency cards and ATMs became more popular.
So are traveler’s checks still a “thing?”
They are, at least to the extent that they’re still around. However they are, obviously, not nearly as common as they were previous to the 1990s. Because of that, they’re not nearly as easy to use, either.
Many banks no longer offer traveler’s checks, which means you have to go through Amex, VISA, etc. AAA stopped offering traveler’s checks a couple of years ago, but members can still get Visa prepaid cards through them.
On top of that, many hotels and (especially) stores no longer accept traveler’s checks.
So although traveler’s checks are still around, it’s probably going to be easier to simply use a credit or debit card for transactions. And if you don’t have either of those, you may want to consider a prepaid bank card for travel.
But what if you still have some uncashed traveler’s checks?
As of 2018, the Federal Reserve reported there were over a billion dollars worth of unredeemed travelers checks in circulation.
Traveler’s checks never expire and are supposed to be good for “forever.” Nowadays it’s just a matter of finding a place that’s willing to take them or cash them out.
- If you have an American Express Travelers Cheque, they can help you find exchange locations. You can also redeem them online. Click here for more info.
- You can deposit unused traveler’s checks into your bank account if they’re in your home currency and they’re made out to you. Take them to a teller’s window to deposit them and receive cash in return. If they’re in a foreign currency, you have to take them to a bank that can accept that currency. Call your financial institution if you have questions.
- You may also be able to redeem a deceased person’s unused traveler’s checks if you’re the executor of the estate, or if you’re named as the beneficiary. If you’re in that situation, take the traveler’s checks, death certificate and papers declaring you the executor or beneficiary to the estate’s bank. Provide the phone number of the traveler’s check vendor so the bank can contact them and make arrangements for the redemption of the checks.
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