Cash, Card, Travelers Check: Paying Securely Overseas

Cole Mayer  | 

Being able to travel, more specifically travel abroad, is a lifetime opportunity that some wish to experience. Whether you’re visiting the Swiss Alps, the beaches of Australia, or the wildlife of Africa — the world has many destinations that are worthy of traveling to. However, what some travelers may not be aware of is the number of payment methods that are available when making purchases abroad, some being safer than others.  

What Is a Traveler’s Check?

Though they have fallen out of vogue, traveler’s checks are paper checks you can  use in place of modern currency, such as cash and card. You can cash traveler’s checks in for currency; they serve as a more secure way to make purchases while abroad and help reduce the risk of credit card fraud while traveling.  

You can purchase traveler’s checks from most banks, credit unions, or your credit card lender (for a fee), and they’re usually issued in a set denomination. They also require two signatures for the paper version: one at the time of purchase, and one when exchanged; the two are then compared for security. Meanwhile, even if your bank is aware of your travel plans, they may still accidentally shut you out for possible fraud.

Typically, you’ll need a personal check from your own bank account to exchange for a traveler’s check, however other banks may require cash. With credit card lenders, you may be able to purchase traveler’s checks using your credit card — but keep in mind that, like credit and debit cards, there may be rural areas where you won’t be able to redeem your checks.

Credit and Debit Cards

For the most part, plastic is the payment of choice in Europe. Cash is still used, especially in more rural areas, but in big cities, the EMV chip-and-pin credit card is the best choice for travelers.

With the ability to call your bank or lender and cancel the card if your account is compromised, utilizing a credit and/or debit card may be your best option for international transactions. However, there is the complication that most American credit cards are chip-and-signature, meaning a thief who gets ahold of your card could simply forge your signature.

If choosing a credit or debit card for your travels is the route you want to take, make sure to educate yourself on the tips and tricks to keeping your credit card and wallet safe when traveling to help ensure your belongings are not stolen.

If you are on a strict budget during your travels, using a debit card will allow you to track your finances in real time since, for the most part, funds are pulled from your account immediately.  

Despite the increased security, there is a major drawback to using plastic overseas: transaction fees. While some cards do not have a transaction fee, if you have one that does, you’ll incur a fee on each purchase. Exchange rate calculations also vary from lender to lender. Inquire with your bank before you leave the country to ensure you are in the know — this will help to prevent any miscommunications that may happen when you’re abroad.

Cash

In other parts of the world, such as Asia, and outside the big cities in Europe, converting your cash to local currency is far more common. In some areas, it may be the only form of payment accepted, making cash essential. But one of the major downfalls of carrying cash is that, if you lose it or it’s stolen, it’s gone for good.

Cash is, however, the easiest way to pay. There are no fees for using cash (outside of possible ATM fees to withdraw), with only the exchange rate to worry about. It’s simple, but not entirely secure. Be sure to not keep all of your money in one place, as even money belts are no longer safe from pickpockets.

Though traveler’s checks may only be a memory for the millennial generation, they are still a very secure option. However, they are not the most convenient, as there may be a purchase fee, and using a check at an overseas merchant may be met with another fee — with banks being the exception.

Credit and debit cards are far more convenient but come at the price of fees for every purchase. Even with a card that has no overseas transaction fee, you may find the lender’s exchange rate calculation to your disadvantage. But, while cash is the most convenient payment method and accepted nearly everywhere, you have very little recourse when a pickpocket strikes.

Using a combination, or all three will give you the flexibility to pay in different situations, while not having to eat the full loss of your money being stolen.


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A former newspaper journalist, Cole spends his free time reading, writing, playing video games, watching movies, and learning about every subject under the sun. He lives with his wife and daughter in Idaho. Follow Cole on Twitter: @ColeMayer42