What are travellers cheques?
The history of the travellers cheque spans as far back as 1772 when the first of its kind was issued by the London Credit Exchange Company, in the UK. Over the coming centuries the concept became popularised on a global scale, with major banks and financial institutions adopting this form of travel money in the 20th century. American Express became the largest issuer of travellers cheques and continues to offer these services to customers to this day.
A safe and convenient method of payment for anyone travelling to foreign territories, these pre-printed cheques hold a fixed amount which can be used worldwide across a range of currencies. Designed to facilitate payments from one person to another, using different currencies, travellers cheques were initially seen as a more practical way for individuals to carry their spending money.
Travellers cheques had their heyday in the late 20th century, reaching peak popularity in the mid-90s, before alternatives such as credit and debit cards became more widely available and easier to manage financial transactions. It was reported in 2018 that a mere 1.5% of Britons use travellers cheques, a rapid decrease over the course of two decades.
How do you use travellers cheques?
When you first receive your travellers cheques, you will be required to sign each one before use, as a way of verifying your signature. Each cheque will have a fixed value (usually $20, $50, $100, $500 etc.) as well as a unique serial number which can typically be found in the top right corner.
It is important to take note of these serial numbers as they will be referenced in any case of lost or stolen cheques. Unlike cash, if anything happens to your travellers cheques, the original vendor will be able to issue a refund for the exact same value. This added level of security is why this payment method was seen as revolutionary when first introduced.
As well as signing upon receipt, you will also need to sign each travellers cheque when used by a retailer or exchanged for cash. The act of signing your name as a form of security is somewhat outdated, given the modern technologies in place nowadays.
When accepted by retailers, a travellers cheque will be treated like local currency, which means you should receive any change in the standard, local currency.
Where can I get travellers cheques?
Due to dwindling demand, travellers cheques are not as readily available as they once were. However, they can still be acquired from some banks and financial institutions, post offices and currency exchange offices, like Travelex.
One thing to note is you may be required to settle the handling, commission or cash-in fees that often accompany travellers cheques, and these can be expensive, amounting to 2 - 3% in some cases. This cost is another reason they are no longer as frequently used.
Where can I use travellers cheques?
Generally, travellers cheques are still accepted all over the world, albeit harder to find vendors selling them and retailers accepting them as legal tender. Consider your destination before deciding on this form of travel money: if you are travelling to major cities there is more chance of you finding somewhere to cash your cheques or use them for in-store purchases. However, more remote destinations may not be equipped or able to accept this type of funds.
How safe are travellers cheques?
The original blueprint for travellers cheques was a paper payment method which could be used as foreign currency but was more secure than handling cash. At the height of its popularity, travellers cheques were generally considered much safer than cash due to the added security of their unique serial numbers, meaning customers could cancel and replace cheques if need be. These numerical codes were a money-back guarantee for anyone whose cheques were misplaced, destroyed or stolen. Another added benefit, if your travellers cheques are intercepted, you will not be vulnerable to bank fraud, as they are in no way connected to your bank account, unlike credit or debit cards.
Financial security measures have evolved greatly since the inception of travellers cheques, however, with the introduction of PIN codes, two-factor authentication, fingerprint touch ID and facial recognition, to name a few forms of fintech security commonly available now. With this in mind, the concept of a travellers cheque no longer measures up in terms of fraud protection and data encryption.
Travellers cheque vs. Cashiers cheque: What is the difference?
In terms of appearance, a travellers cheque looks nearly identical to a standard issue cashier's cheque: but are they similar in any other ways?
A cashiers cheque is issued by a bank or financial institution and is designed to be processed quickly, by the individual whose name is printed on the cheque. Conversely, a travellers cheque is for use overseas, is loaded with prepaid foreign currency - usually USD or GBP - and does not have a name or account number printed on it, although it does require a signature. Because travellers cheques do not have any bank details printed on them, they are deemed safer than cashiers cheques in terms of potential for fraudulent use. In addition to this, they are paid for when printed, meaning it is not possible for a travellers cheque to bounce.
What are the alternatives?
Credit or debit cards
If you are worried about travellers cheques not being widely accepted where you are going, then this form of travel money will offer more flexibility. Using your regular bank cards overseas provides a record of spending and offers maximum convenience, but there are also some frequently flagged concerns. Primarily these concerns focus on the sky-high fees and below-average exchange rates related to using your debit or credit card abroad. This isn’t always the case, however, as many banks and financial institutions offer travel credit cards, tailored to suit the needs of frequent flyers.
Travel money cards
Prepaid travel money cards are the modern equivalent to travellers cheques and have become very popular. This is largely due to the fact that they are totally separate from your regular bank account, allowing users to spend their balance freely without the worry of potential fraud or overspending. Preloaded with funds, travel money cards often help limit additional currency exchange charges. In addition to this, in spite of fluctuating currency rates, these cards let customers lock-in a favourable exchange rate ahead of time.
International bank accounts
If you are headed overseas for a sustained period of time, it could be more convenient and cost-effective to open a bank account in your destination country. You would be subject to the relevant security and eligibility checks but this decision pays off if you are making regular international money transfers or being paid in a different currency by foreign clients. Find out more about this option by reading our guide: How to Open a Bank Account Overseas.
Due to the growing alternative digital payment methods available nowadays, it seems this age-old travel money no longer measures up in terms of accessibility, cost and convenience. When travellers cheques were originally launched, ATM withdrawals were not commonplace for travellers, and digital point of sale systems had not been invented. Nowadays, it is easy to access local currency using an assortment of different payment methods such as debit or credit cards, travel money cards or money transfer apps.
The best option for anyone who is reluctant to use their debit or credit card overseas, would be to use a prepaid travel money card. Prepaid travel money cards are a safer and more widely used alternative to travellers cheques, and customers do not need to seek out a bank to use them, are not required to sign for each transaction and security measures in place are far more advanced. This method enables customers to secure multiple foreign currencies, locking in the optimum exchange rate for your currency pairing ahead of your trip abroad. Use our comparison tool to ensure you receive the most competitive exchange rates for your international money needs.