Twenty years ago, I made my first international trip -- a two-week stay in London while my mom attended an international conference. I had but one key responsibility: look after the travelers cheques.
Back then, we were able to use them just about anywhere: to buy train tickets, to pay for our hotel, even if we needed to cover dinner costs. Today, I'm not so sure that would be the case. Fewer and fewer organizations accept actual travelers cheques, making their practical utility plunge.
But you might be surprised to know that the cheques -- or more up-to-date iterations -- are still alive and well. American Express is one of the few organizations still offering physical "cheques," while Visa and Travelex now have debit card equivalents for use.
Here are the three key instances where it still makes sense to use them.
1. Going where ATMs are sparse
One reason international travelers no longer use travelers cheques is because it's usually easier to use a debit card at an ATM. As long as you let your bank know you'll be traveling abroad, this is a much less time-consuming way to get the money you need.
Because so few vendors still accept travelers cheques, you often need to find a bank or foreign currency exchange to cash your cheque to get local bills. As you might expect, that involves much more time.
But if you're traveling to a country -- or specific location -- that doesn't have ready access to ATMs, travelers cheques are still a solid option. Even the most isolated of destinations is likely to have some form of bank, and most banks will still accept your travelers cheque. It might take time to finish the transaction, but it's better than being completely cut off from your cash.
2. Traveling where you are truly worried about safety
Before the days of ubiquitous ATMs, there was another reason people loved travelers cheques: safety. If you have a physical cheque, it can only be cashed if you pen a signature that's a match for what you wrote when you got your cheques. Unless a handwriting extraordinaire stole your cheques, you could cancel them without ever having to worry about your money disappearing.
Today's travelers cards have their own safety apparatuses in place. For instance, Travelex's "Cash Passport," which is offered through MasterCard, is chip-and-pin enabled, is unconnected to your personal banking information, and can hold six different types of currency on it.
Perhaps most importantly, you can add money to your card electronically, as often as you want. Thus, even if a thief was able to somehow get your pin code, you could only load the amount of money you'll use during a day each morning -- significantly cutting down on potential losses.
3. In case of a true emergency
In the end, travelers cheques boil down to one thing: safety in case of emergency. A debit card can be stolen, and your savings account completely wiped out. A credit card could disappear, and thousands might be rung up. If both of those things happen, you could be left with little recourse in finding your way home on short notice.
That's why carrying an emergency stash of travelers cheques is a wise idea -- the money is guaranteed to be there, and you can get them replaced quickly.
Next time you plan to travel abroad, think about these three points before writing off travelers cheques completely.