There’s nothing quite as wonderful as money,” sang the jesters in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, “there’s nothing quite as beautiful as cash.” John Cleese and company never rhapsodized about what it feels like to be without money, however. For that sorry perspective there’s none better to ask than the small percentage of travellers — their pockets freshly picked, their debit cards mangled, their wallets or purses forgotten in the backseats of anonymous taxicabs — who can testify that it’s no laughing matter.
Staying financially safe, secure and solvent is a prime concern for travellers. “How do I cover myself in case of emergency? How much money should I take? In what form do I take it? We hear those questions all the time,” says Teresa Schile, manager of AMA Travel in Medicine Hat. “My advice is to never put all your eggs in one basket. You’ll have convenience and peace of mind if you give yourself options, by taking a few different kinds of money. So if a bank machine in Prague or Rome eats your card, well, you’ve got alternatives.”
Even in a sophisticated global village, money remains a flashpoint for stress and confusion. Foreign currency looks, in a word, foreign, and there’s a necessary learning curve in mastering it. As well, the financial systems overseas generally keep old-fashioned banker’s hours — unlike the 24/7 convenience we expect in North America. And while various forms of plastic and paper currency are accepted worldwide, it’s still hard to shake the fear that our credit cards or traveller’s cheques could be rejected for any number of maddening reasons. Factor in the growing spectre of identity theft, and it’s little wonder some of us get a tad jumpy when contemplating how to pack our cash.
Traditionally we’ve left home with credit and debit cards, a stack of traveller’s cheques and a small quantity of whatever local currency we’ll immediately require. But times have changed and with them the smart traveller’s financial strategies. For example, escalating fraud and theft issues are forcing many to consider carrying a credit card with a low credit limit that’s used just for travel. Leaving equally vulnerable debit cards behind also now makes sense with the advent of the Visa TravelMoney card. As secure and replaceable as traveller’s cheques, it works like a combination of credit/debit card yet is not linked to your bank account.
“Revolutionary” is the word Sue Thompson at AMA Travel’s Edmonton South centre uses in describing the so-called VTM card, launched in January as a more versatile replacement for the Visa Cash Passport (which only worked at cash machines). “Previously we were locked into the traveller’s cheque, a piece of paper that was like cash but always subject to unpredictable glitches — some places don’t recognize them and won’t cash them. Now we’ve got one card that seemingly does it all.” In other words, paper may soon be passé in an era when the common currency is plastic.
The TravelMoney card is front-loaded with cash, which can be withdrawn from bank machines as well as at retail locations that accept Visa. Like a gas tank, it can be refilled as necessary, yet it’s also excellent for budget control. “If you’ve planned to spend $2,000 and you’ve got $500 left on the card after the first week, then you know it’s time to rein in the spending,” says Thompson. Security has its price, though; the VTM is subject to a range of set-up and per-use fees that can add up. Fortunately, there are no fees for retail purchases. (See sidebar for details.)
Everyone has their own comfort level. Older road warriors familiar with traveller’s cheques may adopt a more conservative approach, while those weaned on plastic will readily embrace the VTM card as a cool, now- generation necessity. (It doesn’t hurt that mom and dad can instantly refill a card for cash-strapped kids adrift in Europe or Asia.) And naturally, an escorted, all-inclusive tour of European capitals offers more financial options than trekking through the Himalayan foothills, where ATMs are rare.
Like her colleagues, Patti Moersch of AMA Travel’s Crowfoot centre is quick to note that service charges and transaction fees are all part of the equation. “That’s why I’m still a fan of traveller’s cheques. Members can buy Visa travellers cheques without charge from us and cash them fee-free at Travelex booths.” (Travelex is the world’s largest non-bank foreign exchange service; its kiosks can be found at points of arrival and tourist attractions throughout Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong.) Purchase your cheques in Canadian funds and you’ll also not lose money converting them upon returning home.
As for cash, the money experts all recommend that travellers carry the bare minimum. They also confirm that it’s far better to be safe than sorry when it comes to what’s known as “wallet diversity” in industry lingo. “I suggest my clients take a small amount of cash in the local currency to cover their first few days plus the bulk of what they think they’ll need split between traveller’s cheques and their TravelMoney card,” concludes Moersch. “I’ve heard enough horror stories to know that it’s better to be overly cautious than leave yourself open to risk and potential loss.”