Annals of Travellers Cheques

I am the last generation to have used “travellers cheques” as a regular part of international travel: kids today, with their fancy ATM cards have no idea.

Travellers cheques, for those of you younger than me, are perhaps best described as “money that you can get back if it’s stolen.”

One went to the bank and handed over cash: in return one received a numbered series of registered “cheques” that could be turned back into cash during travels. There’s an American Express televsion ad from the 1950s that explains it well. The system was based on a system of dual-signatures: you signed each cheque on receipt, and then again on cashing. If your signatures matched, presumably you were the owner of the cheques. Should the cheques be lost or stolen during travel, they could be replaced.

And, in fact, this actually happened to me once: I was in Seoul, South Korea visiting my brother Steve in 1998. We’d checked into a tiny hotel on the night of my arrival and somehow, between checking out of the hotel in the morning and arriving at the train station several hours later to book travel south, my Thomas Cook travellers cheques went missing. We went back to the hotel and scoured the room and the garbage, but to no avail. So I figured out how to call Thomas Cook from a pay phone and was given instructions as to where to go for replacement. We made our way to the 10th floor of a shiny office block, found the office, and within 30 minutes I walked out with new cheques.

By the time we visited Thailand in 2002 (after a 4 year break from travel during which we moved house and Oliver was born) the shift to debit cards had begun: in theory I could put my Metro Credit Union debit card into any ATM in the world and withdraw cash. And, generally, that worked in practice: there were always a few ATMs on a trip that would spit out the card for some reason – wrong network, etc. – but more often than not it just worked.

And twelve years later, here in Europe, we generally don’t give how-to-get-cash issues a second thought: ATMs are everywhere, they work 99% of the time, they dispense whatever the local currency happens to be, and the surcharge for currency conversion is generally reasonable (for example, I withdrew 150 EUR from my account on Wednesday; this cost me $224.75 CAD; the Bank of Canada exchange rate for EUR to CAD for that date reports $218.91).

What’s gone missing in all of this is: what happens if you lose your debit card?

It’s never happened to me, but I imagine it most have happened to many thousands of others.

I wonder if most banks and credit unions have a system for quickly replacing debit cards that matches the old travellers cheques replacement system in speed an convenience.

I’m not in a hurry to find out, of course.