Whoever coined the phrase “cash is king” probably wasn’t talking about international travel. There are so many reasons NOT to carry cash internationally that an entire industry has been built on providing alternatives – with the downside that, once you’ve booked your flight, it can be hard to decide what the best form of travel money for your trip is.
While cash is arguably the easiest option, major credit cards are accepted all over the world, and traditional traveler’s checks were developed for precisely this reason, these days the secret weapon of the savvy traveler is prepaid cards. Prepaid card technology isn’t new (the first prepaid cards became available around 30 years ago) but they’re finally reaching their potential: for the past few years they’ve been the biggest growth story in the payments landscape, topping 10 billion annual purchases as of 2015, and showing impressive 67% growth since 2009.
Let’s compare the most popular options and see how prepaid cards stack up:
The quickest way to have money on hand when traveling is to take it out of an ATM. But unless you can accurately estimate how much cash you are going to need during your trip, you may find yourself returning to the ATM often and incurring hefty currency exchange fees from your bank as well as foreign withdrawal fees from the machine. Withdrawing a large amount in order to avoid this problem raises issues of its own, you run the risk of having your cash stolen or losing it in your travels.
Traveler’s checks were designed as an early replacement for cash – simply put, these are checks that can be used in the same way as cash, but which requires you to provide proof of identity and signature verification in order to use it. Traveler’s checks let you carry a high value of “cash” without the same risks. But there are still other drawbacks; it can be hard to accurately estimate how much you are going to need for your trip and, depending on your bank, this method may come with high transaction fees of its own.
The biggest drawback for traveler’s checks though is that they are rapidly becoming obsolete. The seasoned traveler will find that traveler’s checks are not as universal as they used to be; just like a regular paper check, fewer and fewer businesses are accepting this form of payment in the age of more modern payment schemes.
The classic solution, as exemplified by the fact that most major hotels will require it as a form of payment, is credit cards. A major advantage of credit cards is that, because you pay them back later, you don’t have to worry about budgeting ahead of time or running out of money. Credit card providers are also highly competitive when it comes to the travel money segment, so many cards will offer a combination of travel insurance, travel discounts and loyalty points as incentives.
But even credit cards come with drawbacks: there is no protection from debt, as you can easily spend well above your intended budget; there are usually high foreign transaction fees when using a credit card away from home; and if you lose your card, there’s a chance that almost anybody can use your it to buy whatever they want, giving you a headache to sort out with your credit card company.
That brings us to prepaid cards – the increasingly widespread, highly effective solution to your travel money concerns. As “closed loop” cards limited to a defined group of retailers fall out of fashion, general purpose re-loadable (GPR) cards, are growing rapidly in popularity. These cards can be used almost anywhere credit cards are accepted, making them just as convenient for travelers. Young adults are using these cards strictly to limit their budgets and in the post-recession world, many people of all ages are finding them to be an ideal solution for making card payments without accumulating credit card debt.
Specifics vary depending on the issuer, but prepaid cards are generally purchased, activated and then loaded with the amount of funds you’re going to need. Typically, you can reload them remotely via online banking or e-wallet and they offer the same liability protections as traditional credit cards.
Prepaid cards provide all the same advantages as other travel money options while eliminating the downsides. It’s still recommended to carry a small amount of cash for cash-only transactions such as coffee and cab fare, and to have a credit card for hotels and others places that may only accept credit, but for everything else, prepaid cards are the solution to all your travel money needs.
The rapid growth of prepaid card adoption shows the appeal of this product. For your next trip, consider using the a prepaid card to help you budget for your expenses and keep your money secure.