All about traveler’s checks, plus modern alternatives

Getting ready to travel? One thing to think about is how you’ll make purchases while you’re away. Traveler’s checks aren’t as common as they used to be. So you might want to consider modern alternatives that may offer the advantages of traveler’s checks and more.

Read on to learn more about the ins and outs of traveler’s checks. And find out about other options—for example, credit cards, prepaid cards and mobile wallets—that could help make the most of your trip.

Key takeaways

  • Traveler’s checks are paper documents that can be exchanged for local currency or used to buy goods and services abroad.
  • Traveler’s checks feature unique serial numbers, making them replaceable if they’re lost or stolen.
  • Fees may apply when purchasing and exchanging traveler’s checks.
  • There are modern alternatives to traveler’s checks that you may find more convenient.

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What is a traveler’s check?

A traveler’s check is a paper document you can use for making purchases when you’re traveling, typically in other countries. It can be used as cash or a regular check.

Traveler’s checks—you may also see them referred to as “cheques”—are generally printed with a unique serial number. This means you may be able to get a refund if your checks are lost or stolen. The checks are usually available in set denominations—$20 and $50, for example. 

How do traveler’s checks work?

Traveler’s checks may be accepted at participating merchants like hotels, restaurants and stores. Just keep in mind that there could be fewer participating merchants than there used to be.

When you purchase your checks, you may notice that they have a space for two signatures:

  • First signature: You might be asked to sign each of your traveler’s checks when you buy them. If not, you may want to sign them as soon as possible. 
  • Second signature: You’ll usually sign your traveler’s checks again when you’re making purchases.

This dual signature method is meant to provide extra security and ensure that only the purchaser is able to use them. The merchant can verify that the second signature matches the first.

How to cash in traveler’s checks

You can use traveler’s checks like cash to pay for goods and services at participating merchants. You’ll typically sign the check in front of the merchant at the time of the purchase.

While traveling, you may also be able to redeem your traveler’s checks for local currency at financial institutions or your hotel.

Potential fees associated with traveler’s checks

It’s possible that certain fees may apply to traveler’s checks. For example, you may need to pay a fee when you purchase them or when you exchange them for currency once you get to your destination. There might also be a fee for depositing unused checks into your bank account.

Where to get traveler’s checks

While traveler’s checks might be harder to find than they used to be, they’re still available. You may be able to purchase them at some banks, credit unions and travel-related service organizations.

Pros and cons of traveler’s checks

Take a look at some of the potential pros and cons of traveler’s checks:


They’re easy to carry. There may be fees to use them.
They typically don’t expire. They may not be accepted everywhere.
They can be replaced if lost or stolen. They might be harder to find.

When to use a traveler’s check

You might consider using traveler’s checks in certain situations, including: 

  • When you don’t have a credit or debit card. Some people may prefer to travel using modern payment options like credit and debit cards. But if you don’t have either, you may find traveler’s checks to be an acceptable alternative.
  • When you can’t access an ATM. If you find yourself in a place that doesn’t have an ATM on every corner, you can instead use your checks at merchants that accept them.
  • When you want to exchange them for local currency. When you get to where you’re going, you might want to have some local currency on hand. You may be able to exchange your traveler’s checks for currency at certain banks or other financial institutions.

Modern alternatives to traveler’s checks

There are a number of alternatives to traveler’s checks—options you may find faster, easier and more convenient. Here are a few to consider when you’re comparing your choices:

Credit cards

Carrying a credit card may be easier than carrying traveler’s checks. Plus, credit cards can be helpful for making large and online travel purchases like plane tickets and hotel reservations. That’s especially true with travel credit cards, which you could use to earn rewards on travel-related purchases.

Some credit cards may also come with benefits that could be useful while traveling. They might include things like protection from unauthorized charges and the ability to use a mobile app to track your purchases.

Keep in mind that foreign transaction fees may come into play when you use your credit card overseas. While this fee might vary between credit card companies, it could generally be in the range of 1%-3% of your purchase. You may also be charged a currency conversion fee. This fee is often part of a foreign transaction fee.

Some companies don’t charge foreign transaction fees. For example, none of Capital One’s U.S.-issued credit cards charge this fee. View important rates and disclosures.

If you’re traveling with your credit card, your credit card issuer may want to be alerted before you go. That’s because it might flag your purchases as fraudulent if it notices purchases made in an unfamiliar location. Thanks to the added security of its chip cards, Capital One doesn’t require this notification.

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Debit cards

When you’re traveling, a debit card can be just as easy to carry around as a credit card. And like a credit card, it can help protect against fraud. 

The big difference: A credit card lets you “borrow” money for purchases, while a debit card uses the money in your checking account to make purchases.

It may be helpful to carry a debit card when you’re visiting a country that generally favors cash transactions. In that case, you could use your debit card at an ATM to get cash once you’ve reached your destination. And that may be safer than bringing cash with you and exchanging it for local currency once you’ve arrived. 

Keep in mind that you could be charged ATM fees when you use a debit card abroad. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), some banks and credit unions don’t charge customers a fee for using their ATMs. But they might charge you if you’re not a customer—and that could be in addition to a fee charged by the operator of the ATM.

Also, be mindful that some banks may charge a foreign transaction fee when you make purchases abroad with a debit card. You may also be charged a currency conversion fee—often, this fee is folded into the foreign transaction fee.

Some banks, though, don’t charge foreign transaction fees. For example, Capital One doesn’t charge this fee for its 360 Checking account

If you take a debit card on your travels, your bank may ask you to notify it beforehand. That’s because it could notice transactions made in an unfamiliar location and potentially freeze your account. Capital One doesn’t require this notification, thanks to the added security of your chip card.

Prepaid cards

Like credit cards and debit cards, prepaid cards may be easier to carry around than cash. They may also offer some protection against loss, theft or fraud once you register them.

But with a prepaid card, you don’t “borrow” money like you do with a credit card—or use money from your checking account, like with a debit card. Instead, you typically add money to a prepaid card before using it.

According to the CFPB, there are a few ways you can add funds to a prepaid card. For example, you can transfer money from your checking account or load funds at some retailers or financial institutions.

You might be charged one or more fees for using a prepaid card. The CFPB notes that if you get your prepaid card from a retailer, you should find a summary of fees on the card’s packaging. If you get your card from a different provider—online or over the phone, for example—the provider needs to share this information on paper or electronically.

Mobile wallet

You’ll probably have your phone with you when you’re traveling, right? Using a mobile wallet to make purchases is another modern alternative to traveler’s checks.

A mobile wallet is essentially a digital version of your real wallet. Depending on the wallet, you may be able to store things like credit cards, debit cards, prepaid cards, boarding passes, hotel reservations, event tickets and other types of personal data. 

Mobile wallets can be convenient, allowing you to make quick and easy payments using your phone or other mobile device when you’re on the go. And they typically use advanced technology that prevents your actual account numbers from being stored in the wallet.

There are lots of mobile wallets to choose from. Researching your options could help you see which will work best while you’re traveling. Keep in mind, some merchants might not take mobile wallet payments.

Traveler’s checks in a nutshell

Traveler’s checks can be a helpful way to pay for things abroad, but there are also more modern options available today, like credit cards, debit cards, prepaid cards and mobile wallets. And with a travel credit card, you could earn rewards on your travel-related purchases.

Ready to upgrade the way you pay before your next trip? Compare Capital One travel credit cards today to find the best option for you, no matter where you’re headed. 

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