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Jewish World Review May 5, 2000 / 1 Iyar, 5760

Roger Simon

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Consumer Reports


You really should 'leave home without them'! -- WHENEVER I WOULD GO on a trip, my mother would always say the same thing: "Get traveler's checks."

She had absolute faith in the things. "Don't leave home without them," she would say, parroting the line from one of the commercials that featured evil men sneaking into people's hotel rooms as they slept and stealing them blind.

The appeal of traveler's checks is that if they are lost or stolen, you can get replacement checks issued. (The ease of doing this, especially if you are robbed late at night or on a Sunday or in Outer Mongolia, differs with the circumstances.)

Some companies charge a fee for their traveler's checks, but you can usually find a way to get them without a fee (through your bank or motor club, for example).

The real way the companies make money is when people don't cash all the checks: You get back from your vacation with 20 or 50 or 100 dollars in checks left and you stick them in a drawer figuring you will use them for your next trip.

Or some people hide them away in a hidden pocket in their purse or wallet just in case they need emergency cash. (A lot of people also foolishly keep the traveler's check receipt along with the traveler's checks. You should keep it in a separate location.)

When you keep a $20 check instead of cashing it, the traveler's check company has your original $20 without having to pay it out. The company makes interest on that money. This is called a "float," and it amounts to millions and millions of dollars.

There is nothing wrong with this, but I always hate coming back from a trip with traveler's checks because, contrary to the ads, it's not always so easy to cash them.

Some businesses won't take them, and try giving a traveler's check to a cab driver.

Besides, credit cards are accepted in so many places that they make traveler's checks much less necessary.

When I went to Vietnam recently, however, I was offered two bits of advice from two recent travelers there: Take a bunch of single U.S. dollar bills and take traveler's checks.

The first piece of advice was good. The per capita income in Vietnam is about a dollar a day, and giving someone a U.S. dollar can buy quite a bit.

The advice about the traveler's checks was less good. At the very elegant and not very expensive Caravelle Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City (which just about everybody still calls Saigon), they accepted my traveler's checks when I paid my bill, but they also charged me a fee to do so.

I was not happy with this. If I had paid by credit card, I would not have had to pay a fee.

By the time I paid my bill, I still had $80 in checks left over, and since I rarely buy stuff in duty free shops (who wants to lug a quart of booze around?), I still had those traveler's checks when I got home.

So the Monday after I got back, I went to a bank that is part of a big banking chain near where I work.

I waited in line and when I got to the teller, I told her I wanted to cash traveler's checks.

She did not look happy.

"Do you have an account here?" she grumped.

No, I said. Why do I have to have an account here to cash a traveler's check?

(Bank behavior has gotten worse as bank fees have risen: A friend of mine recently made a deposit at her own bank and in order to make the deposit, she had to show identification. "I want to make a deposit, not a withdrawal!" she said. The bank still insisted on seeing an ID)

The teller did not answer my question. Instead, she handed me an ink pad. What's this? I asked.

"You have to put your right thumb print on each traveler's check," she said.

(I am not making this up, by the way. I wish I were.)

You're kidding, I said.

"No," she said. "Right thumb print on each check or we won't cash them." So I stood there as the people behind me in line gawked at me.

I stuck my thumb on the ink pad and then smooshed it on each check.

As any cop could tell you, such a thumb print is worthless. You have to have a good, unsmooshed print in order to match someone's fingerprints.

So what was the bank trying to do with this ridiculous (and humiliating) practice?

I think it was just trying to get me to go elsewhere. The bank didn't want to deal with traveler's checks, and so it made it as hard as possible to cash one.

I turned in the checks with the smooshed fingerprints.

"I need to see some identification," the teller said.

My thumb print isn't good enough? I asked.

"No," she said.

So I reached into my wallet -- trying to avoid getting my inky thumb on my pants -- and gave her a driver's license.

Only after she took a long, hard look at it did she begin the procedure of typing out a long line of numbers for each traveler's check. Fortunately, I was cashing in only four, 20 dollar checks. If I was cashing in many, I would have been an old man before I got my money.

Eventually, the teller agreed to part with the cash, but I wasn't ready to leave.

Got a tissue? I asked. I'd like to wipe the ink off my thumb.

She hesitated for a second -- maybe I wanted to fashion a mask out of the tissue so I could rob the bank -- and then she shoved a wet nap at me.

I left the bank vowing two things: I would never do any business with that bank again and I would never use traveler's checks unless I really, really was forced to.

And in the meantime, I have a suggestion for a new TV ad: "Don't leave home without them -- especially if you want to be treated like a criminal!"

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