Monday, January 10, 2011

The Case for Cash Passports

Well, that heading is perhaps a bit misleading.

For those who have had the... experience of experiencing them, Travellex Cash Passports are the latest technology in international currency technology, in that they are pre-loaded cards that allow you to withdraw money from Automatic Teller Machines throughout the world, having "locked" money in US dollars or Euros or Australian currencies at the value at the time the money was converted. This is meant to be an easier and safer way than using traveller's cheques and bank cards. I got one (well, you get two cards with each account) a few years ago in US dollars for a trip abroad - and I have since learned to loathe it.

First off, the cash passport does have some positives: it does deliver what it says on the box. Step up to any ATM with a Visa symbol and, yes, taking money out is as easy as taking money from an ATM using a normal bankcard. It's possible to check balances online and to transfer money to the card from private accounts. And the balance on the accounts can be cashed out if it's not all spent.

Now (and for me) the annoying sides:

1) I could not cash out my $US as $US. The card boasts that there is only one transaction fee to put normal cash into the currency of one's choice, and I wanted the cash rather than leave the money on the card (which expires in 2 years) so I thought the best solution was to go to a Travellex store and ask to just have it paid out. But no.

2) Each card only holds one form of currency. The banks offer cards that do more than one, which would be really handy if travelling through different countries - otherwise, you have to have one card per country or incur fees on the card...

3) ...because, yes, there are fees to transfer money from one currency on the card to another. While US$ are great when travelling almost everywhere, not all countries allow people to draw down US$ from their money machines, meaning more fees when travelling around. And of course, the rate for transferring from US to another currency is open to fluctuation.

4) And then there are the potential fees for using the machines themselves, which add to the cost of using the card. I wasn't charged much to use ATMs abroad, but even US$1 can cause problems as...

5) ... any "fee" comes out of your account, which "unrounds" the amount in the account. And, as people who use cards know, you can't get $20 if you have $20 in your account but the fee to get at it costs $1. Not so helpful, as it practically guarantees you will have some leftover funds in the account.

6) My view of the card plummeted when I discovered that the cash passport has a penalty fee built in when the card is not used for a while. Even with only a 2 year life span, I was not impressed to discover a "not used" charge when I took some money out after about a year. What exactly is this fee covering, considering?

So, in summary, I doubt I will ever get a cash passport again. Getting cash (US$) is much easier, and, in their own paper-based way, travellers cheques are easier too (as least you can always cash out to their value and not get stuff with an amount that you can't access). And if I really need money, I can just get some directly from my bank account (yay for international Debit Cards) and save the intermediate transaction charges. The good things going for it (the security and redundancy, I suppose) really did not make up for the annoyances. But then, I am pretty demanding, I suppose.

Verdict: The Cash Passport seems more trouble than it is really worth, not assisted by annoying bureaucracy at Travellex which puts a lie to claim of this being the no hassle way of getting and keeping cash. I gave it a try - but not again. 3 dollars out of 10.

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