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Traveler's Checks

Cash, Plastic or Checks

September 29, 1996

Deciding what forms of money to take with you on a trip is key to planning. So we asked six experienced travelers to tell how they would spend their way through five imaginary trips--and one actual journey.

We invented five different itineraries for our experts, excluding air fare. Once abroad, they'd be paying for hotels and meals, and generally following their usual travel habits--what they do, not what they tell other people to do.

In general, most experts suggest that travelers carry money in several different forms, including a small amount of local currency (if traveling abroad), a small amount of U.S. currency, a credit card, traveler's checks and a bank card that allows ATM access to checking-account funds.

But instead of investing the largest chunk of your vacation money in traveler's checks--as American Express and Thomas Cook advise--many travelers may instead want to buy a smaller amount of checks and consider them a "backup" resource. (In any event, if you have leftover checks once your trip is over, cash them before they can be misplaced or forgotten.)

Priscilla Ulene, owner of Traveler's Bookcase, a West L.A. bookstore.

Itinerary: 10 nights in Paris and northern France with her husband, Art.

Steps onto plane with: $700 cash, $2,800 in traveler's checks, two credit cards.

Total spending (excluding air fare): $3,500.

How they spent it: $350 in cash, $650 in traveler's checks, $2,500 on credit cards.

What she came back with: $350 leftover cash, $2,150 in unspent traveler's checks, which might sit in her closet for as long as six months. "Because it doesn't seem like real money. I can't believe I do that. I'm a businesswoman!"

Susan Charlton, Anaheim-based operations manager for Contiki Holidays and former tour leader of 18- to 35-year-olds.

Itinerary: 12 nights in Italy, Greece, Turkey.

Steps onto plane with: $200 cash, $2,000 in traveler's checks, two credit cards.

Total spending: $1,200 anticipated; $2,450 actual.

How she spent it: $150 in cash, $1,500 in traveler's checks, $800 on credit cards.

What she came back with: $50 cash; $500 in unspent traveler's checks, which she'll spend like cash back in California until they're gone. Why did she go over budget? "I bought a rug in Turkey, pottery in Greece." And she purchased those on her credit cards.

John McManus, former travel agent and president of Santa Barbara-based Magellan's, which sells travel goods by catalog.

Itinerary: 20 nights in Israel, Jordan and Egypt.

Steps onto plane with: $1,000 cash, including $600 in a zippered belt, $300 in $20 bills with his passport in a hidden pocket; his front pocket holds 100 fresh $1 bills, glued together in one corner, to peel off for tips and incidentals. Also: two credit cards, one ATM card. No traveler's checks.

Total spending: $4,000 anticipated; $4,500 actual.

How he spent it: $700 cash; $200 additional cash, withdrawn via ATM card in Cairo near journey's end; $3,600 charged on credit cards.

What he came back with: $300 in cash (most of which will pay for three weeks' parking at LAX).

Ada Brown, travel agent, owner of Seaside Travel in Long Beach.

Itinerary: Four nights in Cabo San Lucas.

Steps onto plane with: $600 cash ("about the max I'd go without taking traveler's checks"), two credit cards, an ATM card.

Total spending: $1,500 anticipated, $1,600 actual.

How she spent it: $380 in cash; $1,120 on credit cards; $100 in cash from ATM (because she wanted to see if it would work).

What she came back with: $220 cash.

Jim Sano, president, Geographic Expeditions, a San Francisco-based operator of tours to far-flung destinations.

Itinerary: 15 nights in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong.

Steps onto plane with: two credit cards, an ATM card and $500 cash ($400 of that is in $100 bills hidden in his belt; the remaining $100 is with his passport in $20 bills and ones).

"Typically I don't bring traveler's checks. . . . I think they're eventually doomed with the advent of better communications into the farther reaches of the world."

Total spending: $3,750 (about $250 a day).

How he spent it: $300 cash, $3,450 on credit cards.

What he came back with: $200 cash.

Tony Wheeler, author, co-founder of Lonely Planet guides, from Australia but now living in Paris.

Itinerary: 42 nights (six weeks) on Greek and Turkish coast and islands, beginning in Athens, ending in Istanbul. (Unlike the others, this is an actual trip, just completed, that Wheeler took with his wife, Maureen, and their children Tashi, 15, and Kieran, 13.

Steps onto plane with: $200 in cash, $1,500 in traveler's checks, several credit cards.

Total spending: about $13,000 (about $80 per day per person; two hotel rooms per night).

How they spent it: $60 in cash; $5,440 on credit cards; $6,300 in ATM withdrawals from bank accounts in France and Australia; $1,200 in traveler's checks. ("We changed $200 in traveler's checks at Pamukkale in Turkey because there was no bank with an ATM. We changed another $1,000 in traveler's checks in Turkey, but didn't have to; we could have used ATMs.")

What they came back with: $300 in traveler's checks, $140 of original cash, plus some leftover from ATM withdrawals.

"It's always wise to have some traveler's checks as a backup, but in most places you can live quite happily with ATMs. I think most people would think of Turkey as being not quite First World, but along the coast at least there were lots of ATMs and getting cash was no trouble . . ."

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