Those of us of a certain age surely remember travelers’ checks (or “cheques,” if the bank was feeling particularly fancy) as the go-to cash instruments of international jet-setters, family vacationers, and anybody else who was planning on traveling to foreign countries and didn’t want the risk associated with carrying cash. In an age where credit cards and bank debit cards were not yet in mainstream use by a majority of the population, people relied on travelers’ checks as a secure, theft-resistant way to ensure they’d have the money they needed anywhere in the world.
While numerous financial institutions have offered travelers’ checks as a currency instrument dating as far back as 1772, American Express is credited with developing the concept on a large scale, introducing its international Travellers Cheques in 1891. For the next century, American Express Travellers Cheques were the most well-known and trusted travelers’ checks for people vacationing abroad, and continue to be the largest issuer of the instrument today, in a world where they are all but obsolete.
Back in the 1980s, American Express launched a series of TV ads featuring various scenarios where lost or stolen wallets sabotaged family vacations, business travel, and more, with popular character actor Karl Malden telling audiences how their Travellers Cheques could potentially save the day. These classic commercials must have made a pretty significant impact on those who were about to embark on international journeys- the purchase and use of travelers’ checks, from both American Express and other banks- peaked in the late 80s and early 90s before beginning a descent into travel obscurity.
Financial scholars point to the surge in popularity of credit and debit cards, as well as pre-paid currency cards and ATMs, as some of the factors in the decline of travelers’ checks among international vacationers. Additionally, the 1990s heralded the advent of something that was destined to change the face of retail- both domestic and international- forever: the gift card.
Blockbuster Video is credited with inventing and selling the first-ever gift card back in 1994, though some argue that Nieman-Marcus had store gift cards available for purchase in the same year. Prior to this, stores could issue credit in the form of gift certificates- paper vouchers that displayed the dollar amount available, the name of the recipient, and the name of the person who purchased the certificate- which could be used as cash at the register. Offering all of the ease, convenience, and portability as a credit card, gift cards quickly caught on, becoming a fun, exciting, and much-appreciated gift both to give and to receive. After all, gift cards are easy to purchase and mail out, and can be given to employees as incentive gift cards and rewards as well as traditional gifts for holidays, birthdays, graduations, and more!
With the exploding popularity of gift cards over the next few decades, people have found that they are also excellent items to purchase and carry on international vacations in lieu of cash. Since many gift cards can be used in every country on Earth where their corresponding stores exist, travelers love the ease and convenience their gift cards allow them, without having to exchange their U.S. currency, carry dangerously large amounts of cash, or even leave themselves open to the threat of identity theft with the use of a credit card or bank debit card. In many ways, gift cards have replaced travelers’ checks as the preferred currency for international travel!
Like travelers’ checks, gift cards help protect international vacationers from disaster while abroad. By carrying no other cash and using only gift cards to make purchases on a trip overseas, travelers have no need to bring cash or credit cards along with them each day of their trip as they go sightseeing, take tours, or participate in local activities. The ability to rely on gift cards helps keep the rest of their money safe and out of harm’s way in the event of a theft or loss.
Believe it or not, American Express Travellers Cheques, along with travelers’ checks from other financial institutions, are still available for purchase, and continue to be issued and used, though not nearly in the abundance that they were in the pre-gift card era. Since they do not earn interest, can be purchased for later use, and do not expire, they can almost be viewed as a stepping stone to the invention of gift cards. Though their day in the sun may be over, travelers’ checks are an important part of the history that led us to gift cards, credit cards, and other methods of currency that enable us to enjoy an international vacation with as few hiccups and headaches as possible.