PRACTICAL TRAVELERBy BETSY WADE
August 27, 2000
Lire and Francs Via the Web
CASH may be making a comeback. Two major companies say they have a brisk business delivering bundles of foreign currency to people who are preparing to travel overseas. In a study last year American Express discovered that people on the road in the United States carry an average of $500. Fat rolls of cash -- how quaint.
OANDA, a company with a Web site that specializes in currency transactions and international currency quotations, linked up with Thomas Cook Global and Financial Services this month to offer overnight or second-day delivery of 100 foreign currencies, or Thomas Cook traveler's checks in six foreign denominations, on the basis of orders placed through www.oanda.com. Deliveries are made on business days.
The other company, Chase Manhattan Bank, which for five years has had a phone service allowing its customers to request delivery of currencies of 75 countries, in November began offering deliveries upon request through www.currencytogo .com to holders of any MasterCard or Visa card, as well as its own customers. Again deliveries are made only on business days.
The currency amounts requested on these systems are not today's equivalent of the $20 tip packs of long ago that travelers bought at currency-exchange windows. This is hundreds of dollars' worth of lire, pounds and yen. Timothy Kelly, chairman of Oanda, says its average request is $400; Amy Friedlander, product manager for Chase Currency to Go, says $600 to $650 is average.
Last year's American Express study found that 42 percent of spending by vacationers that did not involve advance purchases (like air fares) was charged to a credit or debit card, 40 percent was in cash, and 18 percent in money taken from A.T.M.'s, (cash or traveler's checks).
Overall sales of traveler's checks are shrinking markedly. Robert A. Fader, managing director of travel payment services for Citicorp, said that sales of all brands worldwide dropped to $35 billion to $40 billion in 1999, from $50 billion in 1998. American Express, which sells the leading brand, experienced a drop in 1999 from 1998, although it has increased its sales in the last three quarters, versus the same period a year earlier. Nancy Muller, a spokeswoman, said that after a period of decline, the company was selling the checks very aggressively, with emphasis on United States travel.
From January through July of this year, American Express was selling traveler's checks for home delivery at www.americanexpress.com, and Ms. Muller says it will resume at the end of November. Cardholders can order traveler's checks (in 10 currencies) and cash (in 19 currencies) at (800) 721-9768.
Reasons for the Trend
Hhere are changes in modern life that explain why offering currency on the Web is an idea whose time has come. A.T.M.'s are common and live tellers scarce. Since an A.T.M. at this moment produces only the currency of the country it is in, getting foreign currency requires tellers, and that means standing in line.
And the upsurge in courier services means that currency can be delivered without violating the old basic caution against sending cash by mail. For security purposes, neither Oanda-Thomas Cook nor Chase will identify its delivery sources (although U.P.S., Federal Express and others probably do the job), and both companies deliver in parcels that do not identify the sender.
One advantage of Web sites with conversion rates highly visible is that one can comparison-shop. The exchange rates offered by Oanda-Thomas Cook and Chase on their sites are less favorable than the bank-to-bank rates quoted on the financial pages (which involve huge sums), but certainly better than the exchange booths at airports. And A.T.M.'s abroad do not charge the $1 or $1.50 fee that banks charge noncustomers in the United States.
The Oanda-Thomas Cook Web program, FXDelivery, is available at the moment only in the United States and only with a Visa or MasterCard credit or debit card. It can be reached through the Oanda Web site or through links on AOL, Alta Vista, Swissair and trip.com. After providing a current quotation in dollars for the currency being bought, FXDelivery asks for the amount desired, with a minimum of $200 and a maximum of $1,500. It then seeks name, address and credit card information: the delivery address must be the same as the billing address for the card (no post office boxes). Someone (not necessarily the cardholder) must be at home to accept delivery, the Web site says. Tracy Hammock, a vice president at Thomas Cook, said that the money is sent in denominations small enough for cabdrivers to make change.
If a credit card is used, the cost is handled as a cash advance, with whatever fees that may involve. The delivery charge is $12 for next-day delivery, $8 for second-day delivery. Next-day delivery may not be available if Thomas Cook does not have the specific currency in stock. Beyond the delivery fee and cash-advance fee, said Mr. Kelly, the Oanda chairman, the service does not involve a separate fee for Oanda-Thomas Cook. (The reason for this, he said, is that they get better exchange rates for the money they buy than for the money they sell.) This service will also sell Thomas Cook traveler's checks in British, Spanish, German, Dutch, Swiss and Canadian currencies. The help number is (877) 414-6359. After 3 p.m., one day must be added to the delivery schedule; no weekend deliveries.
How Much Cash to Carry?
Chase's Currency to Go, at www .currencytogo.com or (888) 242-7384, also requires that the user have a Visa or MasterCard or a Chase checking or savings account, from which the purchase is debited. For home delivery, the minimum purchase is $100, the maximum is $1,000. (Larger deliveries can be made to Chase branches.) The address for home delivery must be the one on the Chase account or the card's billing address; it cannot be a post office box. Orders for next business day delivery may be made as late as 5 p.m. by phone; Web orders must be placed before 3 p.m. for the next day.
Chase delivers the money free if more than $500 is requested; otherwise the fee is $10. Chase processes the transaction as a purchase, so credit-card users are not charged the fee for a cash advance.
Ms. Friedlander, who ordered several hundred dollars in lire before going on her honeymoon in Italy in May, said she did not consider it too much to carry. When she and her husband got to Venice, she said, he was sick, and she was glad they could pay for the trip from the airport, including the water taxi to their hotel, without having to find an A.T.M.
Is it an advantage to use these services? Only for the convenience of not having to stand in line at the bank, or not having to worry about finding the A.T.M. at the airport when you land, if you are in a big rush. Financially, there is no gain, and it could be more costly than using a bank or an A.T.M., depending on delivery charges and whether you buy currency as a cash advance on your credit card, which brings interest fees, or use a debit card, which does not. But you're sure to be first in the taxi line.