The pros and cons of currency cards

Last updated: Aug 23rd, 2011
Feature

Whether you booked your summer break during the winter sales or managed to bag a bargain at the last minute, once your flight and hotel are sorted it’s tempting to start counting down the days until you depart.

However, if you want to make the most of your trip, you need to make use of the time you have. For a start, getting the right travel insurance to cover your trip is vital.

But organsing your travel money is also important, especially this year as the weaker pound means your cash is unlikely to go as far as it did last summer.

Generally speaking, it’s best to opt for a mix of different payment methods, including cash, traveller’s cheques and plastic. However, there are disadvantages to each of these.

Payment type Advantage Disadvantage
Cash Handy for making small payments Lack of security
Credit or debit card Flexible Charges apply and
carry a risk of fraud
Travellers' cheques Secure and fee-free Exchange rates tend
to be uncompetitive

One alternative - or addition - to all these payment methods is packing a pre-paid currency card. While there is not a big take-up of this type of plastic – research from Which? indicates just 3% of people have a pre-paid card – they are a useful way to make purchases and withdraw money abroad.

What are they?

Pre-paid cards can be loaded with currency and used at cash points or to make payments. They are issued by Visa, MasterCard and Maestro, and come in all currencies with specific cards for euros and US dollars.

Bear in mind that not all pre-paid cards are designed for people spending overseas. If this is your primary purpose for taking out a pre-paid card, look for a provider that specifies it offers currency card.

Most pre-paid currency card providers allow you to top up your plastic over the internet or telephone, while some accept texts. When you apply for a card, you will normally be asked to give a linked current account, and the money is taken directly from there.

Although there may be a minimum amount you can put on one of these cards, you can top them up during your trip as long as you have access to the internet or a phone. Many providers also allow someone else to top a card up for you.

As with cash, loading up a pre-paid currency card involves converting sterling into your chosen currency; you will, therefore, be subject to the exchange rate offered by the provider.

Depending on your destination, you can choose to opt for the exchange rate on offer when you load up the card – this means you know exactly how much currency you are getting for your cash and is useful if you expect the exchange rate to become less competitive down the line.

However, other cards apply the exchange rate on offer at the time you use the card.

Paying or withdrawing money using a pre-paid currency card is similar to using a debit or credit card. You will be issued with a PIN number and your card can be used wherever you see the Visa, MasterCard or Maestro sign (depending on the type of pre-paid card you have).

The advantages

Because there is no element of borrowing when it comes to using a pre-paid currency card, you will not be subject to any credit checks. This makes them particularly popular with young people who may not have enough of a credit history to be approved for a credit card.

Pre-paid currency cards are also ideal if you want to make sure you don’t overspend while on your trip. But because you can top them up at any time (provided you have access to the internet or a telephone) you don’t have to worry about running out of cash either.

There is also the issue of security. If your wallet is stolen while you are on your travels, you will have to write-off any cash unless this is protected by your travel insurance. Credit and debit cards offer more protection, but you could see your current account wiped out or a huge credit card bill racked up if you don’t cancel these in time. While you should be able to get some - if not all - of your money back, you may have to wait for this (see below).

In contrast, if thieves get hold of your pre-paid card, you only risk losing the money on it. Some providers also offer protection against theft, ensuring you get a replacement card and your money back. However, this is likely to take time and you could also be charged for a replacement card.

Another benefit of a pre-paid currency card, which is likely to appeal to many people considering the current climate, is the exchange rates they offer. Generally speaking, it is possible to get a better exchange rate on a pre-paid card than by changing cash.

Peter Harrison, head of travel money at Moneysupermarket.com, says: "Pre-paid cards consistently offer great foreign exchange rates and are available to everyone. So, not only could you get more euros and dollars for your sterling, but you can also make sure you don't go overboard on your holiday budget."

Some pre-paid currency card providers also waive overseas charges – these are the fees that banks, building societies and credit card providers levy on customers for using their cards abroad. However, this will vary from one pre-paid card provider to the next. Which brings us on to the disadvantages…

The disadvantages

The biggest disadvantage of pre-paid currency cards are their fee and charge structures, which vary massively and can cause confusion and make comparisons difficult.

Pre-paid cards are not necessarily free; some providers will charge a one-off application charge while others levy a monthly fee. FairFX, for example, charges £9.95 on its standard pre-paid currency card for initial loads of under £500. Lloyds TSB, meanwhile, charges an application fee of £7.50.

Next, some cards charge a fee when you use them to make a purchase or withdraw money. The FairFX card, for example, allows free purchase transactions in the UK and overseas but charges £1/€1.5/$2 per ATM withdrawal. Lloyds TSB’s card charges £1.50 per ATM withdrawal, and will also charge 2.75% of any transactions made in a currency other than that loaded on its card.

However, there are some exceptions. Caxton FX waives ATM fees on both its global and euro/dollar cards, and it doesn’t apply any overseas charges when you use it outside of the UK. This card is also free to take out, although there is a replacement fee of £7.50.

These are not the only fees to watch out for. As well as a fee for getting a replacement card, some providers will charge when you top-up the card or renew it.

Finally, Travelex (which also provides currency cards for Thomas Cook and the Co-Op) levies an inactivity fee of £2 if you don’t use a card loaded with currency for more than 12 consecutive months.

Ricky Bruce, a researcher at data provider Moneyfacts, says: “Pre-paid currency cards can be hard to compare because of the different fee structures. To make sure you don’t get stung, you should read the terms and conditions of a card carefully and make sure you get the right one for your needs.”

Fees aren’t the only disadvantage of pre-paid currency cards. For some people, they are more complicated than taking cash or spending on credit or debit and putting up with the charges.

In addition, bear in mind that some providers will limit how much money you can put on your card; while you may be able to top this up during your trip, a lack of internet access or security concerns might make this difficult.

Finally, there is the issue of protection. Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act protects goods or services paid for on credit card between £100 and £30,000; this means the credit card provider is jointly responsible with the supplier if the goods are faulty or incorrectly described, or the service you receive isn’t up to scratch. If the company you are buying from goes bust, you can also claim back your money for breach of contract.

Section 75 didn’t used to apply to overseas transactions, but this is no longer the case. In 2006, the Court of Appeal overturned a previous court decision, which stated section 75 does not cover purchases and transactions made outside of the UK.

Howeverm Emma Parker, spokeswoman for the Financial Ombudsman Service, says the current legal position is that there should be no difference between UK and foreign credit transactions when it comes to the protection offered by section 75. This means that credit card providers must uphold this when dealing with problems.

 

Sadly, pre-paid currency cards are not protected by section 75, because the Act only covers money that is 'credit' rather than belonging to you. This could leave you at risk when you use currency cards on your holidays.

On the plus side, if your currency card is issued by a bank it should be  covered by the Banking Act. If you are a victim of fraud while abroad, you should therefore be able to reclaim your money back as long as you weren't negligent with your PIN or personal information.