`Traveler's Checks' Go Plastic

Visa International wants you to think of it as a traveler's check that looks like a credit card. Feed the new TravelMoney card into any of 200,000 Visa/Plus automated teller machines worldwide and get cash back in local currency. You say you can do that with your credit card or bank ATM card? That's true. But TravelMoney has some features other cards lack. Known as a "stored-value" card, it is purchased from a bank at a set amount, with a service fee of about 2%--twice that for most traveler's checks. The ATM deducts value from the card as it dispenses cash, at near-wholesale currency-translation rates. When the card is depleted, you throw it out.

Visa believes vacationers who normally use traveler's checks--partly as a way to budget a trip and avoid the temptation of credit cards--will prefer the convenience of TravelMoney. Ditto for corporate travelers who find cash-on-a-card a better way to take a cash advance.

Available now in limited markets, Visa plans a rollout for TravelMoney in June. The cards can be purchased in any amount. The card is encoded with a personal identification number selected by the buyer, and if lost or stolen, a toll-free call will disable it; Visa promises a new card with a new PIN in 24 hours. One advantage over traveler's checks: You can buy two or more cards with separate PINs that access the same prepaid account, so if one turns up missing the other can be used immediately.

Not so fast, counters American Express, which sold $24.9 billion worth of traveler's checks worldwide last year, up 5.5%. AmEx spokesman Toby Usnik notes that ATMs dispense wads of muggable cash, which can't be replaced. Since many merchants accept traveler's checks, you need carry little cash. He also wonders what good a TravelMoney card will do "when you're on some island off the coast of Sri Lanka" with no ATM in sight. Similarly, MasterCard International believes the market is too limited. "We did research and didn't find sufficient interest," a spokeswoman says.

The market will decide who's right. For now, TravelMoney is available at First Bank System in Minneapolis, Bank of Scotland, and three Mexican banks, but Visa International expects the cards to be widely available by yearend.

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