Banking UX

Amex, the traveller’s cheque, and the Book of Mormon

Amex, the traveller's cheque, and the Book of Mormon. Main image: Ollyy, Shutterstock.com
Written by Chris Skinner

The strange tale of the unloved traveller’s cheque, as told by Mr Skinner and assorted characters.

So here’s a story you’re gonna love. I did an American friend a favour, and to say thank you they sent me $500 in the post in the form of a traveller’s cheque.

American Express traveller's cheque. Image by Chris Skinner.

Really generous, thank you. But what the hell is a traveller’s cheque? I vaguely remember them, but weren’t they eradicated in the last century? Haven’t used one ever, and not sure why they would send it in that form, but hey I’m not complaining. After all, I’ll just bank it.

So I go to the bank to deposit the cheque. The branch is gloomy, even though it’s been refurbished recently, and full of people who look like they are there to rob the bank rather than be served by them. I duly take my place in the five-person queue to be served by one of the two tellers.

After 10 minutes, I’m greeted by Edith. I think that was her name, but I’m not sure as she looked like she retired 10 years ago and had her badge on upside down.

“Hello,” me says. “I’d like to deposit this here traveller’s cheque.”

“No,” says Edith.

“I’m sorry?” says I, confused.

“We don’t take traveller’s cheques. You have to go to Thomas Cook. Next!” says Edith, brushing me aside and waving the person behind to come forward. Blimey! That’s not the best service. Mind you, you’d expect that from a bank, wouldn’t you?

So I go to Thomas Cook, the travel agent, and am amazed such places still exist. People actually go to a physical store to book a holiday and get some currency? Haven’t they heard of Expedia and TransferWise? Anyway, it’s OK because I see a handsome, young chap at the back of the store with a big sign saying ‘Currency Desk’. OK.

“Hello,” me says. “Can you process this here traveller’s cheque?”

“No,” says the whippersnapper.

“I’m sorry?” says I, confused.

“We don’t take traveller’s cheques,” says the young whippersnapper. “We used to, but we stopped back in May. Try a bank.”

“Just tried that,” says I.

“Well, maybe you should call Amex and see what they say?”

Ah, jolly good idea. An 0800 number, 16 digits of the card number and my inside leg measurement and blood type later, I get through to Traveller’s Cheque Services.

“I’ve got this traveller’s cheque from a friend and can’t find anyone who will take it,” I say.

“Have you tried a Post Office,” they say.

Oh yes. Hadn’t thought of that. So I mosey on down to the nearest Post Office store, where everyone seems to be in shirts that have pockets for pens, and glasses that are at least double strength. I join the eight-deep queue. Wow, do people really live like this?

After 15 minutes, I get to the front and a nice, smiling lady called Doris says: “How can I help?”

“Hello,” me says. “Can you process this here traveller’s cheque?”

“Oh,” Doris says, with a look on her face like I’ve just presented her with some dog poo. “I don’t deal with that. You’ll have to talk to Sidney on counter number one.”

She points to Sidney, who is just about able to stand at the counter thanks to his Zimmer frame.

“Oh no,” says I. “Do I have to queue all over again?”

“No,” says Doris. “SIDNEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEY. WHEN YOU FINISH WITH THAT ONE, CAN YOU DEAL WITH THIS ONE,” she shouts, in a voice that vaguely reminds me of chalk on a blackboard. Sidney nods, and I wander over and loiter with intent.

“Yes,” says Sid (may I call you Sid?).

“Hello,” me says. “Can you process this here traveller’s cheque, Sidney?”

“No,” says Sid.

“Why not?” me pleads. “I spoke to Amex and they told me the Post Office could deal with this.

“No,” says Sid. “It’s been signed by Hu Lang Dong and you don’t look like a Hu Lang Dong to me.”

“Well, I’m not,” I say. “I’m Chris.”

“Exactly,” says Sid. “Next.”

Do they train them all to behave this way? I go home.

XXX Dealing with Barbara

It then occurs to me to try talking with Amex again.

“Hello, American Express customer service. My name is Wayne. How may I help you?” says the cheery Scottish voice on the end of the phone.

“Well, I’ve got this traveller’s cheque that I can’t cash and my bank won’t take as a deposit,” sniff, sniff, sniff.

“No problem,” says Wayne. “Just tell them to call this number, as the cheque is good once you put your name on it.”

“Really? But they told me no,” says I, worryingly.

“No. They will take it,” says Wayne.

OK, so I go back to my original start point: the bank. This time, I meet Barbara. I’ve dealt with Barbara before.

“Oh, it’s you,” I says.

“Ah, it’s you,” she says.

Our eyes narrow as she wonders what incredibly difficult question I’m going to ask her. Last time I came here, it resulted in a worrying blog post that she spotted.

“Urmmm … OK. I came in earlier and tried to deposit this traveller’s cheque in my account.” I show her the cheque. “I was told that I couldn’t deposit it, but American Express tell me you should take it.”

“Oh,” says Barbara. She takes the traveller’s cheque, thinks about it for a minute and then says, “I guess we could take it. We would treat it the same as depositing a foreign cheque, I guess. It does mean there will be a £10 charge for processing it.” She is starting to feel comfortable. But then a quizzical look comes over her face. “I’ll just go and check.”

“You’ve got the cheque,” I say.

“No,” says Barbara. “I’ll just go and check that we can take the cheque.”

“Oh,” and she’s off.

I notice the grubby queue of people is now quite a long one and there’s only one cashier on duty. Unfortunately, she’s wrapped up with some old dear who wants her to stamp her pass book, as she’s just deposited some money. This goes on for some time, as the cashier is explaining that they don’t stamp pass books any more. It’s all electronic.

“But the last time I came in here, she stamped it. Look!” pleads Old Mother Hubbard. When was that? 1972, I wonder.

“We don’t do that any more,” says the cashier. “Look, it’s now on my screen here.”

“But I can’t see that at home, can I?”

This goes on for a while, and finally the cashier gets to the next chap: “I want to cash this cheque,” he says. The cashier takes it and asks him for ID, which he duly gives her.

“Urmmm, I can’t cash this,” says the teller.

“Why?” asks Mr Magoo.

“Because whoever sent it to you has only put your first name on it. It has to have your full name, including your surname, for me to cash it,” says Edith, who I’ve now recognised. Bloody hell. Is this some kind of comedy sketch or something? Mr Magoo shuffles off despondently, bumping into the returning Barbara as he disappears into the distance. Barbara is looking happy.

“Hello again, Mr Skinner,” she opens.

“Yes, nice to see you again, Barbara,” I smile.

“Urmm … we can’t cash this,” she commands.

“WTF not Barbara?” I whisper, feeling a little of the Hannibal Lecter starting to fall on me.

“Because it’s a foreign currency cheque,” she smiles back. “If it was UK sterling, we would take it, but because it’s foreign, you’ll have to go somewhere else.”

With that, she puts the ‘Closed’ sign on her teller position, leaving me, Edith and the 20 or so folks in the queue to our living hell on Earth. I go home. I call Amex back and explain everything that’s happened.

“Oh, you can still get this sorted out, Mr Skinner,” says Waynetta on the line. “The process is as follows … ”

I won’t bore you with the whole conversation, but basically I have to first write “void” across the front of the cheque. I then need to make sure I take a scan or photocopy of the cheque. Once that’s done, send the cheque in the post, with an explanation of all that has happened and detailing my preferred method of getting the $500 – by wire or cheque in the post. Then send the void cheque and letter in the post to the only place on Earth that processes void Amex traveller’s cheques: Salt Lake City, Utah.

OMG. I sent the cheque back to my friend and said, “Thanks for the good wishes, but I’m changing religion and cannot accept cash gifts.”

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– This article is reproduced with kind permission. Some minor changes have been made to reflect BankNXT style considerations. Read more here. Main image: Ollyy, Shutterstock.com

About the author

Chris Skinner

Chris Skinner is an independent commentator on the financial markets through the Finanser, and chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club, which he founded in 2004. He is an author of numerous books covering everything from European regulations in banking through to the credit crisis, to the future of banking.