Posted: Mar 21, 2018
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Old Habits are Hard to Break.

Spring Break 2018 is here, and travelling is the number one way to spend the week off. Travelling to international destinations is a popular spring break activity. And according to a recent Visa travel study, so is spending cash while on vacation. Why do most travelers prefer using cash when travelling internationally? What can credit unions do to change their members’ habits to get them to use cards instead?


We travel with a lot of cash!

Most travelers still prefer to use cash when making purchases while away from home, according to the recently released Visa Travel Global Intention Study.

While it’s no surprise to know technology is a travel essential to book hotels and airfare, it is remarkable to discover how many consumers still use cash for travel related expenses. Of the total $1,793 spent on the average trip, $778 of that is in cash. With the spring break travel season already here, and the summer travel season coming soon, issuers need to understand consumer travel purchase behavior so they can create tactics to convert cash spending while on vacation to card/device spending.


If 77% of consumers still prefer to use cash when travelling internationally, this implies currency conversion. According to the study, globally, people are planning more travel abroad, and Americans lead the pack in annual trips with 3.2 trips in 2017. The travel study indicates 72% of international travelers spend time converting currency before traveling, and 87% of those travelers return with converted currency, but only 29% convert it back to local currency. Not converting funds back to local currency after travel is completed is like leaving an unused balance on a gift card and throwing it in the back of a desk drawer never to be used again.


Travelers cited loss or theft of cash as a top money concern while on trips.  

The primary reason for travel is for relaxation, and to have fun; yet obtaining, carrying and exchanging cash creates anxiety for travelers. The safety and security of carrying large amounts of cash is a top concern. The need to plan for having enough cash is an additional stressor, for an event that is supposed to be the source of stress-relief. If carrying cash causes additional effort, and results in additional anxiety, why do travelers continue the habit? Part of the answer is that there is a certain sense of security that carrying cash conveys to the traveler; but a bigger part of the answer lies in misunderstanding and generally a lack of knowledge regarding card usage overseas. This last point became obvious to this author in a recent conversation, which served as a case study for a broader audience.

Me: (while driving my college-age millennial daughter who was traveling to South America for spring break to visit a friend who was studying abroad) “Did you call our credit union to place a travel notice on your card?”

Daughter: “No, I can’t use my card there.”

Me: (after a long pause) “Why not?”

Daughter: “They don’t take U.S. funds in South America.”


While they don’t use cash, they DO use technology while travelling.

The preference to use cash when travelling is not due to technology being anathema to the traveler. In fact, just the opposite. They feel a need to stay connected - the vast majority of travelers go online while abroad. And nearly half use ride-sharing apps to get around, which requires the use of a credit or debit card to pay in-app. Also, the traveler, for almost all trips, paid for hotel and airfare online, again, using a credit or debit card. The challenge, for issuers, is to get travelers to make their in-country expenditures on their cards, rather than in cash.




Changing members’ behavior starts with education.

Issuers need to communicate travel best practices to their cardholders to convey safety, security and availability of using card products at millions of locations worldwide. This benefits the issuer, through interchange and in some cases international currency conversion fees, but more importantly this benefits the members, relieving them of the anxiety associated with converting cash at a currency exchange, finding a foreign ATM, carrying and protecting cash while touring in an unfamiliar environment in a different time zone, and then dealing with unspent foreign currency. Best practices include educating members about using a payment card when travelling:


  • Security. When using a credit or debit card with the Visa or Mastercard logo, signature purchases are backed by a zero-liability policy, meaning that accountholders won’t be held responsible for unauthorized charges on their account.

  • Safety. Flashing “wads” of cash invites danger. A lost or stolen card can be replaced, often within a few days. Cash can’t be replaced.

  • Better exchange rates over currency conversion windows or foreign ATMs. Using a credit or debit card to pay in “local currency” can offer a competitive exchange rate and help avoid getting stuck with hidden currency conversion fees when converting unspent foreign cash.

  • Protection from fraud. Credit card processors monitor for suspicious transactions. Unless the member’s profile includes frequent international travel, purchases made abroad may be flagged. Instruct members to notify your credit union with their travel plans.

  • Top of wallet. As shown in the Visa survey, travelers do use technology while travelling. Remind them to make the credit union issued card the default card in the apps and digital/mobile wallets, before they start their travels.

  • Monitor transactions. Members can help keep their money safe by monitoring their transactions, even while travelling. If offered, encourage the member to activate purchase alerts, which cause a text message or email notification for transactions that are not within the parameters, including international purchases. Regardless, encourage the member to use their secure mobile banking app to monitor card usage while on travel and after they return.


Credit unions bear a responsibility to help keep their members money safe. Changing the behavior of members who have a predilection to use cash instead of cards is a positive step toward that goal. To learn more about industry trends and card portfolio management, attend the Realize Payments Academy course from Trellance at the immersion18 conference, Tuesday May 8.



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Stephanie  Hainje

Stephanie HainjeStephanie Hainje

Trellance's Director of Education, Stephanie Hainje is an experienced card industry professional with credit and debit card program management from her previous career at Purdue Federal Credit Union, a leading affinity credit card issuer and top 100 Visa USA issuer.

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