Should American Express refund this 50-euro travelers check?

check, pay, payment, dollars, currency, checkbook
By | November 8th, 2016

Ralph Westfall wants his 50 euros back from American Express. Should I help him?

Your favorite column Should I Take The Case is back after a short hiatus. Our advocacy team is tired of having to make all these difficult decisions ourselves, so we’re reaching out to you today for help.

Here’s the first thing you need to know about Westfall’s case, and the issue that gave our advocates pause: It’s six years old.

Cases don’t age well, even under the best of circumstances.

Why did it take Westfall six long years to ask us for help? Let’s take a look at the details for the answer.

Westfall bought American Express euro traveler’s checks for a trip to Europe back in 2006.

“We had some left over, so we kept them for a future trip,” he says. “Back in Europe, we found that no merchants except the Palace of Versailles would take them. After cashing some there, we still had a 50-euro traveler’s check left.”

What to do with the remaining euros?

“A money exchange place would cash them at a ridiculous rate — only 42 euros for a 50-euro check,” he says. “Even the American Express office at the Copenhagen airport — one of the few we could find left in Europe — wouldn’t cash its own check at face value.”

So Westfall mailed the check back to American Express asking for a refund. Here’s where things get complicated. The euro traded at about 1.20 to the dollar in 2006; today, it’s roughly at parity. That means a dollar is about one euro, more or less.

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American Express sent him a check for $8.

Huh?

“I phoned them about that around a month ago and they said they would do something about it. However we have not gotten anything back from them yet,” he says.

A look at American Express’ terms and conditions suggests it will replace a check with another check, but I don’t see any provisions for refunds. If I had to guess, I’d say there’s some kind of fee being charged for returning the check, perhaps one that accrues on an annual basis. It may also be a hefty currency exchange fee.

That’s my best guess for making sense of turning 50 euros into $8. According to Amex, its traveler’s checks are as good as money.

Westfall needs a paper trail on this before we can get involved. But even if he establishes one, I’m not sure if his chances of recovering more money are that great. The longer you wait to fix something, the harder it gets — even for a check that allegedly never expires. Amex’ records from 2006 may or may not be complete.

Now that Westfall has mailed his check — and I hope he made a copy of the check — this further complicates the resolution.

Is it worth going to battle with Amex over $42? Or should we recommend that Westfall take the loss and never, ever purchase a traveler’s check again?

Should I take Ralph Westfall's case?

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  • Reporter1

    If it was 2006, that’s 10 years, not six years. I don’t understand where six years comes in.

  • Dutchess

    “The euro traded at about 1.20 to the dollar in 2006; today, it’s roughly at parity. That means a dollar is about one euro, more or less.”

    Where are you getting that they’re at parity? Euro is currently at US$1.10. That’s still a 10% difference.

  • Mel65

    My only question is why, when they found a place to cash them, they didn’t just cash them all. But after all this time, let it go… Sigh.

  • Chris_In_NC

    This is one of those cases where i’m 99% sure there is a missing information and it has nothing to do with fluctuations in exchange rate. Was a monthly fee assessed for “inactivity?”

  • Lee

    Agree with pointing out euro and dollar are not at parity. But, I think Amex should refund the full amount minus some reasonable (however that gets defined) fee for doing the transaction. I have little patience for companies practicing business like this – they do it too with gift cards (in a variety on the theme) in that many have expiration dates – which is ridiculous but they know lots of people forget to use them and the company makes a bundle in keeping money that doesn’t belong to them when the expiration date passes.

    It’s a perverse way of doing business and Amex should step up and do the right thing. Would I spend a boatload of time trying to get back this amount of money? No – but, a bit of time, sure. For me, it is more about the principle of the issue – them getting to keep the person’s money without justification.

  • MarkKelling

    American Express Traveler’s Cheques have never been refundable. Replaceable yes for any reason with a new check (or checks) equal to the original amount in the original issued currency type. But that’s it.

    The reason for this is the traveler’s cheques have always been cashable for the full amount at banks or usable also at the full amount to pay for anything you purchased at any store. But that was before ATMs were so readily available world wide to get cash on demand and credit cards became the payment option of choice for large parts of the population. Many locations around the world have also imposed taxes or fees on the cheques when you cash them as well as when merchants deposit them. This has resulted in no one, and I do mean no one, wanting anything to do with them.

    What should the OP have done? Taken the cheque to his bank and deposited it. Most banks have a foreign exchange department and will pass the cheque through that department where they would receive the current equivalent of €50 and credit that back to him (minus a small fee of a couple dollars). Or he could have saved it for the next trip to Europe and found somewhere there to spend it. The cheques never expire.

    What can the rest of us learn about this? Traveler’s Cheques are to be avoided these days. They were a great way to safely carry your vacation funds with you before ATMs were everywhere, but that was last century. Move on. Get an ATM card your bank will allow you to use anywhere in the world (preferably one without fees) and use that to get cash from ATMs where you are traveling. You get the best possible exchange rate at a bank operated ATM and it is cash so no issues with finding someone to accept it.

    Should this case be pursued? Absolutely. There is no way that cheque was worth only $8.

  • MarkKelling

    Traveler Cheques never expire and have zero fees from American Express after you buy them. American Express does not refund for them.

  • MarkKelling

    The original cheques were purchased for a trip in 2006 or 10 years ago. Stated in the article that they had some left they held for a future trip. Then they tried to use them after they were back in Europe and although unstated, that trip must have been in 2010 to make the math work.

  • MarkKelling

    Probably limits on how much could be cashed at one time. The Palace of Versailles is not a bank but is a touristy destination and probably was will to accept some of the cheques as part of the admission fee and then more in the gift shop or snack bar. Doubtful they keep a lot of extra cash in the registers.

  • Reporter1

    That may very well be, but it really should have been mentioned in the story.

  • AAGK

    He should’ve taken the $42 euros at the airport. If the exchange rate was now more favorable, would he refund the difference? He held on to the check for a ridiculously long time and Amex should’ve probably just returned if rather than open this can of worms. I haven’t seen a traveler’s check since I was a kid. Perhaps there is a currency museum i in DC that would take an interest?

  • MarkKelling

    Yes, it could have been clearer.

  • Don Spilky

    Alternatively, get a CC that doesn’t charge ForEx fees, and you will receive the Interbank (best) exchange rate on your purchases. Just make sure to confirm you aren’t being charged in dollars :)

  • Chris_In_NC

    Which is why this case makes no sense! 50 euros becomes 8 USD? What info is missing?

  • MarkKelling

    Yes, there are a lot of cards out there now that have no international transaction fees and use Interbank rates. I have a couple of them myself. Saves me a few dollars when traveling.

  • MarkKelling

    Maybe the fee was $8 and the person doing the paperwork reversed the numbers?

  • Alan Gore

    Nobody takes travelers checks anymore, but the American Express office should still have traded them for cash Euros, or today’s equivalent in local currency. Amex has always sold these as a cash equivalent and, although they are not “refundable” they are always supposed to be cashable. People used to routinely keep leftover checks as an insured cash reserve. Six years, ten years – there is no expiration date and no ‘activity’ requirement. Take the case.

  • Bill___A

    They used to advertise to keep them for the next trip. They should redeem it at the current exchange rate.

  • taxed2themax

    I voted yes – but only because I think the OP should have received some kind of an accounting or the math for how AMEX arrived at that figure.. I do agree that it appears they are non-refundable, so from that basis, I don’t know there’s a lot to work with — added to the fact that this is somewhere in the 6-10 years old range in terms of case history.
    So long as Amex correctly followed their rules for how old checks (if in fact there are rules for such and/or rules for checks of this age range) are converted to cash- whatever that may be, then I think I’d close the matter..

  • jsn55

    Well, AmEx should have sent him the 50 euro. They should not be charging him any fees to refund the TC, but maybe their T&Cs say that they will. He’s stubborn and AmEx is short-sighted. What was $42 worth back then?

  • PsyGuy

    I voted yes, not because the value is worth the time, but because i want to see how AMEX responds to this. On one side of the coin this would be a really cheap PR opportunity, on the other side if they try to get out of it, I’d really like to hear the rationale that won’t damage the product brand.

  • PsyGuy

    No, it’s not. Many PAX think that there is one rate for currency exchanges and there isn’t. Most of them after doing a web search come up with the LIBOR rate, which is only available to financial institutions conducting large transactions (generally in excess of $1M). There are three other rates. The commercial rate which is available for large value commercial transactions is often used in commercial contracts of goods for import and export. Some banks may offer you a commercial rate, but then add a fee for the transaction. The other two rates are retail rates that a PAX can get and they are the cash and credit rates. It is these rates that are at parity with the € and $.

  • PsyGuy

    I agree, though I’m surprised their hotel wouldn’t cash them.

  • MarkKelling

    Every uncashed AmEx Traveler check ever issued (and not reported lost or stolen) is still worth face value today. That was one of the major selling points. This one was still worth €50, not $8. AmEx has some explainin’ to do!

    When I worked for a bank, someone brought in 3 checks purchased in 1920 by a grandparent and never used. We would have been happy to cash them (after calling AmEx to verify they were good of course), but someone mentioned they might be more valuable to a collector and we never saw them again.

  • PsyGuy

    Why they didn’t deposit them in their bank at home I don’t know. My guess (and it’s just a guess) is that AMEX charged a fee to cash/refund the cheques.

  • PsyGuy

    Again, why not just take the cheque to their bank at home and deposit or cash it? My bank would have cashed it at face value for free.

  • PsyGuy

    I have to disagree, I regularly travel with a small amount of travelers cheques in case of an emergency and when I have a tight schedule with a number of short stays in multiple countries. Usually its when I’m doing recruiting events. In these cases, it’s easier for me to use travelers cheques, with the huge caveat that, on these trips I’m rarely leaving the airport and if i am it’s only for a day. I’ve yet to find a major international airport exchange that won’t take an AMEX check. I typically travel with $50 cheques which is enough for a meal and a couple drinks. It takes no more time to exchange one than it does to exchange currency, and I can get them refunded if lost or stolen (which has happened).

  • MarkKelling

    In the good old days, hotels were always happy to cash them. But times have changed and they simply don’t want to take the risk or pay the fees their bank will charge. The large American chain hotels probably still will.

    I did a quick search for several different European cities on the AmEx TC web site looking for places which would cash them. Paris for example has only 10 split between banks and one Travelex. All charge fees averaging 3%. So you pay a fee and whatever exchange rate AmEx wants when you buy them, then you pay another fee to cash them. Not a great way to carry your money around these days is it?

  • PsyGuy

    You MIGHT receive the LIBOR/Interbank rate. You may receive the commercial rate, and at worse you might receive a DCC (Dynamic Currency Conversion) rate. It depends on the ATM owner.

  • PsyGuy

    Those would be more valuable to a collector.

  • PsyGuy

    $46

  • MarkKelling

    I have a zero fee debit card I use to get cash when traveling to Europe. As long as I stick to bank operated ATMs (the ones that are actually at a bank branch), I get the exact rate I see when I Google 1 EUR in USD or 1 GBP in USD, for example. That is the Interbank rate. I avoid any cash dispensing machine I might find in a pub or grocery store or other establishment, as I also do when back home in the US, and have only been offered DCC once and that was at an ATM I thought was bank operated but was actually in a Post Office in Wales.

    Also same for the fee free Visa credit card I have — I get charged exactly what the Interbank rate is at the time the transaction clears and posts.

  • PsyGuy

    I haven’t had a problem with large european or other international hotels cashing them. I recently cashed about $250 worth at the Peninsula in HK, and nothing but a smile and a bow, they didn’t even ask to see my passport, just matched the signatures.

    I could understand if you were staying at Motel 6 or Fairview Inn you might have problems. Marriott and Holiday branded properties have cashed them for me in the recent past, but they took a copy of my passport, and made a phone call (I don’t know if it was to AMEX or a manager).

    Lastly, I suppose it depends where you are carrying your money around.

  • MarkKelling

    And it takes less time, in most cases, to get $50 or $100 local equivalent from an ATM. And if you have that zero fee ATM/Debit card, you get it at Interbank rate as long as you use a bank operated machine.

    Of course if you are on business, the fees the exchange booth charges don’t bother you. But for the average traveler paying their own ways, exchanging cash or utilizing any services of an exchange company can get expensive fast.

  • PsyGuy

    This is why I stated “might” and even used capital letters. I have similar debit cards as well, and they generally work exactly how you describe for the most part, the issue of course is when they don’t.

    I have used an ATM right outside a bank that didn’t belong to the bank, fortunately a server working at the cafe next door, told me not to use, it but wait until the bank opened.

  • MarkKelling

    The call was to AmEx to verify the check and basically get a guarantee that it would be paid.

  • PsyGuy

    Not in my experience. There usually isn’t much of a line at the currency exchange and there is at the ATM, and I’m usually on business. The other issue is that I have to save the ATM receipt whereas the cheque receipt is already safe back at my office and has likely already been submitted. They use to let us take pictures of the receipt and submit the pictures, but now you need the actual receipt.

    I don’t really disagree with you, it’s just how my company’s controls are implemented. I have a $100USD P/D when traveling internationally. If I use an ATM I have to use my debit card and my account, and then save, and submit the receipt for reimbursement. If I use a travelers cheque I order them using a vendor control requisition through our corporate bank. I pick them up at the branch that’s in the cafe pavilion on the campus. I keep the receipt in my office (work space is more accurate), I attach the VCR digitally to the expenses tab of the project report. Then I can push it out of my brain.

  • taxed2themax

    I agree.. and that’s why I voted to take the case.. not because I agree or disagree with AMEX’s actions — I’m not 100% sure if what they did was in line with the rules that apply and govern — but I think they have an obligation to show a breakdown for how that $8 came to be.

  • Dutchess

    This might be remotely applicable if we were talking about commercial lending but we’re not. We’re talking about consumer travel and at the end of the day none of that matters because no average Joe walking up to an ATM or currency exchange booth in an airport is getting anywhere near the commercial rates. We’re all paying spot plus a margin for transaction fees. Still nowhere near parity.

  • cscasi

    Or, possibly they could have put what the one they had left towards their hotel bill and gotten rid of it that way

  • The Original Joe S

    I Dropped them. They treat their customers like cash cows to be milked. Worthless.

  • cscasi

    If they deposited it in their bank at home, there would be fees; especially since it is in Euros and not Dollars. Banks have pretty hefty foreign exchange charges.

  • cscasi

    Then, what would you have done with fifty Euros? Remember, the check is/was in Euros. Are you sure your bank would have cashed it for you and given you Euros or would it cash it for you, apply a conversion fee and pay you in dollars?

  • joycexyz

    Travelers’ checks haven’t been a good option for many years (well before 2006), and it has become increasingly difficult to find places that accept them. With the ubiquitous ATMs, they are simply unnecessary. His best bet was to accept the 42 euros and move on. Why obsess over 8 euros? And I don’t understand the time discrepancy–is it 6 years or 10 years?

  • cscasi

    Good to know. I use my bank or credit union debit cards to withdraw cash from ATM’s when we travel domestically or abroad. Have never had an issue using them and my bank and credit union do not charge a foreign exchange fee; although, I think MasterCard or Visa both charge a 1% conversion fee when I use them abroad.

  • MarkKelling

    The 1% is charged directly to your bank or credit union. They choose to pass it on to you or not. Some even mark it up to as much as 5%. My card issuer for the card I use when traveling to foreign countries chooses not.

  • PsyGuy

    My bank would have given me the option, they often keep euros on hand, they would have given me either €50 or given me the exchange rate and total for dollars.

  • PsyGuy

    That would greatly depend on the bank you work with. If you banked with a CU you would very legally have zero fees and a favorable exchange rate.

  • PsyGuy

    Another good idea, though likely their charges were prepaid.

  • PsyGuy

    Retail rates such as the credit and cash exchange rates are the consumer rates available to travelers.

  • Dutchess

    Right….which are…stay with me now….not in parity.

  • PsyGuy

    Which within their category are in parity between USD and EUR.

  • Dutchess

    Keep arguing something COMPLETELY irrelevant. See how far it gets you. Show me one place a consumer can walk up and exchange 1 USD for 1 Eurio. Please…I beg you, I’m heading to Europe in a week.

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