Prepaid travel cards are a handy way to take money overseas with minimal hassle. Just how effectively can you use them? I decided to find out by planning and taking an entire overseas trip using nothing but a single travel card.
To be absolutely clear: the germ of this project was an offer from OzForex, which recently launched a travel card which runs solely online and allows you to store multiple currencies. The OzForex team is running a competition giving away $1,000 on one of its cards, and as part of its promotion also offered some journalists and bloggers the ability to try out a card loaded with $1,000 in credit. I was happy to take that up, but figured that the best way to make it useful was to fund an entire trip using it, rather than just randomly to buy stuff when I happened to be overseas. (That would certainly be fun, but less educational.) So I signed up, and my card appeared in the mail five days later.
Purely because of airfares, there aren't too many places where you can get a return trip and all your accommodation, meals and general bon vivant activities for under $1,000. Indonesia would be one possibility, but in the end I settled for an even closer neighbour: New Zealand. Without too much hassle I got myself a return flight for under $500, two nights' accommodation for $100, and that left me with $400 to cover everything else:
The good stuff
Organising multiple currencies on the card is easily done through the browser: you just pick the target currency and the amount you want, and it creates a new 'wallet'. I kept $700 in Australian money, since I was paying for the airfares and hotel online. That also left me a small amount of cash for airport transfers in Sydney. The rest I converted into New Zealand dollars, which was a simple one-click process. (I didn't have enough time to hang around waiting for the "best" currency moment, though the Australia-New Zealand ratio hasn't shifted much anyway. With a trip planned further ahead, that step would definitely make sense. You transfer additional funds onto the card using BPAY.)
With my wallets set up, I simply used the card for booking, and it automatically applied the correct currency. My flights and room were covered by Australian dollars, and I withdrew money from an ATM to pay for my train tickets. I booked my Auckland airport transfer online, and that automatically came out in NZ dollars. I grabbed some cash at an airport ATM (for incidentals where a card wasn't worth it). While in Auckland, I used the card for my hotel security deposit, for purchasing meals in restaurants, for shopping and for grabbing a prepaid SIM card to avoid onerous data charges. I also did a little online shopping, which is also another handy potential application (especially if you don't want to share standard credit card details with an unfamiliar site.)
In every one of those contexts, it was no different to using a credit card. Every machine I encountered had a PIN option, so I used that rather than signing. (You set up a PIN when the card is first activated. You get sent two cards when you sign up, which gives you a second card — useful if you misplace the first one, though any funding isn't automatically shared between them.) My wallet has rarely been so light; all I had was the one card, my room key and a handful of New Zealand notes.
The bad stuff
There were no major dramas using the card; it never got refused, and I never had anyone look twice at it. But there are a couple of enhancements I'd like to see.
Firstly, there's a slightly annoying message on the log-in screen suggesting that you should be using Internet Explorer. It worked with no problems on Chrome, but honestly, this isn't 1996; claiming to be IE-only simply shouldn't an option.
Secondly, as with any credit card, transactions take a while to show up. If you log on, you'll always get an accurate total of how much you've got left, but you won't be able to see individual transactions for a few days. Two weeks after my trip, I can see everything, but that wasn't the case while I was on the road. So you'll need to keep a running budget total in your head (that's a good idea for frugal travel in any case).
Thirdly, bear in mind that if you use the card for a security deposit on a hotel room (which is common practice these days), the funds will take a while to be released. Unlike a traditional credit card, you don't have any leeway, so if you use the card that way (as I did), be prepared not to see that money until a week later.
Lastly, while it's easy to use the card in an ATM, it isn't free. My single withdrawal at a New Zealand airport ATM cost me $4.25, so I'm glad I had a detailed budget plan and knew how much I needed. Frequent small withdrawals would have been a lot pricier.
Finally, some random New Zealand observations:
- It's a boon to compact packing when travelling to one of the few countries in the world that uses the same design for power plugs that we do.
- In a similar vein, it's also very handy to be able to use SmartGate at the New Zealand end. On arrival, if you have a SmartGate-enabled passport, you can use a kiosk and speed through immigration. In theory, you can also do the same when leaving New Zealand, but the reader didn't like me on that occasion and I ended up back in a regular, though still speedy, queue. (There's also a trial to drop the need to go through SmartGate twice when returning from New Zealand, but that hasn't hit Sydney flights yet.)
- McDonald's in New Zealand offers the option of having a salad rather than fries with every meal (and doesn't charge a premium, unlike Hungry Jack's in Australia.) I didn't try one, but it seems like a sensible initiative.
Bottom line: I definitely think I'll make use of prepaid cards (loaded with my own money) more in the future, though I might stick to the standard credit card when checking into hotels. Got your own experience with them to share? We're all ears in the comments.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman can't work out why he's more conscious of his Aussie accent in New Zealand than anywhere else. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker. Disclosure (if you missed it earlier): Angus Kidman travelled to New Zealand as a guest of OzForex.