Travel Before Credit Cards

Say I was going on an extended business trip in the 1940’s or 50’s, back before national credit cards existed. What were my options for paying for things? Would I just carry a big wad of cash around with me? Were out-of-state checks more acceptable as payment? Would somebody back at home be regularly wiring me money that I would collect at a telegraph office?

I’d imagine, that along with the options you already considered, that you could get a bank transfer to the location where you were staying.

I know that in the ninteeth century (and earlier) you could get a “letter of credit” from your bank or goldsmith. Merchants would be instructed to sed their bills to that instiution for payment. Perhaps something similar still existed.

IIRC travellers’ checks were used in To Have And Have Not, which took place around 1940.

I’ve also heard one could get a ‘Letter of Credit’ from his bank but I don’t know if they were used by travellers, or if they were for international trade.

Travellers checks used to be much more popular than they are today.

If you lived in Australia or NZ in the 1940s, chances are you weren’t travelling very far (there being a war on for half the decade, and for the other half no-one really had a lot of spare cash), so you’d probably just take cash- or else a letter or credit/instructions to bill your account at the bank would probably suffice.

I did a lot of travelling before I ever had a credit card. Travelers cheques were what I always used.

American Express was the first to develop the travellers cheque, in 1891. Prior to that, travellers carried letters of credit from their banks.

There also seems to have been a greater willingness to trust that people would be able to meet their debts. Didn’t it use to be possible, until fairly recently, to check into a hotel and not pay a dime or use a credit card until you checked out?

That depended a lot on the hotel and its clientele.

But travel was heavily skewed toward people rich enough to easily be able to afford it or business travelers. Both groups would be presumed to have the wherewithal to settle their bills.

But they often didn’t. In fact, the demand for credit cards to draw against ahead of time probably is a good indicator of the problems and costs thereof from people who did not in fact pay their hotel bills.

This is purely anecdotal I’m afraid, but in my experience in the hospitality industry, the wealthier the customer, the harder it was to get them to pay their bills. Other workers have reported the same thing to me.

When I worked in a country pub, we’d run a book for the regulars to put their drinks on a tab. The folks on unemployment would queue outside the bank before it opened on the day their benefit came in, and then come straight down and pay us in full. The $200, 000 mine managers, on the other hand, often took weeks of chasing to get the money back, and when they finally paid you, they were ungrateful, and acted like we were inconveniencing them.

The above is a generalisation, of course. There were many, many exceptions, but it certainly seemed to be the rule.

I worked for an up-scale department store in the late 1950s; when the president made buying trips to Europe, he always took a letter of credit along with travelers checks. I always assumed the letters of credit were used to purchase quantities of whatever for resale. (I was sometimes sent to his bank to get the letters.)

Bars and taverns used to cash checks, especially in workingclass neighborhoods where folks didn’t much hold with banks.

My dad was saying that back in the 50s, 60s and early 70s in England, you could pay pretty much anywhere by check, and it was a complete trust thing. The only recourse the merchant had was to ask you to write your address on the back - with no way of seeing if it was false or not. Bounced/fake/stolen checks were an occupational hazard. Checks were regularly cashed, but usually only if the merchant knew the check holder. There’s something about this in one of the Fawlty Towers episodes, with the fake Lord.

Sorry, I should have said they cashed checks if they knew the check holder or trusted the source of the check. Hence the guy Basil Fawlty thought was a Lord was able to manipulate Basil’s class paranoia and snobbery to rip him off by cashing a fake check.

Wikipedia suggests Thomas Cook (innovators of the package holiday) created the travellers cheque. I suspect this might be a subject where Google might fall short.

When I started at AT&T, in 1980, they, for some reason, were dead set against credit cards. We did not have company cards, and weren’t even allowed to use our own. The way we traveled was for airfare and rental cars to be charged directly to the company. We got a big cash advance to pay for the hotel and meals. This was of course a tremendous pain if you got delayed for some reason, or for a long trip. We could get travelers checks from our cashier also.

I remember that when my mother went to California, in the late '50s, they paid for the airline ticket in cas. It was the first $100 bill I ever saw.

I think that’s why traveller’s checks were popular (although I am sure a lot of folks still carried cash). My dad used them so much back in the day that he insisted that I use them when I first started going abroad. Amex used correspondent banks so that you could exchange them if there wasn’t an Amex office in that city. If they got lost, Amex would replace them free.

The safe way to carry funds with you with no hassel.
Refundable if lost, very low fee, and other advantages.
Dont leave home without them. :slight_smile:

If we want to get REALLY old school, a case could be made for the Knights Templar and the Italian Trading Families inventing things like Letters of Credit and a form of Travellers Cheque…

You could exchange travelers cheques at any bank. Sometimes even other places. Before I had a credit card, I exchanged them at banks and hotel desks in Europe, the USA, and Australia. Hotel desks didn’t always give the best exchange, but they would certainly exchange them for local cash. I never needed to go to an AmEx office to change them anywhere.