We didn't bother taking travellers cheques. We just bought $1000 US in cash
from a bank here before we left, then withdrew money from ATMs as we
needed it. Having said that, it is probably not a bad idea to have some travellers
cheques or some other means of accessing funds, in case your wallet with the
ATM cards gets lost or stolen.
ATMs are everywhere in the US. Every corner store, gas station, market etc has
one. As long as your ATM card has one of the major international logos on it,
such as ‘Cirrus’, ‘Maestro’, ‘Plus’, etc or is linked up to a Visa or MasterCard,
then you should have no problem using it in American ATMs.
(The same applies in Europe, based on our daughter’s experience backpacking
there for three months in late 2003).
It is probably better to use ATMs that are at banks, rather than in convenience
stores or gas stations etc. These ATMs will often charge a small additional fee.
It’s only $1.50 or $2.00, but use bank ATMs where you can.
Using ATMs you get a better exchange rate than at many places, and you get an
account balance in US dollars when you do a withdrawal. You will generally get
only US $10 or $20 bills from an ATM, even if you withdraw $400 or so.
Unlike Australia, you are unlikely to get 50s, and I never saw an ATM offer a
choice of denominations, as some will do in Australia. You’ll also notice that the
ATM offers you the choice to do the transaction in English or Spanish at many
You can also use your ATM card in larger stores as a 'debit' card, and this usually
allows you to make a purchase and also get some cash out as well. They call this
‘cashback’ instead of the Australian ‘cashout’. The Aussie term ‘EFTPOS’
(‘Electronic Funds Transfer - Point Of Sale’) also is not used in North America,
but this is the same thing. When using your card in this way, you just select ‘debit
card’ or ‘ATM card’ on the store’s handheld terminal. It might take a couple
days longer for an ATM or ‘EFTPOS’ transaction done overseas to appear on
your bank account (let’s say you’re viewing it via internet banking) than it would
How do they get by in the US with the largest coin in general circulation being the quarter (25c)? Answer: All vending machines, internet terminals etc have a ‘bill reader’. These will accept $1 bills and usually $5s as well. They will take all but the
very rattiest bills and will make change as required.
At gas stations you will usually have to 'prepay', if paying with cash. You go into
the store, give the guy a bit more cash than the amount of gas you think you'll
be needing, he activates the pump up to the amount you paid, then you get change
when you are done. Alternatively, use your credit card (or ATM card – an Aussie
one with Cirrus or Maestro etc will work) to 'pay at the pump'. If you pay at
the pump, it's very convenient as you don't have to even go in the gas station
The pay at the pump system exists in Australia and I was in the habit of using it a few years ago back home. For some reason these days at most petrol stations I go to they are either deactivated or just do not work. In the States, they are almost everywhere, and I did not see one that was not working. Maybe the reason pay at the pump is rarely used in Australia is that it might make it harder to detect cheats who drive off without paying, as the requirement to prepay is rare in Australia, although sometimes is used late at night.
Sometimes if you are paying cash they will let you pay when you are done, if they like the look of you, especially in smaller towns. Usually, as I say, you must pre-pay. At least gas is cheap, although you'll hear Americans complaining how much it costs these days! In fairness to them, it has gone up 40% between Christmas 2003 and April 2004. In Australian terms, it averages around 70 to 80c Australian per litre, as at June 2004. Prices vary a lot by region from around $2.25 per gallon down to $1.85 or so as of June 2004. It’s most expensive in California, cheapest in the South and Texas - other places are in between.
Another thing which is different than we Aussies are used to is that when paying with a credit card (except at restaurants), the store clerk will usually ask you to show your driver’s licence or other photo ID. The funny thing is that they seem not to bother checking the signature – in Australia the clerk at least goes through the motions of looking at the signature and comparing it with the one on the credit card. I think in the US they rely on other security measures aimed at preventing fraudulent use. To illustrate the point, here’s how the transaction works at a restaurant:
The waitress brings you the ‘check’ (bill). Usually this
will be delivered to your table in a little folder with the
Amex logo on it;
After checking the bill, you then place your credit
card in the folder, in a little plastic pocket shaped
to fit the card;
She takes the folder back, and returns it with a credit
card slip made out for the amount of the meal, and
with your credit card;
The slip will have blank spaces for you to write in the
‘tip’ and the ‘total’. Once you’ve done that, you just
leave the folder on the table with the signed and
completed credit card slip inside it.
So, we can see there is no opportunity for them to check the credit card signature
in this scenario.