Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Word of Warning to Travelers

So, today I went to Timisoara to do a couple errands. The two things on my list were to pick up some packages from the customs office, and to cash a traveler's check. Picking up the packages was easy and relatively painless. The traveler's check, on the other hand, was a different story.

I had received the check long ago, when I was in Ploiesti for training. It came from a friend in the States. I asked around when I first got it, and no one seemed to know where I might be able to cash it. It seemed no one had ever heard of this sort of check. So, after a while, I stowed it in my luggage and forgot about it. When I came to Lugoj and unpacked, I rediscovered it. Again, I asked around where I might be able to cash such a thing. Again, no one really knew. I talked to Flavia about it, and she made a call to a friend who works for a Romanian bank. Her friend said that some banks might accept traveler's checks, but that it would take 6 weeks before I'd get the money. I thought, well, if this is the way it is, that's fine; I'm not in any hurry. But it sort of defeats the whole purpose of Traveler's checks. So, I went to the biggest bank in Lugoj and showed the check to a lady who dealt with foreign currencies. She looked at it in astonishment, never having seen anything like it before. She called over her supervisor, who was also stupefied. They both wondered over it, as if it were an exotic space rock. I asked if there was anyone in the bank who knew what to do with it. The lady said she'd go talk to the bank director, which took her about 30 minutes. When she returned she said he wasn't sure if they had the ability to process such a check. She said, however, that the large branch in Timisoara would likely be able to take the check.

So, I kept the check until today, when I had the free time to go to Timisoara. So I went to the biggest BCR branch in Timisoara. Cameron happened to tag along just for the fun of it (he's masochistic like that). After doing a bit of running around from one teller to another trying to find the right person to talk to, I finally arrived where I needed to be (or at least so I thought).

I gave the lady behind the desk a big smile, and handed her the check. She at least knew it was a traveler's check, which was a bit of a relief. In a biggers city like Timisoara, I'm sure they come across them more often. She asked for my passport and visa, and entered the information in the computer. Then the computer asked her to select which type of check it was (Thomas Cooke, American Express, Bank of America etc.). The problem was that mine was a Visa check, and Visa was not one of the selections. Everything seemed to be going so smoothly up to this point, but it seemed we'd hit a brick wall. The lady said she had never seen such a check.

I was sort of surprised that they'd never seen a Visa check. After all, the commercials had always told me that Visa is everywhere I want to be. My faith in Visa was beginning to faulter. The lady pulled old a thick, dusty old manual. It contained a list of all the checks they would accept. After flipping a couple pages, she found a picture and description of a Visa check. Phew! She read over the description, and noticed that the check pictured looked a lot different from mine. I was quick to point out that the one shown in the book was a $100 check, while mine was only $50. In fact, mine was a AAA check and the one shown was issued by some other company, but I didn't want to get into some sort of discussion about that.

The lady proceeded to read the book's description the security features on a Visa check. She put it through the battery of tests, feeling the check, folding it, holding it up to the light, putting it under a magnifying glass, sniffing it, chewing on it, lighting it on know the drill. A few other people came by to give it their inspection as well. I guess it passed because next she asked me to counter sign it. But then I got kind of worried because she asked why my signature was identical to my other signature. I explained because I signed both spaces, that's what you're supposed to do. She asked if I had purchased the check, I explained that I hadn't; it was purchased in the states and then sent to me as a gift. She then asked what bank it came from. I explained it doesn't come from any bank, it's a traveler's check...that's the whole deal with traveler's checks.

Luckily she read a section of the book that explained the whole thing about counter-signatures, and it seemed we were back on track. She photo-copied everything. At this point I was still expecting it to take 6 weeks before I got my money. However, she came back to the desk and told me I could get my money at the foreign exchange window downstairs. Wow, instead of 6 weeks, it only took an hour and ten minutes!

Surprisingly, the lady downstairs wanted to give me money in dollars. I had to actually request for the sum in lei. I'd never thought that would be an option. Anyway, long story not-so-short, I got the money and sighed a big sigh of relief.

The moral of the story is, you may want to be wary of traveler's checks when coming to Romania. It seems the bank I dealt with was more familiar with American Express or Bank of America checks than Visa. So be warned on that point; it may not as quick or easy as you might expect. Though, in my case I suppose things were complicated because of my 'weird' check. I guess on the plus side, it didn't take 6 weeks to process as I had originally been lead to believe. But, for the sake of convenience, my suggestion for travelers would be to use a credit card or debit card and withdraw funds from ATMs. I suppose this post was a sort of long-winded way of saying that.

Also, no luck with the Serbian money up to this point. Banks in Romania don't seem to deal with Dinars (which seems strange to me, considering the close proximity of the two countries). However, I know someone who knows someone who owns a Serbian shop and might be able to do me a favor...


Anonymous said...

Hi Mike,

I discovered your blog on a google search for volunteering in Romania. I am so happy to have discovered your candid glimpse into life as Peace Corps volunteer and specifically your experiences in Romania.

I am hoping to apply to the peace corps next year, but in the mean time I have a month off this summer and was hoping to volunteer in Romania. I spent last summer teaching in Kenya and loved it, but I've decided to try and venture nearer to my ancestral roots.

I was wondering if you might have suggestions, input, or witty anecdotes pertaining to Peace Corps service or how I might find an orphanage or non-profit in Romania to volunteer with. (If I learned anything from my experience in Kenya, volunteering with "volunteer" organizations is pricey and ineffectual and I was happier than most volunteers because I went it mostly alone.)

I'm sure you're quite busy, but if you had the chance it would be great to pick your brain (that expression always sounded so perhaps you could share some "knowledge" cupcakes, Cheeto's, caribou?)Man, I'm bad at impromptu metaphors.

My email address:


And good luck with your good work!

Dan Ward said...

Traveler's checks are kind of bullshit everywhere now that there is such a thing as ATM withdrawals against credit cards. I usually assume that everybody already knows this, but it's good to let people know.

Rachel said...

So I just saw a sign advertising housing here in Boulder for University of Colorado (CU) students. The website is Haha, hidden Romanian joke!

Anonymous said...

Better fill your ears with lots of cotton to avoid that dreaded curent!!

--A former PCRO volunteer