How practical is cashless travel?

Like many millennials, Keira Chin likes to discover new sights and sounds on her trips abroad. What she doesn’t like is coming home from her holidays with leftover foreign notes.

“If I were to change all that foreign currency back to our ringgit, I would definitely lose some money, ” she says, adding that it’s also bothersome to look for a currency exchange outlet.

That is why the freelance musician has been travelling with fewer paper money these days, relying instead on credit and debit cards. In fact, Chin is thinking about going completely cashless.

“It would put my parents at ease too. They always tell me to keep my cash in various places when I’m travelling, ” she says with a laugh. “Now, all I need is my phone and a few cards. How convenient is that?”

That being said, Chin has some reservations about e-wallets too.

“What if I want to buy street food? Will they accept e-wallets and cards too?” she wonders.

The reality is, with technological advancements, people are warming up to the idea that you don’t always need literal cash in your pocket. Credit cards, e-wallets and other digital payment methods have gained traction in recent years.

In the context of travel, big city destinations are already geared up for cashless tourists. Visitors to London can travel on all public transport with a contactless payment card.

And in big cities like New York, Dubai and Singapore, cashless travellers are accommodated every step of the way – from airport transfers to hotel check-ins and dining options.

Payment for in-flight purchases on many airlines have also been cashless for several years. Last year, Visa even sent one lucky traveller on a trip using nothing but credit cards, just to prove that cashless travel is possible.

Ditching paper

This sort of revolution, according to travel technology company Amadeus, reflects what travellers want moving forward.

“In travel the change has mainly been driven by consumers, and merchants have had to adapt very quickly. Nowadays the payment process is no longer considered just a transaction, but part of the experience, ” says Amadeus managing director (Payments) Bart Tompkins.

He highlights how digital payment is the new norm in certain international markets.

“In Sweden, for example, businesses are no longer obliged to accept cash, and more than half of consumers haven’t handled cash in the last three months, ” Tompkins offers.

Not right now

While the world is gradually moving towards a cashless society, Malaysian Association Of Tour And Travel Agents (Matta) president Datuk Tan Kok Liang doesn’t think it’s practical for travellers to go completely cashless – not at this point in time, at least.

“Cashless travel is the way of the future but we are far from being able to travel without cash. For now, travellers can go with fewer cash, but not completely without, ” he says.

Tan highlights instances where smaller and more rural destinations may lack the facility to accept cashless transactions.

“Even in metropolitan and well-developed areas there are still many instances where only cash is accepted. Until the adoption of cashless payment becomes all-pervasive, tourists should always keep spare cash handy.

“The key limitation for cashless travel is when there is no access to the Internet or where telecommunications networks are unstable or totally non-existent, or even when equipment malfunctions occur, ” he says.

Although most travel agents in Malaysia can accommodate cashless travellers, Tan says the industry as a whole is not yet fully equipped.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Malaysia Association of Hotels (MAH) chief executive officer Yap Lip Seng.

“Tourism takes into consideration countless nationalities and currencies and that involve a huge amount of preparation – be it technologically, financially and even politically. To this day, travellers are still not able to use their credit cards at every destination or transaction, ” he says.

Yap says there needs to be a universal payment platform to give travellers peace of mind when spending abroad.

“Stakeholders should decide on one, or perhaps maximum two cashless platforms (other than credit cards), that would be accepted. The government needs to play a major role in this to avoid confusion and encourage adoption, ” he says.

That being said, both Tan and Yap believe going cashless presents new opportunities for the country’s tourism market in the lead-up to Visit Malaysia 2020.

“Payment method would not influence travellers’ decision or choice of destination, but ease of foreign exchange could and that may be a part of the cashless mechanism. If we are able to offer attractive exchange rates (through these cashless platforms) and transfers or transactions, it could be a game changer, ” Yap says.

However, he warns that stakeholders should not forget about travellers who are less tech-savvy, or even the elderly.

This is a reservation recognised by Amadeus’ Tompkins.

“As with any technological change, there will always be certain demographics that prefer to use tried-and-tested methods such as cash payments. Older travellers might feel more at home with a cheque or cash. Similarly, in certain markets people are very concerned about their privacy, and therefore prefer not to pay online.

“This is a natural evolution and our role is to make sure the industry can offer the widest choice to help travellers pay in the way they want, ” he concludes.