Holiday cash no problem in land of plastic: Sorting out your spending money in the US can be easier than at home. Andrew Bibby offers a few tips

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The Independent Online
ORGANISING your spending money in the US is almost as simple as in Britain. Indeed, unless your plans include, say, wilderness camping in the Rockies it may even be easier than at home.

Americans pioneered plastic money. Taking a credit card with you is not only strongly advisable, it may be almost essential for transactions such as hiring a car.

Visa, which has historically had a slight edge over MasterCard, claims about three million outlets and a network of about 60,000 cash machines. Both Visa credit and Delta debit cards can be used.

MasterCard, to which Access is linked, has around 73,000 cash machines. NatWest and Midland customers with Cirrus-Maestro cards also have access to this network and to a further 46,000 electronic point-of-sale terminals.

In general, cash withdrawal fees - typically 1.5 per cent, often with a minimum charge - mean that it is better value to use your credit card where possible to pay for goods and services.

Visa and MasterCard apart, some much more unlikely cards deliver cash in the US, and in a very cost-effective way. Eleven banks and building societies issuing Link cards have arranged for customers to use the worldwide Plus network, which has about 60,000 machines in the US.

Those participating are the AIB, Co-op Bank and Girobank, the Britannia, Chelsea, Coventry, Derbyshire, Dunfermline, Norwich & Peterborough, Portman and Yorkshire building societies. Western Trust and Diners Club UK also offer this service.

One advantage of Plus is that transactions are at money market rates without further loading. Most institutions make no charge for cash withdrawals.

The Chelsea's Classic postal account is particularly good value, offering both free withdrawals and 6 per cent gross interest provided at least pounds 2,500 is invested. It may be worth opening an account specifically for holiday spending money, though allow yourself time - the Chelsea says it can take 21 days for cards to arrive.

Also worth considering, particularly for smaller amounts of money, are savings accounts with the Coventry, Derbyshire and Yorkshire societies. The Dunfermline offers good rates of interest for deposits above pounds 500.

Relying on plastic for spending money runs the risk that you may lose your cards or have them stolen. Barclaycard is unusual among the big credit card firms in offering an automatic emergency cash and replacement card service.

'We can get emergency cash through in a matter of hours,' says a spokeswoman. 'A replacement card is provided, normally within 24-48 hours, if someone is planning to stay abroad for another two weeks.'

American Express offers a similar 24-hour emergency service. Other cardholders may be less fortunate. 'Gold cards have to be replaced within 48 hours as a condition of being called gold cards,' says Martin Fielding, of the card protection company CPP.

'If it is an ordinary card, however, it may take three to five days to be replaced. There is a big variation between issuers.' A replacement may simply be sent to a home address.

Both CPP and its competitor Sentinel Card Services offer cardholders who have card protection policies an emergency cash loan service of up to pounds 750-pounds 1,000.

'We cannot arrange replacement cards,' says Philip Williams, Sentinel's managing director. 'That is entirely up to the issuers. But our loans are interest-free for the first 14 days and we aim to deliver them within 24 hours.'

Traveller's cheques are well worth considering as a supplement to plastic. Dollar cheques can be used widely in the US as if they were banknotes. For this reason it is worth taking them in smaller denominations. Sterling traveller's cheques should be avoided.

Best value this year for foreign currency traveller's cheques is American Express, charging 1 per cent commission and no minimum charge. Coventry Building Society is also good value, at 1 per cent commission (minimum pounds 1) plus pounds 1.50 arrangement. Thomas Cook, Midland and NatWest should be avoided - each charges 2 per cent commission and levies substantial minimum charges.

First-time visitors to the US can be surprised to find sales taxes on goods levied at different rates on a state-by-state basis. Generally these cannot be reclaimed.

However, Louisiana, which includes New Orleans, is exceptional in refunding the 9 per cent to visitors from abroad. Easiest way to claim your rebate is at New Orleans airport, but a refund can be obtained afterwards by sending receipts and travel documents to PO Box 20125, New Orleans, La 70141.

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