Money & costs
Africa can be as cheap or expensive as you want it to be. Travelling around like a maniac is going to cost much more than taking time to explore a small region slowly and in depth.
The actual cost of living (food, transport etc) varies around the continent, and travellers commonly blow big chunks of their budget on car hire (US$30 to US$150 per day), internal flights, balloon rides, adrenaline sports, organised safaris or treks (at least $100 a day in East/southern Africa), and diving or language courses.
Africa is thought of as expensive among some budget travellers, but you can still scrape by for under US$20 per day. If you’d like a few more comforts (such as an in-room shower), reckon on US$30, plus a slush fund of, say, $100 a month for unexpected expenses. Beyond that, the scope for spending money is limited only by your bank account or your credit limit…
In many African countries, inflation is high and exchange rates unpredictable. Although prices in dinars, shillings, rands, kwachas, pulas or whatever may rise from month to month, exchange rates normally keep pace, so what you pay in ‘hard currency’ (eg US dollars or euros) remains pretty much the same. However, it’s important to remember that prices invariably increase.
Along with email, the automated teller machine (ATM) is the greatest invention for travellers since the aeroplane. Instead of having to take enough money for your whole trip, you can draw local cash as you go with a credit or debit card.
Charges are low and exchange rates are usually good.
The downside for travellers in Africa is that although numbers are on the rise, ATMs are still located mostly in capitals and major towns, and even then not in every country. What’s more, due to dodgy phone lines, they frequently malfunction, so you’ll still need a pile of hard cash or travellers cheques as backup.
Always keep your wits about you when drawing money out, as ATMs are often targeted by thieves. Try to visit them in busy areas during daylight hours, and stash your money securely before you move away.
Credit or debit cards are handy for expensive items such as tours and flights, but most agents add a hefty 10% surcharge. It’s therefore usually cheaper to use your card to draw cash from an ATM, if they exist. If there’s no ATM, another option is to withdraw money from a local bank using your card, but be warned –this also incurs a charge of around 5%, and can be an all-day process, so go early.
Before leaving home, check with your own bank to see which banks in Africa accept your card (and find out about charges). If you’re on a longer trip, and travelling in an area with decent internet access, you can pay off your monthly card bills online. Debit cards generally have no monthly bills (if you have money in your account, of course), so are less hassle for longer travels.
Throughout Africa, cards with the Visa logo are most readily recognised, although MasterCard is also accepted in many places. Whatever card you use, don’t rely totally on plastic, as computer or telephone breakdowns can leave you stranded. Always have cash or travellers cheques too.
You can exchange your hard cash or travellers cheques into local currency at banks or foreign-exchange bureaus in cities and tourist areas. For cash, bureaus normally offer the best rates, low (or no) charges and the fastest service, but what you get for travellers cheques can be derisory – if they’re accepted at all. Travellers cheques are more readily accepted at banks, but while rates may be OK, the charges can be as high as 10% or 20% –plus you’re often looking at a good half hour of queuing.
Although ATMs are handy, they sometimes don’t work. Cash is widely accepted and gets good rates, but cannot be replaced if lost. That’s where travellers cheques come in. They can attract poor rates and slow service (and in some countries are not accepted at all), and are often a pain to deal with, but they do have a major advantage of being replaceable.
When exchanging travellers cheques, most banks also check the purchase receipt (the paper you’re supposed to keep separate) and your passport, so make sure you have these with you when you go to change your cheques. You can sometimes pay for items such as safaris and activities directly with travellers cheques, but most operators add a surcharge –usually 10%, but sometimes up to 20%, because that’s what banks charge them.