Money & costs
Pakistan is an economical country in which to travel. In terms of accommodation and restaurants there are options to fit all budgets, although greater variety is found in the larger cities. Transport, excluding domestic air travel, is relatively inexpensive and foreign tourists/students are even given a generous train-ticket concession of 25/50%. Conversely, foreigners are often charged a higher admission fee than locals for sights such as museums.
So how low can you realistically go? If you opt for rock-bottom accommodation, eat a minimal amount at the cheaper restaurants, sightsee at places with no, or low, entry fees and travel by public bus, you’re roughly looking at between Rs 400 and Rs 500 per day. It is important to remember that costs vary nationwide (especially accommodation).
Due to the downward spiral in foreign tourism in recent times, some midrange and many top-end hotels will give discounts if requested. Don’t be shy to ask for one; top-end hotels have been known to slash room rates by as much as half during lean business periods. Hotel rates, especially in northern Pakistan, may be subject to seasonal fluctuations and regional variations. Many hotels raise their tariffs annually, so when devising your budget it’s not a bad idea to factor in possible increments.
When it comes to filling your belly, shoestringers will be happy to know that there are plenty of ultra-cheap street eateries, while the bigger cities offer a decent selection of mid- and upper-priced choices as well.
The unit of Pakistani money is the rupee (Rs), divided into 100 paisa. Paper notes come in denominations of Rs 5000, Rs 1000, Rs 500, Rs 100, Rs 50, Rs 20 and Rs 10, and there are Rs 5, Rs 2 and Rs 1 coins. Very worn or tattered notes or those with pen scribbles on them may sometimes be refused so it’s best not to accept them in the first place. The Rs 5000, Rs 1000 and Rs 500 notes can be a headache (few people seem to have change handy), so ask for smaller notes when you buy your rupees.
The Pakistani rupee is a convertible currency and there’s little difference between official and black-market rates. Kashgar’s Uyghur black-marketeers buy Western banknotes at rates not much different from the banks. There’s little to be gained if you use them and always a risk of being short-changed.
The rupee and renminbi fluctuate daily against major currencies.
Automatic teller machines (ATMs; most 24 hours) can be found in hubs such as Lahore, Islamabad, Karachi and Quetta, and at a growing number of smaller centres such as Multan and Bahawalpur. Major banks will accept Cirrus, Maestro, MasterCard and Visa (but not always all cards). However, you should definitely not rely on ATMs as your sole source of cash, especially if you plan to travel beyond the big cities. Another good reason to have a cash backup is in case ATMs are out of order or if you break or lose your card. Note that some ATMs in smaller towns don’t accept foreign cards. Check with your bank before departing to confirm that your card can access international banking networks. Always keep the emergency lost-and-stolen numbers for your credit cards in a safe place, separate from your plastic.
It’s unwise to carry wads of money in your wallet, or to carry your wallet in your back pocket. Similarly, you’re more prone to being robbed if you carry valuables in a shoulder bag, which can easily be snatched. Keep a small cash stash for the day in a handy but concealed place (eg in an inner pocket) and the bulk of your resources more deeply hidden. A well-concealed moneybelt is one of the safest ways of carrying money as well as important documents such as your passport. It’s also a good idea to have emergency cash (at least US$100 in small denominations), stashed away from your main hoard, as a backup.
Although it’s obviously preferable not to deplete all your funds while on the road, if you do, fast international money transfers are possible (for a charge) at Western Union (www.westernunion.com), which operates in various Pakistani cities and towns.
Credit cards are accepted at all top-end hotels and at some midrange ones. It’s not an option at 99% of budget hotels. Only the more upmarket restaurants and shops will take them (but not necessarily those in smaller towns), while most airline offices should accept credit-card payments. Visa and MasterCard are the most widely accepted cards. Cash advances on major credit cards can be made at some banks (although not always at those in smaller towns).
Most major foreign currencies can be exchanged in the larger cities and towns of Pakistan. US dollars are the most widely accepted currency, followed by UK pounds and euros. It’s advisable to compare rates between banks and private moneychangers as they can vary. You usually have to present your passport whenever you change money, so carry it along. Always count notes before leaving the bank and return any ripped ones as these can be difficult to get rid of. Note that some travellers have reported difficulty in changing worn foreign notes, especially US dollars.
Official money-exchange receipts (you may have to ask for these) come in handy if you wish to convert any unspent Pakistani rupees into foreign currency before leaving the country. Pakistani rupees can be reconverted into major currencies at banks located at the international airports (US dollars are mostly given). The total of the receipts should be at least the amount you want to reconvert. Some banks and private moneychangers in the larger cities, such as Islamabad, will also change rupees back into foreign currency (sometimes this is done without asking for money-exchange receipts).
If you plan to venture off the beaten track you’re strongly advised to carry adequate rupees, as money-exchange facilities may be few and far between.
Travellers cheques don’t seem to be as widely accepted as major foreign currency notes, especially beyond the larger cities. They can even present a bit of a hassle at big city banks, with branches often redirecting customers to their head office.
Banks mainly accept major brand travellers cheques, with US cheques most widely accepted. Note that many banks demand to see original purchase receipts for your cheques before agreeing to change them, so keep these handy. Unless you’re cashing their brand of travellers cheques, foreign banks usually nail you with high commissions.
You will need to have your travellers cheque purchase receipts and the lost cheques’ serial numbers to replace lost or stolen cheques – always carry the receipts, serial numbers and other important details in a separate (safe) place from the cheques. Call directory inquiries on 17 to find the Amex, Citibank or other relevant office nearest to you.