Money and Costs
In many parts of Africa, especially in markets and/or craft and curio stalls, items are worth whatever the seller can get. Once you get the hang of bargaining, it's all part of the fun. Hagglers are rarely trying to rip you off, so there's no point getting hot and bothered about it. Decide what price you're prepared to pay and if you can't get it, decline politely and move on.
ATMs are increasingly common but don't rely on them or being able to pay by credit card; always carry sufficient cash.
- In many (but by no means all) African countries you can draw local cash as you go with a credit or debit card. Visa is the most widely accepted card. Charges can be low and exchange rates are usually good, but check with your home bank or card provider before leaving.
- Although ATM numbers are on the rise, most are still located in capitals and major towns, plus there are usually daily withdrawal limits. What's more, due to dodgy phone lines, they frequently malfunction, so you'll still need a pile of hard cash 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.
In countries with controlled exchange rates, you can get more local money for your hard currency by dealing with unofficial moneychangers on the so-called black market, instead of going to a bank or bureau. This helps with costs, but it's illegal and sometimes dangerous – think twice before you do it.
However, you may have to resort to unofficial methods if you're stuck with no local cash when banks and exchange offices are closed. Hotels or tour companies may help, although rates are lousy. Try shops selling imported items. Be discreet though: 'The banks are closed, do you know anyone who can help?' is better than a blunt 'D'you wanna change money?'.
Even in countries with free exchange rates (and therefore no black market), moneychangers often lurk at borders where there's no bank. Although illegal, they operate in full view of customs officers, so trouble from this angle is unlikely.
There's more chance of trouble from the moneychangers themselves, so make sure you know the exchange rates, and count all local cash carefully, before you hand over your money. Watch out for old or folded notes. A calculator ensures you don't miss a zero or two on the transaction. And beware of 'Quick, it's the police' tricks, where you're panicked into handing over money too soon. Use common sense and you'll have no problem, but it's best to change only small amounts to cover what you'll need until you reach a reliable bank or exchange office.
- 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 often cheaper to use your card to draw cash from an ATM, if one is available.
- 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). Cards with the Visa logo are most readily recognised, although MasterCard is 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 (less helpful) travellers cheques too.
- To avoid credit-card fraud, always make sure that you watch the transaction closely and destroy any additional transaction slips that are produced, whether innocently or otherwise.
Whether you're carrying cash or travellers cheques, or both, give some thought to the currency you take before you leave home. This will depend on the countries you visit. Whatever currency you decide on, take a mixture of high and low denominations. Smaller denominations can be handy if you need to change money to last just a few days before leaving a country.
East & Southern Africa
By far the most readily recognised international currency is the US dollar (US$). Also accepted are euros (€), UK pounds (UK£) and South African rand (R), although the latter is less useful in East Africa. Currencies from other European countries or Canadian dollars may occasionally be accepted, but don't count on it.
West & Central Africa
Many countries in these regions use a common currency called the Communauté Financière Africaine franc (usually shortened to CFA – pronounced 'say-eff-aah' in French), and here the euro is much more readily recognised by banks and bureaus. US dollars or other currencies are often not accepted at all. There are actually two CFA zones: the West African (or Banque Centrale des Etats de l'Afrique de l'Ouest) zone, which includes Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo; and the Central African (or Banque des Etats de l'Afrique Centrale) zone, which includes Chad, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
The CFA is pegged at exactly 655.957 to one euro. If you're changing cash euros into CFA that's usually the rate you'll get (although there will be charges for travellers cheques); however, some out-of-the-way places may offer a little less.
Technically, you should be able to exchange West African CFA for Central Africa CFA and vice versa at a rate of one-to-one, but in reality you'll pay a bit over or under the odds, depending on the rates – and especially if you're dealing with traders at remote border posts a very long way from the nearest bank.
In non-CFA West African countries, the handiest currencies for travellers are euros and US dollars.
Euros and US dollars are most common; UK pounds are also accepted in some places.
Warning: The Trouble With Old Dollars
If you're planning to travel with US dollars, read on. For a start, rates are better for high denominations (ie US$50 or US$100). More importantly, note that the USA changed the design of the US$100 bill in the mid-1990s and old-style US$100 notes are not accepted at some places, especially those that don't have a light machine for checking watermarks. To be sure, try to bring US dollar notes (especially US$100) from 2006 or later. Failure to do so could mean you end up with notes that are effectively useless and which you'll be unable to change until you return back home.
For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com.
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 pitiful – if they're accepted at all.
- Never make travellers cheques your sole source of money.
- The pros are that they're secure – ATMs sometimes don't work and cash, unlike travellers cheques, cannot usually be replaced if lost.
- The cons are that many countries don't accept travellers cheques, and in those that do it's rare to find a bank that will change them outside major cities, commissions can be prohibitive, you'll spend a lot of time waiting and they're often a pain to deal with.
- 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 (and keep a copy elsewhere in a secure location).
- 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.
The situation with regard to tipping varies across the continent, but as a general rule the following applies:
Hotels & Restaurants Usually expected in top-end hotels and restaurants, very rarely in cheaper places.
Safari Lodges Count on US$10 per guest per day, plus more for guides.
Taxis Rounding up is usually sufficient.
More than 25 different local currencies. US dollar ($) most readily recognised international currency; euro (€) and UK pound (£) also accepted
Budget: Less than US$100
- Dorm bed: US$10–20
- Double room in a budget hotel: up to US$75
- Meal at cheap hotel or street stall: less than US$5
- Double room in a midrange hotel: US$75–200
- Lunch or dinner in a midrange restaurant: US$20
- Car hire: from $30 per day
Top End: More than US$250
- Safari-lodge or top-end hotel room: at least US$200
- Guided safari or 4WD rental: from US$150 per day
- Meal at a top restaurant with wine: US$50–100