Currency Exchange in Africa
5 Ways Travellers Get Ripped Off On Currency in Africa
If you’re planning a trip to Africa, be sure to plan ahead when it comes to exchanging currency and using your money abroad. Many people make the mistake of taking their home currency with them in the hope of changing it when they arrive, but depending on the region you are travelling to in Africa, this may not be possible.
1. Using a Credit or Debit Card
Unless you are going to be travelling to well developed cities or countries (South Africa, for example) you will find that very few places accept debit or credit card payments.
If you are planning to pay for your hotel room or an excursion or activity by credit or debit card, make sure you know the exact exchange rate you are being offered.
Take your time to work out the rate and the supplier markups, any additional fees you may be charged and always stay with your card at all stages of the transaction if you decide to go ahead.
Coming home to a statement full of hidden charges (via fees & poor rates) and even worse, the shock of learning that your credit card has been cloned is simply not worth the risk.
So what exactly are the two types of fees when using a debit or credit card abroad?
First, there is the obvious "transaction fee". Your card will be charged a fixed transaction fee every time you make an international cash withdrawal, which can be up to 2 pounds if your home country is the UK. Increasingly, there are specialist cards for overseas spending that will eliminate, if not remove totally any overseas cash withdrawal fees.
The new trend for travellers is to take out a prepaid currency card, pre-loaded prior to your departure. Typically, these types of overseas plastic are free to obtain & definitely help manage your budget abroad as they do not allow you to become overdrawn.
If you must use your credit card, rather use it for direct purchases than for withdrawing cash, as you are likely to be charged interest at a much higher rate.
Lastly, when asked by an overseas retailer ‘‘would you like to pay in pounds or local currency’’ always, always select the local currency. This helps you avoid the pitfalls of ‘dynamic currency conversion’ where the retailer essentially has free reign to choose the exchange rate markup.
You could be charged as much as 4-6% of the purchase amount. Recently, the team at MyTravelMoney did a video on this subject, titled 'what is dynamic currency conversion?'
2. Exchanging currency on the street
When you arrive at your African destination you may be approached by people encouraging you to exchange money on the street. Whilst you may be offered a better rate than a bank in the same city may give you, don’t be tempted to exchange your currency in this way.
Not only is this practice illegal, but it is never a good idea to show a stranger on the street how much money you are carrying or how much you intend to exchange.
The exchange rate offered is usually a black market rate and vastly different to the official exchange rate.
3. Exchanging currency at the airport
Airport bureaus are the world’s worst place to exchange currency. A recent mystery shop by comparison website MyTravelMoney shows that airport bureaus apply astonishing markups of over 10% away from the ‘real exchange rate.’
Why? Airport rental charges are amongst the highest in the world, and as a result this is reflected in extremely poor rates of exchange. Suppliers also understand they have a captive audience, who have left their foreign exchange to the last moment.
If you are keen to use airport bureaus, take a few minutes to buy online for collection. You will benefit from far more competitive rates by pre-ordering. If you do leave it to the last minute, consider haggling at the counter!
When we did this, we were surprised the lengths airport bureaus were willing to go to win your business. It doesn’t cost anything to ask!
4. Exchanging in your home country versus your host country.
Many people decide to wait until they get to Africa to exchange or withdraw their holiday money, but this can be a bad idea. Not only will you need to find a good exchange service or ATM but you may also be limited to the exchange rate you are offered.
Whether you are going to be using the South African Rand, or the Egyptian Pound, compare currency prices online to ensure you get the best deal. A much better idea is to exchange at least some of your money before you travel and to compare the rates you are offered by established and trusted foreign exchange (FX) companies in your home country.
Without question, the cheapest overall is to buy cash online for home delivery (or pickup at the airport) at circa 2-3% markups for African currency.
Furthermore, since Africa is a continent made up of 54 countries with lots of different currencies to contend with, it can become really confusing.
So use a currency converter for reference or app on the go that allows you to add ‘‘interbank plus markup’’ as this can help you work out the true cost of overseas payment.
Last but not least, when taking foreign cash, don’t be ripped off or risk being robbed. Keep your exchanged money in a safe in your hotel room and only take with you what you need each day.
5. Choosing the first deal
The mistake many travellers make is to choose the first currency exchange deal they see.
The prudent approach would be to take a mixture of foreign cash & a fee-free overseas spending card.
Traveller’s cheques can be a safe bet, albeit a slightly outdated one. As long as you have all the details and traveller cheque numbers, you can receive a full refund in the event of your cheques being lost or stolen. Sterling travellers cheques however are not commission free & check with your provider about cashing in costs.
Most importantly, ignore widespread marketing slogans of ‘we offer 0% commission’ as it’s a pure marketing gimmick that is merely designed to confuse.
Don’t mistake this for free travel money - the secret between a good and bad foreign currency deal is always going to be within the more opaque and harder to understand exchange rate markup.
Remember that this is your holiday money. You want it to stretch as far as possible especially if you are going on an extended trip. Being clever and comparing the exchange rate market could give you significantly more money to extend on your African trip.
Aviva Tabachnik is a resident currency expert & keen blogger at MyCurrencyTransfer.com & MyTravelMoney.co.uk. Aviva was born and raised in San Francisco, and has recently moved to Tel Aviv. She is passionate about dance, personal finance & humanitarian issues.
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