A few years ago I visited Uganda for a long weekend with some girlfriends. Some of this time was spent tracking gorillas, but the majority of the time was spent sitting in a minivan checking US dollar notes for imperfections. Dollars were the preferred currency for all our accommodation, transport etc, but they had to be issued after a certain date and perfectly washed and ironed. No creases, tears, biro marks etc. Half the currency we brought with us was rejected. It was a nightmare.
This time around, with four of us to cover and so many activities needing cash payment, I’d decided not to bother bringing more than a few dollars at all. Hanging out in Addis was stressful enough without worrying about a stash of thousands of dollars in our room/pockets/shoes. Instead we were just going to have to manage with ATMs, and deal in local currency. In preparation for this I ordered about 3 new credit/debit cards with various travel-related benefits.
I’m not going to deny that the first few days did not go smoothly. Ethiopia’s regular power cuts meant that half the time the ATMs were down. Travel agents would order tuk-tuks to ferry me around a town until I found one that worked. One ATM thought money was dispensed when it wasn’t, so I spent a whole afternoon on very flaky WiFi trying to buy Skype credits to enable me to phone the bank at home to register the issue. Cards would be rejected for no apparent reason, so I’d stand there trying one piece of plastic after another, invariably using the one that applied a 2.5% charge on all transactions. We started trying to video transactions in anticipation of them going wrong, but carrying a mobile phone at the same time as tapping in one of several barely-recalled PINs just introduced more complexity. And as $100 is equivalent to about 3,000 Ethiopian birr, there were still moments where I’d be skulking around the streets with wads of tens of thousands of birr poking out of every orifice, with Jam instructed to deploy his full range of shouts and karate kicks if anyone looked like they were going to mug me.
Eventually, though, I got on top of things. The expensive cards from our UK high street banks were secreted in various suitcases for emergencies. The Revolut banking app was used for low-cost currency transfers (mostly for deposits for various Australian things). Star of the show, however, was the Starling Mastercard debit card which worked brilliantly almost everywhere, had no charges, good rates, and an app so intuitive and fast (and accessible offline) it logged your transaction almost before you’d finished waving it around. The only problem occurred in the US where it turned out that the ‘mag stripe’ feature needed to be manually enabled to make it work when swiping (and that was not Starling’s fault).
Getting slightly obsessed with making sure we weren’t being charged incorrectly for anything (and in my capacity as CFO (and CEO) of the trip), I photographed all our receipts, and kept a daily tally of our costs that I then entered into the budgeting spreadsheet. Once we were about half way through this was useful for highlighting how much money we still needed for the rest of the trip, but apart from that it took a lot of time that frankly I’d rather have spent looking out of the window.
Feel free to learn from our mistakes!
(Travel insurance, by the way, we got from Insure and Go. Because we were travelling for an extended period we weren’t covered by a standard annual policy, so had to buy a specific backpackers insurance (see the post on the budget). MoneySavingExpert has a useful guide to the basics: moneysavingexpert.com/insurance/cheap-backpackers-insurance/.)