We have included only the two strongest currencies, the South African rand and Botswanan pula. Currency conversions as quoted above were correct at press time; as rates will no doubt continue to fluctuate, consult a currency exchange website such as www.oanda.com/convert/classic or www.xe.com/ucc to check up-to-the-minute rates.
The South African currency unit is the rand (ZAR or R), with 100 cents making up R1. Notes come in R10, R20, R50, R100, and R200. Minted coins come in 1-, 2-, and 5-rand denominations, and 2, 5, 10, 20, and 50 cents -- small change doesn't buy much; gather and use for tips. The good news for foreign visitors is that the current climate has knocked the rand, despite the relative stability of the economy or the size of its gold reserves. To give some idea: In 2007, the rand was hovering at R7 to $1 and R14 to £1; at the start of 2009, it was fluctuating between R9 and R11 to the $1 and hit highs of R18 to the £1.
Even the pula, official currency of Botswana, the most expensive region in southern Africa, has taken a bit of a beating in recent years: At press time, it was hovering at P7.6 to $1 -- up from P6.15 2 years previously. It has little effect on visitors, though; lodgings and camps quote and charge in U.S. dollars almost without exception. In Zambia, lodgings do the same, quoting rates in dollars or euros; even roadside hawkers prefer foreign currency. If you do pick up some local currency, you will find the Zambian currency unit is the kwacha (K), in denominations of 50, 100, 500, 1,000, 5,000, and 10,000, 20,000, and 50,000 kwacha notes.
Zimbabwe's hyperinflation -- kicked off in the early 2000s by Mugabe's "land reform" policy, in which vast swathes of productive white-owned farmland were given to so-called war veterans and now lie fallow -- led to a spontaneous replacement of the Zim dollar with foreign currencies. This "dollarization" process was finally legalized in late January 2009, and the Zimbabwe dollar was suspended in April (by which time a trillion note could not even buy a loaf of bread, and its value against the U.S. dollar was cut in half every 2 days). The payment of goods and services in Zimbabwe is thus now only in foreign currencies, including the U.S. dollar, euro, pound, South African Rand, and Botswana Pula.
Tipping Point -- In South Africa, you should exchange enough petty cash to cover airport incidentals, tipping, and transportation to your hotel before you leave home, or withdraw money upon arrival at the airport ATM. Aside from ATMs, for the most favorable rates, change money at banks rather than hotel or exchange bureaus. If you are a U.S. visitor, bring dollars in small denominations for tips in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia; if you are a non-U.S. visitor, think about changing some money into the highly valued U.S. dollar, again in low denominations, for tips and trinkets from roadside vendors before you leave home, as you will otherwise be obliged to change your currency into the local currency.
ATMs (or cashpoints) offering 24-hour service are located throughout South Africa, even in small towns. (Obviously, this does not apply to lodges in remote locations, such as nature reserves, with the exception of Skukuza Rest Camp in Kruger.) It is not worth drawing money from an ATM in Zimbabwe . Be warned that while travelers can withdraw money (in local currency) from ATMs in Zambia, banks often lose their connections with the credit card exchanges, thus making withdrawals impossible. You will find ATMs only in major towns in Botswana, and they accept only Visa.
Please be wary when drawing cash -- don't be distracted by strangers, and make sure they keep their distance. Most ATMs in cities are guarded at night, but it's better to draw in daylight. The Cirrus (tel. 800/424-7787; www.mastercard.com) and PLUS (tel. 800/843-7587; www.visa.com) networks span the globe; look at the back of your bank card to see which network you're on, then call or check online for ATM locations at your destination. This is important, as a Visa card's PIN (personal identification number) will not apply at a MasterCard-accredited ATM, and vice versa (Visa accepts only a four-digit PIN, while MasterCard accepts a five- or six-digit PIN). Be sure you know your PIN and daily withdrawal limit before you depart. Note: Remember that many banks impose a fee every time you use a card at another bank's ATM. In addition, the bank from which you withdraw cash may charge its own fee. The exchange rate may also be unfavorable (as is the case in Zimbabwe, where the exchange rate is based on the official interbank rate, which is extremely low). If you're concerned about international withdrawal fees, ask your bank before you leave.
Credit cards, for use at ATMs and virtually any retailer in southern Africa, are the most convenient way to carry money in the region. They also provide a record of all your expenses and generally offer relatively good exchange rates. (Keep in mind that many banks now assess a "transaction fee" of around 1%-3% on all charges you incur abroad. And you'll pay interest from the moment of your withdrawal, even if you pay your monthly bills on time, so try to settle your account immediately on return.) With the proper precautions , credit cards that require a PIN are also the safest way to carry money. Just don't let your card out of your sight, as the use of card skimmers and cloning devices, mainly employed by organized criminal syndicates, has dramatically increased in heavily touristed areas such as airport restaurants and Cape Town's Waterfront. The new generation of card skimmers are smaller than the card itself, and it takes a fraction of a second to clone a card. A server can swipe your card through a skimmer concealed in his or her hand while you are distracted by signing the authorization slip. If you are at a restaurant, always request that a tabletop portable pay point be delivered to your seat. If they don't have this facility, follow your server to the pay point. Once your card has been swiped, immediately take it back into your possession.
If you have only an American Express, MasterCard, and/or Diners Club card, it's worth opening a Visa account, as this is by far the most accepted choice in Southern Africa (many lodgings in Zimbabwe won't accept MasterCard). Camps in remote areas do not always have credit card facilities, but in all likelihood, you will be booking and paying for these all-inclusive experiences ahead of time. For the most part, you'll find credit cards to be invaluable. (Debit cards are also useful as a back-up for drawing cash from ATMs.)
Traveler's checks are somewhat redundant in South Africa -- and useless in Zimbabwe, where banks rarely accept traveler's checks for conversion to local currency. As mentioned above, credit cards are generally accepted throughout southern Africa, particularly MasterCard and Visa, and both credit and debit cards are an easy way to draw cash at ATMs everywhere but Zimbabwe, where the ATM exchange rate is based on the official interbank rate, which is extremely low.
Those who nevertheless prefer carrying traveler's checks can buy them at almost any bank. American Express offers denominations of $10, $20, $50, $100, $500, and (for cardholders only) $1,000; you can also purchase them in South African rands, though it's inadvisable, given the fluctuating exchange rate, usually in favor of the dollar. You'll pay a service charge ranging from 1% to 4%. You can also get American Express traveler's checks over the phone by calling tel. 800/221-7282; by using this number, Amex gold and platinum cardholders are exempt from the fee. AAA members can obtain checks without a fee at most AAA offices or by calling tel. 866/339-3378.
Visa offers traveler's checks at Citibank locations nationwide, as well as several other banks. The service charge ranges between 1.5% and 2%; checks come in denominations of $20, $50, $100, $500, and $1,000. Call tel. 800/732-1322 for information. MasterCard also offers traveler's checks. Call tel. 800/223-9920 for a location near you.