Q We are off to Kenya for New Year. What should we do about currency: cash, travellers' cheques, plastic? If one of the first two, in pounds, euros or dollars?
A Let's start with eliminating travellers' cheques, which are decreasingly useful as a means of taking money around the world. More and more enterprises, including banks, travel agents and hotels, decline them - and charges for changing them for local currency can be high.
The 21st-century version is the pre-paid card, which you load with pounds, euros or dollars at a pre-determined rate. You normally pay a flat or percentage fee for loading the card, and face further charges to withdraw cash from ATMs. But unlike cash, if it is lost or stolen it can be replaced. In the key Kenyan cities of Nairobi and Mombasa, as well as their airports and some other towns, you should be able to find a functioning ATM to draw Kenyan shillings.
Debit cards will also work, though charges will apply; credit cards should never be used for drawing cash, but can be handy for paying for big-ticket items such as hotels and flights.
Having said all that, I prefer cash. In a country such as Kenya it eliminates the uncertainties that accompany plastic (eg “our card machine isn't working,” or “the bank's computer is down”). You also exclude the chance of card fraud, which is prevalent in parts of Africa.
The currency of choice is the US$. Many services, such as hotel bills and safari fees, are quoted in American dollars, and every local knows the prevailing rate of exchange between the Kenyan shilling and the US currency. Some traders, particularly in tourist areas, will also accept pounds and euros, but at a significantly less advantageous rate - the “spread” between buying and selling rates is much wider.
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