Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Tips on Paying Before and During a Trip to the Kruger National Park, South Africa

My three recent blog posts on our March-April trip to the Kruger National Park in South Africa generated inquiries from some folks who are interested in planning a trip there.  A lot of the questions concerned what and how to pay in advance, and the other big question was how to pay for out-of-pocket items once in South Africa and in the Kruger. 

Booking the Kruger is easily done through the excellent South African National Park (SANP) website.  SANP manages twenty parks in South Africa, of which the Kruger is the jewel.  

There are a number of very good-looking websites with "Kruger" in the name that sound "official" but are not.  The one and only official SANP website for the Kruger National Park is:  

There you can experiment with dates for booking various camps within the Kruger and then actually book them.  When the booking requests have been confirmed, you'll be sent an email with an invoice stated in South African Rand (called SAR, or just Rand) for payment.  I recommend using your favorite credit card.  It will be charged for the amount shown in Rand, and you'll get charged in dollars after your credit card issuer has processed the charge and the then-existing Rand-dollar exchange rate.

At the time of writing, the Rand-dollar rate was running about 7.7 SAR = 1.00 USD.  The rate you get may vary considerably according to the credit card issuer's policies, so check to see who promises the best rate before selecting the card to use.  At the bottom of this post, I've included an analysis of exchange rates and fees charged by four different credit cards.

Once in South Africa there are a number of companies at the airport open to change your travelers checks or cash in local currency into Rands.  I usually head for the American Express money exchange window because they do not charge a fee on top of the exchange rate for Amex cardholders.  None of the services offer particularly good rates, however, so name your own poison.

Another option is to find the nearest ATM and use your bankcard to withdraw Rands.  Depending upon your bank, the rate you get and the "foreign exchange fee" charged will vary, but usually the rate is better than one of the cash/travelers checks money change booths.  

If you are headed to the Kruger, it's a good idea to have Rands equivalent to a few hundreds dollars in your pocket before you get there.  Some of the Kruger's camps have ATM machines, but you can't always count on them working.  Better to have the cash with you.

Inside the Kruger National Park (and most everywhere else in South Africa), all the usual credit cards are accepted.  Kruger camp shops, gas stations, and stores accept major credit cards (Amex, Visa, MC, and Discover), but as I reported in one of my posts, sometimes the credit card machines are busted.  When that happens, cash is indispensable.  Sometimes, too, credit card transactions are slow to process, and cash is a quicker way to pay if you are in a hurry.  I always pay cash at the gas stations for diesel fuel, for instance.

On our recent visit to the Kruger I used four different credit cards to pay for food, fuel, and odds and ends as an experiment to see which credit card gave me the best rate.  The cards were:  American Express Platinum Card, Wells Fargo Platinum Visa, AAdvantage CitiBank Platinum MasterCard, and just a plain-Jane Discover Card.

The South African Rand was 7.6 to the dollar (cash rate) when we arrived in late March and fluctuated gradually upwards almost to 8.0 to the dollar in the 10 days we were there.  I tracked the exchange rate through the Wall Street Journal's daily exchange rate bulletin service and then correlated those rates to my credit card statements' individual day-by-day charges in the Kruger after we returned home.

I was surprised to learn which card provided the best overall rate when extra charges were considered:

American Express Platinum Card - Charges matched cash exchange rate within 0.1 Rand every time, and no "foreign transaction fee" was added.  In other words, on days when the WSJ bulletin said the rate was 7.7 Rand = 1.0 US dollar, I was charged at the conversion rate of about 7.6 rand = 1.0 USD.  Not bad!

Wells Fargo Platinum Visa - To my surprise, this CC provider also gave me a very good exchange rate; like the Amex Card, it was always within 0.1 Rand of the published WSJ rate.  However, Visa added a 3.0% "foreign transaction fee" to every purchase*.  

AAdvantage Citibank Platinum MasterCard - Citibank also gave me a Rand-dollar exchange rate equally as good as Amex, but, like the Wells Fargo Visa, tacked on a 3.0% "foreign transaction fee" to every purchase*. 

Discover Card - I had to check my statement twice to confirm that Discover offered the most generous exchange rates of the bunch, usually at least 0.1 Rand better than the daily  WSJ bulletin cash rate.  In fact on the last day, when the exchange rate was toying with 8.0 Rand = 1 USD, but not quite getting there, my Discover charge came through at slightly better than 8 Rand to the dollar.  Even better, Discover did not add any "foreign exchange fee" charge or any other such fee.  This made Discover the hands-down winner.  

However, fees vary wildly, and your experience will depend upon who issued your cards and what kind of deal you have with each one.  See the footnote below.

* I have been informed that the actual Visa and MasterCard charge is 1%.  However, the bank issuers can add their own fees on top of the Visa/MC fees.  Both my Citibank MC and Wells Fargo Visa statements don’t parse their charges in a way you can understand that's what happened.  Both issuers show merely the individual charges in Rands and the converted dollar amount, and then at the bottom show a flat 3% “foreign exchange fee.”  Though 3% seems high to me, I am further informed that while some banks (e.g., Wells Fargo and Citibank) add 2% each, other banks add more. On the other hand, some banks just pass along the 1% fee with no additions, and some, like Cap One, eat the 1 percent.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

We have always used Capital One when out of the country & have never been charged a "transaction fee". We have had this card for approx. 10 yrs. Very interested in your recent trip but trying to find another couple who might be interested in order to cut back on costs.

5/05/2012 8:32 AM  

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