Carrying lots of cash in Africa?
July 9, 2007 12:06 PM   Subscribe

What's the best and safest way to travel through some rather sketchy parts of Africa with a sizable chunk of cash?

I'm going on an extended trip through East Africa this summer.

Most of the places I'm going won't take travelers checks or credit cards, and I'll only be able to hit an ATM every few weeks at best.

So I'm going to have to carry a decent amount of cash on me, as in probably $500-1,000 at a time.

I'm wondering about some clever ways to do this - cash in the shoes? among the bandaids? two money pouches at a time? - and any other general tips on money security in sketchy regions.

I'm trying to plan for worst-case scenarios (entire bag gets stolen, etc).
posted by gottabefunky to Travel & Transportation around (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
1. Separate your money into as many different "piles" as is feasible. The more you can separate it into smaller chunks--one in your socks, one in your band-aids, one in your suitcase, one in your purse/wallet, etcetera--the less damaging a potential mugging will be.

2. Money pouches are usually good; the kind that go inside your clothes are particularly tough for would-be bad guys to get at without causing a scene and/or physically threatening you.

3. Just try to carry as little cash as realistically possible...
posted by jckll at 12:12 PM on July 9, 2007

Tilley makes travel clothes with hidden pockets sewn inside. There are testimonials on the site describing exactly your situation! Dividing up your cash is also a good idea, maybe carrying the biggest chunk in your hidden pocket.
posted by exquisite_deluxe at 12:20 PM on July 9, 2007

There's always this pair of pre-stained briefs.
posted by ShooBoo at 12:37 PM on July 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

I lived in Indonesia last year and have traveled through Togo, Ghana, and Senegal before.

What countries, specifically, are you going to? You might be overestimating how isolated you'll be from ATMs. Most banks' websites, even in the developing world, will have a list of branches, and many if not virtually all branches will have ATMs; here's a list of the dozens you'll find in Kenya at just Barclays branches alone. A quick check of what banks are around by searching for "banks of x" on Wikipedia will give you some leads. It might be worth printing out a list of branches of various banks so you won't miss possible ATM stops; it's also worth saying that ATMs often dispense units of currency too large to be used at little shops and stalls; pharmacies are often good for using large notes and getting small change without feeling like you're annoying the merchant.

Also, there are quite a few multinational banks with numerous branches in many former British colonies in Africa; Standard Chartered and Barclays are in most capitals and larger cities, and I've used their ATMs with my Visa debit card from Bank of America at their Ghanaian branches with no logistical problems whatsoever - though you MUST call your bank in advance and tell them that you're going to be in Random Country X or else they'll close off access to your account as a fraud-protection measure, and then you'll have to deal with that from 7000 miles away, which won't be fun.

I didn't use a money belt or anything, because I was mostly in larger towns and cities where I didn't need to carry much cash on a daily basis. My best advice is to pack light enough that you won't have to throw your bag into a cargo hold or on top of a bus so you don't lose track of who it's with, so if you do end up carrying large amounts of cash, you won't have to worry about it.
posted by mdonley at 12:46 PM on July 9, 2007

Make up a convincing "gimme" wallet - one that is a little worn, has some photo ID of you, maybe an expired credit card, and some cash. Something that you can "give up" in a potential mugging or robbery, without losing your main ID and money hoard. But make it look real, have a reasonable amount of real cash in it (robbers won't believe you're traveling with $20 on your person), and don't part with it too easily, or it'll be apparent it isn't your "real" wallet, and time permitting, you can expect a robber to go through your stuff with a fine tooth comb, thereafter. Or even abduct you to a locale where that is possible.

Don't wear jewelry. Keep cameras, cell phones and electronics out of public view, as much as possible.

A friend of mine recommended keeping a couple of small flash drives on your person, loaded with some documents containing your personal and emergency contact information, updated itinerary, and expected route and waypoints, to be used as surreptitious "bread crumbs" in event of being abducted. Perhaps not a bad idea, but I wonder how likely it would be that these would be recognized for what they are in the sticks, or be able to be read.
posted by paulsc at 12:48 PM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Google money belt,. money sandal. money shoes. I've used the moneybelt from EMS to great effect.
posted by lalochezia at 12:52 PM on July 9, 2007

What cklennon said, and building on it...

I've used a money pouch with velcro straps that rides on the calf of your leg. It worked fairly well for carrying items that I didn't need to get into absolutely immediately. Didn't work with shorts, of course.

I found the around-the-neck holders tended to make an embarrassing, obvious rectangular bulge that yelled out "steal me", which a person could do from behind pretty easily by snipping the neck strap.

If you trust the hotel safe (IF!...) that's a better option than carrying items on your person.

Try a system like this: only carry two denominations of bills. Keep one roll in your left pocket, the other roll in your right pocket. This way, you can peel off bills inside your pocket to get the amount you want, without flashing a big roll at anyone and attracting attention. (Also part of a "divide up your cash" strategy.)
posted by gimonca at 12:56 PM on July 9, 2007

Response by poster: My route includes Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, maybe the DRC, Uganda and southern Sudan.
posted by gottabefunky at 1:01 PM on July 9, 2007

And on preview, mdonley and paulsc have great answers, too.

ATMs often dispense units of currency too large to be used at little shops and stalls Excellent point...
posted by gimonca at 1:01 PM on July 9, 2007

I used one of these for most of my travels in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, and it felt like overkill at most times; I was never hassled at all (oh, but that picture reminds me - your passport is at least as valuable an asset as your cash, watch out for it). I was one of a group of ten American students studying together in Nairobi for 6 months, and one girl had her purse snatched once; there were no other theft incidents. That was nearly a decade ago though; I hear that East Africa is somewhat more hostile to Americans now but I don't know how that would correlate to petty theft.

What gives you the idea that places won't take traveler's checks, but that you will be able to use your ATM card? When I was there, it was the opposite; I could not draw on my American ATM card from any of the machines there, but any bank and a good number of tourist-y shops and forex huts were happy to change a traveler's check. The ATM thing may have changed but I doubt the check-to-forex thing has. Will you be hitting the cities at all, or are you out in the country for really long stretches? As I recall, all of Kampala, Nairobi, Mombasa, Dar, and Zanzibar/Stone Town had sufficient means to change traveler's checks.

And come to think of it, there's nowhere to really spend your money out in the country anyway; you'll pre-pay all your safaris, and if you're backpackin' it, you can eat at the roadside dukas for like $1.25 (in the relevant local currency) per meal, and stay at rural hotels for $3-10 per night. I think you'd really be best off bringing traveler's checks unless you have some really recent confirmation that they're just impossible to use.

Also, if you do have a "base city" that you'll be coming through rather frequently, you might be able to get one of the more upscale hotels to check valuables (e.g., a roll of traveler's checks) for you for an extended period in return for kitu kidogo. Many services are negotiable in an economy that's oriented towards tourism.
posted by rkent at 1:04 PM on July 9, 2007

PS: If you've still got some lead time, it might be worth putting your vacation dough in an account at an institution separate from your normal bank/credit union, so if your (new) ATM card is stolen, you can still pay the rent when you get home. Many banks/CUs are also happy to print duplicate cards to leave with someone at home, who can help move funds between accounts using the ATM cards you left them and old-fashioned deposit slips inside branches.
posted by mdonley at 1:29 PM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

scan your passport, drivers license, credit cards, and any other documents you may need. email them to yourself on a web-based service like yahoo or hotmail, and then you'll always have them somewhat accessible if you lose your originals.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:46 PM on July 9, 2007

By the way, I think you're underestimating the usability of travelers cheques, I went round Kenya and Tanzania and was able to cash them all over the place.
posted by Happy Dave at 1:29 AM on July 10, 2007

ATM cards are dangerous. It is a popular MO in Africa today to kidnap people for a ride to the ATM, where they take all the cash they can. At least, in South Africa. In Mozambique, the cops will look for any excuse to demand cash in return for letting you alone (people come to South Africa from there to steal cars, a real problem near the border).
posted by Goofyy at 7:49 AM on July 18, 2007

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