Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Kenya travel tips: Money, credit cards, cash, ATMs


Some guidebooks and websites say that U.S. dollars are accepted in Kenya just as readily as Kenyan shillings, but based on my family's recent trip there I think that's misleading.

We found just about all goods and services were offered in shillings (except at the airport gift shops, where dollars are preferred). While you may be able to pay in dollars in some places, the seller will certainly make the conversion in his or her favor.

People in rural areas will have trouble exchanging dollars, so they clearly prefer shillings.

Also, various travelers have reported that Kenyans may refuse to accept dollars, particularly $100 and $50 bills, if they're even slightly torn or slightly old (over five years).  We never had any of our shilling notes refused, except when the seller couldn't make change, even though most of them were heavily wrinkled and worn.

In short, it's best to get shillings right away from an ATM and use them for most expenses. 

Do take a wad of U.S. $1 dollar bills for tipping, because it may not be easy to break the 1,000-shilling (about $11.40) notes you get at the ATM.

Paying for your visa

There is one thing you can't use shillings for your entrance visas. You must pay for these in dollars ($50 per person, including children, for a single-entrance visa), Euros or British Pounds. Credit cards are not accepted; you must pay cash.

Because of Kenyans' reputed pickiness about U.S. bills, I went to my bank before we left and got four $50 bills of the most recent issue year possible (2009, as it turned out) to pay for my family's visas. Three of the bills were crisp, but the fourth one was rather wrinkled, and I worried it would be rejected.

It wasn't. But at the next visa station over we noticed that another visitor's $100 bill had been turned down and he was hurriedly thumbing through his wallet to find a replacement.


Before your trip, check with your bank to see if you'll be assessed a fee for withdrawing cash at ATMs in Kenya. It may depend on what ATM you use. For instance, Bank of America (my bank) has a partnership with Barclays, so when I used Barclays ATMs, there was no fee.

But when I used other banks' ATMs, I got badly dinged: There was a $5 fee levied by Bank of America, plus about $1.75 charged by the bank owning the ATM. Ouch.

It's good to withdraw plenty of money when you do visit the ATM.  It minimizes the number of ATM fees you pay, and it means less worry about getting low on cash and less time lost stopping to refill your wallet. Of course, be careful how you carry cash; I recommend using a money belt.

ATMs are common in cities, but don't expect to find them in the national parks.  There is at least one at the Nairobi airport, just outside the baggage carousel area.


Credit cards are typically only accepted in Kenya at hotels, larger stores and restaurants that serve a lot of tourists. Be aware that many credit cards assess a 3% charge on foreign transactions, so you may want to get a credit card without such a fee before your trip. I got a Capital One card for exactly this reason. 

One interesting moment occurred when I pulled out my credit card to pay the bill at a nice restaurant in Nairobi. Rather than take my card, the waiter brought the card processing machine to the table. We learned that this is common practice in Kenya to assure the customer that nothing undue is being done with your card.

Be sure to call your credit card companies and banks to warn them you'll be using your credit and ATM cards in foreign countries so they don't regard those transactions as fraud. It wouldn't hurt to tell them two or three times. I warned Bank of America that I would be using my ATM card in Kenya and yet they still froze my card after my first withdrawal. (I managed to call them while there and get things fixed.)

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Monday, July 29, 2013

Review: Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam

If you have to be stranded at an airport, Amsterdam is not a bad place for it to happen.

On a recent trip to Kenya, my family missed our connecting flight in Amsterdam, forcing us to spend nine hours waiting in Schiphol Airport. While a missed connection is never fun, Schiphol's many amenities made it easier to take.

Tired? Sleepy?  Head upstairs and find the dimly lit areas with lounge chairs. It was just what we needed after our overnight flight, and it cost nothing. (Just be sure to set your alarm so you don't sleep past your boarding time.) There are also restrooms with showers in this area.
A flower shop in Schiphol Plaza

There are some cute whimsically designed restaurants inside the airport, and even a small museum. There's a bigger selection of shops and restaurants if you exit out through passport control and enter Schiphol Plaza, which is something like a shopping mall at the airport. Don't worry, as long as you have your passport and boarding pass, you'll have no trouble getting back in.

Want to watch planes taking off and landing? Once outside passport control, follow the signs to the Panorama Deck, an enormous viewing area on top of the airport.

If you have enough time, you can easily take the train into central Amsterdam. Buy tickets to Amsterdam Centraal station either at the kiosks or at the ticket counter. If you're returning the same day, you can buy round-trip tickets (second-class tickets are fine; no need to spend more for first-class passage). U.S.-style magnetic strip credit cards don't work at the kiosks, so you'll have to go to the counter, where there's a extra fee of 50 cents per ticket.

Once you have your tickets, head downstairs to board your train. Trains to Centraal leave pretty frequently and only take 20 minutes once you're on them.

In our experience, there was a crush of people getting on the train, but once on, the ride was quiet and amazingly smooth. By the way, there were no turnstiles to get to the train and no one ever checked if we had tickets. I'm just saying.

At Schiphol, they do security at each gate rather than immediately after check-in. I'm not sure why they do it that way, but it did prevent us from our usual routine of bringing empty water bottles through security and then filling them at a drinking fountain. Be sure to go the bathroom before going through security, because there are no restrooms in the "secure area. "

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Review: Rederij Plas canal tour in Amsterdam

There are at least six companies offering boat tours of Amsterdam's canals. My family chose the one offered by Rederij Plas, at their dock just off the Damrak (across the street from the Sex Museum). I wish we had chosen differently.

There was nothing awful about this one-hour tour, but the recorded narration
offered in Dutch, German and English was rather thin. It noted, for example, that a particular house formerly belonged to a particular Amsterdam businessman, but failed to tell us what was notable about him.
A tour boat view of one of Amsterdam's canals

A lot of the tour had no narration, so there was clearly room to expand what they offered. I'm sure a decent historian could come up with many colorful stories about a city that has such extensive history as Amsterdam.

And frankly, the concept of a single narration tape in which the same thing is repeated in three languages seems antiquated. Wouldn't this be a logical venue for using individual headsets, so passengers could choose the language they want and get more detailed information?

I can't complain about the price of this tour 9 euros ($12) for adults and 5 euros ($6.65) for kids. Still, I'd suggest trying a different one.

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