Practical Planning: South African Edition

Mackenna Mejdell, COS'20

I am a first-year behavioral neuroscience major, originally from Portland, Oregon. I love writing as it gives me an avenue out of my own head, and a door into a more creative and interdisciplinary space. I am most looking forward to experiencing new cultures and challenging myself to grow in an unfamiliar environment!

There are many things to consider, when planning for an expedition around the world. I have always felt, however, that I am a hopelessly robotic individual, when it comes to planning. My first instinct is always minimalism. No room for nostalgia. No room for comfort. And no room for uncertainty.

Astoundingly, when I began planning for this trip, I was struck by an unfamiliar sense of what I am now calling “hoarder’s hunger”. I began over-planning every detail to ensure that I will maximize my limited time in the incredible country of South Africa. Now that my anxiety has been reduced to a somewhat basal level, I am passionate to share the fruits of my labor with the world!

Here are the top three areas of practical importance that I believe will be essential during my journey to South Africa, and many other international destinations as well!

1. Documents, identification, and receipts

Every travel-advice website claims to have cutting-edge information that cannot be found anywhere else. One universal constant, however, comes through the recommendations surrounding how to properly bring essential documents and tickets. The most important documents, such as one’s passport or driver’s license, should be photo-copied and the originals should remain in your most secure travel bag.

For me, I am anticipating this being in my suitcase; I will keep the photocopies in my wallet or backpack, while the originals are safe in my suitcase, in each hotel or guest house that we visit. Additionally, all documents and identification must be up-to-date. The requirement in South Africa for an international passport is that the passport must be valid for at least six months after the departure date. This is to ensure that for any unforeseen circumstances that require an extended stay in the country, the passport will remain valid. If one’s trip is scheduled for a period of more than ninety days, a South African visa must be attained; since our journey is scheduled for just over four weeks, this will not be necessary.

The next suggestion with regards to the logistics of travel, is to print copies of your flight tickets, before departing to the airport, in case any phones or identification becomes lost. This will also ensure that, in the hectic frenzy of transfer flights, departures are never missed.

One final suggestion with international travel is to save receipts of purchase, for mostly non-food items, until you return home. This will help ensure that nothing is left behind and that you are staying within your budget, so that dealing with additional stops to the ATM and or currency exchanges can be avoided.

2. Cell phones and internet connection

It is absolutely imperative, when traveling in a foreign city with a different primary language spoken, to have the means to communicate with others and to navigate yourself. This can be achieved by having an active cell phone with international capabilities or through using Wi-Fi at local establishments. It is recommended that travelers to South Africa do not rely on Wi-Fi and that they ensure their phones have internet and communicative capabilities before arrival. This typically takes the form of international cell phone charges from the traveler’s provider in their home country, which is the option I will be utilizing.

Another option is to purchase a cheap, disposable burner phone in South Africa. This would allow for a consistent telephone availability and is fairly inexpensive due to the U.S. Dollar to Rand conversion rates. There are even stores in South African airports that sell these cheap cell phones, such as in the O.R. Tambo Airport.

Relying on Wi-Fi in hotels or stores is the cheapest route to take with international travel, but it is not recommended due to the dangers it poses in moments of emergency. It also makes navigating foreign cities a bit more difficult, as one cannot rely on simply being able to open Google Maps.

3. Converting to the local currency

There are many different options when it comes to spending money on international expeditions. These range from credit and debit cards to paper currency of the home country. There are advantages and disadvantages to each, and this is a concept that I have been wrestling with during my time preparing for the journey.

With regards to utilizing tangible currency, there are many stark pros. Currently, the conversion rate for the South African Rand is roughly twelve Rand to one U.S. Dollar. This makes it easier to spend less and plan a budget based in paper currency. This is also a positive route to take, as it is guaranteed to be accepted, unlike credit cards that may not be taken at a given establishment. One con, however, to this option is that it increases a bit of risk at ATMs and with carrying the currency around. ATMs in South Africa are frequently targets of theft and potential robbery, making it essential to either go with other members of your group or to exchange currency before departing for South Africa. Exchanging currency at one’s home banking institution will also reduce the fees incurred from ATMs. While carrying cash does pose some risk if a theft does occur, as none of the money is likely to be recovered while with a credit card, it can be canceled and the fraudulent charges voided. It is also recommended that the majority of your money is kept in the hotel safe or in the bottom of a suitcase, only removing the amount that you wish to spend during each day.

The next option is sticking to credit and debit cards that one knows will be accepted in the country of travel. The pros to this choice include safety with theft and minimizing the amount that one must keep track of during any given day. There are, however, some inherent cons that accompany this option. There may be out-of-country fees that the banking institution implements for charges made on a card outside of the country of residence. These cards are also not accepted everywhere, especially in markets and smaller businesses.

While it is undoubtedly essential to remain safe on an international trip, it is also essential to have fun and experience everything that that country has to offer. That is why I have decided to utilize the paper currency option. This option allows freedom of purchase and incredible budget planning without incurring fees. I have decided to request a withdrawal of Rand from my bank, and will safeguard this for the duration of the trip by extracting what I need, each and every day.

As this is my first trip to South Africa, I cannot say, in good conscience, that this is the perfect way to go with regards to practical travel choices. I can, however, say that I am looking forward to finding out! With your patience, I will plan to confirm these choices that I made and how they turned out after my journey is complete!