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Cash Vs. Card In The Middle East

Credit and debit card acceptance is growing rapidly in countries like Egypt, yet many of the smaller merchants still operate on a cash-only basis.
Maurice Chammah | 18.04.2012
As a partner in a boutique American travel company focused on affordable upscale travel to the Middle East, one of the questions I am asked most frequently by our clients is how much cash they should bring with them as they embark upon the trip of a lifetime to Egypt, Jordan, the Emirates and beyond. My advice to them is almost always the same: "Just stick a 20 in your pocket and make sure you don't spend it on your layover in Europe."

In fact, I only recommend they bring any cash at all because some Middle Eastern countries, such as Egypt, require you to pay for your entry visa on arrival in American cash instead of local currency, $15 in Egypt's case. But other than that, most travelers are pleasantly surprised to find out that the other type of Visa will suffice just fine once you're over there, saving you the stress, inconvenience and liability of keeping track of a huge stash of cash while you travel.

I have always wondered how the 18th and 19th century aristocrats of Europe and the Americas who trotted the globe used to literally pay for their extravagant travel, accommodations, dining and shopping while galavanting across exotic lands far from the centers and sources of their personal wealth. Maybe it's just a matter of my own historical ignorance, but I cannot imagine a robust foreign currency exchange system in place back in those times in the remote parts of Africa and Asia, or even in the not-so-remote parts of those continents.

Did these wealthy travelers carry around stashes of gold, the universal currency, or was some rudimentary system of exchangeable bank notes or letters of credit already in place back then? Perhaps this question is fodder for a future article by someone more knowledgeable on the topic than I, but for now let's take the same issue and fast forward a few hundred years to the era of mass leisure travel, which is a little more within my realm of experience and expertise.

Eventually an international currency exchange market did emerge and the masses of lower, middle and upper class international travelers alike can now easily circumvent the globe knowing that they will have no problem exchanging their U.S. dollars for Jordanian dinars or their British pounds for Egyptian pounds along the way. Contemporary travelers probably know the stereotype of the sunburnt American or European tourist with his fanny pack strapped around his waist and overflowing with passports, wallets, wads of cash and gobs of sunscreen leaking out and covering it all. For the more paranoid traveler -- or the more astute traveler, depending on your perspective -- there is also the infamous money belt, that tight strap-on cash pocket hidden deep under layers of clothing and far from the sneaky paws of would-be thieves and pickpockets.

Until recently, carrying hundreds of dollars (or more) in cash for exchange once you reached your destination was common. In fact, it was mostly necessary, as the use and acceptance of credit and debit cards was primarily restricted to the international hotel chains and higher end restaurants and stores in the developing world. But times are changing, and not only are we seeing political revolutions spring up across the Middle East, but we're rapidly moving forward with social and economic revolutions in the region as well.

When visiting the incredible archaeological sites on the west bank of the Nile River down in Luxor, Egypt -- such as the storied mortuary temple of the powerful female Pharaoh Hapshetsut or the elaborately painted tombs in the Valley of the Kings -- my favorite place to break for lunch in between visits to these sites is the rooftop restaurant in the quaint Nile Valley Hotel. While this charming eatery has a fantastic view of Luxor Temple and the more bustling eastern side of the city across the Nile, it is situated on the less developed western side of the river. The western side is more convenient for a lunch break between visits to Luxor's most famous sites, but it is far less convenient for quick access to cash.

When I first started coming here with travel clients and our local guides, the Nile Valley Hotel's rooftop restaurant was of course cash only. But it was still an ideal spot to rest, refresh, take in the panoramic views of Luxor and let our clients try a range of traditional Egyptian foods while also offering a range of "safe" options (pizza, french fries, spaghetti, etc.) for those who had yet to break out of their culinary comfort zones.

For these types of experiences, the routine was always to load up on thousands of Egyptian pounds prior to crossing the Nile to pay for everything we needed for the day. But about a year ago, I noticed a waiter at this random little restaurant in southern Egypt pull out a portable credit card machine, swipe a diner's card, key in the total, print off a signature slip and voila. Not only were they now taking credit and debit cards, but they were doing so quickly and easily over Egypt's rapidly expanding high-speed cellular data network (which, by the way, is the same network that allows us to offer travelers wi-fi access from virtually anywhere in Egypt, even on the road). With these advances in wireless technology, Visa (and Facebook and Twitter and email and more) now really is literally "everywhere you want to be."

While credit and debit card acceptance is growing rapidly in countries like Egypt, many of the smaller merchants, such as souvenir sellers and taxi drivers, still do operate on a cash-only basis. But that doesn't mean that the fanny packs and money belts are still in style. On the contrary, when cash is needed throughout the Middle East you'll find that ATMs are quite ubiquitous, and both fees for withdrawing money and exchange rates through the banks tend to be quite reasonable. I always recommend a couple of mid-trip cash withdrawals as needed for our clients, although they are usually quite surprised by how little cash they wind up needing and spending in the end.

Of course when you do get cash out of an ATM or exchange hard currency in Egypt, always try to make sure you get the smallest bills possible (5s, 10s and 20s are golden), because the real perpetual crisis in Egypt is not political change but literal change, or feka, as it is known in Arabic. No one ever has it, no one wants to give it away if they do have it and even the banks prefer to limit the extent to which they will break larger bills into smaller ones for you.

So when traveling in the Middle East, just remember two things as far as money goes: Hoard small bills for tips and trinkets, and just use your bank card for everything else. You'll be pleasantly surprised to find credit and debit cards a lot more useful there than you thought. And it's only getting better.
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About the author: Maurice Chammah

Maurice Chammah is writing for Daily News Egypt, HuffPo and others.