I have noticed that nothing in Africa is ever easy. Specifically, nothing involving the exchange of money: from bargaining for a taxi ride to finding a working ATM, I have dealt with more than my fair share of monetary difficulties. But nothing compares to what I dealt with regarding Spring Break when I went to South Africa for a week with another student, Emily. We booked our flights in late February, so my story starts there:
South African Airways (SAA) offered the perfect flight that fit our budget and allowed us to spend three days each in Johannesburg and Cape Town. I used my debit card to purchase the flight, and received an email confirmation a couple minutes later. A few minutes after that, I got an email saying the method of payment could not be verified, and that my reservations were canceled! This happened two more times; then I decided to call my dad to use his Amex, because maybe I’m not allowed to book flights with a debit card. I gave him the flight numbers and he booked it online from our house in New Jersey. I got the same set of emails: one confirming the reservation, and one canceling it. So then I called my mom, who called the bank to pre-approve a transaction on her MasterCard because maybe the bank was canceling the transactions since it was a large amount of money. The same thing happened! I sent an email to SAA’s 24-hour booking helpline and went to bed.
The next morning I called the Ghanaian branch of SAA and was told that the payment for this flight could not be made online, and that I would have to pay in person. I asked if I could use my debit card and the guy said no, it has to be a credit card with my name on it. Then, after trying to explain to him for a good five minutes that I can’t do that because I don’t have a credit card in my name, he said “oh, sorry” and hung up on me! I waited for it to be an acceptable time in New Jersey and called my mom, explaining the situation to her. She called the SAA office in Florida and was told that, because of all the fraud coming out of Ghana, she would have to send a certified check overnight to their office. Three hours later, the check was in the mail.
Now, remember that email I sent to the helpline when I first started having issues? TWO WEEKS LATER I received a response. This email had absolutely no punctuation, so it took me a few tries to understand what it was saying, but I eventually got it. The woman writing said she had re-opened the reservation and that I would need to visit my local SAA office to make payment. She provided me with the address for the office in Zambia(??). After laughing/crying because this email was so incredibly unhelpful, I deleted it and hoped it wouldn’t affect the reservation I had already paid for.
Flash forward to a week before the trip and I’m really excited!! I need a break from Ghana; I need to be in a developed country for a few days to regain my sanity. All that was left to do was to call Chase and submit a travel notification. Surprise!! Chase doesn’t let you put travel notifications on your debit card if you’re going to South Africa because of all the fraud coming out of the country! All they could do was “put a note in my file” and I would have a 50/50 chance of my card working while there. Panicking, I sent a wire transfer (that was another ordeal but I will spare you all the pain) to Emily because her bank let her submit a travel notification; I also asked my mom to send money through Western Union to the bank near our hotel.
Nothing was going right, so I started to wonder if the universe was trying to tell me something. Am I not supposed to go on this trip? Will something bad happen to me if I do? I chocked it up to ridiculously bad luck and despite all the issues, everything went smoothly. We had a great time exploring both cities; Johannesburg has fun tourist attractions (hello World of Beer) and Cape Town is breathtakingly beautiful. But do you want to know the best part? My debit card worked. The entire time.