An Adventure in Buying Airline Tickets

All I want for Christmas, is you, plane tickets. And yes, the bag is relevent to the story.

All I want for Christmas is you (plane tickets). And yes, the bag is relevant to the story.

I had an interesting adventure today for what would typically be a very straightforward, mundane experience: buying plane tickets. We’ve done quite a bit of flying this past year – 49 legs, to be exact – and every time purchasing the tickets has been the least eventful part. And that all makes sense; typically you go online, search for flights, and book them with a credit card. And that’s actually been the case with all of the flights we’ve booked in Africa and Tanzania as well – until today.

This flight was actually booked for us as part of a chimp trekking tour we are going on in a few weeks. As expected, on Monday I received an itinerary for the flight and a total cost (typical for every flight we’ve taken here). Unlike the other flights, there was no link to pay – the email simply said, “Contact Us to pay for your tickets, or the reservation will expire by [2 days from now]”. Um, OK. So we dug up the phone number on their website, and of course no one answered. Finally, the next morning, Sara finally got ahold of someone, who said the only way to pay was to come into their office downtown and pay in cash or M-Pesa (a cell phone payment thing we don’t have). Cash? Seriously? In person? Seriously? What is this, the 1990s?

Once I got over the fact I’d have to interact with a human to get my tickets, I started getting the cash together. But this is Africa – easier said than done. We were buying 4 tickets, and the total was around $1200. But they don’t take dollars (we don’t have that many dollars anyway, but I digress), they take Tanzanian Shillings, so the cost is 2,400,000 TZS. This is a good time to explain how Tanzanian ATMs and money work. The single withdrawal limit from an ATM here is 400,000 TZS. That’s fine, we could easily get the money out in 6 transactions. The annoying part is the largest bill in circulation here is a 10,000 TZS note (worth about $6). So, to pay for these tickets in cash, I was forced to carry 240 $6 bills with me!

I wasn’t initially concerned about carrying that many bills until I saw it in person – there was no way that 6 rolls of money were going to fit in my cargo pockets. Having that much money in a backpack or purse is way too dangerous on the streets, as bag snatching and cutting is way too frequent, especially for foreigners like me. So I went with an old classic – I put the money in a ziplock bag, and then stuffed it into two plastic shopping bags. Now would-be thieves would only think I was carrying yogurt or something. I called a reliable taxi driver of ours and had him take me directly to the ticket office, never alluding to the wads of cash in my bag.

You would think arriving at the office looking like a drug dealer would be the end, but nope. I get inside and there are only two people there, working at three desks, with the customers waiting on a leather sofa. There’s no “take-a-number”, so the queue was all honesty-based. That actually worked out fine, because it wasn’t busy, and I got waited on quickly. The lady helping me was super nice and pulled up our reservation right away. And then she insisted on verifying everything. It took forever. But we did have this amazing exchange:

Her: Gifford Kyle Brandon – is this a Mr or a Mrs?
Me: It’s a Mr. It’s me, actually.
Her: You? Ok. I thought it was a she. You are German?
Me: No, I’m American.
Her: You don’t look American, you look German.
Me: Oh really? What does an American look like?
Her: They are all fat, like me. They eat too many burgers.

Fair enough. Anyway, she then got the tickets off the printer and then insisted on writing, “Rep time dar 8:00 am” on each ticket. And then she had to go get a pile of the paper ticket envelopes, and staple each ticket individually to the holder, and then tri-fold each ticket so it fit nicely into the folder. It reminded me of this scene from Love Actually:

“Just a sprig of holly!” I don’t mean to dog on her, she was super nice, just not in a hurry at all. Then we had the worst part, counting the money. However long you think it takes to count 240 bills, double it. Count them out yourself, and then watch someone count them out again 30 minutes later. It’s excruciating.

I finally left the office, mind melted, but with plane tickets in hand. I did ask her, while she was counting, why they don’t accept credit cards.

We used to accept credit card, but all the thieves started using it. So we stopped doing them.

Exactly. Because nothing deters thieves more than having people walking around the streets with 2.4 million in cash in plastic bags. Just another day in Tanzania.

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2 Responses to An Adventure in Buying Airline Tickets

  1. Pat Austin says:

    I am in awe after catching up on your travels! Stay safe & keep on trekking :) Merry Christmas to Sara & Kyle