The currency is the Zambian kwacha (Kw), which is subdivided into 100 ngwee. This has been devaluing steadily, in line with the country's inflation rate. The kwacha has traditionally devalued, but in recent years the rate of devaluation has slowed and it has become more stable. Thus most of the prices in this guide are in US$ and, for those which are in kwacha, I have assumed a notional rate of around US$1 for Kw5,000 and converted them accordingly for ease of reference.
Until recently there was a 'black market' in foreign currency in Zambia, with US dollars worth much more if changed surreptitiously with a shady (and illegal) street dealer rather than at a bank. This was a result of the official (government decreed) exchange rate for the kwacha not corresponding to the true market value of the currency.
This has changed. The government's financial reforms have enabled the kwacha to float at a free-market rate, wiping out the black market. Now the shady characters on the street who hiss 'Change money' as you pass are more likely to be con-men relying on sleights of hand than genuine money-changers.
Zambia is not a cheap country to visit, especially if you want to see some of the national parks. This isn't because of high park fees: on the contrary, US$15–20/£8–11 per day is reasonable by African standards. Rather, costs are high because most safari camps are small and seasonal, and their supply logistics are difficult and costly. However, you do generally get what you pay for: camps in remote locations and pristine environments tend to set very high standards.
To make up a trip using such camps, which are the easiest and most practical way for visitors to Zambia, budget for an all-inclusive cost of about US$260–370/£150–210 per person per day when staying in a camp. Internal flights cost varying amounts, but US$180/£100 per leg would be a good approximation.
If you have your own rugged 4WD with equipment and the experience to use it, then you will be able to camp and cook for yourself which can dramatically cut costs: down to US$10–30/£6–17 per person per day for both park fees and camping fees. However, to hire such a vehicle and supply it with fuel would cost another US$150–300/£95–190 per day.
The cost of food depends heavily on where you buy it, as well as what you buy. If you can shop in Lusaka for your camping supplies then you will save money and have a wider choice than elsewhere. Imported foods are inevitably more expensive than locally produced items. If you are sensible, then US$10–20/£6–12 per day would provide the supplies for a good, varied diet, including the odd treat. In any event, it will be cheaper than eating out.
If you are staying in Lusaka, or one of the main cities, then the bigger hotels are about US$70–120/£40–70 per person sharing, whilst a nice small guesthouse will cost around US$20-40/£11–22. (These are only practical provided you get around under your own steam, and don't need airport transfers.)
Camping at organised sites on the outskirts of the cities is, again, a good bet if you have the equipment and transport. It will cost an almost universal US$5/£3 per person per night.
Restaurant meals in the towns are cheap compared with Europe or America: expect to pay US$10–20/£6–12 for a good evening meal, including a local beer or two. Imported beers are more expensive than local beer (which is perfectly adequate), and South African wines are more costly again. European wines and spirits, as you might expect, are ridiculously priced (and so make excellent gifts if you are visiting someone here). You will pay well over US$100/£55 for a bottle of champagne in Lusaka!
How to take your money
If you are changing money at one of the main banks, in Lusaka or Livingstone, then there is minimal difference in the rates between presenting a travellers' cheque, or presenting pounds sterling or US dollars in cash. Perhaps travellers' cheques are preferable from a security point of view, as they are refundable if stolen. (Amex travellers' cheques are not always welcomed, and their charge cards are seldom of use here.) If you use a bureau de change, you'll usually get better rates for cash.
If you're going to more offbeat locations, then really you need kwacha – although in case of need, some places will accept cash in low denominations of US dollars, or pounds sterling. Sometimes you can pay for hotels and services in US dollars directly, as you would with kwacha; however this becomes less common away from the bigger towns.
I travel with mostly US$1, US$5, US$10 and US$20 bills (and a few £10 or £20 notes). Because of the risk of forgeries, people are sometimes suspicious of larger-denomination notes. US$100 and even US$50 bills are often rejected in shops and even banks. (To make life more complex, observe that different issues of US$ notes have different layouts – easily distinguishable by the size of the portrait on the front: some have larger heads, others smaller ones. In some areas large denominations notes with 'small headed' portraits are very difficult to change, so avoid these if you have a choice.)
South African rand are occasionally accepted, typically in the western provinces near Namibia; elsewhere they're virtually useless.
Although some safari camps accept credit cards, if park fees are not included then they will usually need to be paid directly at the park gate, in US$ cash. As with airport departure taxes, travellers' cheques are seldom accepted for these.
Around Livingstone there is a trade buying/selling Zimbabwean dollars for kwacha. The relative premium over the official rate depends on the availability of consumables in the shops in Victoria Falls, versus those in Livingstone. In recent years the value of Zimbabwean dollars has been almost free-falling in value.
However, the money-changers near the border are notorious for their dishonesty. Finding a way to change money safely and without being swindled is difficult; these con-men even rip off street-wise locals. It is better to try changing money in Livingstone town, at the banks, or even at one of the shops (sometimes those run by the Asian community are the most approachable in this regard).