‘Paris is so expensive,” one girlfriend complained over a basil martini at a recent girls’ night out. We had all recently returned from jaunts overseas, and the topic had turned to that perennial kvetch of American travelers: how expensive “Europe” is.
I put Europe between quotes because my own recent experiences revealed the still-yawning gap between the North Sea’s pricey precincts and the bargains of the Mediterranean. For the price of one beer in Oslo, you could buy a round for all your friends in Seville.
That kind of disparity, though, is increasingly the exception. If there’s any trend I’ve noticed about prices in places I’ve recently traveled, it’s a kind of homogenization — a flattening out of prices in countries richer, poorer and in between. Dirt-cheap oases still exist, but they are fewer and farther between.
So as the summer travel season begins in earnest, don’t be scared off by the stories. There is still quite a bit of cost variation between destinations, but that difference today is likely to be a factor of two or three, not 10, for East Coast Americans.
The $4 bottle of mineral water at the Oslo airport seems Scandinavia-shocking until you realize it costs nearly that at JFK, too. In Britain, a ticket for the tube costs $4-$5, depending on your route; that’s not cheap, but for a few days or a week, it hardly justifies the moaning.
It wasn’t so long ago that the gaps in cost were truly startling. In Argentina in 2003, just as the currency had collapsed, I ate $15 dinners at the Four Seasons in Buenos Aires and bought soft leather boots for $25; today my wallet wouldn’t take me so far. In the late ’90s, when the peseta and the franc still ruled, I stayed in $25 hotels in Seville and Nice that would easily be $100 today.
My husband, who grew up in the Eastern Bloc, remembers drinking beers for 20 cents on the Black Sea coast back then? While Bulgaria today is still cheap by American standards, your hotel or restaurant tab is about half the U.S. equivalent — no longer an eyebrow-raising fraction.
It’s not just Europe. Just a decade ago, sticker-shocked Brazilians in Europe would tell me about the dirt-cheap prices for everyday goods back home; now they’re rioting over skyrocketing prices there, too.
But while erstwhile budget paradises have become much less so, places that never were cheap have been relatively stable. Paris, like New York, is a city where aesthetes and gourmands can easily go broke — but for basic items, it’s no more expensive than most big cities.
A Paris metro ticket costs 1.70 euros, or a little more than $2, just as in New York (and more than in Barcelona); a glass of wine in a café in the Marais goes for about $5 (try finding that in Manhattan); a prix-fixe lunch, with fish, salad and wine, for about $20; and a room at any one of several Ibis hotels in central Paris, as of this month, for around $100 — what I recently paid off the Interstate in Danbury.
I suspect that what prompts all this unfounded kvetching is the inherent luxury of travel itself. Regardless of the exchange rate, if you’re paying for three restaurant meals, a hotel and taxis every day, wherever you are is bound to feel more expensive than wherever you’re from.
I thought of this recently while traveling through Norway — a country with a reputation, not entirely undeserved, for being challenging on the wallet. In recent years my family has spent long periods in Southern Europe, so I walked around Oslo seeing Norwegian prices through two different lenses: that of a New Yorker, and that of a Spaniard.
The view from New York was considerably rosier. For a Spaniard accustomed to a $2 glass of wine or a $12 dinner, Norway is an alternate universe. But for New Yorkers, a $15 glass of wine or a $35 restaurant entrée, while not cheap, are hardly shocking. Another consideration: in expensive countries like Norway, you tend to get what you pay for. The wine is an imported French vintage; the entrée is exquisitely prepared fish.
Some currencies just make prices sound outrageous. Brunch in Lima costs 30 soles! But that’s only $10, same as in Park Slope. In Norway — a non-EU country with its own currency, the kroner — hotel prices at first glance seemed to justify the hysteria: 1,000 for a night’s stay! Then I did the math, and realized it was only about $165.
That $165 buys you heated bathroom floors, Mac stations and gourmet coffee in the lobby, chic modern design and a highly professional (and good-looking) staff. To get all that in Madrid or Manila, I wouldn’t expect to pay any less.