Value Part II

>Although I just wrote about the tremendous value of Southeast Asian travel in May, having just returned from 10 weeks of tours in Europe I feel compelled to sing the praises of inexpensive Bali and Thailand once again. I love Europe as a destination and feel ever so lucky that I have the opportunity to work there with Rick Steves. But I must admit I was rather horrified at the prices this spring. A cup of coffee was regularly $3.50 to $4 (with current exchange rates). Italy continues to be an increasingly spendy destination with simple plates of pasta or pizzas now running $10 and up (at least the coffee is still excellent and, relatively speaking, cheap) and once inexpensive house wines creeping up into the $15 per liter range. Switzerland, always Europe’s most expensive country, has once again lurched ahead of its neighbors after the price gap had steadily shrunk over the last decade. And France, formerly the last refuge of great, inexpensive food, has also closed the price gap. Even wine by the glass, once a staple of French budget travel, is heading toward the $7 and up range. Dining is not the only place the traveler feels the “Euro squeeze.” A single-ride ticket on Venice’s vaporettos (water buses) is now almost $10 and Paris’ wonderful metro system had a recent price hike, approaching $2 for a single journey. Sights and museums are not exempt. Today’s traveler should expect to pay $12 and up for sights that only a few years ago cost $5-7.
It is not my intention to bash Europe – it remains a magical destination and a place of profound connections for all westerners. But in terms of shear value, it simply pales beside Southeast Asia (SEA). The value of the American dollar has fallen against all foreign currencies in the last few months. But while it has lost 9% against the Euro it has lost only 4-5% against SEAsian currencies (last 120 days: source:, reflecting a long-term trend. Inflation has hit SEA as well but travel commodities were such a tremendous bargain that they remain tantalizingly low for Americans. Boutique hotels for under $50, wonderful meals for $10-12, street food for a couple of bucks, and public transportation for pennies on the dollar compared to western destinations. While in Europe this spring I developed a taste for the relatively new, prepackaged, refrigerated coffee drinks (think Frappaccino). They cost about $2.25 in grocery stores and $4 at highway reststops. The SEA version, while smaller (probably 60%) cost about 35-45 cents. With inflation and the weakened dollar, one might expect to pay 50 cents today.
More than anything else, I simply love the freedom provided by the lower prices of all travel commodities in SEA. As a life-long penny-pincher, I appreciate not having to carefully weigh every spending decision. Will this sight be worth the entrance cost? Can I afford to splurge on the most expensive menu item in a restaurant? Should we picnic today to preserve our budget? I’d love a second beer but they cost almost $10 OR we have to find a bar with happy hour prices so our beer will only cost $5-6 (Paris, Italy). While traveling in Thailand or Bali, the cost of things is mercifully exempt from all such considerations. All this value for countries that are welcoming to visitors, extremely safe, have well-developed tourism infrastructures, and are exotic, fascinating cultural destinations.