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Looking for a destination where you can enjoy luxury on the cheap? In the United States, Las Vegas is probably no surprise as the value leader. Internationally, Bangkok seems to be the winner. Two recent studies took a close look at relative "values" in these and other important tourist destinations.
TripAdvisor, which bills itself as "the world's largest online travel community," computes a "Best Value Index" for cities around the world, based on the cost of one night in a four-star hotel, a pizza, one dry Martini, and a five-mile taxi trip, as determined through extensive input from travelers:
As noted, Las Vegas tops the list, which is no surprise. The TripAdvisor index for Vegas comes to $164. And I know you can often enjoy five-star luxury hotel accommodations midweek for less than $150 a night—accommodations that would cost at least three times that in most other big U.S. cities. Next best, but at significantly higher index numbers (from $210 to $215), are Dallas, New Orleans, and Atlanta. The top end of the scale is no surprise, either: New York City, at $367, with Boston and Washington fairly close behind.
Bangkok is the worldwide winner, at $112. Others in the top 10 offer a surprising range of visitor options and experiences, from Sofia, Warsaw, and Budapest in Europe to Beijing, Sharm-el-Sheikh, Kuala Lumpur, Auckland, Marrakech, and Dubai, all for $154 or less. Again, the top end is what you'd expect, with Paris at $429 and Zurich, London, and Tokyo all higher than New York.
To me, the most encouraging finding here is how diverse the best-value cities are, especially in the international group. You can choose anything from steamy, exotic Bangkok to crisp and friendly Auckland to architecturally stunning Dubai to beach resort Sharm-el-Shiekh to historic Budapest and Warsaw. If you can't find something you like in one of these cities, you should stay home.
The Economist, that highly respected business publication, just updated its unique "Big Mac Index." Very simply, it's the U.S. dollar equivalent of the local price of a Big Mac in each country. And the theory is that because the Big Mac is probably the world's most widely available but totally standardized consumer purchase, relative Big Mac prices are a good guide to some combination of local currency valuation and local purchasing power. Although this concept seems simplistic, big time economists accept it as valid, and who am I to argue with big time economists?
Thus, relative prices for a Big Mac are supposed to reflect overall relative costs, compared to the U.S. base. Surprisingly, Big Macs cost a lot less in several foreign countries than the average $4.01 they cost here in the U.S. Prices are below $2.50 in China, Egypt, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Thailand; they're less than $3 in Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Taiwan. The world's most expensive Big Macs are in Norway ($8.31), Switzerland ($8.06), and Sweden ($7.64); I know from experience that Finland, not covered in the survey, is also near the top. Prices in the most popular overseas destinations for Americans are $3.89 in Britain and $5 in Canada; for some reason, the Economist didn't include France, Germany, or Italy.
I'm not surprised that Bangkok/Thailand comes out best in both systems or that Zurich/Switzerland scores close to the most expensive. Those findings clearly correspond with my own observations.
I've often noted that if you really wanted to vacation at rock-bottom cost, you'd probably head for a small city, town, or state park relatively close to where you live. But that's not very helpful in the real world. What I do find helpful is the finding, from both reports, that some very interesting and rewarding destinations also qualify as good values. Sure, if you're in love with New York or Paris, you'll have to pay accordingly. And even there, going down market can cut your costs substantially. But if you want to combine good value with at least relative luxury, you'll find that in Bangkok, Vegas, and lots of other places.