“Geneva is the most expensive city in the world for dining prices.” You may have seen that sort of headline recently; it’s probably based on the newly released Club Sandwich Index (CSI) compiled by Hotels.com. And anyone who has been to Switzerland lately probably agrees: Restaurant prices there are indeed very steep. At the other end of the scale, says Hotels.com, are Bogota, Colombia and Mexico City.
The Club Sandwich Index compares the price of a conventional club sandwich in 28 major cities around the world. But the complete data compilation also includes prices of a burger meal, a cup of coffee, and a glass of house wine, summed up for a total daily expenditure. Economists regularly compare living costs around the world by calculating local prices for a standardized “market basket” of items, converting currencies as necessary. For travelers’ meals, Hotels.com used a “market basket” of menu items taken in hotels, a reasonable basis for foreign visitors. Among the results:
- The city with the highest cost overall total meal cost, converted to U.S. dollars, is Geneva, at $87 a day, followed by Paris at $73, Hong Kong at $71, Oslo at $68, London and Seoul at $65, Stockholm at $62, Tokyo and Singapore at $61, and New York at $60. I see no real surprises there. In general, Scandinavia is high, but most of the rest of Europe ranges between $42 and $49 a day.
- At the other end of the scale, the cities with daily costs under $40, are Bogota at $30, Mexico City at $32, Rio at $34 and Madrid at $39.
The pattern for club sandwiches generally follows total costs, but coffee and wine prices are inconsistent. Seoul tops the coffee price list, at $9.72, but other Asian cities—Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beijing, and Taipei—out-price Geneva. Paris shows the highest wine prices, at $13 a glass, but India is close; there, stick to Taj Mahal or Kingfisher. The least expensive glasses, under $7, are in Spain, Amsterdam, Bogota, Mexico City, Berlin, and Buenos Aires.
My take is that the relative positions are probably fairly accurate. But the actual daily cost can vary widely, depending on your travel style. The Hotels.com figures are based on food prices in hotels. Budget travelers can eat for a lot less; the Club Sandwich Index is based on big-city prices, so countryside travelers can eat for a lot less, and in countries where locals typically don’t drink wine or coffee with meals, visitors can switch to the local beverages of choice. But many travelers pay more: They want more than a burger, club sandwich, and house wine, and foodies flock to “trendy” or classic restaurants where prices can be astronomical.
The Club Sandwich Index isn’t the only worldwide meal cost comparison. For years, the Economist has compiled relative prices for a Big Mac, probably the most standardized food item that is available almost everywhere in the world. The Economist uses the index mainly to examine currency values rather than as a tourist cost guide, but the Big Mac Index is often used for tourists, too. The Big Mac data cover more than twice as many locations as the Club Sandwich and, surprising to me, among the Club Sandwich locations, the Big Mac Index figures vary substantially from the Club Sandwich data. Yes, Switzerland tops the Big Mac cost, too ($7.54!), and Norway and Sweden are also near the top. But Hong Kong, number three in club sandwiches, drops to a near bottom 26th by the Big Mac, and Tokyo drops to number 22.
The takeaway from this is that nobody is likely to choose a destination on the basis of meal costs. But if you want to avoid menu shock, be careful around Switzerland, Scandinavia, and France.
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Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2015 Tribune Media Services, Inc.