How do you judge the value of the dollar?

As part of my travel obsession I tend to read a lot of travel magazines.  They range from Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel (not bad, really, at the budget end of the spectrum) to American Express’s Departures (ridiculous by any reasonable measure of such things, but certainly entertaining) and many, many options in between.  And they all seem to have their own way of evaluating the value of the dollar.  Sometimes it is the cost of a movie, sometimes the cost of a local bus ride and sometimes the cost of a luxury hotel room or dinner for two with booze at a premium restaurant in the destination city.

And just when I thought I had seen it all, I picked up the February 2009 issue of Travel & Leisure on the flight tonight to finally get through it and see what they have to offer.  The February issue didn’t have much that I really found appealing.  But there was one page, one particular article, that I was drawn to like a moth to a light on a warm summer night.  The article was in their “Strategies” section and was focused on money-saving travel tips.  Coming from Travel & Leisure this was very different than what Budget Travel would ever even consider publishing. 

It is the Martini Index.

Forget a local beer, a taxi ride, a local bus or a movie.  Travel & Leisure had a piece evaluating cities based on the “average cost of a standard gin martini from a minimum of three luxury hotels in each city.”  They have 25 cities scored, with a pretty impressive range – $3.30 at the bottom to $32.08 at the top.

There are, of course, many problems with such a survey.  For starters, who leaves the United States or England and still feels that ordering a gin martini rather than a local drink is a good idea?  On top of that, ordering drinks in the luxury hotel bar just seems like a recipe for disaster to me.  I’ve been screwed enough by trying to get a cab from my hotel in Paris to know that anything where there isn’t a meter running is a really bad idea (and, not surprisingly, Paris is the most expensive on the index).  Then again, why order a martini in Paris when there is great wine to be had?

Still, the Martini Index exposes a great disconnect in the global market.  The fact that there is a full order of magnitude between the top and bottom prices and that the cities involved are all major tourist destinations – nothing off the beaten path in this list – is notable and actually worrisome considering the spread of cities involved; I didn’t expect the costs to range this widely.  Plus they are looking at prices in “luxury hotels” rather than a local dive bar.  Then again, ordering a gin martini in a local dive bar would probably be a mistake, so maybe that part of the survey isn’t such a bad idea.

The index doesn’t reveal anything all that shocking.  South Africa and South America are bargain destinations, and that has only gotten better in the couple months since this particular survey was taken as the value of the dollar has firmed up against many foreign currencies.  So if you are measuring your trip in the number of martinis you can afford to consume you’d do well to skip Europe and head to South America, South-East Asia, South Africa or even Canada.  Apparently gin prices in those regions is quite competitive, even in the luxury hotels. 

Happy drinking. 

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.