As I wrote here, the cost of travelling depends on a lot of things, but one of the big ones is the price of things in the places you visit. Especially for a long trip, travelling to low-cost destinations can cost a lot less than visiting places where prices are sky-high. But what are the most expensive places on earth?
But how do you know which places are cheap and which are expensive? Numbeo, a website that tracks the cost of living in cities around the world, is here to help. It’s just released its annual cost of living index, and while some of the results are just as we suspected, there are a few surprises.
As usual, Numbeo breaks down the costs into different categories, including the cost of rent and groceries. That’s useful information if you’re looking to spend an extended period in a destination, or to retire there. But it also tracks things like the consumer price index (CPI) — that includes how much things cost at the store, plus things like transportation and utilities. And it includes a comparison of restaurant prices, a big factor for travellers.
Numbeo uses New York prices as the standard, and assigns them a value of 100. Anything above that number is more expensive than New York; anything below is cheaper.
How do the cities of the world stack up? Here’s Numbeo’s top 10 most expensive places:
- Hamilton, Bermuda
- Geneva, Switzerland
- Caracas, Venezuela
- Zurich, Switzerland
- Tromso, Norway
- Basel, Switzerland
- Stavanger, Norway
- Lausanne, Switzerland
- Darwin, Australia
- Bern, Switzerland
The big surprise is Numbeo’s pick as the most expensive city: Hamilton, Bermuda, with an astounding consumer price index of 163 — 63 percent higher than New York. Part of that is the price of rent, but food is a shocker too — grocery prices come in at 191, almost twice New York levels, and restaurant meals will cost you 32 percent more.
I don’t know how to account for those prices. Island nations are traditionally expensive because many things have to be shipped in, but those prices are exceptional. The cities of the island nations farther south come in well below New York standards: San Juan, Puerto Rico rates about 78, and Havana, Cuba comes in at a cheap 55 — still a bargain.
Generally, you can rank the cities by continent, and when you do, a pattern soon emerges.
Overall, Europe comes out as the most expensive place to live or travel, and Switzerland, true to its reputation, takes top honours as the dearest of the dear. Five of the 10 most expensive world cities, ranked by CPI, are in Switzerland, with Geneva coming second overall at 145. Zurich is close behind with a score of 141,and Basel, Lausanne and Bern all make the top 10.
Norway also lives up to its reputation, with Tromso and Stavanger coming in fifth and seventh most expensive, at 131 and 125, respectively. That’s not a surprise: Scandinavia is known as one of the world’s most expensive places, the land of the $20 hamburger. Trondheim and Oslo also come in near the top, as does Copenhagen, Denmark (right), though Numbeo only gives it a 105 based on consumer prices — a low mark, from my experience — and Helsinki (seen at top) gets a lowly 94.
When it comes to restaurant prices, most of these cities score in the 130s and 140s, meaning they’re between 30 and 50 percent more expensive than New York. Copenhagen scores a 123, which also looks low to me.
The U.K. also makes the expensive list, with Reading, Aberdeen and London more expensive than New York, though not by much. London gets a 105, with a restaurant rating of 101 — virtually the same as New York. Seems low from what I’ve heard lately — though we should remember that restaurants in New York are not exactly cheap.
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In the U.S., the high-cost prize goes to Honolulu, with a 104 rating, just above New York prices. Stamford, Connecticut, Anchorage, Alaska, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. come in just below 100.
Many of the other major cites come in the 80s, so you’ll pay about 20 percent less than New York (left). But surprisingly, Los Angeles scores only 69, about the same as Salt lake City, with a restaurant index of 73. And you get better weather, too.
As for Canada, there’s a surprise: Fort McMurray, Alberta, made the top 20, with a 109 score. That’s a result of the oil boom, which has boosted prices to gold-rush levels. After that, most of Canada is cheaper than New York, but not that much cheaper, with Halifax and Vancouver coming in around 90.
Toronto gets an 81 rating, with a restaurant score of 73 — seemingly a real bargain. But nearby Oshawa scores a lofty 95, which makes you wonder what costs they were really looking at. Generally, U.S. visitors find Toronto prices expensive — though the currently weak Canadian dollar takes away some of the sting.
The surprise here is Caracas, Venezuela, with a crazy score of 141 and a restaurant score of 122. Seems like an anomaly, considering that the rest of South America is cheap: the next-highest city is Buenos Aires, Argentina, with a score of just 74.
Unsurprisingly, Mexico (which also gets membership in the North America section) still looks like a bargain, with Monterrey and Mexico City both scoring 47. Guadalajarais at 42, and Puerto Vallarta rates a 40 — though that’s a bit low, looking at the prices in the tourist restaurants. That brings up a good point: for travellers, the cost of living can be well above the real prices seen by locals. If you want to travel cheaply, make an attempt to stay and eat where they do.
San Jose, Costa Rica tops the Central America list at 64, with Panama City (above right) at 61. Those scores seem representative — you can live well below American prices in those cities without trying too hard. Though in Panama, as in most less-developed countries, you can pay near North American prices if you want to travel first class.
Singapore tops the Asian list of most expensive places, with a rating of 95 — though still below New York prices. Surprisingly, Tel Aviv and Tokyo — once one of the world’s most expensive cities — come in tied at 85. Prices have come down in Tokyo over the past few years, though currency exchange rates may have played a part.
Hong Kong also ranks just a 77, and amazingly, Dubai, United Arab Emirates only manages a 70 rating. Again, you have to wonder about that: the Arab capitals are known for their lavish developments, though that reputation may be at odds with life at street level.
Shanghai and Beijing (pictured here) come in as bargains, both in the 50s, and while costs are not rock-bottom for visitors to Beijing, it is possible to find cheap hotels and very cheap restaurant meals: on a recent trip my friend and I could eat our fill, and wash it all down with beer, for a total of $15.
As for Southeast Asia, it’s still cheap. Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, one of my favourite cities, come in about half as expensive as New York, which seems about right — though again, you can pay higher prices if you stay in the big, Western-style hotels. India is still a bargain, too, with Mumbai rating only a 30, plus a restaurant score of 24 — tasty food, too.
Generally, Africa looks cheap on this survey, though it has one outlier: Luanda, Angola, which scores a lofty 133. That`s a mystery, though again, the prices for locals and for travellers can be vastly different. It can cost $2,000 to $5,000 to get a look at the game parks of Tanzania on the widely sold safari tours, so don’t assume travel in Africa is all cheap.
Numbeo’s rankings aof the most expensive places re based on prices submitted by its members around the world — kind of a statistical form of crowd-sourcing. So I wouldn`t exactly call them scientific, but since they`re submitted by people who actually live there and pay local prices, they do have some credibility — you be the judge. If you want to look at the full list and dig into the different costs, go here.
Looking at the big picture, however, the cost of living index does paint a pretty accurate picture of costs around the world, despite a few anomalies. Europe is an expensive place to travel, especially northern Europe, though countries can differ a lot. And once you get out of New York, most of North America is moderately priced, while much of Latin America and Asia is still pretty cheap.
But what if you want a really, really cheap holiday? Try Thiruvananthapuram, India, the cheapest city on the list, with a consumer price index of just 20 — one-fifth of New York prices — and a restaurant cost of 12. You could stay for months. Now, if you could only find it …