Sorry Australia, you're just too expensive

Overpriced: Sydney is one of the most expensive cities in the world.
Overpriced: Sydney is one of the most expensive cities in the world. Photo: Dean Sewell

It probably doesn't come as a surprise to any of us but when a website for international expats recently named the world's most expensive cities to live in, six of Australia's cities, Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide and Canberra (in that order), made it into the top 26.

That has been bad news for Australian tourism. Combined with our competitive Australian dollar, the expense of a vacation in this country has seen Australians holidaying abroad in greater numbers than ever.

Even London seemed a relative bargain earlier in 2013 when our dollar was close in value to 70 per cent of the pound. When I was in Italy in June a dollar was worth about 80 euro cents. Now, with the Australian dollar wobbling, Europe is not seeming so affordable any more, although it's still a far cry from the days when the aussie was the "Pacific peso".

Eating out in Japan is now affordable.
Eating out in Japan is now affordable. Photo: AFP

I recall visiting Tokyo about 20 years ago when it was so unaffordable even a simple (highly polished) apple was out of reach. I was travelling alone and my hotel recommended a small restaurant that would be suitable for solo female travellers. It was the kind of place that didn't have prices so, on a tight budget, I ordered a soup and a couple of grilled prawns. The bill came to $80. By contrast, nowadays Japan is quite a bargain.

Similarly, travelling alone in London on assignment, the magazine I worked for never accounted for the fact that its staff needed to eat, so, given a minuscule budget, I'd demolish a huge breakfast in my hotel, which was included in the room rate, and drop into the Ritz to gorge myself on its £4 afternoon tea. (Yes, that was a while ago - these days, champagne tea at the Ritz will set you back £60.) I'd live on bagels in New York and baguettes and salty butter in Paris. Unhealthy, perhaps, but when you were saving all your money for museums and theatre excursions, food wasn't so important.

Only the very luckiest of us don't need to consider cost when we travel. Some of the world's most fascinating destinations, such as India, China, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and some South American countries, are happily also its cheapest. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Istanbul is inexpensive, and so are countries that haven't adopted the euro.

But when a villa in Italy beckons or a Norwegian cruise, you need to do the sums. If you have to spend any time in Oslo, for instance, which regularly tops the list of the world's most expensive cities, you might need to make sure that the cruise is all-inclusive, you have self-catering accommodation, or you eat all your meals at markets (A fun option). I met a well-heeled traveller recently who was shocked to find that casual lunch for two without wine in the Norwegian capital cost him about $250.

So many of us are travelling for culinary experiences now that eating out is a big factor in terms of cost. Blowing hundreds of dollars on a once-in-a-lifetime meal at a famous Basque restaurant might seem good value but spending the amount of a quarterly electricity bill on an ordinary meal in an ordinary cafe in Copenhagen just plain hurts. If you're toting children, expensive cities are particularly painful.

A way around the expense of any city is the "sharing economy", self-catering options like Airbnb, an online rental service. Recently, I helped a friend with some advice when she was trying to find accommodation in Paris. I was impressed by the great selection of apartments she uncovered through some of the online apartment rental groups. These options give a local experience at the fraction of a cost of the five-star hotels, although in some cities like New York short-term rentals like Airbnb are, strictly speaking, illegal, because, unlike hotels, they pay no taxes. Expect some disruptions this year.

Last year, I visited Stockholm and Copenhagen and, apart from being beautiful cities, they made me very happy. Why? Because I'd finally found somewhere more expensive than Sydney/Melbourne/Brisbane/Perth! I was perversely relieved to find I didn't live in the most overpriced city in the world.

These brief few years when the whole world seemed cheaper than Sydney may be drawing to a close but the options for Luxe Nomads to travel five-star on a three-star budget are more numerous than ever, thanks to the big bargain basement that is the internet.

Twitter: @missleetulloch

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