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June 04, 2008

No Money, Not Funny: The Sorry Dollar in Europe

Hobo on the rails
Guy's preferred method of travel.
Photo: AP

Attention, readers from the U.S.A.: You may vote Republican or Democrat. You may cheer for the Red Sox or the Yankees. You may worship God, Allah, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But when it comes to traveling abroad, you have to agree that the once almighty dollar blows. In Part 1 of a series, Guy Martin shares the sorry status of his wallet. Read it, then share any amusing living expenses (high or low) that you've encountered on your travels.

by Guy Martin

I ate a piece of Vienna's most famous chocolate bomb, the Sacher torte, and drank a cup of "big brown" coffee in the Hotel Sacher's café. It was good, but not at $15.11, without tip. I rented an "economy-size" car in Berlin, Germany, for 30 days, which was deeply convenient, but not at $2,664.36. I bought some gas for the car in Dresden, which kept the car (and me) locomoting, but which also caused more than a bit of wallet angina, reckoned from the liter price, at $8.37 per gallon, or about $90 to fill my apparently economical four-cylinder. Abandoning the car in Berlin, I took the U-Bahn to an appointment: $6.54, round-trip. I had three shirts washed and pressed at a humdrum laundry in London: $43.

It's not so much that these prices are bad--although they are. The European offense is, also, that the value--what you actually get for the money--is out of scale. Bread and milk cost 30 to 50 percent more than in the States, depending on where you're buying. Of course, they're subsidized, so they actually cost even more. To launder and press three shirts in New York, the most expensive city in America, costs $6.; a round-trip subway fare is $4, less if you buy a bigger metrocard. An expertly hand-tossed pizza and five cokes at a legendary stand in New York? $23. In Rome? About twice that. 

Our currency's value--or extreme lack of it--makes the pain more jagged, quick, and deep. Turns out the formerly almighty American dollar is made of . . . nothing, actually, having lost 28 percent of its value against the euro in the last 24 months. This morning, one euro costs us a hefty $1.55.

Despite this, American stragglers are still traveling to Europe for non-work-related reasons. Incredible, right? But true. They--we--resemble nothing so much as Napoleon's war-worn troops on their retreat from Moscow in 1804, scavenging in the fields for roots, gnawing on the corpses of cavalry horses, and such. Still, it gives us a glimmer of hope to see our countrymen behaving so irrationally, particularly with regard to their wallets. However, their wallets confront, daily, an altered and very much more expensive Europe.

To track this in minute, human detail, we here at the DT thought it would be amusing to gin up a catalog of some of the hidden--and not-so-hidden--costs of moving around the Continent. Of course, by the end of the summer travel season, the prices and conversions will have changed. For the worse, naturally.

In the coming posts we'll have categories of expenditure--some of which will surprise and shock and disappoint, some of which we even hope will please you. We'd also like to take the opportunity to invite our brave readers who are in fact headed to Europe to give us a shout with any amusing living expenses--unexpectedly high or unexpectedly low--that they might encounter. 

Before we get down to the nitty-gritty of financial life in Europe, one quick tip: As the world's new financial underclass, it's important for all traveling Americans to adjust their socio-politico-economic value meters. Yes, we saved Europe twice in the last century. Does anybody remember that? HELL no.

On the other hand, it's important for us to remember: That dude from Kazakhstan elbowing his way in front of you as you queue for the Uffizi? He can afford the bistecca alla fiorentino at Sostanza, the world-class Florentine steak house (about $130 for primi and secondi for two, with wine and tip).
We're the ones who can't.

Further reading:
Dollar Power: Places Where the Dollar Still Means Something.


This was the primary reason we went to Japan this year instead of our usual trip to Europe. While not a "cheap" destination, everything was relatively reasonable based on US prices, even with the exchange rate. For example, we had grab and go breakfasts (fresh bread, drinks and a snack) for about $7-8 for two people and a 13-piece sushi dinner in a better than average restaurant in Kyoto's Gion district for $60 for two people.

I think eastern European countries are still reasonable--better go before they convert to the Euro though. Krakow, Poland was still relatively a bargain compared to other parts of Europe.

Many thanks for writing in. Great news! The dollar went "up" a fraction of a cent in trading on international markets since we put up the post! At any rate, many thanks for writing in, and great tip about Eastern Europe. BUT WATCH IT, even there. Prague's currency (the Czech crown) is appreciating faster than the Euro against the dollar. We'll get into that in later posts.

In the meantime, we love the idea of flying to Japan for budgetary reasons. Kudos on yr. trip, and again, thanks.

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