Always Begin With A Disclaimer, Right?
I’m very hesitant to write a blog post that even slightly attempts to answer the popular question: “how much does it cost to travel”. This is because it’s an entirely subjective experience and too often such conversations becomes dominated by the sort of exchanges that begin with “Well, I had a friend who . . . “
But I realized I really like budgeting (despite the many failures mentioned below) and I really like evaluating how much things cost. I think it’s really interesting to figure out how people manage to do very cool things for the small amount of money. For example, I’m the guy who actually likes the parts in Walden where Thoreau talks about how much money he spent on bread, nails and seeds. I think how a guy manages to lives in a small shack in the words for two years is more interesting the philosophy discovered in doing it.
So, since it turns out I’m a nerd for budgeting, I thought I’d share how Molly and I go about spending our money (basically as little as possible) and also the method by which we evaluate how much places actually cost to travel to. Along the way Molly has tried to coach me on how to keep you entertained during a long post (which mostly means removing failed jokes). Plus there’s a list towards the end of the post that covers every place we’ve been and how it ranks on our travel cost scale. I’ve been told people like lists.
For those of you who’d just prefer to see pictures of Molly and I eating and drinking across Europe, feel free to scroll to the end now.
Budgeting: All of life’s little successes and eventual failures recorded on one Excel sheet
Back in the real world we lived on a pretty well thought out budget – a budget we consistently broke. We always seemed to forget about things like gas and doctors appointments and we also failed to account for those inevitable but necessary monthly trips to Target. Yet we always managed to budget really well for varnish, paintbrushes, boat projects, Trader Joes shopping and weekly trips to the bar with friends.
I’d like to say that living on a fixed income while traveling has made us better at budgeting, but we find ourselves encountering the same issues: we were able to estimate our meals and hotel costs for ten days in Italy down to the euro, but we completely forgot about the very expensive train tickets we’d need to get from one place to another. Also, we’ve been good at predicting our overall living costs, but when initially budgeting for this whole trip we forgot to included the cost of the plane tickets we’d eventually need to get us back home. Oh well, we’ll let future Molly and Adam worry about that.
Despite our budgeting hiccups for some big picture items, we’ve gotten really good at evaluating our daily costs according to our particular style of traveling. We’ve even developed a way to evaluate how much traveling costs in one city compared to another – I’ve dubbed this the Adam and Molly Index. Further down, I’ve outlined our cost assessments of every city we’ve traveled to in Europe.
Breaking Down The Adam and Molly Index: The World’s Only Evaluation Method That Places Equal Importance On Sleeping and Eating As It Does On The Price of a Beer
Here are the areas we evaluate in the Adam and Molly Index. Though we often combine the food portion, everything else is weighted the same.
Cost of a Studio Apartment on AirBnb: we book lodging almost exclusively via AirBnB and we tend to look for small studios near the center of town normally with one perk like a balcony, a good view or a nice kitchen.
Cost of Getting a Good View of the City: it might seem trivial to include, but when you’re traveling on the cheap like us the $12 cost of going up the Eiffel Tower and $20 cost of walking the walls of Dubrovnik has to be budgeted for. And since we aren’t museum or attraction people, this is generally our one tourist expense. But also, I find it to be a decent predictor of the overall cost of a city, the type of city that lets you hike its fortress for $3 (Kotor) is probably going to cheaper overall than the city that charges you $20 to hike theirs (Dubrovnik).
Cost of a Pint of Beer: besides our need to sleep and eat every day, drinking a beer or two in a cafe is our only other daily expense. Reading a book, writing postcards and watching people from cafes across the continent has been really fun, but the cost of the beer, or sometimes the house wine, can make or break our tender little travel budget so it’s an important evaluation. To be clear too, this beer we’re evaluating is a pint (.5 L) of local draught beer, which means the quality light pilsner that we always love.
Cost of Good Street Food: my definition of street food includes markets, bakeries, pizza slices, farmers markets, local fast food and actual street food from carts. When on the road this is our main source of food so the cost and access to a good cheap market or a quick breakfast is the biggest variable in our cost of travel – everything else is much easier to predict.
Cost of a Sit Down Meal: we normally don’t eat out in restaurants, preferring street food or cooking in our apartment, but occasionally we’ll splurge at a local restaurant. For comparison you should know that we are assessing this cost based on places fairly well-removed from tourist centers and never at a place where a guy stands outside with a menu trying to corral you into his restaurant.
Adding it all Up
There’s no math here. Towards the end of our time in a place we take a few minutes to assess each category, determining if it was expensive, reasonable or cheap and then average it out to decide. Our determinations are based on what we’d expect to pay back at home in California, so a four to five dollar beer or glass of wine is reasonable, anything higher is expensive, anything lower is cheap. We weigh street food more than a sit down meal because we rarely eat out, but it’s worth including because in some places (like Sarajevo) you can sit down for a fantastic four dollar meal or in other places (like Mont Saint-Michel) there is no street food and only restaurants. When we look back at our actual dollar by dollar spending, our loose assessments of the Adam and Molly Index always turn out to be very accurate.
Time of year obviously has a huge affect on costs and we always keep in mind that we’ve so far been traveling in the off-season, but we are assuming that the price increases come summer are about even for all places in Europe. I suspect too, that in the big cities where tourism is year-round, there isn’t too much of a difference except maybe the airfare to get you there. (Look I remembered the plane tickets this time!)
Why Dubrovnik, Croatia is Actually More Expensive Than Paris, France (an exercise in the Adam and Molly Index method)
Before I give a list of the Adam and Molly Index rating for every city we’ve been, let’s first walk through our process a little more, using Paris and Dubrovnik as examples:
Paris Lodging: Just like hotels and guesthouses, apartments via AirBnB in Paris are more expensive than most places. And like apartments in any great city, all our studios there have been tiny (like closest sized), so we obviously rate that as: expensive.
Paris View: Getting a good view of the city can be done for free at Sacre Couer in Montemarte or via the some-what expensive elevator in the Eiffel Tower so we called that one: reasonable.
Paris Beer: The cost of a pint of beer (more often the house wine actually) was varied but overall pretty expensive. Cafe culture is expensive, but it comes with free olives so it’s worth it! However, it’s worthy to note: Paris doesn’t appear to have open container laws which means you can buy inexpensive wine or beer in a corner market and enjoy it in dozens of gorgeous parks, along the Seine or Canal Saint Martin. So there are ways to drink in Paris for cheap, without sacrificing a lovely view or the ability to people-watch.
Paris Street Food: Cost of good street food in Paris was extremely cheap – we could make dinner for two nights out of a delicious ten dollar roast chicken (with potatoes) and a one dollar baguette. Crepes, sandwiches from boulangeries and quiches that can work as lunch and dinner were all pretty inexpensive too. The cost of a sit down meal in Paris is tough to assess. Yes, it’s generally more expensive, but the 20 dollar three course meal in Paris is far and away better than any 20 dollar meal I’ve ever had and the three courses normally leave you skipping a meal anyway. So given that, we’d definitely rated the eating out as reasonable.
Adding it all up and considering that one, we survived very well on good cheap street food and two, the aloof and inattentive French waiters really help keep wine and beers costs down, according to the Adam and Molly Index the cost of Paris is reasonable.
Compare this to Dubrovnik where walking the walls and seeing the fortress cost us about 30 dollars each, a pint of beer was 7 dollars, the coffee and bureks were way overpriced and where we had two expensive meals out – one of which was great sushi that was totally worth it. Overall, Molly and I deemed Dubrovnik to be quite expensive. Adding up the actual dollars and cents, we found we spent far more money in Dubrovnik each day we were there than we did during our average day in Paris.
The only caveat to this conclusion is that the place we stayed in Dubrovnik, with its ocean view, had much more of a bang for its buck than the tiny apartments we rented for the same price in Paris. However, this is always the case in comparing housing costs between a big city and a nice little beach town.
Fun fact: The original name for the Adam and Molly Index was: “Cost Estimates encompassing the style of travel where Adam makes Molly carry luggage 6 miles across Paris to save on cab fare but spends $30 dollars on wine and cheese along the way”) I think the new name is more precise, but the first name more telling.
Another Disclaimer As To Avoid Inciting Anger In Anyone Who Has Ever Said “You should really go to Prague and Dubrovnik, man, it’s so cheap there!”
I want to emphasize that when Molly and I call a place expensive, reasonable or cheap, we are doing so according to the evaluation methods outlined in the Adam and Molly Index (and then confirming them with actual money spent).
I should also add that a place being expensive in no way reflects our overall feeling of it – Rome is by far my favorite place in the world, but we found the food and wine there to be quite expensive no matter how hard we tried.
That being said, cost is still a factor in how you feel about a place: sipping a two dollar pint of beer in Old Town Kotor just feels more satisfying than going to Dubrovnik and paying seven dollars for the same beer in an equally spectacular location.
And in terms of evaluating our accuracy, the more cheaply we rate a place the more confident I am in our assessment. Rating a place as expensive can very often mean you just failed to make things work for you. So when I say “Dubrovnik is expensive”, it could mean we just missed something, where as when I say “you can do Paris for pretty cheap,” I’m quite confident about it.
The Adam and Molly Index for Each Place We’ve Traveled To
Below is a the list of some tourist cities we’ve visited for at least a few days and how they rate on the Adam and Molly Index:
Novi Sad – cheap
Belgrade – cheap
Dubrovnik – expensive (most expensive place we’ve been so far)
Sarajevo and Mostar – cheap (plus cevapcici and Sarajevska Pivara is the best street food/beer combination ever!)
Kotor – cheap
Venice – reasonable (though this was achieved via pizza and drinks along the window of our hotel room)
Cinque Terre – cheap (this is the one where the off-season might really matter but still, beyond housing, we spent very little money by always eating from the small markets with their great produce, bread and fresh pesto)
Rome – both reasonable and expensive (cheap hotels and free views but no denying food and wine is really expensive here, even via small markets)
Dijon – reasonable
Mont St-Michel – expensive (but aren’t all small isolated islands expensive?)
Prague – expensive (a very close second to Dubrovnik for the title of Most Expensive City)
Berlin – cheap (doners, sausages and great markets everywhere made this so much cheaper than Prague for us)
Amsterdam – cheap (sampling all the good local beers in Brown Cafes is really affordable (plus it’s the best beer in Europe) and AirBnB choices were incredibly cheap and beautiful)
Paris – reasonable
Toulouse – reasonable
French Basque Country – reasonable
San Sebastian – expensive (costs are very similar to Dubrovnik, but excellent tapas and one of the world’s best beaches make this place seem more worth it in comparison)
A Plea for More Comments on Our Blog
We’d be really interested to know what other methods people have of evaluating how expensive a place is and also how your findings might relate to ours, so please be sure to share! (Please just don’t start with “I have a friend who . . .”)
The Section For Those Who Scrolled Through All Those Parts With Words