TripAdvisor has just published its list of the ten most expensive tourist cities in the world. I was surprised to see that Geneva didn’t rate. I’ve just been there and found it to be horrendously expensive (I nearly choked on my €20 basic chicken salad and drank every dredge of my €5 coffee).
It’s the first city I’ve been to where hotel rooms are cheaper at the weekend than mid-week; the city is a global business and policy-making hub. The UN was buzzing all week, but on Saturday, the only peacocks visible at the Palais des Nations were the feathered kind.
Had I been travelling from London, or even Ireland, perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed how extortionately priced everything is, but coming from Hungary, it was a really loud cha-ching!
I was with a group from the Pacific Islands, many of whom were in Europe for the first time. Imagine my shock and quadruple it to get even a semblance of the beating their wallets were taking. They asked about living in Budapest, whether it was as expensive as Geneva, and not for the first time I found myself talking about the relatively inexpensive cost of living I enjoy. (The operative word here is ‘relatively’.)
Expats in Hungary have a standard of living many couldn’t ever hope to have at home. The lucky ones on expat packages can live well, very well. Those with local-employment status don’t do so badly either. Even those freelancing and invoicing externally do well enough. If you know the city and know where to go, your forints can go a long way.
Yes, there are restaurants where the cost of dinner for two would pay for a flash weekend in Bucharest. There are bars where you could have a three-course meal in Skopje for the price of a cocktail. There are shops where just one outfit would set you back the equivalent of three month’s groceries. But all in all, we have little to complain about.
At Keleti recently, arriving by train from Bratislava, I overheard a taxi driver bargaining with a couple of tourists heading for the Marriott. They thought they were getting a good deal at €20. A straight run down Rácóczi and then right? I’d have thought €5-7 would be more like it and I said as much. But they were on holiday, they said, and they had the money to spend. I was torn between a quiet admiration for the driver who got them to stump up that sort of money and a somewhat louder disgust that, regardless of how much money they were toting around and how eager they were to part with it, they were being ripped off.
When I first arrived in town, I suspected there was some sort of Hungarian language tax – if you didn’t speak it, you were a foreigner. If you were a foreigner, you had money. If you had money, you were charged more. I preferred the idea of a language tax to facing the fact that I was getting the sort of preferential treatment I could have done without. Years later, there are still transactions in which I enlist the help of Hungarian friends rather than pay the ‘special’ rate for something or other. But these days, I’m a little savvier.
I noticed in a taxi the other day that I was showing on the meter as a külföldi (a foreigner) but now if I’m taken for a ride, I know I’ve no one to blame but myself.
First published in the Budapest Times 27 June 2014