Arts, Culture & Media

An Expensive Burger in Australia

The Economist magazine released its list of the world's most expensive cities this week. Cracking the top 10 were two Australian cities: Sydney and Melbourne. Many in my newsroom were surprised by this. I wasn't.

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I spent two weeks in Australia last year. When I arrived, I landed in Melbourne and took a 25-minute cab ride to my hotel. I sat in the backseat and watched the meter with part horror and part fascination. At the end of the ride, the tab was $72 American dollars. (The airport web site said it would be $45 to $50, and no, I was not taken on the scenic route; I heard other similar tales of expensive cabs.)

No more taxis for me; I rented a car. It cost me $50 for overnight parking at my hotel.

I met freelance journalist Mel Campbell for coffee in Melbourne — an expensive cup of coffee — and asked her how she deals with Australia's rising prices?

"I don't know, they gradually go up, but you kind of become resigned to that."

Resigned to that? I had just paid $25 for an average burger the night before, which, to be fair, was massive.

But Campbell and I were looking at things very differently. I was paying through the nose because my American dollar only goes about half as far it did a decade ago. If she were to visit me in Boston, things would seem pretty affordable to her.

"Other country's economies being depressed is a good thing for us because now it's a national sport to see how far above the US dollar we are."

Right now, one Australian dollar gets you $1.01 in American currency. It was a big moment about 15 months ago when the Australian dollar broke the American $1 barrier.

"We're all like parity, parity," said Campbell with a laugh.

So while Campbell can enjoy a guilt-free burger in Melbourne, many American — and European and Japanese tourists — cannot.

Australian airliner QANTAS said this week that it's cutting routes to Australia from international destinations including Los Angeles and London. The company said there's been a softening of demand from foreign locations.

Still, according to the Australian government, tourism from the US, Germany and France was only modestly off last year.

"A lot of our visitors don't know how much the Australian dollar is worth before they come," said Karl Flowers, who has worked in the Australian tourism industry for 22 years. But he says once tourists arrive, they adapt.

"They might still come to Australia, but they might not stay as long. Or they might downgrade their accommodation or the amount of shopping they do."

The Chinese aren't worried about Australia's high prices though: Tourism from China was up 20 percent last year.

For the cost conscious who still want to take in Australia's splendor, I asked Flowers: How do you get around paying $50 for a parking spot or $25 for a burger?

"Those sort of stories exist. And I think it's the nature of the savvy consumer, the people who are here and travel independently. If they're here for a short period, it's tough to find out some of the secret tricks that Australians use to minimize their spending."

I get it, I'm not savvy.

Flowers added that a lot of people sign up for package tours, so they can avoid the hassles of things like parking and cabs.

Flowers also gave me some insider tips. For starters, he took me to the BBQ King, a restaurant in Sydney's Chinatown that didn't look so appetizing from the outside. But it was reasonably priced and the food was fantastic.

I also ditched my rental car and started taking trains, trams, and buses, which are excellent by the way.

Still, even if you dump your rental car, Australia still isn't cheap. Even for the locals.

Sociologist Bob Birrell at Monash University in Melbourne said consider housing in Australia's major cities.

"Prices have reached the point where they're no longer affordable for the average, aspiring first-home buyer and that is seen as a major threat to life as we understand it in Australia."

Australian's are paying for their prosperity in other ways too.

"I think Australia has always has this reputation of being a laid back kind of county that values leisure time. But paradoxically, we work insane hours," said Mel Campbell. "So, we have, on the one hand, a culture that suggests that we should be going to the beach, playing football, what-have-you. But what we're actually doing is we're working like dogs."

Though, a recent study suggests that Americans still work longer hours. So do a lot of people from other countries.

And the problems in Australia — adapting to a new life of riches — that's a problem that most of us would love to have. And as a tourist, you do pay a lot, but Australia is still a pretty fantastic place to visit. Just don't rent a car. Or park that car. Or order a burger. Or order a coffee. Or….