Sunday, 8 March 2009

The Amazing Race 14, Episode 4

Bran (Romania) - Moscow (Russia) - Krasnoyarsk (Russia)

Sometimes you find yourself — most often because it’s on the way to somewhere else — in a place where there are no tourists and there is nothing particularly “touristic” to do. Like, say, Krasnoyarsk.

Unlike most travel agents, I’ve actually sold a few tickets to Krasnoyarsk, back in the days when I worked for a travel agency specializing in that part of the world. Until Aeroflot discontinued all its trans-Pacific services, you used to be able to get there from the USA via Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East. But that’s no longer possible without multiple connections, and this week the teams in The Amazing Race 14 were all required to fly through Moscow. Michael and Mark got to Krasnoyarsk without enough money left to pay their taxi, presumably because they had been fleeced by the Moscow taxi mafia for the cost of the transfer between airports in Moscow, as has happened several times in previous seasons of “The Amazing Race”. I’ve often defended Aeroflot, but Sheremetyevo Airport really has no competition for the title of the world’s most deservedly unpopular airport.

Why Krasnoyarsk? Pacific Environment (IMHO the most bang for your donation buck of any environmental organization in the USA, through their underwriting of indigenous grassroots activists at local wages in preference to higher-paid expats) had some of their Russia Program staff based in Krasnoyarsk. Krasnoyarsk is also on the way to Tuva, which draws a steady trickle of visits from foreign friends .

Direct flights from Moscow to the Tuvan capital, Kyzyl, have been an infrequent and on-again, off-again affair, while there are more consistent local flights from Krasnoyarsk. The railway toward Tuva branches off from the trans-Siberian main line at Krasnoyarsk, and I’ve been told by clients that the ride from Krasnoyarsk to Kyzyl through the Altai Mountains by road and rail via Abakan is extremely scenic.

But Tuvan throat-singing is too difficult for a beginner to be a fair challenge for contestants on The Amazing Race . I can’t remember a tourist ever asking me to send them to Krasnoyarsk for its own sake. And I haven’t heard of any reason you would particularly want to go there as a tourist, either — other than perhaps the dam and hydroelectric generator station visited by the racers, if you are interested in engineering and infrastructure tourism.

So let’s leave the racers asleep in Siberia, resting from their labor stacking cords of firewood, and consider where they’ve been until now in this season of the race: western Europe, western Europe, European Russia, and finally now Asiatic Russia.

Normally, I’d be griping about why the racers were spending so much time in Europe or Russia. Not this year. If you’ve been thinking about going to Europe, but you’ve been putting it off purely on account of price, now’s the time to get up and go.

The Second, Third, and Fourth Worlds — central and eastern Europe and most of Asia, Africa, and Latin America — are still generally cheaper than Western Europe or the rest of the First World. But the price difference is less right now than it has been in many, many years.

Who are all these people selling their Pounds, Euros, and Swiss Francs to buy U.S. Dollars, and why? I don’t know. I’m a travel advisor, not an investment advisor or currency speculator. But look at these figures:

Most people don’t follow relative exchange rate trends in multiple currencies. To make some crude comparisons easier for you, here’s how much the same amount of local currency that would have cost you 1 U.S. Dollar (USD) nine months ago, near the trough of value for the USD last June, would cost you today, in rank order of how much these currencies have fallen:

KRW$0.66South Korea
NZD$0.66New Zealand
GBP$0.72United Kingdom
ZAR$0.76South Africa
XOF$0.80West African Franc (CFA)
XAF$0.80Central African Franc (CFA)

What does this mean? (Again, these are the costs today of what would have cost US$1.00 nine months ago in June 2008, assuming that prices in local currency haven’t changed.)

I don’t think there has been such a sweeping and substantial decline of other currencies against the U.S. Dollar (USD) in at least 20 years. Most of these currencies are not only down substantially, but still declining against the USD.

Just about the only currency of a major tourist destination against which the USD has declined significantly is the Japanese Yen (JPY). This isn’t the year to go to Japan. Consider China or South Korea instead if you want to visit that part of the world right now.

But currency fluctuations alone don’t tell the whole story, depending on how expensive different destinations were in the first place.

Russia, South Korea, Brazil, Mexico, and Turkey — “developing” countries that had become almost as expensive as the USA — are now good values again. Not dirt cheap, but a bargain compared to the USA. Chile, South Africa, and Argentina are similar, although not to the same degree because their currencies haven’t fallen nearly as much. The same goes for most of central and eastern Europe, although I haven’t listed those currencies.

New Zealand, Australia, and Canada — First World countries which had actually gotten somewhat more expensive than the USA — are once again the relative bargains they have been for most of the last decade or two.

Indonesia — one of the best values of all Third World destinations — and to a lesser extent India, were already cheap and are now cheaper, at least if you don’t demand First World physical infrastructure.

But the real standouts on this list are the places that were previously most expensive, where the same percentage fall in the value of the currency makes the most difference in absolute cost. That means first and foremost the United Kingdom, followed by the Euro and the rest of Western Europe. I haven’t listed the other Western European currencies, but most of them would fall between the British Pound (“Sterling”) and the Euro on this list.

There hasn’t been a more affordable time for people from the USA to visit the UK in 20 years years. If you’ve been putting it off, go now. I’m planning my own trip to the UK next month, and I’ll talk more in future articles about how and where to find the bargains.

Places where prices for foreign tourists are typically quoted in or based on Euros (such as much of North, West, and Central Africa) or South African Rands (throughout southern Africa) are likely to offer better value at the moment than those where hard-currency prices are more likely to be based on U.S. Dollars (such as much of the Caribbean and Central America). In East Africa and the Middle East, prices are sometimes based on Euros and sometimes on U.S. Dollars, so bargains based on exchange rates are likely to be spottier and more limited.

The big travel bargain hidden by a stable exchange rate is still China. The Chinese government has kept the Yuan (CNY) level against the USD, but prices for tourist services in China, especially hotels, have plunged because of a combination of factors including over-building of hotels in anticipation of Olympic crowds, visa crackdowns that kept those crowds away, and the shock to the Chinese economy of cutbacks in exports as a result of economic problems in the USA and Europe. I don’t know if there is anywhere else in the world where you get so much for US$50 per night in a hotel room even in the largest cities.

My crystal ball hasn’t been working well lately, but I expect these general trends in value to hold through this summer.

Bon voyage!

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 8 March 2009, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Great info on the exchange rates. Where would the Icelandic Kroner (ISK), Hungarian Florint (HUF) and Latvian Lat (LVL) rank in this list? From my understanding, those are the three most devalued European currencies over the last year.

Posted by: Mateo, 10 March 2009, 10:40 (10:40 AM)

By request, I've added a few more currencies, including the HUF, ROL, and ISK which I had mentioned last week. The ISK has rebounded some from its low -- it's still the Western European currency that has fallen the most against the USD, but no more than the AUD or NZD. I left out Latvia because it's a very small country, but the LVL has been on par with the Euro -- it would be at $0.80 compared to 9 months ago if it were on this list.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 10 March 2009, 11:45 (11:45 AM)

I would love to be able to access some sort of online calculator that can create a list of recently declined currencies such as the one you posted. Does such a thing exist? Or did you do all these calculations by hand?



Posted by: Sam, 10 September 2009, 16:04 ( 4:04 PM)

I don't know of a site intended for travellers that will track and send alerts on declines of foriegn currencies against the USD (or whatever your "home" currency is). There are probably tools that will perform that function that are intended for currency speculators -- if someone knows a good one, please post it in a comment.

To calculate the changes in exchange rates over time, I used the historical rates from

For current rates on my own computer, I use a simple freeware program called Currency Converter 2:

With it, I can download updated exchange rates in a few seconds for pretty much every currency in any country I've ever been or might go (from a reference file maintained by the University of British Columbia), and then have conversions available on my computer even when I'm offline. It's a nice little widget to keep open while I'm, say, browsing hotel or train ticket prices from different sources that quote them in different currencies. It's a Windows app, but it runs fine in Wine in Ubuntu or on my Linux EEE-PC.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 10 September 2009, 16:26 ( 4:26 PM)
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