Wallet-Draining Cities

Whether or not there’s such a thing as a free lunch, you’re less likely to find one in Tokyo, Oslo or Luanda, Angola — the top three places on ECA International’s 2010 list of the world’s most expensive cities.

Tokyo, which moved up from second on ECA’s 2009 compilation, commands $17.86 on average for lunch, $22 for a movie ticket and $8.47 for a kilogram of rice. Lunch in Japan’s largest city, however, is a bargain compared to Oslo, where an average mid-day meal costs a staggering $43.

The rankings by ECA, a human resources consulting firm, take into account the average prices for 128 goods, including food, clothing, electronics and entertainment, but exclusive of rent, utilities and school tuition.

ECA’s Top 50 includes well-known capitals of consumption like Geneva, which ranked 9th;  Paris, which came in 16th;  Manhattan, which placed 29th, and Hong Kong, which was 34th.

But the Top 10 includes surprises like Luanda, the capital of Angola, where it costs $912 to buy a washing machine, and No. 6 Stavanger, Norway, a small coastal city where a can of beer goes for $4.76 at a grocery store and a dozen eggs run $6.34. Tel Aviv (No. 19), Sydney (No. 30) and Athens (No. 50) also made the list.

Other cities showed big jumps in their costs of living: Seoul zoomed up from 102nd last year to 20th, Moscow moved from 29th to 15th and Rio de Janeiro went from 132nd to 28th.

Some places actually got more affordable: No. 29 Manhattan ranked 18th last year, and this year New York City as a whole almost fell out of the Top 50, sliding from 32nd to 48th. Meanwhile, Honolulu went from 25th to 41th and Shanghai from 28th to 46th.

Still, these types of rankings only go so far in helping to budget for travel. As former New York Times Frugal Traveler columnist Matt Gross told me in a previous post, if you do your research you can find cheap eats and other good deals in every city.

“I’ve just a living, breathing, sweating Googler,” he says. “I’m just a porthole to Google. That’s how I find everything.”

Indeed, some of my favorite things to do in cities on ECA’s list are gratis or nearly so, whether it’s wandering Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a donation is requested but there is no set admission price; enjoying great people-watching and harbor views for no charge outside the Sydney Opera House; or savoring a bratwurst and beer for $10 at the al fresco Sternen Grill in Zurich.

There certainly are times when the best things in life justify a splurge, and others when cheap or even better — free — will do just fine.