Route planning: Start in expensive places and move to cheaper ones for these reasons

One of the main goals of Price of Travel is to give users a way to compare destinations by typical costs in each one. The most obvious use of this information is to be able to choose cheaper cities over more expensive ones, all else being equal. But a less obvious use for the data is to help you plan the order of the cities you’ve decided to visit.

For example, you might plan on visiting LondonParisMunich, and Berlin. Or you might be planning on visiting SaigonSiem ReapBangkok, and Kuala Lumpur, or even SydneyMelbourneAuckland, and Queenstown. I’ve done all of these trips, and many others around the world, and one pretty major thing I’ve realized is that it’s better to start off in the more expensive cities, and then move into the cheaper ones. If you do it the other way around, you’ll face some psychological obstacles and maybe even some real problems. Here’s why.

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Why it's better to move from expensive cities to cheaper cities

If you are visiting two or more destinations on one trip, it’s almost always possible to start and end in either one. This might not apply to everyone, but these are points to at least consider if you are deciding.

It’s good to start out with the shock of the highest prices, and things keep getting better

If you are the sort of person who never pays attention to prices, you probably don’t read this website, or you are the type who unexpectedly keeps going broke. For the rest of us, we all have something economists call an “anchor price” for common things. In your world at home, a restaurant lunch might cost around US$10, a movie around US$12, a pint of beer in a bar around US$5, and so on.

Starting in an expensive city, like ZurichOslo, or Stockholm, will be a bit of a shock, like when you find out the cheapest metro or bus ride in Oslo is over US$5 and a beer is US$9, but from then on it’ll feel better. You’ll quickly get used to the higher prices and then when you move to a cheaper city you will feel like you got a little richer. Doing it the other way makes each new move frustrating.

It’s easier to stay within your overall budget doing cheap cities last

Most people at least have a figure in mind for a trip budget, if not a maximum amount set in stone. Let’s say you have a 3-week trip where you want to spend US$2,000 total, or around US$100 per day at most. If you start in a city like London, where every little thing seems weirdly expensive, you’ll struggle a bit to keep within your goal. But then it gets easier and easier, and you might even be able to live it up near the end.

However, if you start in a cheap city like Budapest, you’ll probably still spend too much in the beginning, and by the time you get to London you’ll be thinking about sleeping in parks and eating ketchup soup just so you can still pay for the tube to the airport on your way home. It’s just plain frustrating when you are running out of money in a place where everything is already pricey.

The more expensive cities are generally more interesting anyway

There are a few exceptions, like the aforementioned Oslo, Stockholm, and Zurich, but generally the most expensive cities in any region are also the most interesting and have the most to offer travelers. Even though I love to go to cheaper cities and feel a bit rich, I recommend first-time travelers to Europe head to the 5 great cities, even though they are among the most expensive.

Let’s say you are planning on flying into London or Paris or New York City or Tokyo, and then touring around the country from there. You really owe it to yourself to start in the largest (and most expensive) city to soak in the highlights first, and you might love it and want to stay longer, or hate it and want to move on quickly. In either case, it’s better to know how you feel at the beginning rather than just before you are flying home anyway.

It can be very fun to live like a big shot at the end in the cheap cities

Let’s say you prefer to stay in hostel dorm beds, and have at least a few beers every evening of your trip. In Paris, even a 14-bunk room will cost €25 per night, and a bottle of beer will cost €5 or more in most bars. Most people in this situation will freak out a bit and do things like buying beer or wine in a corner store and getting drunk with fellow tourists instead of actually hanging out in Paris. That can be fun too, but it’s not why you go to Paris.

But on the same trip, your last stop is Budapest, where dorm beds are so cheap that your small group can afford a private room for the same price. And you can get a half liter of beer in any of the great ruin pubs for around €1.50. Instead of hiding in the hostel, you can even afford to buy drinks for friends and locals because everything feels so cheap. It’s a much more appealing way to end a trip than having to live on ramen noodles from the hostel kitchen in Paris on your last day.

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  1. Kieran says:

    Yep, I can vouch for the impact having been on the receiving end recently: Started in Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia – ended in Singapore and New Zealand.

    Odd the effect it has on you: You end up having a worse time in the latter stages, primarily because you end up obsessing over what you can’t have that you had before (I can’t have huge amounts of beer, do so many adventure activities, stay in such great value accommodation), rather than enjoying yourself.

    I can imagine how much better you would feel to arrive in Vietnam from travelling through NZ. The initial stages would be expensive, but you wouldn’t be obsessing so much, and would also get more in the budget mindset. Fast forward to the end, and all of a sudden the ability to splurge would feel twice as nice.

    Still, my next trip is through South America and starts in Argentina and Brazil, before Bolivia and Peru – the right way to do it!