New York: The World’s Greatest Rip Off?

Lately, one of my favorite things to do is to ask people to guess how much I paid for various pieces of my upcoming trip. For example: An eight-day safari through South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe, including overland travel, meals and accommodations. How much?

Did you guess $1000? $2000?

Well you’re wrong. It’s $693. Check it out. And yes, the tour company has great reviews, even if their name is a little basic. Glamping is glamping, after all.

Perhaps their package sounds like a steal to me since I’ve been living in New York for the better part of a decade and have come to expect a high cost of living.

I mean, if we want to keep playing the game, how much do you think I paid for a cup of orange-cranberry tea on Sunday?

The answer is $4.85. And that’s for a 12oz to-go cup from DAVIDsTEA, not a little pot at a tea house or something. It happened to be really good tea and I enjoyed it, but it was expensive. Eight years in and I still get sticker shock over just about everything this city serves in a cup.

If planning this trip has proved one thing to me, it’s that New York can be a real rip off. In this city, we pay too much for everything: the homes we live in, the food we eat, the clothes we wear. Lots of places are expensive, but in New York, there’s no way around it.

In fact, I don’t think I’d have that hard of a time spending $693 on a single weekend trip to New York. Once you factor in a hotel reservation, dinner, and a  few drinks – you’re all but at the limit.

Don’t believe me? The New York Times published one of its Frugal Traveler columns for New York and gave sample day trip itineraries for $100 and $1000 – neither of which included a hotel stay. With the exception of a $300 guided art tour, the “high” option didn’t seem so outrageous to me. (Oddly, it was the “low” option and the writer’s suggestion to eat a “small piece of pungent cheese” and pâté de champagne” for lunch that gave me pause. Seth Kugel, ever heard of pizza? It’s cheap and you can get it lots of places, like under a bridge.)

Is living in New York worth it? Sometimes.

Every year, I go to see the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater – usually several times, actually, during their four weeks of performances over the holidays. I pay, on average, $35 for a two-hour showing of some of the best dancing in the world. It’s always worth it – and the fact that I can hop on the subway and see that show or one like it any night of the week is why I’m willing to pay so much to live here.

That’s the upside.

But then, there are plenty of ways to get swindled in this city too. Earlier this fall, I went to a women’s leadership conference – a privilege my employer paid nearly $1600 for. Perhaps the most helpful piece of advice I learned during the two-day event was to thank junior staff more, as several speakers claimed that simple act holds real value – sometimes even more than a raise or promotion.

I certainly wouldn’t settle for that – but I took the panelists at their word and decided to ask around. Later that evening, when a friend explained why she recently turned down a low-paying job in the field she was interested in for a much higher-paying consulting job that didn’t exactly excite her, I asked, “What about if the low-paying place were willing to say thank you on a regular basis? Would that have changed your mind?”

She stopped what she was doing and crooked her finger at me. “Come here,” she said. “I want to slap you.”

So there you have it – $1600 for a pretty sad boxed lunch and a piece of advice that almost got me slapped in the face. It seems fitting that it comes from a city that always had a reputation for breaking the already broke.

Here’s the thing: Even I will admit that New York is a city unlike any other. But even if it’s not exactly a waste, it’s definitely a rip off. Or at least that’s what I’m thinking as I plan my trip.

I’ll let you know how I feel about it in March. I’ll let you know from my tent in Botswana.

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