Editor’s Note – I’m leaving this post up to show how much difference a year can make. Thanks to a financial crisis, prices have dropped by more than half again from what you see here. Check the update: Argentina’s Cheap/Not Cheap Travel Light Has Turned Green Again.
It only took me a week and a half in Argentina to realize the glory days of cheap travel in that country are gone. Until the next crisis anyway. If you’re a mid-range or upper crust traveler, this South American country still feels like a good value overall. The further down you go on the budget scale, however, the more it is diverging from the cheaper travel spots on the continent.
Argentina has been an on again, off again, on again chapter in various editions of my book The World’s Cheapest Destinations. That’s because when there’s a financial crisis going on—which is frequent—then the local currency falls in value and everything feels like a bargain. During the last administration there were actually multiple exchange rates, with a wide gap between the highest official one and the lowest street one. Then when there’s a recovery, inflation and currency value both rise, leading to much higher prices.
With a government in place that actually seems to want to govern instead of just enriching themselves, we’re in the latter phase and the travel bargains are gone. To translate the prices in photos into your currency, use 23 to the peso if you’re British, 20 if you’re thinking in euros, 17 to the peso if you’re American, or 14 if you’re Canadian. (As of late October, 2017. Check XE.com for the latest.) There are a few areas that still seem like a good deal, including mid-range hotels, non-B.A. taxi rides, and wine, but overall prices have moved much closer to what you would spend in the USA or Europe. It is no longer one of the cheapest places to live in the world, or even South America.
This was echoed by a business owner from Italy and one from the USA I met that were going back and forth a lot. Argentina has become a much better place to do business since Mauricio Macri took office and a lot of short-sighted decisions that hobbled the economy (like import restrictions) went out the window immediately. There’s only one exchange rate now, which is the real market rate. When an economy starts getting its act together though, it starts regressing to the mean, which means prices adjust to get closer to international norms.
What Argentina Will Cost You Now
This country took a big leap forward when this administration ditched the reciprocal visa fee that had suppressed tourism numbers for years. As with Chile, as soon as they dropped the hefty visa fee the number of visitors started to climb.
On the flip side, it’s never cheap to fly to Argentina. It’s even more expensive to get around within the country. That’s because Aerolineas Argentinas has a monopoly on many routes—for now. We’re keeping a hopeful eye on FlyBondi, which has $75 million of investment behind it and has purchased four planes. It hopes to be flying 28 planes to dozens of destinations by 2021.
For now though, prepare for high flight prices to and within Argentina. The best deal I could find for six weeks from now on Skyscanner was $730 round-trip from Miami to Buenos Aires. Calafate wasn’t much more, so it might make sense to head to Patagonia one way and work your way back up. Unfortunately, prices from New York, Toronto, and Los Angeles frequently top $1,000. Try Vayama too though because sometimes they’re best at turning up multi-airline deals. This is a route where you should try to cash in frequent flyer miles if you can. I ended up doing that on Delta for its Argentine partner. That was a good use of mileage as it equated to more than 2.5 cents per mile on the redemption: I went all the way to Salta and back from Florida.
If you don’t fly, you face some very long bus rides in this skinny country. The trip from Buenos Aires to Bariloche, for instance, usually takes 21 to 24 hours. That’s one night you won’t pay for lodging, but that doesn’t mean you’re saving a lot: tickets run from $50 to $120 depending on comfort level and departure day. The top-priced ones have a lie-flat bed seat.
The best bargains when I first visited 11 years ago were consumption oriented, especially a steak dinner with red wine. That combo is still a better deal than in the USA, partly because both main ingredients are so good, but it’s not something you do routinely on a backpacker budget any more. I’ve posted various food price signs around this post that will give you an idea of typical prices.
Many items are still half or at least one-third less than what they would cost in the USA, but now they’re exceptions rather than the rule: a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, a beer in a bar or restaurant. Baked goods are mostly a good deal and that includes a plate of the main dish up north: empanadas.
Hotel Prices in Argentina
Many factors can impact hotel prices, but their own labor costs and the occupancy levels are the two main ones. Both have been going up each year, so it’s much harder to find a hotel bargain now than it used to be. The more competitive the market though, the easier it is to find a good value. So the best deals are actually in Buenos Aires, where hundreds of hotels are fighting it out for guests. The real sweet spot is in the $60 to $125 range, where you can get a really nice room in a good location.
This is a place where it’s a lot better to pair up on a hotel room than to pay for a hostel bed. Hostels typically cost $14 – $25 for a dorm bed, so you’re better off doubling up with someone to get a room to yourself with some space.
If you avoid the highest-end luxe places, which can top $400, you can find some surprisingly good rates by poking around. The luxury boutique hotel Casa Sur Palermo was going for $149 double with breakfast on Expedia for a mid-December weekend night when I looked. Or if you use the site Bonwi.com instead, you can get a good deal but also earn enough loyalty points back for another stay somewhere else. A search in Salta in mid-December turned up three hotels under $100 that would earn you 2K to 3K points per night—worth a penny a point to cash in. That’s a 20-30% rebate.
Other Travel Prices in Argentina
There were a few things here and there where I said, “Well, that was a pretty good deal.” I took a few taxi rides in two cities. The worst was $20 from the airport in Buenos Aires to my hotel, but it was a 20-minute trip at a good clip without traffic. The ones I took in Salta ranged from $4.50 to $8.
Wine is still a bargain in Argentina and if you’ve perused the shelves of your local store, that’s probably no surprise. Production keeps increasing each year, so even though they’re exporting a lot of it, there’s plenty to go around. You can get a surprisingly great bottle of wine locally in Argentina for $10 or less in a store. The restaurant patrons consider it a God-given right to drink wine with dinner, so the mark-up is closer to double the retail price instead of the scandalous three to five times you routinely find in the USA or Canada.
Some consumer staples carry a low price if you’re doing your own cooking. This includes rice, bread, beans, fruit, and seasonal vegetables. You can get a kilo of potatoes, oranges, or rice for a buck or less.
Admission prices are generally low, but you’re going to get milked on the big ones. Two friends of mine spent $300 in one day doing a hike and sightseeing boat trip by the Perito Moreno Glacier near Calafate—and they took the public bus there from town.
I’m in the process of re-interviewing expats I quoted in my book on cheap living abroad, but so far the ones earning their living in dollars or euros haven’t felt much of a pinch. Rent is still relatively cheap (Numbeo says 64% less than the average in the USA) and health care is usually free or close to it. If you’re an American, that alone removes 20% of your monthly costs if you’re self-employed. Utilities are creeping up as subsidies are removed, but they’re still low compared to most developed countries.
I don’t expect prices to rise too much from this level in the near future. The average salary in Argentina is less than $1,000 a month and if you’re making more than $3,000 you’re doing very well. There’s a limit to how much prices can rise for food and services before there’s a revolt. And if that happens there will be another financial crisis. And we’ll start this whole cycle over again…
The verdict? Still a fantastic place to visit no matter what and if you’re on a vacation budget, it’s still a good value overall. If you’re a backpacker, however, you’ll need to find some ways to shave your costs and avoid moving around the country quickly. You may want to check into housesitting.