“Oh my God– that’s so cheap,” my new friend exclaimed as the vendor gave us the total and passed the pad thai dish she had just spent five minutes expertly preparing for us.
While I’m also guilty of describing food this way, the more time I’ve spent on the road, the more the word “cheap” has begun to bother me.
Yes, paying $1 for delicious, authentic local food can seem cheap, especially when, back home, you’re used to paying $8 or more for a lower-quality dish with the same name.
But oftentimes, cheap denotes quality, not value. And what’s cheap for those of us who benefit from spending time in countries with weaker currencies than our own is often not cheap for locals.
Imagine how a vendor feels when every third foreigner they serve calls their products cheap?
How many times do they need to hear how cheap their food is before they decide they should raise their prices?
And this brings me to the two-tiered pricing system. I often discover there are two sets of prices, one for locals, and another for foreigners.
Sometimes it’s subtle. I’ll notice how much the local guy gets back in change and then realize I was given less for the same transaction.
Other times, it’s not subtle at all. Museums and national parks may have two prices quoted on their entrance signs–one for foreigners and another for locals.
In Chiang Mai, Thailand, for example, a large network of red trucks work the city, serving as shared taxis. You flag one down that’s headed in the direction you want to go, hop in the back with others also headed in that general vicinity, and pay 20 baht (.55 USD) when you arrive.
Oftentimes, when I flag down a red truck and tell him where I’m headed, the driver will quote me a price that can be as much as 10 times the normal one. “No, I live here. It’s 20 baht,” I say. Generally, they say okay and I jump in the back and go. They will rarely refuse to take you unless you pay more.
How many times do you think drivers listened to foreigners gushing about how cheap it was before they decided they needed to raise their prices?
This two tier system is something I’m still working on myself. To be honest, it’s taken a bit of reprogramming. I cannot imagine if we tried to institute the same system back home in the United States, where I’m from. People would call it racist or assume they were being profiled if they were asked to proof of citizenship in order to avoid paying more to receive the same.
But in some ways I do understand the concept being that foreigners generally have more income and can afford the difference. But that’s too much of a blanket assumption. It doesn’t take into account all scenarios.
Last summer, when I was in Lviv, Ukraine I remember constantly thinking about how cheap everything was.
This fancy steak dinner at one of the best restaurants in town was less than $9:
To me, it seemed phenomenally cheap. But then I learned that the average Lviv local person makes only $225 per month. For many of them, this meal would be an absolute splurge.
So how must the hardworking waiter feel when he brings this to the table only to hear diners remark about how “cheap” it is.
Next time you’re tempted to call something cheap, instead try saying “what a good value” or something similar. There’s a big difference between getting a lot of value out of a purchase and that purchase being cheap. And as a bonus, it just sounds less offensive.
What do you think– does this make sense or am I making too big a deal out of nothing? Let me know in the comments section below!
Travel writer and owner of the blog. My work has been featured on Fodors, Eater.com, International Living, and Great Escape Publishing, among many others. My story? Nearly six years ago, I left my job at an Oklahoma City law firm and embarked on a journey around the world. At the time, I thought I would only be gone for 6 months, but the more I traveled, the longer my bucket list became. Flashpacker describes how I travel. Rather than traveling as the normal world wise backpacker and staying in hostel dorms, I prefer a more comfortable experience, and typically stay in private rooms, take Ubers instead of taxis, and now use a suitcase instead of a backpack. Foodie, on the other hand, describes one of the key reasons why I travel. I love to pick a central “base camp” and then explore the surrounding area, really immersing myself in the culture and interacting with the people, and enjoying and exploring the food of an area is an essential part of this experience.