Cheap or Costly Destinations? The 2017 Mercer Cost of Living Survey

The Ten Most Expensive Expat Towns Worldwide

In the top 10 of the 23rd Mercer Cost of Living survey, there’s hardly anything new under the sun. Eight out of ten cities were also featured among last year’s ten most expensive expatriate destinations worldwide.

Rather unsurprisingly, the highest living expenses for expat executives are due in Luanda, the capital of resource-rich Angola. The country is still suffering from the lack of proper infrastructure after a protracted civil war (1975–2002) and needs to import most of its consumer goods.

Luanda is followed by the “usual suspects”: Hong Kong, Tokyo, Zurich, Singapore, Seoul, Geneva, Shanghai, New York City, and Bern. Basically, it’s Swiss cities and East Asian metropolises all over again. Even Seoul and NYC, the only destinations not to appear in the 2016 top 10, were listed among the 15 costliest cities last year.

No matter whether you are longing for a view of Lake Zurich and the Alps, of brightly lit Tokyo Tower at dusk, or the Manhattan skyline — you’ll have to dig deep into your pockets. But what about those expats who aren’t among Mercer’s target audience of high-ranking (and highly paid) corporate assignees from the US?

We’ve tried to find cheap(ish) alternatives to some of Mercer’s most popular and most expensive expat destinations.

Europe: False vs Genuine Alternatives

At first glance, fans of hygge (Danish-style coziness), fika (Swedish coffee-breaks), and friluftsliv (Norway’s outdoor life) might have good reason to rejoice: all three (in)famously expensive capitals have dropped between 4 and 22 ranks in the Mercer listing.

However, Copenhagen (#28) is still ahead of London (#30) when it comes to cost of living. Even Stockholm (#106) is not the promising alternative it might seem. The Swedish capital is going through a horrible housing shortage, with the BBC reporting that the average waiting time for a rent-controlled apartment is nine years.

So might Germany — with Munich now ranking 98th and Berlin coming on 120th place out of 209 — be a good alternative to the Scandinavian (non-)alternative? The German answer would be a resounding Jein (yes and no).

The drop of German cities in the Mercer Cost of Living survey points out one of the study’s biggest weaknesses: its reliance on the US dollar to make global prices comparable. Therefore, the Mercer results are subject to currency fluctuations — like the weakening of the Euro vs. the US dollar.

As every resident of Munich or Berlin may attest, grumbling about rising expenses (especially rents) is a favorite small talk topic. If you want a genuinely less costly alternative, you’ll have to move further down the ranks — to Nuremberg (#168), for example.

While the second-largest city in Bavaria has an above-average unemployment rate, partly owing to closures in manufacturing and consumer goods, Nuremberg’s service sector is booming in fields like market research, new media, or trade fairs. Also, let’s not forget about Germany’s most famous Christmas market and the original Lebkuchen (gingerbread)!

The US: Hipsters or Southerners?

Obviously, there’s one country immune to the survey’s currency fluctuations: the US itself. Its major cities span a wide range of rankings on the 2017 Mercer listing: from expensive NYC (#9) to Dallas (#62) to Portland, Oregon (#115) and Winston Salem, North Carolina (#140). For an affordable expat life in the US, it seems you have to really like hipster clichés (see the TV show Portlandia) or the humid subtropical climate of NC’s Piedmont Triad region.

However, it is Portland’s claim to fame for craft beers and gourmet food trucks, art galleries and avid cyclists, that has led to a loss in charm as well as affordability. ‘Gentrification’ instead of ‘coffee culture’ is the new buzzword. If you’d like to move there, you’d better move fast. With the influx of those who can’t afford San Francisco or Seattle anymore, local prices are rising. And rising…

If you are willing to trade in vegan cupcakes for Krispy Kreme (TM) donuts, you might want to consider the less costly Winston Salem (where the HQ of said coffeehouse chain is located). Traditionally associated with textiles and tobacco, the city is trying to focus more on future growth sectors, like high-tech and nano technology, bio-tech and medical technology. Speaking of the medical field: Jobs in healthcare and social assistance account for nearly three out of ten employees in town.

Oh, and Winston Salem is also nicknamed “City of the Arts”, boasting its own arts conservatory and gallery district. Take that, Portland.

From Cambodia to Colombia: For Entrepreneurs — and Retirees

If you are more the globetrotting type, you might find the destinations discussed so far a bit bland. Further down the list from Portland, you’ll find various (relatively) affordable destinations, from Cambodia to Colombia.

On 115th place, Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, ties with the hipster capital of Oregon. Described by the BBC as having “room for dizzying growth”, the city has profited from Cambodia’s slow transition from an impoverished developing economy to lower middle-income status.

Phnom Penh doesn’t only attract diplomatic, IGO, and NGO staff nowadays, but also investors and entrepreneurs looking for their latest venture. A sneak peek of the hitherto unpublished Expat Insider 2017 results reveals: our respondents tend to agree with Mercer, and Cambodia in general does really well for cost of living.

Colombia is well known for attracting more and more North American retirees: CNN Money chose Medellin as one of its ten best places to retired abroad in 2017. Its capital Bogotá lands on 153th place out of 209 locations in this year’s Mercer Cost of Living list.

However, crime remains a major problem: kidnappings and fights between armed groups are still a risk in the countryside; in major cities, property crime is frequent, and there are some neighborhoods where you’d rather not go alone or after dark.

If you are very safety-conscious, Colombia might not be the place for you. If you can live with adjusting your lifestyle to some risks, you’ll meet some of the friendliest people in the whole world!

(Image credit: iStockphoto)

Midsummer Magic: The Best Music Festivals for Your Summer Vacation

World Music Day (La Fête de la Musique), a free “Make Music Day” type of festival celebrated especially in France’s streets on Midsummer Day every year, has inspired us to look for the biggest and loudest, the most renowned and most sophisticated summer festivals around the globe.

No matter if you prefer classical or early music, pop and rock or jazz — perhaps this post helps inspire some spontaneous folks to change their vacation schedule for the next few months and enjoy what is magic beyond all else: music.

For Traditionalists: The Salzburg Summer Festival

If you adore classical composers, particularly Mozart, there’s no way around attending the world’s most important festival for classical music at least once in your lifetime. Hosted annually by the picturesque Austrian city in July and August, it offers a variety of events from opera to concerts to stage plays.

Traditionally, the festival has often focused on operas by Mozart, Salzburg’s most famous son, as well as Richard Strauss. Though Mozart is still featured prominently in the matinée concerts and the obligatory performance of his Great Mass in C Minor, the festival organizers have apparently discovered their love of Baroque: in 2017, all of Claudio Monteverdi’s surviving operas will take center stage.

You prefer the spoken word to the most harmonious tune? The open-air performance of Everyman, a 20th-century take on medieval mystery and morality plays, might be worth watching. Although the allegory of the rich and selfish man saved by faith and mercy has a simple, almost naïve plot, the monumental backdrop of Salzburg Cathedral will send a shiver down the spine of even the most cynical theatergoer.

For History of Music Nerds: York Early Music Festival

If you think that the Salzburg Summer Festival should always highlight Monteverdi rather than Mozart, you might want to head to York from 7 July to 15 July. This English arts festival avoids such new-fangled composers as Beethoven or Brahms, let alone Ravel or Rachmaninoff. Instead, the venues all across town — including the glorious York Minster with its ornate stained glass windows — are mainly devoted to music from the Renaissance and Baroque eras.

This year, the festival program for the 40th anniversary includes a wide selection of period pieces, from Bach concerts to madrigals for viol and lute, from sacred choral arrangements from 15th-century Italy to worldly music from Baroque Venice.

I must admit that I’d personally have a very, very hard time to distinguish between Palestrina and Poulenc, but there’s one concert I’d dearly like to attend: in honor of the festival’s 40th birthday, they will be performing Thomas Tallis’ “Spem in Alium”, a polyphonic piece for 40 (!) different voice. Even a more or less tone-deaf person like me has almost been moved to tears by its harmonies.

For the Young and Young at Heart: Lollapalooza

I’ve noticed recently that I must be getting on in years: “glamping” (the upscale version of tent-living) sounds more attractive to me than camping. No longer do I long for the days when my parents finally allowed me to go off with friends to a festival and spend an entire weekend sunburned, dehydrated, hyperactive, sleep-deprived, mud-stained, and with ringing ears.

Wait — this sounds exactly like your idea of fun? Then you’ve got no time to lose! The famous Lollapalooza Festival has by now expanded from its original Chicago location to five different countries around the world. While the 2017 spring/autumn tours in the Southern Hemisphere — Argentina, Brazil, and Chile — are already a thing of the past, the summer concerts in Paris (22–23 July) and the US (3–6 August) still lie ahead.

You probably can’t make it and suffer from FOMO (fear of missing out) on the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Lana del Rey, Muse or Tegan and Sara? Then September is your last chance. Berlin’s main acts — The Foo Fighters and Mumford & Sons — might even lure me to the stage in Hoppegarden. Provided the area has some space for comfy “glamping” vans.

For Jazz Fans: The Festival International de Montréal

If you can afford to head off to Canada on very short notice, lovers of all things jazz should make sure to touch down in Montréal next week. From 28 June to 8 July, the capital of Québec will host its tribute to this highly versatile genre for the 38th time.

Good news for those who have splurged on a plane ticket: plenty of the 600-odd concerts are free, giving lesser-known artists the chance to perform for the large festival audience. The wide range of acts isn’t only pretty numerous, but also highly diverse in style: a tribute to Miles Davis by a veteran trumpeter; a wild electro swing group; retro-Latin-classic-pop-jazz orchestra Pink Martini; fun jazz lessons for the younger audience members, or the “flamenco meets salsa meets Arab influences meets reggae meets Western pop” world music sounds of the Gipsy Kings…

All those music fans who are also movie buffs will appreciate the chance of watching recent hit musical La La Land accompanied by a live symphony orchestra or attending a sneak preview of Django, a biopic of legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. And let’s not forget that Montréal’s vibrant nightlife is just as much the stuff of legend as the stars of 100 years of jazz history.

Save the Date! Secret Solstice Festival

Despite its name, the 2017 edition of the Secret Solstice Festival was over even before Midsummer Day. But if you are longing to experience international as well as Icelandic rock and pop acts in the glare of the midnight sun, you should be looking forward to a trip to Iceland next June.

Where else could you listen to the big stars in Valhall (one of the larger stages) and go to an after-party in Hel(l) (the venue for some post-festival fun)? Góða skemmtun!

(Image credits: iStockphoto)

InterNations in June — Summer Days and Ramadan

June is all about sharing great food and quality time with other expats and global minds. Our members in the Northern Hemisphere love to spend their time in the sun enjoying the long summer days. As temperatures are rising in some of our communities, expats are heading outside for picnics, barbecues, and beach parties.

In our Muslim communities, Ramadan plays an important role this month. Those who fast often struggle to explain the Holy Month to other non-Muslim expats and locals in their host countries. Others who live in a predominately Muslim country but don’t fast themselves may have a hard time to adjust to the changed situation.

However, above all, Ramadan is about peace and unity and what better way is there to bring people together than to share a meal with your InterNations community?

Let’s Go Outside

The InterNations community in Prague hosted a fantastic barbecue on Friday, 9 June 2017. Aside from the delicious food that all guests got to enjoy on the terrace of Napa Bar, everyone had the chance to participate in a raffle to win two tickets to Rock for People, the Czech Republic’s biggest music festival.

InterNations Copenhagen partied like they do on Miami Vice. Their beach party on Saturday, 17 June 2017, was the perfect opportunity to dress up. Attendees could take impromptu lessons from a dance instructor, enjoy delicious street food, and just spend a great day outside.

Not ready to be done with barbecues and summer picnics in the park? Fortunately, we have quite a few amazing events coming up.

The Malmö Meet and Chat Group is celebrating Midsummer in Sweden on Friday, 23 June 2017. One of the biggest celebrations throughout the year, midsummer is best observed in the city’s Folketspark, one of the oldest park’s in the world. Why don’t you wear some flowers in your hair and join the crowd?

Com Fest is a unique festival in Columbus and perfect to interact with global minds and the locals. On Friday, 23 June 2017, the InterNations community will visit this local festival to enjoy the live music and local food, and to learn more about their new home abroad.

The Raleigh Community will get together on Saturday, 8 July 2017, to observe a very American tradition: the Independence Day potluck barbecue. Expats and global minds will meet at a local lake to cool off, enjoy some water activities, and share their favorite food. Partners and kids are welcome to join the fun.

Ramadan Mubarak — Iftar and Suhoor with InterNations

On Friday, 2 June 2017, InterNations Abu Dhabi met for a delightful Iftar dinner at Horizon Restaurant. Over a free welcome drink and delicious food, expats and global minds got to enjoy a relaxed evening together.

Our community in Dhaka hosted a rather luxurious Ramadan celebration on Thursday, 8 June 2017. Expats got together at Four Points by Sheraton, which is well known for its nice ambiance and excellent food; the perfect spot for an Iftar dinner with your favorite global minds.

The Dubai Socialize without Alcohol Group used the occasion to invite their members to a Suhoor Event. For the fifth year in a row, the group celebrated at Dubai’s popular Music Hall. For Ramadan, this venue is transformed into a Majlis-style setting to celebrate the spirit, the festivities, and the traditions of this month with great food and live music.

The Ajman Local Group enjoyed a Ramadan Iftar Buffet Dinner and Cruise on Wednesday, 14 June 2017. Starting from Ajman Marina, the ship sailed to the Mangrove at Al Zorah and back, offering an impressive buffet and a great setting for spending this time together.

A truly multicultural Iftar was just the right activity for the Doha Mystery Cheap Eats Group. Members met on Wednesday, 14 June 2017, at Copacabana Restaurant for a Brazilian Churrascaria. Between Ramadan sweets and Brazilian meat dishes, the group had a fantastic Iftar dinner.


Are you attending an Iftar this month, or are you meeting your fellow global minds at a barbecue by the beach? Tell us in the comments.

Image credits: InterNations

InterNations Insider Tips: Marvel at Beautiful Muscat

InterNations Founder & Co-CEO Malte Zeeck shares his experiences in Oman, where he explored the capital city Muscat during a community visit.

The Grand Mosque: An Architectural Masterpiece

With fewer very tall high-rise buildings dotting the capital’s skyline than in, for example, the neighboring UAE, some other striking landmarks will inevitably stand out. The remarkable Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is one of them.

No wonder: While the Ladies’ Prayer Hall “only” has the capacity to hold 750 worshippers, the main musalla can accommodate up to 6,500 people.

Not only does the main hall contain a gigantic Persian prayer rug, but it also features the world’s largest chandelier. Fun fact: The latter is actually “made in Germany”, by a company based in the small town of Stockdorf near Munich — less than a 30-minute drive from the InterNations head office!

I was happy to visit the mosque in the early morning — non-Muslim visitors are allowed to enter every day (except for Friday) from 8:00 to 11:00, and the site would definitely be more crowded later on. Naturally, you are expected to dress appropriately and conservatively. For both men and women, this means long pants and covered shoulders, and women are required to cover their hair as well.

The mosque is a stunning site, with colourful patterns that run through the whole building. You can walk the grounds and gardens that stretch around it to admire the architecture from all sides.

Muttrah Souk: Be Prepared to Bargain

Thanks to Oman’s proximity to the sea and its trading routes, Muttrah Souk — one of the oldest marketplaces in the Arab world — is a beautiful symbol of the country’s past. It’s probably the most famous attraction to visit in the country, due to the array of goods they have to offer.

It’s an interesting mixture of an authentic Omani souk and a bit of a touristy market for cruise ship passengers, but it’s definitely worth a visit if you have time to browse all the souvenirs booths and local shops. The combined smell of incense burners and spices made this visit quite memorable.

Like in many souks, always make sure you’re prepared to haggle! As many shop owners increase the price for the never-ending stream of cruise tourists, you can always try for a lower price. I found that the store owners weren’t particularly pushy and were usually prepared to go down in price.

If you’re looking to taste the history of the country and have a sweet tooth, too, try some Omani halwa. This is a traditional Omani dessert made in different flavours. I got to taste the halwa with honey, and it was delicious!

Bait Al Zubair Museum: Oman’s Past

If you want to dig deeper into the rich history of Oman, make sure to visit the Bait Al Zubair Museum. It’s well within the city limits, situated in the older parts of Muscat, and you can find out all about where famous Omani traditions come from.

The collection displays Omani culture both from the past and the present, spanning entire centuries and millennia. Each building showcases a different part of the country’s cultural history, such as its famous silver and gold jewellery, historical weapons (especially the khanjar, the hand-crafted ceremonial dagger), period dress, and household items.

The artefacts allow tourists to understand more about the Omani lifestyle, but the living history of Muscat also gets its due in temporary exhibitions by local artists. My personal favorite, though? The Maritime Gallery, a tribute to Oman’s seafaring roots, which will make you feel a bit like Sinbad the Sailor.

They also exhibit the first European map of Muscat, which was very impressive to see. I found it particularly interesting to learn that the map Terrae Oman was produced by an 18-century geographer by walking (!) the distances of the vast country and recording his paces.

Pebbled Beaches: Escaping the City

Even if your stay in the capital is rather short, you might find some time to wander on the beaches along the coast of Muscat. On my way to visit the wadi — between Sur and Muscat — I stumbled upon a beautiful pebbled beach.

The beach is spread over a few kilometres, so finding a spot for a rest is no trouble, though there’s not a lot of shelter from the sun. The water is very clear, and I’d even been told I might have a chance of to see turtles hatching their eggs. Unfortunately, that did not happen, but I immensely enjoyed the serenity after a busy day in the city.

A friendly local told me that if you have more time, you should definitely check out other beaches in Oman. If you want to escape the rush of Muscat, you can drive further south, where you’ll find immense sand dunes and flocks of flamingos. It’s not that well known among tourists, so it won’t probably be packed with people.

Snorkeling is supposed to be amazing in the pristine waters! You can rent a four-wheel drive and enjoy the rough coastlines with stunning views of sea.

Wadis: An Off-Road Adventure

The Arabic word for valley is wadi, and Oman’s wadis are very popular sites to visit outside of Muscat. The particular one that I visited was Wadi Shab, in a small town called Tiwi. With its turquoise pools and waterfalls, it was simply a must-see on my bucket list.

The valley itself is only accessible by boat, so you either need to book a boat trip in advance or shill out 1 OMR for one of the local guides to help you cross the river. After the short boat ride, you have to hike for approximately 3km, but with the stunning views and the relatively easy accessible road it was just perfect.

The hike along the wadi was beautiful, and if you want to — and bring along some swimwear and beach sandals — you can even end it with a swim in a cave. I was happy to be there in spring, as the temperature was still comfortable: it can go up to 40 degrees in summer!

Although my stay was short, I would definitely describe it as “short but sweet”, like Omani halwa! I feel like I got to experience Omani culture to the fullest, and really enjoyed the beautiful scenery that surrounds the capital.

(Image credit: iStockphoto)

Founder’s Diary: Muscat

InterNations Founder & Co-CEO Malte Zeeck returns to the Persian Gulf for a brief stint in Oman, attending an official event in our Muscat Community.

After I’d had the opportunity to explore both Bahrain and Qatar last year, it was back to “1001 Nights” for me this spring. In the capital city of Oman, one of the most important trading hubs between East and West since times immemorial, there’s now a flourishing InterNations Community with about 15,000 members.

Two of the Muscat Ambassadors — Rebecca, a New Zealand tour guide, and Fazlul, an events manager from Bangladesh — had invited me to the official event at The Lazy Lizard, the lush open-air restaurant and poolside bar of the Radisson Blue Hotel downtown.

A New Pre-Event Format: The Community Team Talk

Before the actual event started, we’d organized a Community Team Talk for our InterNations Volunteers (coming soon: a more in-depth report on this new format), and I was very impressed by the relaxed, familial atmosphere in the Muscat Community.

It’s our nearly 30 volunteers — three InterNations Ambassadors and 26 Group Consuls — who help to make expat life in Muscat a great experience. About half of them took some time out of their busy schedules to attend this session on a Wednesday night.

There was even a little treat for them in store: when I tried to invite them for a round of drinks to thank them for their commitment, the waiters made a bit of an exception for us and bent the rules about not serving alcohol in hotel meeting rooms. Cheers!

The introduction round gave me lots of insights into our active community life in Oman. For example, we currently have about two dozen InterNations Groups in Muscat, from “Life’s a Beach” and “The Great Outdoors” to the Desi Vibes Group to business networking meet-ups.

I hope I could provide them with some valuable insights into daily life and work at the InterNations head office in return: not only did I tell them about the founding and the company history, but it was particularly important to me to share our vision for the future — to be every expat’s best friend — and to ask them for their own suggestions and ideas.

Unsurprisingly, the volunteers were mostly interested in any and all features we are working on right now to make organizational matters easier for them: the brand-new guest list app, our feedback tool for events and activities, and the newly opened InterNations Volunteer Groups.

A Heart-Felt Thank You to Honor Our Volunteers

In addition to keeping them up to date about the development and growth of InterNations, I especially wanted to say a heart-felt “thank you” for the tremendous energy and creativity they put into hosting all these great activities: every one of them is a new chance for our members in Muscat to meet in person, to get to know each other, and to share their hobbies and interests with other expats and global minds.

For a few especially active volunteers, we’d prepared an “honorary diploma” to recognize their commitment to the InterNations Muscat Community. However, our impromptu award ceremony was cut a bit short since the event had just started and the rush outside to the pool bar began.

On that warm spring night, the weather was just perfect: temperatures were high enough to celebrate outside in the evening, but hadn’t become as unbearably hot as in the summer months.

The InterNations Muscat Event

The Muscat Community Team had set up a great entrance to the event, with an administration desk, a tablet check-in counter, and a Hollywood-style photo wall, which looked very professional.

After Fazlul had introduced me to the friendly crowd of around 200 guests, I seized the opportunity to say a few words of welcome and to thank our volunteers once again for everything they do for the Muscat Community.

Afterwards, it was time to enjoy the party and to talk to as many of our members as I could. The most memorable story of the evening was the definitely one I heard from Julie, a South African expat, who met her husband Andrew from the UK at one of our events and who told me how they eventually got married.

On the following day, I got my first glimpse of Muscat’s sights: Rebecca was so kind as to drive me around on a guided tour of the city. It was amazing to get this offer from an expert who does this for a living — thanks again for the wonderful opportunity, Rebecca!

You can find more information on worthwhile sights in and outside of Muscat in my InterNations Insider Tips for Oman.

(Image credit: Fazlul Karim & Malte Zeeck)