Is it cheaper to fly to New York to buy a new phone?

Apple ushered in a new era for premium smartphones when it announced the new generation iPhone X, which is set to retail in the US at a starting price of $999.

That price tag is nothing to sneeze at, even for a handheld device with more computing power than the Space Shuttle. And the $999 price tage is relatively competitive by global standards. Dutch Twitter user Juan Buis calculated that it would be cheaper fly to New York and buy the phone at US prices than to fork out for the European retail price.

South Africans have become used to paying a premium for high tech imported goods. Is it possible to fly to New York from Johannesburg for the weekend to buy an iPhone X and pay less than the local retail price? Let’s see how close we can get.

One estimate calculates the iPhone X will retail for around R18 361 in South Africa.

Using Google Flights, we managed to find a flight from Johannesburg to NYC at half that price (obviously these prices fluctuate all the time). A return flight on Ethiopian Airlines with five hour layovers in Addis Ababa was listed for $683 (about R9 000).

Let’s keep accommodation basic. On Hostelworld, we found a dorm at a hostel in Queens for R527 per night. That’s R1 054 for two nights.

Getting to the hostel on a shoestring budget is simple enough, if a little time-consuming. The AirTrain from JFK airport to Queens is $7.75 plus another $2.75 for the subway. That’s about R140.

That brings us to a total of R10 194 for flights, shelter and transport.

Let’s not forget to buy our new iPhone. As of 26 September, $999 works out to around R13 200.

That brings our total to R23 394.

We’ll disregard food and drink. You would need to eat at home anyway, and we’re assuming similar costs at discount Queens supermarkets.

We haven’t beaten our target, but at the estimated local price of an iPhone X, you could buy a new phone and enjoy a weekend in New York City for a relatively modest additional cost of R5 033 compared to buying the phone locally.

That sounds like a bargain. Is it worth it? Probably not. 50 hours of intercontinental travel and long subway journey to the outer boroughs of New York for a brief weekend queuing at the Apple store isn’t many people’s idea of fun. But it certainly puts the cost of imported high-end goods into perspective.

We can also take away some practical lessons about budget travel. When travelling abroad on a budget, time is a commodity. At a flight costs of over R9 000 and a daily accommodation cost of R400, the per night cost of a two night stay makes little sense. Those flight expenses only start to make sense for longer stays.

We’ve also assumed occasional travel to the US. For a one-off visit, we’ll need to add an additional $160 visa fee to the budget. If you’re able to acquire a ten year visa and uses it a number of times, the investment makes more sense.

Time is the budget traveller’s friend in another way. In performing the calculation, we did a broad search for the cheapest available tickets. If you’re able to be flexible with your travel dates, you’re likely to find a better deal.

Of course, if you’re in the market for a nearly R20 000 smartphone, you may prefer a more luxurious travel experience. 

Let’s find somewhere a little more plush to stay. The smallest rooms at the Four Seasons are listed on their website at R1 400 per night. You’ll want something nice to eat, so why not try the Chef’s Tasting Menu at Per Se for $325 (about R4 300, but that’s excluding wine, so put something aside for a nice Napa Valley Pinot Noir). And you’ll want to travel in some comfort. Comparing on Google Flights, we founds business class flights on Qatar Airways for a relatively modest R34 700. That’s R41 800 before we’ve considered lunch.

Perhaps it time to really appreciate how cost-effective South Africa is if you’re looking for a great night out.