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At one point, the Chief needed to flee the country. He sent Viktor to retrieve his plane ticket, which cost "$750 at exchange rate or $800 in cash". His exact itinerary was Kyiv-Larnaca-Rome.

Would it actually have cost that much to fly from Kyiv to Rome in 1999 1996? Why was it so expensive? Granted, it's 1500 miles from Kyiv to Rome, but there are plenty of flights of similar distance that are much cheaper.

The book did note that the ticket office was deserted at the time, and it also seemed to imply that there was corruption involved (because the ticketing agent was going to insist on seeing his passport until Viktor told her which reservation it was).

Also, why was the cash price higher than the price at the official exchange rate?

Can someone explain the details of this transaction?

Edit: The book is evidently set in 1996, not 1999 as stated in the original question. The 1999 date appears to be a typographical error in the English translation.

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    In Eastern European countries before the fall of Communism, there was an official exchange rate and a black-market exchange rate. However, only foreigners were allowed to exchange money, which meant if you were a citizen, you couldn't get foreign currency except at the black-market rate. I don't know whether the situation in Ukraine in 1999 was similar.
    – Peter Shor
    Aug 22, 2022 at 9:53
  • the book is originally published in 1996, so it's not 1999
    – Andra
    Aug 22, 2022 at 10:36
  • @Andra When Viktor is in the Chief's office, he sees that one of his obituaries is scheduled to be published in early 1999, so at least part of the book appears to be set in 1998/1999. (I don't recall the other dates offhand), Aug 22, 2022 at 12:49
  • @EJoshuaS-StandwithUkraine Regardless of whether the book is set in 1999 (which your edit indicates was a typo anyway), being published in 1996/written earlier, the state of currency exchange couldn’t reflect changes that happened after the book was written (much like a story written in 2016 about life in 2020 wouldn’t mention the pandemic). Sep 15, 2022 at 14:41
  • Travel SE sometimes gets questions about historical airfares, so it might be better to ask there (although the likeliest sources will be paper documents from the appropriate airlines, e.g. Aeroflot, Alitalia - you might be lucky and find such things on archive.org but otherwise it could be a trial to find them.)
    – Stuart F
    Sep 22, 2022 at 9:49

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I don't find this extraordinary. I don't have hard data, but from memory, air travel was relatively more expensive in the 90s. Or rather, perhaps, dirt chip airfares that we are accustomed to today did not exist then (even though it was more than a decade after deregulation and Ryanair already existed). Remember it was (largely) still pre-internet era and airfares were less volatile. 'Normal' tickets across Europe were in the hundreds.

Also, if you want to fly today or tomorrow, you expect to pay much steeper price. This is true today and was true then.

It is also possible that (since he was the 'Chief') he bough a business-class ticket. Which makes it rather cheap in this case.

Finally, in mid 1990s ex-USSR, air travel (and especially international travel) was still largely seen as a privilege for the 'rich'. Hence the absence of the lower-end niche. (In contrast, train travel was quite cheap; I remember up to 20-30x difference with the equivalent (domestic) airfare).

As for the transaction, first, note that both options were cash payments. Back then, it was customary to pay 'serious' amounts directly in the US dollars, and prices for expensive services or equipment were set (and displayed) in USD. Note that the characters don't even mention prices in the local currency.

(By the way, Ukraine introduced hryvnia at about that time, in 1996. This underscores instability and uncertainty about the local currency at the time).

The $750 price was for payment in the local currency. I'm not sure of the exact reason, but the possibilities include (un)favourable exchange rate (not necessarily the 'official' one!), the fact that the airline was (probably) required to exchange to the local currency anyway, and that payment in USD was, however ubiquitous, illegal and required extra 'grey' paperwork. (Not sure about 1996, but it was made illegal at some point).

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