For years, I have been advising my cash-poor friends: the secret to an ultracheap international holiday is a Google News search for the words runaway inflation. The place listed in the dateline of any recent articles including that phrase should be your destination. En route to your home airport, visit the bank and withdraw U.S. dollars in crisp hundreds and fifties. At your beleaguered landing place, the local currency’s value will be melting away like a snowman in July. Your greenbacks will remain pleasantly solid. Everyone at your destination—hoteliers, restaurant staff, tour guides—will covet them and cut you deals. For you, luxuries will suddenly become affordable. Until your return flight (assuming you make it back safely, and are not robbed by an increasingly desperate local mob), you will experience the dismal science at its most cheery.
Economists’ name for truly berserk runaway inflation is hyperinflation. America’s most nightmarish bout of inflation—in recent memory, at least—came and went at the end of the Carter administration, when prices rose by about 14 percent in 1980, the peak year. Hyperinflation, by contrast, is beyond nightmarish: a rise in prices of at least 50 percent a month, according to the generally accepted definition. Thankfully, it is rare. Steve Hanke, an economist at Johns Hopkins University, has documented 56 instances since 1795, ranging from a comparatively benign monthlong burst in Taiwan in 1947 (prices rose by a little more than half in that month, then the increase slowed), to a truly surreal year in Hungary in 1945–46, when at one point prices doubled every 15 hours. In Slobodan Milošević’s Yugoslavia in 1994, hyperinflation stopped only when the presses at the national mint, in Topčider, overheated to their breaking point.