Ah, the good ol' days.

In 1986, a business traveler staying in the growing Sunbelt city of Phoenix could have eaten three meals in nice restaurants and stayed all night in a first-class hotel for an average of just $77 a day.

Today, the same meals and lodging would cost at least $200, according to a study on the per diem costs of business travel.

The daily, or per diem, cost of doing business on the road has risen substantially, even doubling in some cases,

Runzheimer International

, a Rochester, Wisc.-based management and travel consulting firm, found in analysis of travel costs for the years 1986 to 1999.

Per diem costs have doubled in cities including New York, Boston, Seattle, St. Louis, Nashville and Orlando.

As the chart below shows, the cost of some consumer goods has grown over the same time period, but at a much slower pace.

Runzheimer says cost drivers for business travel include a city's location, such as places on either coast where prices are historically higher; natural economic forces like inflation; and the emergence of an area as a growing hub for business.

"Rates are affected by such factors as supply and demand, sales and lodging taxes imposed by local municipalities, and of course, how expensive it is to conduct business in a given location," said Rolfe Shellenberger, a senior travel consultant with Runzheimer.

Of the 14 cities surveyed by Runzheimer, New York remains the most expensive city to do business in, with a per diem of $403 last year. Boston placed second with a per diem of $313, up from $142 in 1986.

The costs also reflect that some cities have grown as business centers since 1986, including Seattle -- where much of the hi-tech computer industry is rooted -- Nashville, Orlando and Phoenix.

Honolulu was the only city where the per diem costs went up

and

down over the study's time frame. In 1986 the daily cost of business was $135. That went to $188 in 1989, $236 in 1994 and dropped back to $199 in 1999. Runzheimer said business activity peaked in the early to mid-1990s, then dropped off as prices slumped along with demand.

Shellenberger said travelers can cut costs by being careful about where they stay and eat.

"My suggestion to travelers facing unacceptably high costs is to stay out by the airport or in the surrounding suburbs where both meals and lodging are considerably cheaper, and either rent a car or take public transportation to get to your appointments," he said.

Honolulu is also the best place to find a deal on a rental car, Runzheimer found in an earlier study it performed last fall.

Travelers paid an average of $38 a day in Honolulu during September to rent an intermediate-size car with unlimited mileage.

"One of the big reasons for Honolulu's low rates is geography. You can't drive very far," according to Shellenberger. "Also, there are so many tours available to the popular attractions, that car rental companies must remain competitive."

Low rental rates also are available in Manchester, N.H. ($40.50) and Billings, Montana ($41.50). Not exactly hubs of industry and commerce, but the rental car rates are hard to beat.

New York City had the highest car rental rates at $92 per day, followed by Houston ($81) and Oklahoma City ($79).

For international travelers, Moscow used to be a good deal with a per diem of $139 for three meals and a night's lodging. But by the end of 1999, the cost had ballooned to nearly $400.

Other international locations where per diems have doubled since the late 1980s include Buenos Aires, $162 to $359; Mexico City, $118 to $260; and Singapore, $126 to $285.

Supply and demand, the local economy, and the foreign exchange rates in effect at the time, are all factors in the cost of traveling abroad, Shellenberger said. "In some cases the U.S. dollar has strengthened significantly against a particular foreign currency causing everything you purchase to be less costly," he said.

"In Moscow," said Shellenberger, "the situation changed from a state-run, controlled economy to a market-driven economy where local business people establish their own prices. In high-inflation countries such as in Central and South America, travel rates can change virtually overnight. It is unwise to assume travel expenses have remained static from your last trip."

Patrick Crowley is a political reporter and columnist for The Cincinnati Enquirer. At time of publication, he held no position in any securities mentioned, although holdings can change at any time. Crowley can be reached at crowleys@cinci.infi.net.