Loading up on bread at restaurants isn't the only way to eat for free while traveling. With a little planning, resourcefulness, and, yes, shamelessness, there are other ways to grab a free bite on the go. Here are 10 of them.
The freegan culture grew out of a movement for people to eat discarded food. Participants do this for varying reasons, be it to reduce waste or because they don't participate in the conventional economy. The legality of the practice—better known as dumpster diving—is a bit blurry, as most supermarkets, bakeries, restaurants, and other shops that throw out food at the end of the day (not because it's "bad," but because it's past the sell-by date) do so in a receptacle that is still technically their property.
Beyond that, health safety can be a concern, and there can be a stigma attached for those who can afford food but choose this option. Depending on your germ tolerance, you can swipe leftovers, instead. The app LeftoverSwap lets you find surpluses nearby.
Tip: In areas close to nature, foraging may be the best way to participate in freeganism. The $5.99 app Wild Edibles Forage helps you identify wild plants that won't upset your stomach (also available as a free lite version and for Android).
Attend an Event
Look into local events happening when you travel that will allow your entertainment budget to double as your food budget. Gallery open houses, conventions, grand openings—you're sure to find snacks. Or pop by local food sellers—grocery stores, fromageries, ice cream parlors, chocolate shops, farmer's markets—where you can often find free samples of the wares.
It also pays to look into "holidays." National Cheesecake Day, National Doughnut Day, National Ice Cream Day—the list is seemingly endless. And the number of eateries participating each year only seems to increase.
Tip: Linger over meals and make dining out an event. In the U.S. it's easy to feel rushed when waiters bring your check before your plate is cleared. But in many countries, your table is yours for the night—take advantage of it.
Book Hotels with Free Breakfast
Most large hotel chains offer complimentary breakfast with an overnight stay. These breakfasts may not scream amazing (a little creativity will go a long way, though), but they'll give you the fuel you need to take on the day—and give you more money to splurge on an epic lunch or dinner.
And while free food in any form is fantastic, local bed and breakfasts are the best option for something warm, home cooked, and frequently made with local ingredients that give you a taste for the region you're visiting.
Tip: Opt for fruits and protein-rich options to help you feel full longer. Stock up on the free continental breakfast options and carry them with you for a light midday meal or snack.
Take Advantage of Hotel Freebies
Beyond breakfast, hotels large and small offer a range of edible freebies—you just have to do your research ahead of time or ask the front desk for any extras they may offer.
DoubleTree Hotel's cookies are perhaps more famous than the accommodations themselves, and communal pantries made for late-night raids are catching on at places like Hotel 41 in London and the Woodmark Hotel in Kirkland, Washington. The hefty overnight rates will ensure you eat your money's worth.
The Draycott Hotel, also in London, goes a step further. In addition to an honesty bar, guests receive tea and biscuits at 4:00 p.m., Champagne at 6:00 p.m., and hot chocolate and biscuits at 9:30 p.m. And forget hotels that charge $10 for a bottle of in-room water or $5 for a candy bar. Look for hotels with free mini bars—they do exist!
Tip: Extended stay hotels aren't just for extended stays anymore. The Residence Inn by Marriott not only offers free breakfast, but also light dinners and drinks during weekday evenings. Even with chains, check the local hotel's particular offerings.
Attend Happy Hour
Manager's reception, evening social, wine hour: No matter what you call it, a slew of hotels are stepping up their happy hour game. Often the free alcoholic beverages are accompanied by light bar snacks.
Embassy Suites is renowned for its Evening Reception, alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks, plus snacks. Kimpton's Wine Hour is similar, and its Karma Rewards program—free to enroll—takes things a step further by offering a $10 credit for in-room snacks or at the bar at most locations. Work higher up the ranks to get more perks like a free "Chef's Taste" in on-site restaurants and welcome amenities customized to your preferences. Other hotel reward programs offer free snacks at check-in (not to mention extras like free Wi-Fi).
Tip: Even non-chain local inns and hotels do their own variation on happy hours. Down south, you may even find sherry in your room. Check the hotel website before you book—and make sure you know what time it starts!
Mention Special Occasions
Signing up for restaurant rewards programs can score you coupons. Even smaller local restaurants may offer special deals, including everything from a free dessert to free dinner on your birthday. Always opt in if you don't mind sorting through a few extra emails. You never know when you may end up back in a given location—and when it may score you a free meal. Following eateries on social media is another way to stay in the know about exclusive offers.
At the very least, if you're celebrating a special occasion, mention it to your server or when making a reservation. Whether an anniversary, birthday, celebration of a new job, or a big move, the restaurant may surprise you with little extras.
Tip: Student or senior? AAA or military member? You may already have freebies and discounts waiting for you even if it's not a special occasion—at least when it comes to domestic travel. It never hurts to ask.
Visit the Grocery Store
Depending where you're traveling (agriculture products can cross borders), load up your luggage or car with edibles. You're still ultimately paying for the food, but shopping at home may save you money on a few meals at your destination. Plus, with the cost already taken care of, it's less of a burden when you come back from vacation to a credit card bill a mile long from eating out three meals a day.
When planning your trip, look for hotels or vacation rental options that have a kitchen or kitchenette, and prepare options ahead of time that are easily packable for picnics. After all, you don't want to be doing too much work if you're trying to relax.
Tip: Instead of packing food, opt to shop at a grocery store at your destination. You can still save a lot over restaurant meals and purchasing local foods is the one of the best ways to experience a culture—particularly when you don't know what the labels are saying. And reusable shopping bags from your destination make practical souvenirs.
Eat at the Bar
Even outside of happy hour, bars are a great place to nosh, with many moving beyond simple peanuts and party mixes (though there's nothing wrong with that!).
In Madrid, look for bars that offer a free aperitivo or tapa with a drink purchase; bar hopping rewards those that want to drink. And in places outside the U.S. where alcoholic beverages are cheaper than water, it's a win-win. Look to late-night menus, too, as establishments slash prices and offer free food as a way to keep a steady flow at times the crowds often wane.
Tip: Before you leave on any trip, search the Internet with "free bar snacks" and your destination. You'll likely find places vetted by locals with a rundown of what's on offer. Also look to new eateries that offer freebies to lure in customers.
Take the Kids
Family-friendly resorts often lure families in with free kids' meals with the purchase of adult ones. It's a great way to bring the whole family without spending more than you would if you went as a couple. Aston Hotels & Resorts in Hawaii has a generous Kids Stay, Play, and Eat FREE program, with children 17 and younger eating free at participating area restaurants with a paying adult.
The Caribbean's Dreams Resorts offer a similar program.
Tip: As with bar snacks, do an Internet search before you leave with "kids eat free" and your destination. You'll be able to see what days of the week and times various establishments offer deals.
Scan the Local Newspaper
Purchase a newspaper at your destination and check the ads and any inserts, looking for restaurants promoting buy-one-get one deals or free appetizer coupons. The town or city's tourist office may also have books with deals and discounts. Not into going into tourism offices? Look at their websites before you leave. You can often request free materials that get sent straight to your house.
Tip: If you can't find coupons, consider making lunch your main meal. Even Michelin-starred restaurants offer lower prices for the midday meal, with innumerable eateries offering deals on daily three-course menus. Load up and you may not even need dinner.
More from SmarterTravel:
- Finally! Science Figures Out Why Airplane Food Is Gross
- 10 Tasty Fast Foods You Can't Eat in America
- 10 Flight-Friendly Recipes You Can Make Yourself
(Photo: Group of friends toasting beer and eating fast food via Shutterstock)