Eating is one of the best parts of traveling. Tasting the local food in a different culture is what many travelers crave. If you’re not careful, the cost of filling your belly can really add up.
Eating on a Budget While Traveling
There are many different ways to keep your budget in check while eating away from home. These vary by destination, as the cost of a meal in Southeast Asia is much different than eating out in Iceland. I use a general rule of splurging on one main meal per day while traveling. For other meals, I’ll find a variety of ways to satisfy my hunger. Here are some tips to eat on the cheap while traveling.
Pro Tip: Always have a refillable water bottle on hand. This not only helps the environment, but by filling up your own bottle at a water fountain or from a water cooler at your hotel, you won’t have to pay for unnecessary drinks.
Find the Local Supermarket
When I land in Sydney, I don’t immediately go to the Opera House. In Athens, I’m not trekking to The Acropolis right away. After touching down in Paris, I don’t hop on the train to the Eiffel Tower. First, I must find the local supermarket to stock up on drinks, breakfast foods, fruit, and high protein snacks to tide me over in-between meals.
Shopping at a local supermarket not only helps with your budget, it also allows you to experience more of the local culture and find some food items you don’t normally see at your home supermarket. Find a farmer’s market for an even better experience and get some fresh local fruit for a tasty and cheap breakfast each morning.
Stay away from tourist trap restaurants around the globe. The food is often not very good and since they cater to tourists, the cost is usually high. Instead, ask some locals or your hotel reception where to find an affordable restaurant to enjoy the local cuisine. They may be inclined to send you where all the tourists go, so a good way to approach the question is to simply ask, “Where do you usually go to eat around here?”
If you’re in a foreign country, eat the local food. It will pretty much always be cheaper than western cuisine and it's part of the traveling experience. Sure, we all get cravings for burgers and pizza, but the comfort food you’re used to will be a novelty item elsewhere. And if products have to be imported, the prices go up.
If your hotel offers free breakfast, do take advantage. It may not always be the best tasting meal of the day, but it will fill you up enough so you can order less (and pay less) the rest of the day. Some hotels also have happy hours with free drinks and hors d’oeuvres, which can be a nice way to relax after a day of touring and/or prepare for a night out on the town.
If you’re staying at a hostel, there is usually a free food shelf left by other travelers and some hostels include home-cooked evening meals. I’m not saying you should eat all your meals where you stay. That would divest from the traveling experience, but mixing in some free food into your travel diet will do wonders for your budget.
Accommodations with a Kitchen
Sticking to a food budget while traveling is much easier if your accommodation comes with a kitchen. By cooking a few meals of your own, you’ll not only save, but can try cooking a local dish or prepare a familiar meal if you’re craving a taste of home. A few major hotel brands like Homewood Suites, Residence Inn, and Staybridge Suites offer rooms with fully equipped kitchens.
Alternatively, book a vacation rental, hostel, or a guesthouse that includes access to a kitchen. Of course, you shouldn’t cook all your meals while traveling, but if you’re on a budget, a kitchen will help immensely. Plus, you’ll be able to heat up leftovers if you order large portions at a restaurant.
Make lunch your splurge meal and you’ll save, especially if you want to try out a top-rated restaurant. Lunch menus may have less options and smaller portions, but you’ll still get the same great tasting food for much less than what you’ll pay later in the evening.
Street vendors are plentiful in many major cities across the globe. Meals on the street are a fun way to experience some culture and usually only cost a few bucks or a fraction of what you’ll pay in a restaurant. Of course, be careful, and look for food stalls that are busy or ask your hotel where you can find safe street food if you are concerned.
Why not combine a city tour with food? Many day tours include lunch, but going on a specific food tour will give you the opportunity to sample a variety of local dishes and you’ll likely get some history and the chance to visit other city attractions while on your food tour.
Eating at airport restaurants is a costly mistake. The cost of airport food is astronomical compared to what is charged anywhere else in town. To avoid this cost, get a credit card that gives you access to airport lounges. Most lounges include some sort of free food and many have full on buffets for you to indulge in before your flight. Alternatively, remember to eat before you go to the airport or bring along some snacks to keep your hunger at ease until you can eat an affordable meal outside the airport.
Eating affordably while traveling is all about finding a balance. Dining out for every meal will cost a fortune, whether you are at home or on the road. If you decide to have a lavish fine dining experience one night, counteract that with a cheap meal the next day. Of course, you’ll likely spend more on food when you are away from home, but try to keep your traveling food budget as close as possible to your home food budget.
Header image by ProStockStudio; Eat Local image by asiastock; Street Eats image by Room98; Food Tours image by Ariwasabi; Airport lounge image by Christian Heinz via Shutterstock.