I love to travel and I love to eat good food all over the world. In fact, I really believe that food is one of the best ways to experience the culture in another country. Eating breakfast in Ireland is quite different than eating breakfast in India. And these experiences teach us about the pace of life, values, and preferences among its inhabitants. But it’s important for me to make the most my travel funds so I’m always trying to eat cheap meals when I’m traveling.
This doesn’t mean that I’m missing out. I love and value food. It just means that I’m a bit more intentional. Interested in knowing what I do to to save money while still experiencing the best of everything? Read on!
Tip 1: Start the Day with a FREE Breakfast
Whenever possible, I try to stick to hostels and hotels that offer a free breakfast. If you are a travel hacker (traveling cheaply primarily through award points and miles) it’s especially easy as free breakfast is often a perk that comes with hotel status.
We’ve found that most international hostels will offer some sort of breakfast, as will most hotels in Europe and Asia. When you’re searching for accommodations using a site like Booking, you always have the option to add “free breakfast” to your search terms. Make sure you fill up at breakfast so you’re not wasting precious time and energy to search for snacks.
When you’re trying to eat cheap, it’s good to be strategic. If your hotel offers a large breakfast spread, skip the sugary pastries and cereals and head for the protein, fresh fruit and veggies. Apples and peanut butter or scrambled eggs with veggies and cheese will stick to your ribs a lot longer than the make-your-own-waffle-bar.
Travel tip: Before you check out, take a quick walk around. Are there granola bars or coffee being offered in the lobby? Grab a bar for the road and fill up your thermos with fresh coffee. If your hotel has a spa or a gym, take a quick peek to see if there are any bottles of water or fresh fruit on display.
Hotels and hostels do this because they WANT their guests to enjoy this stuff.
But, PLEASE be respectful and avoid grabbing 15 granola bars….
Tips 2: Plan Ahead.
If you’re having a hard time finding accommodations that offer free breakfast, bring something from home. Oatmeal packets, granola bars, dry cereal packs, crackers, tea bags, trail mix, small cups of peanut butter, etc are usually cheaper at home and GREAT to have on hand to tide you over in the morning or if you need a snack.
I always pack a double walled thermos that I can fill with either cold water or hot coffee and stick in my backpack. This saves me money AND helps the environment. Double score!
Tip 3: Limit Yourself to One Splurge Daily
When my husband and I travel, we have one “splurge” meal and one “eat cheap” meal rule. This is a great way to stick to your budget without missing out on anything.
Another way to look at it is to try to stick to one “sit-down” meal a day. Usually, we stick to lunch as our big splurge because it’s easier to eat cheap during the day than in the evening.
In Paris, you can easily spend 20 euros on a prixe fixe lunch while a prixe fixe dinner will run you closer to 50 euros! Over a 10 day trip, this rule alone can save you over 300 euros! (Wouldn’t you rather save that for your next trip?) It’s really fun to sit in a fancy cafe in France and drink wine and people watch. Who cares if you do it for lunch or dinner? Just because you’re trying to save money doesn’t mean that you can’t experience all the fun parts – it just means you choose a more affordable option.
Tip 4: Scout Around for Cheap Options
A seasoned traveler knows where to go to eat cheap. And it’s not anywhere near the touristy things. When we were in Milan, anything around the Duomo had an automatic upcharge. Even a bottle of water was double the cost of one sold a few streets away.
Rule # 1, carry your own refillable water bottle, and rule # 2, don’t even think about eating anywhere within 6 blocks of the touristy sites.
A good way to tell if you’re paying this “tourist tax” is to take a quick look at the menu posted outside. If you see the menu translated into a few different languages, it’s usually a good sign that this is a tourist trap. Slowly back away. Turn around. Keep going. Not only are these restaurants more expensive than the ones down the street, but our experience has shown us that as they are trying to appeal to the tourist masses, the food they serve is bland and boring.
Other places to look for to eat cheap include areas around Universities, street food, and my personal favorite, mall food courts!
Universities = college kids. College kids = poor.
The restaurants and bars around the schools cater appropriately. You’ll always find food specials, happy hours, and quick options for affordable meals. One of my favorites are the bar mleczny (translated into “milk bar”) in Poland. These cute cafeterias are found near colleges and often serve 3 course meals for as little as 3 euro. What a steal!
I also love street food! It’s a great way to eat cheap AND learn about the culture. The creperies in France are drastically different from the the sausage stands in Germany or the noodle carts in Singapore.
And lastly, a secret oasis of delicious food can be found in the food court of a mall. On our recent trip to Italy, our 3 year old begged to eat at the food court every night. Salads, pizzas, sandwiches, baked goods for her and glasses of beer and wine for mom and dad. These places are usually filled at lunch with business men and woman who work nearby. I usually look for the place with the longest lines and hop right over.
Tip 5: Eat Like A Local
Remember how I said our rule was one “splurge meal” and one “eat cheap” meal? So for our non-splurge meal, we love to eat like a local. This involves going to farmer markets, grocery stores, and specialty shops.
Besides being a good way to eat cheap meals, it’s also fun. We love the adventure of going into a foreign grocery store where we don’t speak the language and can’t tell 100% what we’re getting. Is it cheese? Is it tofu? Who knows!? Is it a fruit or a vegetable? One way to find out! For the less adventurous among us, stick to familiar things you can find pretty much everywhere like sandwiches, hardboiled eggs, loaves of bread, jam, crackers, or ready-made entrees. Grab a few goodies and find a scenic spot to have a picnic.
Some of our most memorable meals have been self-catered picnics. In Florence, we drank red wine and nibbled on focaccia, meat and cheese. In Ireland we ate freshly picked strawberries, soda bread and hard-boiled eggs. In Hong Kong, we at cold sesame noodles and prawn crackers with Chrysanthemum tea.