Eating Cheaply on the Road
People who travel on a budget often pay a lot of attention to finding a great deal on transport and accommodation, but give less consideration to saving money on the road. One of the biggest ways you can blow your budget is by spending too much on food and drink.
Being frugal while traveling doesn’t necessarily limit you to a life of beans around a campfire or pasta in hostel kitchens, but it does entail being a little more savvy about when and where you eat. If you follow these tips, you can eat well wherever you travel, even on the tightest budget.
Avoid buying food at airports
Did you know that you have the opportunity to save money before you even reach your destination? Airports are notoriously expensive for food, so expect a markup of at least 20% on most items.
In fact, some of the most budget-friendly countries have the most relatively expensive airport restaurants where even a MacDonald’s can be more than double the standard price. Prepare by packing snacks in your hand luggage because you never know if your flight will be delayed.
Although you can’t take liquid through security, you can carry your empty water bottle and many airports now have bottle fillers and water fountains (in the USA and the UK at least).
Take advantage of freebies and perks
There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but there are inclusive breakfasts at hotels. Some hostels also provide a basic breakfast of toast and cereal at the very least, so fill up and you may not need lunch.
If you’re traveling with children, it’s worth doing some research on restaurants or asking about their policies, since some allow kids under a certain age to eat for free. Other establishments offer free drink refills, bread with your meals or complimentary snacks when you order a drink.
Choose accommodation with a kitchen
Most hostels have a communal kitchen and it can be a great way of socializing while saving money. Even private accommodation such as apartment rentals come with kitchens and are the perfect excuse to check out local grocery stores and markets, which are great places to see what locals eat.
The problem with hotels is the lack of facilities to keep perishable food items, but if you have food storage, you get to sample more seasonal local produce and eat healthily on a budget. It also helps to have a fridge, so you can buy bottles of drink and local alcohol in supermarkets at a fraction of the price in restaurants.
Choose restaurants wisely
Just because you’re on a budget doesn’t mean you should miss out on eating in nice restaurants. While exploring your new destination, follow the locals and avoid eateries in tourist areas, main squares, and high-end shopping streets.
The best deals are found on side streets and off the beaten track, where you’ll not only discover some local gems at decent prices but also meet more locals. Another trap to avoid is over-researching and heading to cafes which have been in popular tourist guides like Lonely Planet because those establishments are likely to become complacent and overpriced.
Look out for lunch specials
Savvy travelers who eat at restaurants know that it is better to fill up on food either at breakfast or lunch as evening meals are more expensive. Many restaurants, particularly in Europe, have lunchtime specials.
These set menu meals are usually known as “menu of the day”, “menu du jour” or “menu del dia” depending on the country and consist of two or three courses (and sometimes include a drink) for a set price.
All-you-can-eat buffets are also great value alternatives. These are usually inexpensive and filling, setting you up nicely for an afternoon of sightseeing.
Eat street food
Invariably, every place in the world has some kind of local street food. Meals at street stalls can cost less than a dollar and they’re a quintessential part of dining culture in many countries such as the Southeast Asian countries of Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Whether you get your food from a permanent set-up stall or a street vendor, you can watch the food be cooked in front of you.
If you’re worried about germs, just follow the crowds and go to the more popular stalls since the regulars know which ones are best. Whether you’re sampling currywurst in Berlin or green curry in Bangkok, it’s a cheap and convenient way to partake in some people-watching and eat as the locals do.
Refill water bottles
Opting for soda or alcoholic drinks to accompany your meal in a restaurant can significantly increase your bill. The cost of soda in shops can also be expensive, even more so at tourist sites, events and theme parks.
The best option is to carry your own bottle and refill it from a tap or springs and water fountains. Of course, you need to find out if the tap water is safe but usually bottled water is cheap in countries where tap water is unsafe.
As you can see, eating on the move is not that difficult if you plan a little and follow the locals’ lead. There’s no need to avoid restaurants as long as you keep out of tourist traps, but self-catering can be rewarding since seasonal produce is usually cheap, abundant and delicious.
If you do some research and think like a local, eating cheaply on the road can be a rewarding experience, both culturally and financially.