53 tips for travel eats on a budget
How to find the best deals, eat like the locals, and create a Port-o-Kitchen.
As the summer approaches, several bajillion Americans (self included) are itching to get out of work, to soak up the rays of another warm season.
Also, they’re hungry.
Transportation and housing aside, food is a major budget concern when planning a vacation. Since most travelers are just trying to find a decent, affordable meal, nutritional considerations nearly always fall by the wayside.
What follows, then, is a plan: the ultimate guide to saving dough on food while you’re away, with extra emphasis on healthy options.
Before you go
- See if your company can get you a deal. “Some restaurants shave 10% to 25% off the meal cost,” claims USA Today. Check with HR before departure.
- Consider an all-inclusive. Lots of resorts and cruises incorporate the price of meals in their room packages. While you might still be stuck paying for drinks, this can save hundreds in the long run.
- If you’re a foodie, travel during Restaurant Week. Now in Boston, Baltimore, Philly, D.C., Atlanta, Dallas, Sacramento, Toronto, Puerto Vallarta, and New York City, Restaurant Weeks provide fantastic deals on four-star restaurants. Seriously, we’re talking $20 for lunch at Nobu. Open Table is a phenomenal resource for this.
- Look for festivals. Upon arrival in Little Rock, Ark., my road-tripping friends and I were greeted by Riverfest, a weekend extravaganza of food, music and people-watching. Needless to say, we skipped lunch and grazed on corn, tomatoes, and good, cheap beer. Check Festivals.com or call the local Chamber of Commerce.
- Take Rachael Ray's advice with a grain of salt. While I like the catchphrasey Buffalo doyenne, she cuts a few corners and tends not to tip so well on her “$40 a Day” show. There's good stuff there; just beware of going too far in your quest for affordability.
- Sign up for frequent-flier miles. Some credit card companies will give them to you for dining at certain restaurants. Put your stomach to work.
Getting there: In the air
- Don’t buy food at the airport. It's ludicrously expensive.
- Skip the plane chow, too. Airlines need money for gas, and they’re taking it out of your meal budget.
- Bring an empty. The TSA will confiscate full water bottles, but not empty ones. Slip one into your bag, and fill it using the airport tap. Voila: $2 saved.
- Carry snacks. Even if it means raiding the local drugstore, packing your own bites will save big bucks, satisfy cravings, and keep the calorie count down.
Getting there: On the road
- Bring a cooler. Fill it with ice, drinks, fruit, cut veggies, cold cuts, bread -- anything easily assembled that can be used for an in-vehicle bite or roadside picnic.
- Create a Port-o-Kitchen. Travel board poster MJ Hardy brings “a plastic container with a lid that I fill with a small paring knife, wine opener, small can opener, a couple of place settings of study plastic silverware, packets of salt, pepper, other condiments, individual wet naps, and an assortment of zip-lock bags, etc. I then put a small stack of paper plates and napkins in a large zip-lock bag, a small plastic cutting board and a partial roll of paper towel.”
- Freeze a bottle or two. Fill a reusable plastic water bottle with the drink of your choice and freeze it overnight. After it defrosts in the car, you’ll have a cold beverage at your disposal.
- Make a big bag o’ snacks. On a recent road trip through the South, my friend “S” brought a massive backpack of granola bars, baked chips, granola bars, cookies and granola bars. It kept us happy and full for those eight-hour stretches through Oklahoma.
- Consider kids’ meals. If you have to resort to fast food, they’re cheaper and generally healthier than adult meals. Don’t try it at a fancy sit-down eatery, though. Not classy.
Accommodations: Short term
- Book places with free breakfast. When continental and buffet breakfasts are built into the overnight fee, everybody wins. Grabbing an extra orange or apple for a snack can’t hurt, either.
- See if there’s free lunch and dinner, too. According to USA Today, one diner “says he stays at Red Lion hotels and fills up on the free food -- popcorn, nachos or hot dogs -- served during happy hour.” I’m still trying to find the health benefit from that, but the savings are pretty obvious.
- Pack your own breakfast. Oatmeal, cereal, English muffins, and fruit are simple to pack and prepare, and they don’t need massive storage or bizarre cooking utensils.
- Use your ice bucket. If you don’t have a cooler or fridge for leftovers, the ice bucket is a decent shotgun substitute. Wrap food tightly, though.
Accommodations: Long term
- Get a room with a kitchen. Cooking your own meals is the No. 1 cost-cutting measure whenever you travel. Pack some home-bought provisions or pillage the local supermarket for deals.
- Ask staff to empty the mini-fridge. This way, there’s no temptation from incredibly pricey shots of Jäger, and you can stuff it with your own nutritious repasts.
- Buy beforehand in bulk. If you’re gonna be there awhile, you may as well stock up. Just make sure you have enough storage space.
- Pack your coupons. Hey, you never know.
- Check the ‘net for circulars of nearby grocers. Depending on where you’re coming from (say … NYC), supermarkets local to your destination can have much cheaper food than your hometown grocer.
- Bring condiments from home. Staples like butter, olive oil, and mustard are often costlier than the main meals themselves. If you think you might use only a little of something, portion it out into Tupperware and throw it in the car or cooler.
- Save leftovers. They’re not just for Wednesday night post-work dinner anymore.
- Browse brochures and newspapers. Often placed in or around rest stops, hotel front desks, and your room, they're chock full of discounts and coupons for local joints.
- Avoid eateries located by major attractions. I work in a high-tourism area. (Let’s call it Schtimes Square, Schnew York.) The food here is easily twice what you’d pay in any other area of the city, and generally the quality is the pits. Walking two blocks from a landmark, monument, or sightseeing highlight can automatically save 50% off a bill. Special note: In foreign countries, beware of “touristy restaurants with ‘We speak English’ signs and multilingual menus," cautions Rick Steves. They will frequently charge more.
- Don’t eat at restaurants INSIDE tourist traps. Again, pricey. This goes for museum cafes, theme park diners, Graceland, and their ilk.
- Skip the dinner shows. Remember the strip club guideline here: The entertainment might be eye-popping, but the food sucks.
- Eschew mid-scale dinner chains. If you’re vacationing somewhere renowned for its food, stay out of Applebee’s, Chili’s, Macaroni Grill, Olive Garden, TGI Fridays, and their ilk. Not only are their prices sometimes higher in tourist destinations, but the signature food is rarely health-minded. (Cracker Barrel excepted. Because it is awesome.)
- Eat a fantastic lunch instead of a costly dinner. A midday meal can run half the price of a late-day one. The food is the same quality level, and you’ll often consume fewer calories, since eateries tend to serve lighter fare for lunch. This goes especially for upscale restaurants.
- Go ethnic. The best Indian food I ever had was in Glasgow, Scotland. As travel writer Tony Robinson puts it, “Eating in ethnic neighborhoods provides great local color, a chance to meet interesting people, and very low prices as well.”
- Hit the buffet once a day. Inexpensive and full of options, buffets are a stellar choice for the health-minded. Odds are you’ll be able to skip another meal, as well. I think my parents go to Vegas for this sole reason.
- Ask for discounts. Are you a senior, student, or member of a large group? Excellent. You might be eligible for a chunk off your final bill.
- Doggie-bag it. In the U.S., anyway, eat-out meals can be twice the size of a normal, human-appropriate serving. Conserve money and calories by bagging half and stowing it for another meal.
- K.I.S.S. Coffee, appetizers, and a fourth bottle of wine add big time to your bill. If you really want to conserve, split an entrée and drink water.
- Pay attention to in-season specials. Cheaper, fresh-food-oriented, and often specific to region, the specials give you a great taste of local favorites.
- Go before the crowds get there. I’ll let Rick Steves explain why: “Most countries have early bird and ‘Blue Plate’ specials. Know the lingo, learn your options, and you can dine well with savvy locals anywhere in Europe for $15.”
Eating on the fly
- Pretend you’re a native. Order like a Parisian. Buy groceries like a Londoner. Grab fish from a Seattleite’s favorite market. Making these simple shifts in thinking will help you garner tasty chow for optimal cash.
- Hit up an open-air market. Popular in Europe and the U.S., you can score artisanal-quality foods for much lower prices than at a restaurant. Exotic cheeses, crusty breads, cured sausages, fresh fruit -- it’s all at your fingertips. I survived in Spain almost entirely on baguettes, cherries, and Nutella, and dang, it was good.
- Have a picnic. Instead of dining in an upscale boardwalk joint, set a blanket on the actual boardwalk. Steves (again) says, “Fifteen dollars buys a hearty picnic lunch for two anywhere in Europe.”
- Ask a local. A citizen will know far better than any guidebook about where to buy the most delicious, most frugal food, and many will be flattered you thought to explore.
- Follow the home crowd. Workers, old ladies, moms with strollers, and people who obviously live in your travel destination know where to go. Search for long lines and indigenous-looking folks, and you’ll walk away a sated winner.
- Eat on the street. If you’re unsure about buying from vendors, travel writer Cindy Meyers suggests you “head towards the stand that's the most crowded, find out what everybody's nibbling on, and then point to what you want if you don't speak the language.” Worried about being inadvertently poisoned? Then go with Budget Travel magazine, which advises: “Request that your food be cooked fresh for you. A hot grill will usually eliminate any microscopic bugs that are present. And a plate of steaming noodles is safer than food left out for hours at a hotel buffet."
- Be a mallrat. U.S. food courts are a cornucopia of culinary choices. If you go a little before closing, you might even score a deal.
- Skip lunch. A big breakfast and nice dinner mean you can probably get by with a nutritional, filling mid-afternoon snack for the rest of the day. Grab some trail mix or a piece of fruit if you’re feeling peckish.
- Starch yourself silly. Most travel destinations in the world offer some sort of on-the-go starch. Pasta, bread, rice -- whatever -- the stuff’s universal.
Last, but not least
Tip where customary. If you can’t afford to tip, you can’t afford to eat out.
Loosen up a little. Whether you’re on a diet or just hesitant to taste something with tentacles, vacations are a one-time deal. You may never get the opportunity again, so go for it. (In moderation, of course.)
Get out there and eat. A healthy chunk of travel is experiencing local culture, and that means food. So be thrifty, but have a bite or two in town. Enjoy!
Related reading at Cheap Healthy Good:
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Tired of your wallet taking a beating at the grocery store? Here are some creative ways to save big on food costs.
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