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DIY room service

More and more travelers choose the 'BYOF' option.

By Donna_Freedman Jul 30, 2010 1:57PM
Forget the hotel restaurant. Ignore the lobby store. Bring your own grub.

More and more travelers are opting to bring their own food, according to Lisa Grossberg, manager of Manhattan's Buckingham Hotel. Meal costs can eat up "anywhere from a third to half of the total spent on an average trip," Grossberg says.

Of course, savoring local flavor is an integral part of the travel experience. But if you cut corners on breakfast and lunch, you can afford some really fine dining -- or possibly an extra day or two of travel.

Some hotels offer full kitchens, or at least a small refrigerator and/or microwave. If not? Get creative.

Does your room have a minibar? Ask that it be cleared out so you can use it as your fridge. (This will also keep you from turning that $5 candy bar into a midnight snack.)

No refrigeration at all? Do an online search for dollar stores, thrift stores and discount stores in the area. Get a cheap foam cooler. Instant icebox -- just add ice. (Which the hotel is buying.)
While you're shopping: Buy a cheap paring knife and a large mug and medium-sized plate per person. Bring plastic cutlery in your carry-on, or ask politely to borrow a real knife and fork from the coffee shop. If you're checking a suitcase you can bring such items with you, along with stuff like teabags, instant oatmeal, hot chocolate mix and (well-wrapped) condiments. (Personally, I travel with mayonnaise.)

Note: Some dollar stores sell fancy foodstuffs, as The 99 Cent Chef proves over and over. You could add treats like sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts and pickled vegetables to your temporary pantry.

Haute-tel cuisine
Hit the grocery store, deli or gourmet shop. Don't write off peanut butter or lunch meat (especially if you're traveling with kids), but think beyond basic sandwiches. Even though precooked food seems pricey at a gourmet shop, compare it with what you might spend at a restaurant (especially if you're traveling with kids).

Splurge on good bread and/or bagels. Some bakeries and delis set out packets of butter and condiments for customers, so ask if it's OK to take more than one of each. Explain that you're traveling.

Seek out farmers markets or other sources of local bounty, such as the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia or Pike Place Market in Seattle. Plenty of these places sell precooked foods. Or select some artisanal cured meats, olives and heirloom tomatoes that, combined with good bread, would make a lovely in-room repast.
If you're a soda drinker, buy a 12-pack instead of hitting the soda machine at $2 a pop, so to speak. See if there's a CVS or Walgreens near your hotel, since soft drinks are frequent loss leaders. Buy a few treats while you're there, too, so you can skip the vending machines.

Beer and wine can also be had much cheaper when you're out and about. Bring back regional microbrews or a bottle of locally produced vino.

Poached salmon a la Mr. Coffee?

True bargain travelers, as well as those with proletarian palates, might find ramen perfectly sufficient. A thread on Lonely Planet's travel forum suggests:
  • Instant noodle cups from Asian markets (more variety, better tasting than supermarket versions).
  • Instant mashed potatoes topped with canned vegetables.
  • Instant soup stock with canned corn and an egg stirred in ("Add some leek for refinement").
  • Heating up pita bread in the trouser press.
  • Grilling foil-wrapped sandwiches or quesadillas with the iron.
  • Heating canned foods directly on the coffeepot burner, or using the coffee pot to poach eggs, pears or salmon.
Those last three tips sound a little dicey to me. You might end up ruining the coffeemaker, or the clothes of the next businessperson to rent the room. Grease stains before the big meeting, anyone?

Strictly for entertainment purposes -- allegedly -- Chow.com offers this piece on how to cook a gourmet meal in a hotel room. I particularly liked the part about using a clean disposable razor to shave black truffles onto the scallops and rice, although I wonder why the author felt he needed to specify a clean one. Eeewww.

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