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Live from London: Frugal eats

Stretch your vacation dollars with this simple travel tip.

By Donna_Freedman Feb 25, 2011 12:26PM

I just had my supper courtesy of a Tesco market near Piccadilly Circus: a chunk of Double Gloucester cheese, pita bread, grape tomatoes, an apple, a few "custard cream biscuits" (not-too-sweet sandwich cookies) and a Diet Coke.

When I travel, I always carry some foods with me, but I also check to find grocery stores in the vicinity. Supping at the supermarket is a fine way to stretch your vacation budget.

The above-mentioned foods cost me 6 pounds, 53 pence -- about $10.54 in U.S. dollars. But it was more than just supper.

I had enough cheese, tomatoes and bread left for today's brunch (I slept really late) and Saturday's breakfast. I don't mind the repetition, especially since I'm meeting with a British blogger late this afternoon and I expect we'll wind up at a restaurant.

The apple was one of seven in a bag. I can take one with me each day for energy boosts during sightseeing jaunts. I could also make a few breakfasts out of apples plus the granola bars and tea or hot chocolate makings I brought with me.

I'm set for desserts for a while, too, since there are way too many cookies left for my own good.

Keeping to a budget

The supermarket has other choices: barbecued chicken, roast beef, salads, pasta, meat pies and of course the usual frozen dinners. I had a quarter of a barbecued chicken the day I arrived and it was both tasty and cheap.

Tonight's simple dinner tasted great after a three-hour walking tour (free) and a couple more hours wandering around staring at beautiful buildings and parks. By the end of the day my not-quite-healed ankle injury was acting up. I didn't want to look for a restaurant and then have to sit there and behave myself. I wanted to relax.

So I stopped at Tesco.

I can hear some of you tut-tutting right now. She goes all the way to Europe and is eating bread and cheese from the grocery store?

I didn't come here for the cuisine. It's my understanding that the restaurant scene is a lot more exciting than it once was. Personally, I'm not a foodie and I just don't care.

I'm here to gawk at beautiful buildings, admire the parks, visit museums, and go to the theater if I can find something that isn't an American import ("Grease" is playing a stone's throw from my lodgings, and ads abound for stuff like "Legally Blonde" and "Shrek: The Musical").

Every (weak) dollar I don't spend on restaurant meals is a dollar I can spend on lodgings (also a frugal choice -- I'm at a hostel). The cheaper I eat and sleep, the longer I can stay. That's how I can afford to stay here for three weeks, including side trips to Cardiff and to a small town in Cornwall.

While I ate I was channeling Mattie Ross, the protagonist of "True Grit." In the book she bought crackers, cheese and an apple at the general store -- "a cheap yet nourishing lunch" -- in order to keep to a budget. Mine would have been a lot more nourishing if I'd skipped the cookies.

But they were so cheap -- a little over 64 cents for a 14.1-ounce package -- that I bet even Mattie would have splurged a little. Besides, I can't get custard cream biscuits in Seattle. Might as well enjoy them while I can.

MSN Money columnist Donna Freedman blogs at Smart Spending and Surviving and Thriving.

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Feb 25, 2011 2:02PM
Sounds like you're having my kind of fun.  I sure wont be tut-tutting, I'll be taking notes, as I love to travel and don't like to spend bunches of money to eat or sleep.

Feb 28, 2011 4:20PM
The best bread I ever ate in my life came from a supermarket in Paris.  I love going to supermarkets in foreign countries, because it gives you a look at how the people there really live.  What soda do they have?  Does their toothpaste come in different flavors than ours?  (My Parisian store had an entire aisle dedicated to yogurt, and no toothpaste at all.)
Mar 15, 2011 10:54PM
Custard creams are the best.  I grew up on thoseSmile 

Glad you had a great time there. London offers so much to do for Free and has such a good night scene.People are walking all over the place all hours of the night and it has a great theatre district, with bars and restaurants nearby.
Harrod's has a terrific food court on the 1st floor. You can get anything there, its all the best quality. Then right across the street is a wonderful large park with benches and a lake where many people go everyday to eat their lunch.
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