After transportation and accommodation, the budget traveler’s biggest expense is food. On the road, our food budget often ends up larger than our home budget due to the higher price of both convenience items and of restaurants. Here I’ll discuss some ways to save on eating without either starving or denying yourself local specialties.
Cook for Yourself: no-budget travelers often stay someplace where they have access to a kitchen and can cook for themselves. Take advantage of this! If your hostel or you host offers you the use of the kitchen, this is an easy way to save money, even on “big ticket” items. Treat yourself and your host to a steak and bottle of wine, knowing that the grocery-store price is still far less than the same meal in a restaurant.
Grocery Shopping is a highly recommended activity, even if you don’t plan to cook. It is easy to find local treats in the dairy, meat or sweets sections, some of which (if vacuum-sealed) make great gifts for friends back home. Novel to Americans are local markets, which offer up fresh fruit and produce (and evermore Chinese clothing and sunglasses) at reasonable prices for self-caterers.
To save even more, if you know your destination country is more expensive than your own (or the one you currently find yourself in), stock up on some basic staples of the travel kitchen before you leave. Pack enough to get yourself through the first couple of days in case you have trouble locating a (n open) supermarket.
Hotel Breakfast: look for hotels that include at least a continental breakfast at no extra charge.
Picnic Lunch: even for those who don’t want to cook on vacation, it shouldn’t be too difficult to prepare a picnic lunch. Sandwiches are easy to make even on the fly; have a side of carrots or cucumber slices, some salty pretzels sticks, a dessert of yogurt or fruit. Veteran picnic lunchers carry: ziploc bags (for storing lunch items), plastic silverware (those kits you get from the airplane are great, as they include napkins as well as salt/pepper), napkins, and hand sanitizer. Helpful as well are a travel knife with corkscrew, saran wrap, a small lunch container for fragile items like fruit, and rubber bands/twist ties.
Eat Out at Lunch: if you’re going to eat out, generally lunch is the best time of day to snag a bargain restaurant meal. From the “biznes lanch” of Moscow to the Indian Buffet served everywhere, you are more likely to find a three-course meal and drink at lunchtime for the same price as a single entree in the same restaurant that evening. Most lunch specials are advertised loudly on boards outside each restaurant.
Bring Snacks: either bring snacks from home or buy some at the grocery — crackers, pretzels, nuts, dried fruit, chocolate, granola bars, whatever. You know best what it is you will crave. Having a few small snacks on hand will keep your food budget from being nickled and dimed whenever unexpected hunger strikes.
Carry Water: and drink it! It staves off hunger and dehydration. You can easily pass through security checkpoints with empty reusable bottles (like Nalgene) and refill them on the other side. In all countries with drinkable tap water, refilling is accomplished in every restroom. For those traveling in areas with unsafe water, carrying your own supply (either boiled or bottled) is obviously a must.
Carry a Thermos: if it’s cold or you are a die-hard coffee junkie, consider carrying a thermos. Most anywhere you stay today will provide you with boiling water for your coffee/tea/cocoa (tip: pack along some coffee/tea/cocoa packets) before you head out in the morning. A hot drink makes for a great afternoon break.
These are my tried-and-true travel food budget savers. How do you save money on food while traveling? And what has been your most worthwhile travel food splurge?
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