How to Eat Cheap Around the World

By Nomadic Matt | Published June 20th, 2011

food seller in vietnamWhile you might never know it from my body mass, I love to eat. A lot. In fact, eating is one of my favorite activities, and also one of my favorite aspects of traveling.

Food is such an integral part of so many cultures that to skip out on meals when you travel is to miss a huge part of traveling. I’m always disappointed when I meet travelers who cook all their meals in a hostel kitchen. Why come to Italy and not have pasta? No sushi in Japan? Avoiding steak in Argentina? Skipping paella in Spain? You’re crazy.

But many travelers have a valid concern when it comes to food — eating out all the time is expensive.  Imagine if you ate out every day — your food budget would be astronomical.

As a “backpacker,” people often assume that I, like other backpackers, cook all my meals and thus get around this predicament. However, I don’t actually cook very often. I’m lazy and I hate poorly equipped hostel kitchens. Thus I have just learned how to balance eating 99% of my meals out with saving money. It takes a bit of clever thinking, but it is possible.

Budget-Friendly Places to Eat

Buffets – While they don’t always serve the best meals, buffets offer great value for your money, especially since they are all-you-can-eat. You can fill up on one meal for the entire day. (Well, I can’t, but I can fill up for most of the day and avoid snacking.) Buffets are a good economical choice, and give you the most food for your buck. They typically cost around $15 USD.

Outdoor Vendors – Small stands that sell hot dogs, sausages, sandwiches, and the like are great places to get a cheap and quick meal. While in Sweden, I lived off these types of vendors — I could get a sausage for about $4 USD. In Amsterdam, FEBO and their croquettes kept my stomach full. In Costa Rica, the empanada seller filled me up for a dollar. These quick and inexpensive meals won’t win any Michelin stars, but they will keep you full without emptying your wallet.

Street Food – In most places around the world (and especially in Asia), the streets are lined with little food stalls and areas where food is cooked openly on the street. You grab a plate, sit down in a little plastic chair, and enjoy a delicious meal. Street food is some of the best food in the world. Meals at street stalls (different from street vendors, who have a bit more permanent set up) cost less than a dollar most of the time, and are a great way to really experience the local cuisine. Many places — like Thailand, for example — wouldn’t be the same if the street food disappeared.

cooking in a hostelFast Food – Fast food isn’t the best for you, but it is another option if you want a cheap meal in expensive parts of the world. For only about 5 dollars (more in expensive countries like Norway, home of the 15 dollar Whopper), you can get a filling (and hugely caloric) meal. Moreover, the local dollar menu will save you even more. Sure, it’s not the greatest food and I am going to skip the philosophical debate about traveling around the world only to eat McDonalds to say that it’s cheap and is just another way help you rein in your spending. (However, note, in Asia fast food is actually more expensive than the local food.)

Go Local – Sure, sometimes I’m sick of Greek food. Other times, I can’t eat any more Thai food and just want a burger. And that’s OK. We live in a globalized world — eat what you want. However, the non-local food is almost always more expensive than the local cuisine. For example, in Greece a gyro is 2.50 Euro, but a pizza is 6 Euros. In Vietnam, a bowl of pho is less than a dollar but a burger is about 3 times as much. Go local and you will save.

Other Ways to Save

Lunch Specials – Many restaurants, especially in Europe, offer lunch specials where items on the dinner menu are offered at a huge discount. You can get an amazing afternoon meal for a fraction of the cost you’d pay for the same meal in the evening. I usually tend to eat my “nice” meal during lunch because lunch specials and plates of the day are about 30-40% off what I might pay at dinner.

No Soda – I may splurge once in a while on a Coke, but I hardly ever buy soda because it is so expensive. At $2 dollars a pop, two or three a day can really add up over the course of a long-term trip.

Refill Water Bottles – Water might not be as expensive as soda, but buying a bottle or three a day can add up. As you walk around and sightsee, you need to stay hydrated. But buying a bottle of water is not only environmentally wasteful — it also makes foolish budget travel sense. Assuming each bottle is about 75 cents and you buy 3 a day, over the course of a month you well spend $67.50! That’s a lot of money spent on water. (Plus, in some parts of the world, bottled water costs a lot more than that!) Carry a refillable bottle of water with you instead and just use the tap water.

food in parisDon’t Snack – A gelato here, a gelato there. A soda. A candy bar. An ice cream. A small pastry. It all adds up. Since the price is so small (“it’s only a Euro!”), we don’t think of snacking as having a big impact on our budget. But buying snacks a few times a day will slowly add up and throw your budget out of whack. It’s not something many travelers think of but snacking really does add up over the long term. Avoid snacks and stick to big, filling meals instead.

Cooking – I don’t cook a lot on the road as I don’t like hostel kitchens. They never have everything I need, and I hate traveling with a portable kitchen so I can have all the ingredients I want. Yet, when I am in one place for a while (or if I’m Couchsurfing), I cook a few meals. Cooking is one of the best ways to keep your travel costs down, and supermarkets are also great places to go to see what the local people eat. The only place where cooking your own meals isn’t the most economical option is Asia, where the street food is usually cheaper.

Picnic – Another good self-cook method is to picnic. This is something I do a lot for lunch. I usually head to a local food market, pick up a bunch of food, and go picnic in the park. Not only am I saving money (sandwiches aren’t expensive!), but it affords me a good chance to watch the locals scurry about their daily lives.

Tourism Cards – Most people think of tourist cards like the iAmsterdam card or the VisitOslo pass as just a way to save money on transportation and attractions. But these cards also offer discounts at many restaurants. Typically, discounts are around 15-25%, but sometimes lunch specials can be up to 50% off.

I love a nice restaurant. I don’t mind paying money for a good meal with a nice glass of wine. But doing that EVERY meal is simply too expensive for me. I’m not Bill Gates. But by using the tips above, I can afford to keep my costs down while still being able to afford a quality meal every so often.

And that’s what is really important — finding the right balance between cheap (maybe unappealing) meals and really nice dinners. Your wallet and your stomach will thank you.

comments 74 Comments

Hey Nomadic Matt,
these are some great tips to eat cheap. As I usually can’t afford even street food, I would add dumpster diving to the list. Behind most supermarkets you can find a dumpster with produce and snacks, often times only a few days past their expirations. Best part of all, it’s free! *This works best in Europe and Japan.
Safe travels,
Leif

Not only this is a very “cost efficient” option, you are also using things that otherwise would go to waste!

Dumpster diving for food scraps? Sounds delicious…Which is better, French dumpster cuisine or Italian dumpster cuisine? While in the dumpster you can also look for sandwich crusts, half-eaten apples and day-old garbage-can leftovers. If you find enough old beer cans and wine bottles you can splash enough together to make a nice drink. I’ve heard some Scandinavian dumpsters have wifi too. Two words: Instagram baby!

Levi Lais

I’m laughing out loud at my desk at work….so funny.

Roy

Thanks for the tips. In Asia it is easy to find cheap food but in Europe it is always tricky. I always try to go away from the tourist hotspots. A lot of cheaper food can be found there just make sure you have a strong stomach :P)

NomadicMatt

I’ve never gotten sick from the street food in Asia. Just go where you see a lot of locals eating. You may have to get used to local spices and stuff but getting really, really sick doesn’t happen too often.

Dorian

Great story…

I need to figure out how to eat cheap in Los Angeles, let alone around the world..lol

GREAT READ

NomadicMatt

In LA? There are tons of markets and shop there. Also, Chinatown has some delicious and cheap food.

J

@Dorian ~ Try Grand Central Market downtown. Virtually the same produce as Farmer’s Market on Third and Fairfax for 1/2 the price.

Alouise

These are some great tips for cheap eats. So many of my friends are afraid of eating from street vendors, but really you can get some good, cheap food from places like that. I’d also like to add if you want to splurge and eat out at ta restaurant it’s worth it to look at a site like Groupon or Living Social. Sometimes you can get really good restaurant deals with them.

Lilah

Would these same friends balk at buying food from a vendor at the local county fair? Probably not. And yet, they’re basically the same thing, really. Next time that comes up, try this argument and see where it goes. ;)

I Clement

When traveling through Central And South America, almost all towns have a central market. This is usually one of the first places I visit after arriving in town. I can almost always find some great local food being served in these markets at a fraction of the price of restaurants. It also allows me the opportunity to experience the local “specialties.”

Lunch specials are the best!

I actually think I missed out on a lot traveling through Central America. I was trying to be healthy and save money and cooked most of my meals. I probably should have treated myself a little more… After all, it’s hard to find a meal over $4 in Central America :-)

NomadicMatt

The food markets in Central America are the best. You totally missed out. I’m in the mood for an empanada now!

Department stores that appeal to middle class shoppers often have great deals, even if you want something more than snack food.

For example, at El Corte Inglés all over spain, you’ll find locals dining on Spanish favorites, not super cheap but moderate in cost. This type of food provides a nice treat during travels. At El Corte Inglés, look for the special multi-course meals posted at the entrances to its cafeterias (not as we use the term in North America, as these are full service) and restaurants, usually hidden away on an upper floor.

In the U.S., I especially like the “Seven on State” upscale food court at Macy’s in the Loop, in the former Marshall Field flagship store. This features a lot of snacks that are not fried.

NomadicMatt

I like going overseas and into supermarkets. You can usually find free samples and I snack away!

NomadicMatt

That is a great quote! You have a wise wife.

Sigh. Snacks: The death of my waistline and travel budget.

I do most of the things u mentioned, but cannot manage without any snacks! I just love ice cream and chocolate! But of course depends on the place as well. During 3 months in Mexico did not cook at all, not even once and I eat 5 times per day and my budget was low anyway. You can do it.

Erik

I also split up the food into meals. For instance I can get a huge burrito for $6 but if I split it into portions I can turn that into 2 meals. You have to train yourself into stopping eating before you get that “ugh I’m so stuffed” feeling. It allows you to cut back on calories and boost savings.

NomadicMatt

I follow this trick when I cook. Cook once, eat twice.

Food is certainly a challenge when it comes to traveling, because you want something nutritious AND cheap, as much as possible. Finding the best of both worlds is no easy task. Like buffets, for example – I never thought of looking for those outside America, and yet there are plenty even here in Europe. With just a little bit of effort and research, a good amount of money can be saved.

Buffets – love it! Is that a hat tip to Vegas :)

NomadicMatt

We will be hitting the buffet a lot when we go!

I agree with all your tips although I am a bit hesitant regarding drinking tap water. I think in places like North America / Europe, that’s fine but I wouldn’t trust the water supply in third world countries. Even if the locals say it’s fine, it’s still different because they’ll have built up immune systems.

The risk of catching some sort of water-borne disease and being bedridden for a few days isn’t worth it to me.

What’s been your experience drinking the tap?

Susan

Can you expand more about drinking tap water? I’m concerned about your suggestion to refill water bottles unless you are in Western Europe? Can you expand further on that? Do you have an iron-clad immune system?

Lilah

I agree where it comes to third world countries, although in big cities like, say Nairobi or something, it’s probably okay. But I’ve never been out of the US, so don’t take my word on it.

You ask about experience with tap water. My experience is that most of it tastes absolutely nasty. But maybe that’s because I’ve been living in a house that’s on well water for the last five years, so I’m not used to it anymore. :)

Great article Matt! I just returned from Spain and there are plenty of tapas restaurants that offer a “fixed” menu for lunch and dinner that is often not posted, you simply need to graciously ask. I find that eating my larger meal at lunch time is usually cheaper and gets me through the long afternoon and evening especially when traveling in parts of the world that generally eat a later “dinner.” I also bring or buy bars that I keep in my bag to help keep away the ever present snack attack.

NomadicMatt

Spain is a great example of a place where you can get a set or lunch menu. I often ate seafood in Barcelona during lunch because it was so much than dinner. (Same fish, different price!)

Great advice Matt. I personally need snacks throughout the day though, but you can make smart and affordable choices. Picking up local fruit and some nuts (almonds are best) are great snacks to keep you going through out the day. You’re also less likely to reach the “I’m starving!” phase, resulting in picking any good looking restaurant or shop based only on how quickly you can get food in your stomach.

NomadicMatt

I snack a lot but then again, I just like to eat a lot.

Sooooo with you on street food….Getting back from travelling through Asia it was hard to sit at the table again!

NomadicMatt

I’m heading back to Asia this winter and am looking forward to Thai street food. I’m already salivating just thinking about it.

Sofia - As We Travel

Refilling water bottles is often a great idea, it’s amazing how many countries in Europe actually have drinkable tap water. Here in Hungary where I am now for example, the tap water tastes even better than bottled water!

NomadicMatt

Most countries have water you can drink from the tap!

Great tips!! i have to say, i am guilty of being to Mcdonalds at least once to pretty much every country I’ve been too (it’s for the free wifi i swear!)

J

Great tips!!

I’d like to add mine. Zip lock baggies. I carry a few with me and if I can’t finish a meal/snack I have a clean, safe place to put left overs to snack on later that won’t mess up my bag. Also, I’ll hit up a market for fruit and ask the vendor to wash it for me, then it goes into a baggie to snack on as I go.

Cheers!
J.

RJP

Would you recommend fishing whilst people travel? Fishing is a hobby of mine and I hope to travel in a years time around the world, I was wondering whether you think it’d be possible for me to do so, then eat what I catch?

Thanks for your information Matt, you are the king of saving :-)

NomadicMatt

Thank you.

Cheapest and usually tastiest food: Street Food! Hands down the winner!
Also, we often go to a nice restaurant that has lunch specials and split the meal. It’s usually more than enough food for the 2 of us and we don’t walk away feeling so full that we want to take a nap.

Hey Matt,

Great article, was just researching on how to eat cheap while traveling. We have been traveling around South America for 3 months now….while the food here is very cheap compared to Europe, we find that food is still our biggest expensive, more than accommodation and transport, which is surprising to me, especially with the availability of delicious tropical fruits for a few cents everywhere! Will definitely try some of these tips! Eat smart!

I have been reading your blog for a long time now! Really enjoy it! We actually just started our own a few weeks back too! :)

Thanks,
Steph

I love renting a place with a kitchenette in Europe. I can cook my own meals but best of all I discovered its definitely cheaper to shop at the local street market in the mornings than the grocery store. Believe it or not it even beats Carrefour!

Lisa

Supermarkets are good for those pre-made sandwiches that are reasonably priced – also farmer’s markets – where you can buy almost anything – and if you have a buffet breakfast at your hotel – grab some fruit, peanut butter for later -

mary

I work in a cookie factory, chips ahoy, oreo, crackers etc. We do a lot of two in a pack, you know, the snack size portion. When I am planning a backpacking trip anywhere I will throw a whole bunch of these in my bag and have them for when I’m stuck on a plane or train or even late at night when I want a quick bite but don’t want to pay insane prices for snacks. I get them for free but you can take them from home by getting them at dollar stores and the like. When my supply is gone there is room in my bag for me to bring stuff back. People think I’m nuts, but I have had friends laugh at me one minute, then want to raid my stash the next. I don’t live on this stuff by any means, but it sure is nice on a six hour bus ride through the Philippines.

Mattie

Dumpster Diving is the way to go!

Kru

I find street meat to be some of the tastiest food while traveling. Especially Asia and Africa. Where else can you get some random BBQ’d piece of dead unknown animal for a $1.

Cibele

Awesome blog! Very useful tips!
Have other good trips around the world and keep posting! :)

For one of cheapest food in the world you can try eat in south east Asia, I am from Indonesia if you are from North America, or Europa you will find that. Because the exchange rate of southeast Asia is cheap.

For me it is all about street food and side street cafes. It is where the real working people of any locality eat. They are often where everything happens.

So much enjoyment sitting around people watching…

Great tips, it is so true the best meals are on plastic chairs! Eating is a huge part of travel for me so when my wife and I are in a new destination we like to try as much as we can at locals places (usually we’re the only tourist there). One trick we use is to split things instead of each ordering something. You’d be surprised how often we are both full, and if we aren’t we can then split something smaller at another place. It typically saves money and we end up trying more.

In most of Central America I was able to eat at local restaurants– a full meal of grilled chicken, rice, beans, and fruit cost $5 or less. Europe will be a local tricky with restaurants. :)

To be fair you are right about the globalised world of food. Although we were writing a book on food we also reviewed as many KFCs as we could, as this is also a fascinating insight into the difference in cultures.

http://aroundtheworldtravels.co.uk/food-around-world/kfc-review-around-the-world/

Seth

Thanks for the tips, going to Bangkok and Ko Samui in just over a week!
I’m always a little wary of Tap Water though! Thoughts?

NomadicMatt

Don’t drink the tap water in Thailand.

Roz

Food halls in Thailand are also a very good place to eat inexpensivly. Can be found in most large shopping malls. This is also a good place for the more curtious traveler that would like to try some of the local food but is unsure of what it is. Most places have English translations to help. You just buy the tokens and exchange them for the dish you want.

Stanley

Oh…I never know that.

I usually buy the 1.5 liter branded water from 7-11 for just around 40 cents or the soft white bottle for just 15 cents :-)

Louie Frias

So, in your sales material for your travel blog book, you boast about your blog earning you “$8,000 per month”, and yet you claim in this article you stay in hostels and skimp on meals when you travel? It doesn’t add up.

Always check Restaurant.com when traveling in the US, and be sure to search for coupon codes before buying any vouchers! You can get $10 / $20 / $25 restaurant certificates for practically free. They have minimum purchase requirements, and you need to read the fine print for each restaurant, but it’s a great way to discover local restaurants and you can often use them on drinks (i.e. alcohol). Who doesn’t love free drinks??

Thanks for the suggestion. In India it is easy to find cheap food but in European countries it is always difficult.For me it is always search for street food and side street cafes. It is where the every class of people can eat. They are often where everything happens.feels very good when see the crowd.

Pedro

I’m planning a round the world one year trip and thats my main concern. I’m really into eating well!! I must confess I eat a lot (BTW im not fat just a bodybuilder who weights over 200 pounds!!!). Luckly I ain’t shy of hitting the kitchen. Packing a whole day meal inside a tupperware and eating in portions is not out of the equation if the situation requires. But I igree, when traveling buffets and street food are your best friends.

Victor

Matt drinking tapwater in many countries is pure madness. In Egypt don’t even have an ice cube. Parts of the Caribbean are fine but in other parts the water is contaminated. Even spring water can be dodgy in some countries as there may be a village up the hill where animal and human waste gets into the subsoil and contaminates the underground water supply. So even if you buy water in some places, it may come from a contaminated source. Research WHO advice. I speak as someone who has been really, really ill on several occasions from tap water. In places with contaminated water remember the salad leaves will probably be contaminated so only eat hot cooked things or things you can peel If in doubt boil the water or use purifiers.
Snacking on a sandwich in some public places is forbidden such as Venice and this is because of A: litter and B: they want you to eat in the restaurant where you will spend money.
In Turkey people who eat their own food in their room are called “tomato tourists”, ie they bring everything with them from home or outside and never eat out.

I made my own breakfast in a Paris hotel for about a year by getting one of those little heating coils you plug in, putting it in a mug of water and having soft boiled eggs with a fresh baguette from across the road for breakfast. A wedding ring can be used as an egg cup, the egg sits nicely on it.

Hey, Matt (or anyone else), do you have any tips on eating for less in Switzerland. I’m living here for two months more and I’ve found eating out to almost be impossible!

Did you happen to travel in Switzerland at all?

BmoreNomadic

I used a Steripen (rechargeable) in places where the tap water was sketchy, and didn’t get sick at all. It doesn’t make the water taste any better, but it does seem to kill the nasty bugs — and cuts way back on all the wasteful plastic water bottles. It’s small enough to carry around with you throughout the day.

Bea

Hello Normadic Matt
Great articel. Me and my boyfriend had also very good experiences with busking in the streets. In the less busy parts of Montreal we got about 50 to 70 Dollars for 4 hours playing. We also got invited for lunch, got fruits, sandwiches, water and so on. You just need a smile in your face and most people will smile back ;)

Definitely don’t drink the water in Cartagena. Even the locals get sick from it. Amoebic dysentery is not fun. The good news if you think you have those bugs is that you can take a small stool sample in a plastic container to a lab (they are all over town) for testing. If your inexpensive test is positive the lab will give you a prescription for a cheap fix at the pharmacy. No doctor visit necessary.

TranQuil

In western countries usually tap water is drinkable so you can refill your bottle.

However in some countries it’s best not to drink tapwater especially if you don’t have an lead lined stomach ;) What i usually do is buy bigger(1,5-2 ltrs) bottles of bottled water and refill the smaller(0,75 ltrs) bottle from it before heading out in the morning/afternoon. I did that in Cuba for example. The smaller bottles are in comparison more expensive then the bigger bottles(more transport/fuel/packing hence more expenses per bottle).

Yup, I agree with all of these, except the tap water. In most developing or third world countries, you shouldn’t drink the tap water. Even in cities like Cuenca, Ecuador, where the tap water is potable, you’ll need to get your stomach accustomed to it gradually. Fortunately, some guesthouses and hotels in those countries have tanks of filtered water that you can use to refill your bottle.

Also the set lunches in Ecuador (almuerzos – $2.50 to $5) are cheap and filling enough that it’s not worth bothering to cook.

I love street food!! in China it was so cheap and delicious. sometimes I tried more than 8 different street food dishes and still it cost less than 1 meal in a restaurant. it feels awesome to eat delicious bowl of Uyghur rice for 0.5 USD. so many street food dishes cost less than 1 US dollar, it’s almost a crime not to try out (=

Finland_Trip Gril

Hi Nomadic Matt!

Right now i am in Helsinki and i want to ask were can i buy cheap food? Is there a cheap market? Where do you recommend me to eat? Thank you!

NomadicMatt

I’d ask your hostel/hotel.

I like to eat chicken & rice in Asia on the streets, especially in Thailand…This food is very tasty. In Thailand I always combine “street food” with Seven Eleven food, for example “Esy Choice”.

Lisa

Would love some ideas to keep my food and beverage costs down in Aruba. Any suggestions out there?

Thanks!!

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