While 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.
Fast 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 (more in expensive countries like Norway, home of the $15 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 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, non-local food is almost always more expensive than the local cuisine. For example, in Greece a gyro is 2.50 euros, but a pizza is 6 euros. In Vietnam, a bowl of pho is less than a dollar, but a burger is about three 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 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 three a day, over the course of a month you will 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 a filter) with you instead and just use the tap water.
Don’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.