Based on the lavish menu of items that Pam Tobey and Rick Durham dined on during a recent independent trip to Reykjavik, Iceland, you'd think a hearty chunk of their budget was spent on food. Think lamb pate, cod in mustard sauce, salmon with brown bread, and skyr (the national cheese).
You might be surprised to hear, then, that during their five-day jaunt through one of Europe's most expensive cities, they only ate in a restaurant once. Otherwise, they bought ingredients from little stores and cobbled together their own meals.
"Half the fun of our overseas travel is exploring local market and groceries," says Tobey, a graphic designer in Washington D.C. Not to mention that frequenting local markets is the number-one way to save money on food while traveling.
If you're willing to map out an eating plan that includes buying provisions at grocery stores and following some of our other tips, you can save a good chunk of change on your travels, and still eat well.
Navigating grocery stores
It's simple, really: Shopping for foodstuffs at supermarkets, small groceries, farmers' markets, even drug stores with pantry aisles will save you loads of money on food. Fresh bread, a few slices of meat or cheese and a piece of fruit make for a wholly satisfactory meal and will set you back just a few dollars.
If you are planning to make this style of eating a part of your next trip, some simple advance planning will make the experience easier on your budget.
Bring or obtain simple utensils. It's generally easy enough to find paper plates and plastic forks, spoons and knives when you're traveling — or you can bring your own set of reusable utensils from home.
Don't buy items that require a special tool to open. If you didn't bring a corkscrew on your trip, get wine with twist-off caps. Canned items without flip-top lids will go uneaten unless you pack a can opener.
Tote along a small cache of quart- and gallon-size zip-top bags for securing leftovers and preventing leaks. A collapsible insulated cooler bag is helpful too.
Order small quantities of pay-by-weight items from counters, and only order what you realistically will eat. This is a great way to sample a variety of local foods.
Pop into markets and small bakeries in the late afternoon. Some sell baked goods at half price in an effort to recoup expenses before throwing items out. A few rolls safely secured in a zip-top bag and voila! You've got breakfast the next day.
Putting restaurant meals to work for you
Restaurant meals are generally unavoidable when you're on the road. And let's face it: Trying out new spots can be part of the fun of traveling.
If you're staying at a hotel, avoid asking concierges for recommendations of places to eat. They tend to have a set list of pricey or touristy spots near the hotel that they suggest. Instead, ask bartenders or baristas where they personally like to eat, or consult travel guidebooks and their companion Web sites for lists of the best cheap eats in a city. The "Rough Guides" and "Let's Go" series of guidebooks are two good choices.
Read local food blogs before you go on an overseas trip. Chole Current, an American living in Istanbul, where she works as a university professor, says that "expats living in the area know where to go to get the best food at the best prices." Her go-to source is a local blog called IstanbulEats.com.
Americans tend to devour their largest meals of the day at dinner, when menus usually are most expensive. Make lunch your biggest meal instead — most people in other countries do anyway, so you'll fit in better with the locals.
If you're traveling on your own, eat light and just order an appetizer as your meal. A couple can split an entree, perhaps ordering a salad or an additional side dish to complement it. Alternately, order from the fixed-priced or tourist menu, if one is available. Those traveling with children should seek out restaurants with "kids eat free" promotions (note that these are more prominent in the United States than overseas).
Be a restaurant bargain hunter
The benefit of traveling during a difficult economy is that many restaurants have been offering coupons and discounts that they promote in a variety of outlets. Some of the best places to look for restaurant special offers include:
- The official tourism Web site of your destination before you go on a trip. Many post coupons or other discounts.
- E-mail offers from such promotional sites as LivingSocial.com, Groupon.com and Scoutmob.com.
- Pay-in-advance offers from sites like Restaurant.com. You can regularly find $25 restaurant gift cards for only $10 on Restaurant.com — and if you sign up for its e-mail newsletters, you'll get special promo codes and offers for even better discounts.
- The Entertainment Book, a thick, annually published compilation of coupons for restaurants, hotels, rental cars and attractions. It costs just $25 and often pays for itself after just a meal or two (and can help you save some bucks on other aspects of your travels too). Bonus: The books tend to be priced at half off in the summer. See Entertainment.com.
- Membership organizations like AAA and AARP. These organizations often offer discounts at popular chain restaurants.
Hotel rooms: The best tool in your arsenal
For budget travelers, a hotel room could be Command Central for the preparation of the majority of your meals.
Choose hotels that offer full or half-kitchens ensuite (and make sure they're stocked with basic dishes and utensils). This is especially helpful if you have children, who generally eat simply anyway and have low tolerance for sitting in restaurants for long spans of time. Backpackers, meanwhile, benefit from hostels, which often have communal kitchens.
Don't have access to anything more than a mini-fridge and a coffee maker? No problem. Cold cereal with milk or instant oatmeal with water warmed through the coffee maker are great for breakfast. Sandwiches, cups of soup and ramen noodles for lunch are easy to prepare.
Speaking of mini-fridges, here's something important to know: When you check in at your hotel, ask the staff to clear out the minibar for you. Some of the latest fridge models can automatically track when items are removed and will tack ridiculously marked-up charges to your bill, even if you just temporarily remove some items to make room for your own stuff ($4 for a mini-can of Pringles, anyone?).
Even if you don't have a mini-fridge, you can still get by with some basic non-refrigerated staples — like peanut butter, jelly and bread. If you're traveling to a spot where a grocery store isn't convenient, bring the items with you. If you can't do that (because of airline restrictions, for instance), ship them to your hotel in advance, or use a grocery delivery service.
If you don't wish to prepare your own food in a hotel room, at least choose a property that offers free breakfast. And don't be shy — gorge away! Tuck an apple or muffin into your daypack for a snack. We've never heard of a hotel objecting to that. (Have you?)
Abra Benson Perrie of Gainesville, Va., says she always asks for a hotel room upgrade to the concierge level, where continental breakfast and afternoon snacks are included. "I did this in both Bermuda and Bali, and it worked out great," she says. "I only really needed to buy lunch." Even if she can't get the upgrade for free, sometimes the cost differential is still less than she and her husband would pay for two meals a day.
Hitting the streets
Some of the best budget food in the world comes from street vendors. It is hearty and cheap, and permits you to sample many local delicacies without shelling out too much money.
It's also can be some of the riskiest food you eat while traveling. There's no better way to ruin a trip — and potentially run up your travel expenses with medical bills — than coming down with a case of food poisoning.
So what's an intrepid diner to do? When trying street food, "Be sure your dish is served hot, and take a look at the cart or kiosk before ordering," advises Sarah Schlichter in How to Avoid Getting Sick While Traveling. "Does it look clean and well kept? Is it busy?" The fewer the customers, the longer the food may sit before being served.
To drink or not to drink?
Who gets the munchies when they drink? Who loses the ability to think budget-mindedly after throwing a few back? Who's surprised by the food and drink tab the next day when reviewing receipts stuffed into jeans pockets?
Killjoy alert: The best way to keep on budget is to avoid alcoholic beverages altogether. However, if you do plan to throw a few back, seek out happy hours, order the house wine during dinner or buy your booze where the locals do (and have your drinks in your room before you go out).
Some bars also offer free food during happy hour. In places like Spain, tapas are served whenever you order a drink. Drink enough, and your belly's full.
So what should you imbibe if you're on a very limited food and drink budget? To maximize your savings, only drink tap water, if it's safe to drink (if not, consider bringing a reusable bottle with built-in filter). Bring powdered drink mixes from home if the idea of only drinking plain water is a bore.
If you must consume bottled water, purchase it at a grocery store rather than from restaurants or street vendors, as it will be less expensive.
More from IndependentTraveler.com
- The Seven Strangest International Foods
- How to Find the Best Restaurants on the Road
- Backpackers' Secrets: Top Tips for Cheap Travel