Eating is one of our favourite activities, and undoubtedly one of our favourite aspects of travelling. It is also a profoundly social urge. Food is almost always shared - people eat together - mealtimes are events when the whole family or settlement or village comes together. Food is also an occasion for sharing, for distributing and giving, for the expression of altruism, whether from parents to children, children to in-laws, or anyone to visitors and strangers.
Food is such an integral part of so many cultures that to skip out on meals when you travel is to miss out on a part of that culture. It's understandable, but disappointing, to sometimes see budget travellers miss out on experiencing the wonderful food culture that a destination has to offer just to save a few cents.
Research has revealed that the more often people eat with others the more likely they are to feel happy and satisfied with their lives.
Although each persons urge to travel is motivated differently you have to ask:
Why go to Italy and not have gnocchi? Or go to Japan and not have sashimi? Yes, you don’t need to eat every single dish when you visit a new country, but it is important to be as open as possible to the local food culture when travelling as it will bring you that much closer to the local culture and people.
LISTEN TO OUR PODCAST EPISODE ON THIS TOPIC
After accommodation and airfare—food is often the single largest expenses for travellers. Eating out two or three times a day, every day, for an extended period of time can be cost-prohibitive for the average traveller, especially when the budget has to stretch to feed multiple people.
Many travellers have some valid concerns when it comes to food. For one, eating out all the time is expensive. Imagine if you ate out every day — your food budget would be astronomical! Additionally, many people have dietary concerns that prevent them from fully embracing new foods. Aversion to spicy food or perhaps the fear of falling pray to an illness after eating some dodgy martabak from a streetcart in Java (you will have to listen to the podcast to get to the bottom of this story!).
HOW OFTEN TO EAT OUT WHEN TRAVELING?
As we travel full time now, we tend to mix up how long we spend in certain locations and this determines how much we eat out. If we are in a place for a while, it's actually super nice to, just for a change, cook a simple breakfast without having to scout for food every day. Often though, we will find a nearby eatery that ticks all the boxes and we might just keep going back there.
In Taiwan we had a wonderful experience with a cook who ran a small restaurant in a 'food court' in Ruifang. We were so taken by the variety and quality that we kept returning - which prompted him to keep giving us new things to try - on our 3rd visit he sat down with us and we ended chatting and managed to connect on-line.
That said, to make sure we CAN eat out when we want to, without breaking the bank, we have had to learn how to balance eating out while still finding ways to save money. These are just some of our tips:
FIND THE RIGHT ACCOMMODATION
Book a hotel that offers complimentary breakfast and/or dining credits or coupons for local restaurants. Many hotels, hostels, and even short-term rentals include either a continental or hot breakfast in their nightly rates without charging more than other similar lodging options. Apart from the saving, it also saves a lot of time if you have a busy day planned and can have breakfast where you stay rather than having to find a restaurant every morning.
BUFFETS FOR THE WIN
Buffets are a fantastic choice for the budget minded as they will give you the most food for your buck. The best buffet is a breakfast buffet - so look for hostels or hotels that include these if possible. They might not always offer the absolute best quality but it's sure to give you a solid meal for good value. If you plan on only eating once a day a buffet is sure to be your best bet. You might also be able to take a piece of fruit for later in the day! Keep in mind though, that sometimes you can actually eat cheaper than what buffet costs if you have to pay for it during lunch or dinner. Buffets can unfortunately also tempt you to over-eat so you should be discerning in your choice.
VENDORS & STREET FOOD
These eateries might be as simple as a small stand that sells sandwiches or a basic meal. Think about Bahn Mi in Cambodia or Vietnam or EUR 1 sandwiches in Italy (yes they do exist!). These inexpensive meals probably won't win any food related rewards, but they will be a satisfying and fast meal without breaking your wallet. In most places around the world (and especially in Asia) every street is lined with little food stalls and areas where food is cooked openly on the street.
Street food is some of the best food in the world. Often the speciality is a single dish - costing less than a dollar most of the time - a great way to really experience the local cuisine.
Don't be scared of street food - you are probably better off having a simple meal from a popular street food vendor than having a similar dish in a restaurant with an enormous menu of which they cannot possibly make everything fresh. If you want to ease into things try food courts in malls!
We definitely prefer to not eat at fast food chains when traveling BUT sometimes a quick bite can be a life saver. Whether it's the dollar menu at McDonalds for a quick bite or a breakfast tosilog at Manila airport. You might find that fast food from international chains can often be much more expensive in Asia than the local food. But the air-con can be nice at times if you had a long sweaty day exploring.
Local food will almost always offer better value than 'westernised' fare. You might be tired of eating another $1 Shawarma in Istanbul, but a pizza will cost $6 in comparison. In Vietnam a bowl of Pho will be a quarter of the price of a burger! To make a saving choose local.
Although we usually prefer to start our day with a solid breakfast and skip the midday meal, lunches can be a GREAT way to cut your expenses in more than one way. Having lunch at a restaurant will be considerably cheaper than having dinner at the same place! Many restaurants, especially in Europe, offer lunch specials (often called work lunches), where items on the dinner menu are offered at a good discount. The options might be somewhat limited, but the savings more than justify it and it gives you a chance to have that 'nice' but local meal. Work lunches sometimes come in the form of a simple 3-course set menu and you might find different options every day.
That ice-cold soda on a hot and sweaty day can be tempting but they really add up fast. The same can be said for smoothies or a fancy cup of coffee every day. Cutting drinks such as these is a really easy way to reduce your non-essential spending - rather put that saving towards a quality food experience.
A handy rule is to never have food and drinks at the same time.
REFILLABLE WATER BOTTLES
Buying water daily is utter madness. It's not only terrible to use so much plastic, it really doesn't make sense if you travel on a budget. If you buy 3 bottles of water a day (which is not a lot!) at US$ 0.75 this adds up to $US 63 after 4 weeks. That's a LOT to spend on water! Make sure to always carry a refillable bottle and make use of every opportunity to refill. In our experience, filtered water is usually freely available and you should simply ask for it. Even better, carry a water filter so you can safely fill up from any tap water. We use a Survival Water Filter Pro (pump action) but something like a LifeStraw can also work. Check our list of 20 odd but useful travel items here.
Alcohol is a budget killer of note. It can, however, be a tricky one to balance if you are in an exotic location with beautiful sunsets. Long term travellers should watch out not to make EVERY day a holiday though. So if you really want to, have that one beer for sunset. But skip the cocktails and shooters! In Asia beer might be 'relatively' cheap compared to what you normally pay, but in terms of value, it's still very expensive when compared to what the same money can get you in terms of local food.
A gelato or two here. A small pastry or street snack there. Since the price for these items are usually very low we often forget what a major impact snacking has on our spending. Even if you just buy 2 gelatos a day it will add up to US$ 100 by the end of 4 weeks! Never mind the cost to your waistline.
COOK YOUR OWN FOOD
As a norm we generally don't cook when we travel BUT if we do stay in a place for longer than a week and it's an apartment with convenient facilities, we love to get some local ingredients and at least fix ourselves breakfasts. After staying in the same place for a month it can become a drag to find a meal every single day and often one just feels like staying in. Cooking is one of the best ways to keep your travel costs down, and supermarkets are also great places to discover local produce and to see what the local people eat. The only place where cooking your own meals isn’t the most economical option is Asia, where street food is usually cheaper.
This leads on from cooking your own food, it's always good fun when you head to a local food market, pick up a bunch of goodies, and picnic in the park! Not only will you be saving money but it affords you a great opportunity to watch the locals going about their daily lives.
TOURISM CARDS AND APPS
Often, tourist cards like the iAmsterdam card or the VisitOslo pass are a great way to save on transportation and attractions, especially in expensive cities. But these cards also often offer discounts at local restaurants. Typically, discounts are around 15-25%, but sometimes lunch specials can be up to 50% off. Visit the local tourism office when you arrive at your destination and ask what food discounts are included with the tourist card. Chances are you’ll be able to save even more money if you just take the time to learn about the tourism pass. Depending on the destination, apps like Entertainer offer a fantastic way to cut food spending in half and still eat at top notch restaurants.
COMBINE ACTIVITIES WITH FOOD or DRINKS
Often you will find tours or activities where meals are included (think island hopping trips in the Philippines), or rather than going up the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur you could grab a sunset drink at the Heli Lounge).
We wanted to see Ljubljana from high and could think of no better way than to head to the rooftop restaurant in the Skyscaper (Nebotičnik) for a mid-morning coffee and a taste of the famous Slovenian layered pastry Prekmurska Gibanica.
The thing is, we don’t mind paying money for a good meal with a nice glass of wine. But doing that EVERY day for every meal will be simply too expensive. We can afford to keep our 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. Because if you can manage to balance eating great food with saving money, both your wallet and your stomach will thank you.