How to Eat Well on a Budget While You Travel the World

Updated: Mar 27

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.


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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.
We kept going back to Liào's place in Ruifang!
We kept going back to Liào's place in Ruifang!

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!


FAST FOODS

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

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.



LUNCH SPECIALS

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.


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