10 Ways to Stretch a Food Budget for Travel
Eating the local food is one of my favorite parts of travel. Local ingredients, regional cooking techniques and many unique experiences can be found in tiny local restaurants all over the world. Eating meals from street vendors and in restaurants doesn’t have to break the bank, though. If you’re in Southeast Asia, it will likely be cheaper to dine out than to cook your own food. There are a number of ways to improve how far you money will go. I learned a lot and developed some habits during my recent trip around the world. Here are 10 ways to stretch your food budget for travel.
1. The Big Mac Index
Just as the overall price of a country fluctuates, so does the food. As its name implies, the Big Mac Index lists the price of this sandwich around the world. Switzerland and Scandinavia are the most expensive places for this burger while Ukraine and Russia are 2 of the 3 cheapest.
This is one way for gauging a food budget for travel in a place you plan to visit. It will also assist you in determining how careful to be when selecting restaurants and when you may want to prepare some of your own meals versus dining out all of the time. I cooked more of my own food in Sweden for this reason but ate out for nearly every meal in Ukraine.
2. Free Hostel/Hotel Breakfast or Dinner
If your hostel offers a free breakfast, this is a great place to start. Though free breakfasts can be as simple as toast and jam with coffee or tea, some hostels offer much more comprehensive free meals each morning. In Vilnius, Lithuania, for example, the hostel I stayed at offered free pancake breakfasts that were made to order by staff. Guests would sit in the common area, recap the night before, and staff would ask us how many pancakes we wanted. They would keep bringing them over until we were stuffed. It was one of my favorite breakfasts in Europe. Other hostels offer breakfast buffets, eggs to order, juice and more.
Though not as common, free dinner is sometimes offered as well. Other hostels may offer things like free pasta or rice to go with whatever other ingredients you have to prepare.
When looking at accommodations, check to see if free breakfast and/or dinner is offered, what it consists of and factor this into the cost per night. It might save you a fair amount of money depending on the city.
3. Make Your Own Cheap Meals
If your hostel doesn’t offer a free breakfast, or if the breakfast is small, fear not. Head to a local grocery store and consider stocking up on things like eggs, bread, cereal, muesli, fruit or yogurt. Avoid name brands or imports and buy the local brands for cheaper (and fresher) options. If you decide to purchase perishables, ensure your hostel has a refrigerator. In places like Europe, Australia and New Zealand, nearly every hostel will have access to a kitchen for cooking.
4. Buy Coffee, Tea & Alcohol at the Store & Refill that Water Bottle!
Consider buying your own (instant?) coffee or tea to save the daily $1-5 expense. If your accommodation has a refrigerator and you like to enjoy a few drinks, consider buying local beer, wine or alcohol to save money compared to a bar or club.
Hold on to your water bottle and refill it if the country you’re in has tap water that’s safe to drink. Your hostel may also offered filtered water. The cost of bottled water can really add up in more expensive countries, sometimes as high as $5 or more.
All of these savings add up over time and will improve your food budget for travel. Still make sure to check out local coffee shops, bars and clubs, just consider not doing it every single day.
5. Eat the Street Food!
Try the local street food instead of sitting in a more expensive restaurant. Some dishes, such as falafel in Israel, are the best when they’re cooked in front of you and a small food stall is a great place to see the process. Depending on the country, it can cost twice as much to sit at a table inside a restaurant as opposed to ordering the same thing to go. My favorite gyro in Athens was from a restaurant kitchen that also had a to-go window. I ordered the exact same sandwich from the window for half the price and sat down in a nearby park and had an impromptu picnic. This is a great way to save 50% on a meal in some countries.
In much of Southeast Asia, street food compared to restaurant food is nearly identical and is also about half the price outdoors. Some of my favorite street foods in this part of the world included beef and noodle soup in Laos, pho in Vietnam and pad Thai in Bangkok. They were all very good and usually cost around $1.50-$2 each. The dish will be made to order right in front of you.
READ NOW: 10 Reasons to Love Street Food in Europe
6. Corner Stores
Small local corner stores are great for quick grocery runs, cheaper coffee and alcohol. They also sometimes offer great local food. The Scottish Roll in the U.K. ($4-5) and burek in the Balkans ($1-2) were always available in these small shops and were a great alternative to street food or cooking for yourself. I grabbed these little meals a number of times early in the morning on my way to a walking tour.
7. Ask Locals Where They Eat
Don’t ask locals where they think ‘you’ should go, ask them where they go to eat. This will clear up any misunderstanding of what you’re after. You’ll also learn about some of the best local spots this way. I researched local spots like this by talking to hostel staff, friends I made who had been in a place for a while or people who I met that lived there. Make a new friend and find your next favorite meal. A win-win.
8. Download Google Translate
No English Menu? Awesome! Don’t view this as a hindrance. Rather, consider the foreign menu a sign that you’re in the right place. Download Google Translate ahead of time, along with the local language. Then, when this happens, pull out your smart phone or tablet and use the offline feature that allows you to aim your camera at the menu and translates the words in real time. Some of the best local meals I’ve had, such as my favorite Ukrainian burger in Kiev, were found this way. These types of local spots are also generally cheaper than the more touristy areas.
9. Family Owned Restaurants, Not Chains
If you look into a restaurant and see shiny, laminated menus and corporate uniforms, find another place to eat. In my experience, chain restaurants serve mass-produced food that is frozen and shipped from who knows how far away. Generally everything is overpriced and flavor will be lacking.
Instead, search out the best restaurants owned by locals. Once you find them, give them a try. If you enjoy your meal, ask the people who work there for recommendations on where they eat. You’ll find even more great spots to try this way. I loved my meal and the time I spent talking to a falafel shop owner and his son in Nazareth, Israel. It was one of my most memorable experiences.
10. Look for the Longest Lines or Wait Time
Is the line for a street food vendor around the block? Did the hostess at a small restaurant tell you to make sure to arrive before 5 p.m. or you won’t find a seat? Those are good signs, not bad ones!
Long lines and wait times are there for a reason! People in the area are aware that the food is so good, and/or so affordable that they commit to waiting 30+ minutes or going out of their way to show up early so they can dine there. Follow their lead. You won’t regret it. My favorite restaurants in Tallinn, Estonia and Vilnius, Lithuania were both difficult to get into because they offered incredible value. It took a few times to try and get in but ultimately it was well worth the effort.
Recap of Food Budget for Travel Tips
Like any cost of travel, food can vary greatly depending on the city. Whether you enjoy cooking, eating street food or trying out locally owned restaurants, hopefully this gives you some new ideas on how to calculate and save on your food budget for travel. Whatever food you choose make sure not to miss out on the local ingredients!
If I missed any tips you’ve found to work during your travels, please share them below!
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