Traveling on a Budget? 8 Tricks for Saving Big on Food

how to save money on food
Andrew Nash under Creative Commons

Woohoo! You’ve got your big trip all planned: you’ve booked your flight, found a great hotel and discovered lots of great activities. But, like many travelers, you may have forgotten to budget for a big trip cost: food.

Unlike shopping or attractions, food is an absolute essential. However, eating out can take a big bite out of your travel budget. What’s a hungry traveler to do?

Follow these eight rules, and you’ll return home with food in your belly and money in your wallet.

1.     Book Lodging That Includes a Kitchen or Meals

This is a no-brainer: by booking a place to stay that offers a kitchen, you’re not forced to eat all of your meals out. Instead, you can buy groceries and cook simple budget-friendly meals. You can also keep healthy snacks, like apples and carrots, fresh in your fridge. To find apartments or hostels with kitchens, check out Airbnb or Hostelworld.

If you want someone to cook your meals for you, there are lots of alternatives to staying in hotels. What about looking for a monastery stay, language school or cultural homestay? Not only will these accommodation options help you become more embedded in local life, you’ll also save a bunch of money.

2.     Go On a Food Tour

This is one of the first things I do when visiting a new city. You’re right: food tours cost money, but the knowledge you gain more than makes up for it. (Not to mention they’re a blast!) Food tours are especially useful when you’re traveling to a new country and aren’t sure what the local specialties are.

If it’s a good food tour (check on Yelp or TripAdvisor for recommendations), your tour guide will show you tons of local deals you never would’ve found on your own. After the tour, you’ll know where to go, what to order and how much it should cost — which will save you big during your time there.

3.     Eat Where the Locals Eat

The cardinal rule of eating while traveling: don’t eat on the main street or near tourist hotspots. That’s where you’ll find the lowest-quality and highest-priced grub. Do everything you can to figure out where the locals eat — and go there.

Solid options include farmers markets, street food (the best!), or local fast-food chains. You can also try EatWith; though it’s not necessarily cheap, this innovative mealsharing startup allows you to enjoy a dinner cooked by a local host.

4.     Head to the Student Neighborhood

What segment of the population is known for being broke and hating cooking? College students.

For cheap food, eat near the local university; you’re bound to find budget-friendly restaurants and screaming deals. In certain places (think: Europe), you might even be able to eat at the university cafeteria. It won’t be gourmet, but it will be affordable.

5.     Put Together a Picnic

Though picnics are fun at home, I enjoy them even more when I’m traveling. That’s because they give you the opportunity to spend time outside and people watch — for a much lower price than sitting in a trendy café. All you need is some bread, cheese and fruit (or whatever the local equivalents are), and you’ve got yourself a filling meal to enjoy in the park.

The best part? Many foreign countries don’t have open container laws, so you can bring along some wine or beer — you are on vacation, after all!

6.     Hit Up Happy Hour

Many people go to happy hour in their hometowns, but completely abandon the idea when they’re on the road. (Maybe because they’re not working, they think they don’t deserve it?)

Though the concept of happy hour doesn’t exist in every country, it’s alive and well in the United States. Appetizers are often heavily discounted — and sometimes even free with a drink order. To find good happy hour deals, try an app like Happy Hours or Happy Hour Finder.

7.     Carry Your Own Snacks

Whether I’m traveling or not, I always have snacks in my bag. This ensures I don’t get too hungry and end up splurging on expensive food I don’t really want.

You’ll face lots of unexpected twists and turns while traveling, and you may not always eat when you think you’re going to. Some nuts, granola bars or dried fruit are all it’ll take to tide you over when the line for the museum is much longer than anticipated.

8.     Plan for One Fancy Meal

All that being said, I still recommend planning for one fancy meal in your destination. Note I said plan, and not just eat. Do your research to figure out which spot is worthy of your hard-earned money. (Make sure it features the local cuisine — you don’t need to be eating Mexican food in Thailand!)

I like to book this meal for the last night of my stay. Having this special outing to look forward to makes it easier for me to save money during the rest of my trip — and the anticipation makes the food taste that much more delicious!

Your Turn: How do you save money on food while traveling? Are there any tips we missed?