, food might be the best part of travel. It combines adventure with learning and necessity. When purchased away from home, however—especially by unsuspecting or first-time visitors—food can quickly become an expensive proposition. This is largely due to restaurant markups, which travelers usually incur in the absence of easy-access kitchens, fridges, pantries and dining rooms.
To avoid markups and letdowns, I have one piece of advice that has served me well on four different continents, in several countries and countless cities. It is this: eat as the locals do. What do locals do to save on food that tourists can too?
Use Grocery Stores
On a recent trip to Europe, a friend and I spent less than two bucks on the best wheel of brie I’ve ever eaten. For a few dollars more, we also split a baguette, tomato and sliced salami. We didn’t have access to cookware, ovens or stoves … but thanks to grocery stores and make-shift dining rooms the continent over, we enjoyed similar, delicious meals again and again. In fact, the meals were just as memorable as the ones we enjoyed in finer restaurants.
Before you hastily react with the importance of spontaneity, hear me out. When I say “plan ahead,” I’m not talking about a pre-made pack list or logistics being answered months in advance. I’m talking about two simple things: 1) Decide what you intend to spend on food during your trip and stick to your budget; and 2) Search your phone for 30 seconds to find the aforementioned grocers and best bang-for-your-buck restaurants that still rate well. How hard is that?
Although I never pack entire meals before traveling, I always scan my immediate environment for produce and snacks. That could be a fruit bowl or cookie at reception, a survey of what meals could be prepared in my room with the help of a convenient store, or a bag of almonds in my pantry before heading to the airport. Since breakfast and lunch are the easiest meals to enjoy without kitchenware, you might also consider putting your hotel’s mini fridge to good use (e.g. with yogurt, take-out boxes, leftover brie and salami).
There’s nothing wrong with indulging on caloric or otherwise flavored drinks now and again. But for optimal health, travel fitness, bank account status and enjoyment of the world around you, drinking should mostly be done with water. To facilitate this, carry or reuse an empty water bottle wherever you go. And learn how to ask for tap water in foreign countries where it’s safe to drink. Believe it or not, water-holics aren’t depriving themselves of anything. Once you’re on the wagon, body and mind will even take pleasure in it.
It would be a shame not to enjoy well-prepared meals from local cooks while someplace new. As your budget allows, make calculated restaurant selections and food splurges that matter most to you—not what critical or even popular opinion says you should. That almost always includes spacing out restaurants with a mix of the above. But it could also be jumping for the cheaper veggie dish over meat sometimes or lunch menu over dinner when desired (albeit sometimes smaller portioned) plates are still available.
Having both eaten every meal out AND gone fully frugal on past trips, I can honestly say I enjoy the latter more. So does my wallet and health.
Photo: Aaron C, CC-BY
Off the Grid columnist Blake Snow writes epic stories for fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies. Follow him on Twitter.