When planning a trip, we often think of notable expenses like flights and lodging first. Equally important to think about, however, is the smaller stuff that really adds up – like food, and alcohol. In this guide, we’ll go over some helpful tips to (hopefully) make it easier for you to save money on food while traveling.
Estimate Travel Food Costs First
Before leaving, it’s good to have an idea of what travel food costs are like in your destination(s). You can start with a tool like Numbeo, which lets you compare cost of living figures in thousands of cities worldwide (with specific categories for food). It’s also beneficial to simply Google “Food cost in (country I am going to)” to find destination-specific figures. Use these figures to estimate a travel food budget, and then think about ways you can reduce food costs while abroad.
Find Lodging with Kitchens
Eating out is great. Really, there’s not much better than having delicious food brought to you while you do literally nothing. But for that luxury, one must pay. Even eating out at budget restaurants can really add up quick. Say you’re a group of 2 traveling for 2 weeks. Even if you mostly stick to cheap ($10-$15 per person meals), you’re still looking at over $1,200 in food costs for 2 weeks! If you can cook at home for even one meal a day, you can drastically cut your traveling food budget.
Unfortunately, most hotels don’t have full kitchens (but might include free breakfast). Some hotels have kitchens – usually the more “extended stay” style, but you’ll have to seek them out.
AirBNBs are an excellent option, as are some other cheap hotel alternatives. These are homes, not hotels, so 95% of the time they’ll be equipped with a (mostly) full kitchen. Often they’ll even have staples, like seasoning, eggs, milk, etc. that guests are welcome to use. Some hostels also have communal kitchens that you are welcome to use. Over a week stay, having access to a kitchen can easily save you several hundred dollars and significantly reduce your travel food costs.
Bring Travel Snacks from Home
Stocking up on good travel food before you leave home is a great way to slash your travel food budget. Small and filling road trip foods like beef jerky, trail mix, energy bars, etc. are a good place to start. Just be aware that some countries/airports/etc will restrict what you can bring in, so it’s wise to look up the regulations before leaving home. And, bonus: as you eat these travel snacks you’ll free up room in your bag for souvenirs and gifts!
Eat Like the Locals
When you do go out to eat (which you absolutely should, quite-often-but-maybe-not-for-every-meal), try to seek out cheaper, local spots. Not only will you save a lot of money, but you’ll get an authentic dining experience.
So, that tourist trap with 16 beers on tap, attractive servers, and a crowd of foreigners? It might be good, but it’s gonna cost you. That hole-in-the-wall with no English menu and a crowd of locals? It might be tricky to order, but it’s gonna be good – and most likely, cheap!
Hit Up the Corner Store
This one certainly varies by country, but some places have convenience store food DIALED IN. Take Japan, for example. You can get a delicious, fresh meal at a 7/11 or Lawsons in Japan for around 500-700JPY, or about $6. In America, you could probably get a 7/11 meal for that, but it’s likely to come with a hefty side of disappointment and a dash of food poisoning.
Another big bonus of convenience stores is SNACK FOODS. I love exploring new cuisines when I travel, and that includes snack food “cuisine”, if you can call it that. You’ll find some familiar faces, but try out something funky for best results.
Street Food? Street Food.
Street food is something that should be everywhere, but unfortunately isn’t. If you’re in a country with street food, try it out – you might be surprised. If you can look past the seemingly unsanitary conditions often on proud display, you can score some incredibly delicious (and cheap) street food. Thailand is known for street food (and Bangkok, in particular), but countries like Peru, Colombia, Taiwan, etc. also bring the heat in the street food department.
Hit the Mall (no, really)
Malls are not usually my cup of tea, but it really depends where you’re at in the world. Regardless of my current geographical location, I’m never too stoked about the shopping options at the local mega-mall – but, I’ve found that in many countries, mall food courts are actually quite good. If you’re from the US, you’re probably picturing a Subway, a Cinnabon, and a crappy Chinese food place – but rest assured, not all mall food courts are made the same.
It varies by country, but I’ve found that many countries tend to have food courts in the basement of the mall. Often, they feature surprisingly local/authentic food, at surprisingly low prices. It’s also sheltered and air conditioned, which doesn’t hurt anything!
Gorge at Lunch Time or Happy Hour
For most of us, our “big” meal of the day usually happens in the evening. But for restaurant dining, dinner is generally the most expensive meal. If you hit lunch or happy hour, you can often score great deals. This is particularly pronounced in some countries, where a fancy restaurant might cost you $50USD per person at dinner, but only $15-$25 at lunch.
Similarly, if you scope out good happy hours, you can get full AND drunk on the (relative) cheap. Keep in mind that just because a restaurant has a happy hour doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good deal. See if they have a menu published online to peruse, or Google “best happy hours in (city name)” to get some ideas.
If you’re going out for a night on the town, hit the corner store first to pick up some of your favorite adult beverages on the cheap. Getting a light buzz on before heading out can turn a $100 night of bad decisions into just a $50 night of bad decisions, and your wallet will thank you (your body is gonna be pissed the next day, though).
Protip: in some countries, it’s actually legal (and often totally normal) to drink in public/on the street. Obviously double check the laws in the relevant country, but this is a goldmine for pregaming – you no longer have to huddle up in your hotel room drinking alone in the dark – you can now huddle up in a park drinking alone in the dark.\
Travel food costs are what you make them. Obviously you’re going to have to spend a decent chunk of change on food, but if you follow these tips you can reduce your travel food costs and still have a great time!