How to save on food while travelling - MoneySense

How to save on food while travelling

Sampling local cuisine can get expensive depending on what you do


Eating is one of my favourite things to do when I’m travelling. I absolutely love sampling local cuisine and some of my most memorable travel memories revolve around meals I’ve had. The problem is, eating out is expensive so I’ve had to learn how to eat cheap when travelling.

Yes, I want to save as much as possible, but I believe that eating is part of the travel experience so it would be a mistake to completely cheap out. Heck, food is practically one of the main tourist attractions in some countries. Sushi in Japan, fries in Belgium, and steak in Argentina – there’s no way you would skip out on those experiences.

Balancing your budget while having good meals can be tricky. Obviously, you can’t eat out every meal, but with these tips on how to eat cheap when travelling, you won’t feel like you’re missing out.

Street food

Whenever I travel, street food is one of my favourite things to look for. Unlike North America where it’s really just limited to pretzels, hot dogs, and quick food, in Asia, you can get some delicious food for next to nothing. In Thailand, I was able to get fried rice for $1 while in Istanbul, I found fish sandwiches from a boat for $3. Some tourists worry about cleanliness but I always say that if a vendor has a long lineup of locals, then consider it safe to eat. Keep in mind that the food isn’t necessarily sold on the street, in many cases it’s sold from vendors in outdoor markets with tiny kitchens. Again, just eat where the locals do and you’ll be guaranteed a good meal.

Local food

I’ve always found that local dishes in their home country are much cheaper compared to back home. A 3-course steak dinner in Buenos Aires was on average $20 while back it home it would cost be closer to $75. Sushi in Japan is reasonably priced but as you can imagine, the fish quality doesn’t get any better. It’s also worth looking up local specialty dishes for the experience. Deep dish pizza in Chicago, poutine in Canada, and cake in Budapest are some of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

Grocery stores

If you’re still wondering how to eat cheap when travelling, then you need to visit grocery stores. This is the best place to pick up snacks e.g. water, fruit, and granola bars on the cheap. If you have a kitchen available to you, then you can cook full meals and pack some meals. If that’s not an option, most grocery stores will sell sandwiches and prepared meals that will still be much cheaper than going to restaurants.

Fast food

Say what you want about nutritional value, but fast food in every country tends to be reasonably priced. Some major chains will have some kind of value meal which is great on your wallet. I wouldn’t recommend eating fast food every meal, but you can surprisingly still get some local dishes. Every restaurant adapts local dishes into their menu so it’s worth popping into McDonald’s to see what they offer. That being said, fast food is actually more expensive than local foods in some countries, so be sure you know your exchange rates.

Avoid buying drinks

Unless you’re buying from grocery stores, buying drinks when travelling can be pretty expensive. When I was in Paris, a can of Coke cost more than a glass of wine while in parts of Europe a small bottle of water was 3 Euros. This may not sound like a lot, but it definitely adds up fast. Remember, grocery stores are your friend.

Splurge on at least one meal

With food being such an important thing in many cultures, it would be a huge disappointment if you didn’t set aside some of your travel budget for at least one nice meal. I’m not suggesting you set aside hundreds of dollars for a Michelin starred restaurant, but just enjoy one meal and don’t think too much about the costs. It’ll make the travel experience that much better.

Barry Choi is a personal finance and budget travel expert at  He has been quoted in The Financial Post, The Toronto Star and more. You can follow him on Twitter:@barrychoi

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