A food and travel writer's budget-savvy tips for eating well abroad.
If you’re anything like me, you travel to eat (and, of course, Instagram every bite along the way). Whether it’s plate after plate of Iberico ham and artfully crafted tapas in Spain, or bowls of noodles laden with fiery chilis that linger on your lips in Thailand, for many wanderlusters, exploring a region’s culinary scene is just as important, if not paramount to, experiencing the local sights.
And while the idea of long-term travel immediately conjures romantic images of life on the road—hopping city to city without a care in the world, and indulging in plates of favorite local dishes alongside free-flowing bottles of regional of wine with new, worldly friends—this fantasy can quickly dissolve to stark reality when you see its effect on your bank account.
Chances are, if you’re planning to head out for a long-term trek across the globe, your budget will be far from unlimited.
When I recently decided to leave the country for 6 months, traveling everywhere from Marrakech to Naples to Budapest hoping to taste all the world had to offer, the financial learning curve was a steep one. I quickly realized that two to three meals a day at my favorite Parisian cafes and bistros was going to quickly drain my budget.
After a month or so of spending to my heart’s desire, it was a shock to look at how quickly my travel stash had been depleted by a-few-too-many “once-in-a-lifetime” meals.
I learned that in order to travel and eat smart, and not go bankrupt in the process, it requires a little compromise, a lot of planning, and heaps of willpower to stick to your plan. Here are some of the tricks I learned along the way to help you make your long-term travel goals an affordable reality.
While surfing the web for budget hotel and hostel deals, be sure to factor in provided meals, from buffet breakfasts to family-style dinners. While the price of these low-cost, extended travel-friendly dwellings might fluctuate just $10-$20 per night between them, an included breakfast will not only save you money on your first meal of the day, but will also be the gift that keeps giving.
Starting the day with a substantial meal will keep you full until lunch time, so you won’t be tempted to stop for a cappuccino or pastry when it’s not within your budget, and tucking away a few pieces of fruit and a bag of granola to snack on can keep cravings at bay.
Similarly, many hostels and homestays will offer inexpensive or even free family-style dinners cooked by the staff, giving you the chance to explore the region’s cuisine without breaking the bank.
Make sure to keep your eye on reviews, too. If multiple people are raving about the buffet-style breakfast, you know it’s a sure bet, compared to lackluster comments about the stale coffee and pastries at the motel’s “continental breakfast.”
Commit to Homemade Meals
While it’s tempting to eat out for every meal while traveling in an effort to avoid the FOMO that comes with not being able to try every one of the area’s most famed dishes, committing to making a homemade meal once a day, or even just a few times a week, will free up some room in your financial and caloric budget.
Hitting the local markets to collect materials for your culinary masterpieces will not only make you feel more connected to the local commerce and culture, but will likely introduce you to exciting ingredients you’ve never tried before.
If kitchen access is a concern, look into low-cost Airbnbs or seek out hostels and hotels with open kitchens that are available for guests’ use.
Plus, nearly everywhere, from Montreal to Mexico City, cooking classes are offered by locals to teach you how to prepare the region’s cuisine, eliminating your fear of missing out and enabling you recreate those dishes for years to come.
If you’d rather spend time exploring rather than preparing meals daily, make-ahead meals like portable jarred salads, cold sesame noodles, and flavorful bean salads that can be grabbed in a flash throughout the week will be a serious time and money saver.
Make a Gameplan
Going into an area with an eating plan of action will help to eliminate unexpected costs along the way, and guarantee that you’ll be able to taste the best an area has to offer without pushing your bottom line. Research a city or country’s culinary scene ahead of time and make a food bucket list of each of the specialties you’d like to try, and of reputable restaurants that offer affordable options. Not only will hunting down each of these dishes become a fun travel game, but will also help narrow down the seemingly endless dining options in each place.
Budgetary restrictions can also help you prioritize your travel wish list, and guide you to places where the local flavors you crave won’t come with such a cost. Traveling through areas with lower food costs, and more prominent street food cultures, like Southeast Asia and Central America, will challenge your budget significantly less than countries with higher costs, like Australia and Western Europe.
Watch: How to Make Persian Street Vendor Kebabs
Know When to Splurge, and When to Save
When entering a new city or country, go in with a food budget and stick with it. While this budget will likely be flexible based on the financial demands of the place—you’ll certainly need more to eat your way across Rome than Ho Chi Minh—this set amount will help you figure out when you can splurge and when you can save.
I typically account for 1-2 “splurge” meals in each country I’m visiting, meaning a pricier meal that I order with my cravings, and not my budget, in mind. Serious foodies should do their research ahead of time, and plan their splurge meals carefully, to get the most bang for their buck. If there’s one local restaurant that’s been raved about online or written up in guide books, make a reservation early and be prepared to spend freely on your special meal, committing to cheaper street food options for your next few dinners to rebalance the scales. Not to mention, there’s a good chance that street meat you try in the meantime will be pretty dang memorable itself.