Wondering how to save money on food while traveling during these high-inflation times? Read on for ten great tips to take back control of your vacation budget!
After months of skyrocketing inflation and costs, I know I’m not the only one feeling the pinch of my dollar not going as far as it used to. I’ve felt it at the gas pump, in buying a new season’s worth of clothes for my growing kids, in finding transatlantic flights for vacation planning clients, and definitely at the grocery store.
One of the most noticeable places you’ll see the impact of inflation is on restaurant menus, with prices up over 8% year over year in the US. And if you’re planning to do any traveling this year – where you’ll essentially be eating out every single day – chances are that the cost of food is going to have a significantly larger impact on your travel budget than in years past.
And look, I get it. Trying new foods, exploring culture through cuisine, and (especially as a busy working mom) *not* cooking are some of the best parts of traveling. Who wants to travel to an amazing foodie destination like Japan or Italy or France and not enjoy the cuisine? But it’s no secret that, especially nowadays, food costs make up a big portion of the overall cost of taking a vacation. And, when done strategically, cutting your food budget can be one of the most effective ways to lower your travel costs without sacrificing much of your experience. Personally, I’d rather grab a couple of grocery store lunches and put that extra money toward a snorkeling adventure or museum ticket or guided hike that I will be much more likely to remember later than whatever sandwich and fries I would have eaten. (Yes, fries. Always fries.)
Today, I want to share some of my best tips for how to save money on food while traveling. Whether you’re looking to travel as cheaply as possible, wanting to make room in the budget for more memorable experiences, or just seeking ways to reduce your overall vacation costs, this article is for you! Let me know what you think in the comments below, and I’d also love to hear any other tips you have on how to reduce your vacation costs!
(And PS: you might also want to check out my list of 20 hidden travel costs to further help keep your budget intact!)
Bring snacks from home.
Even if you want to be able to fully enjoy the cuisine in your destination, it’s still smart to pack some snacks in your suitcase. Having a bag of trail mix or a protein bar on hand will come in handy if you get peckish throughout the day or if your meal times get delayed. You’ll also save money compared to impulse-buying something to satiate your hunger in the moment.
We missed lunch in favor of a boat trip to the incredible Loch Coruisk in Scotland, but our snacks from home saved the day!
Self-cater when possible.
In most vacation rental properties and some hotels, you’ll find a kitchen or kitchenette that will allow you to cook some of your own meals. By cooking even one or two meals at home (especially dinners), you could easily save $50 – $100 or more depending on where you’re traveling and how many people are in your party.
It’s especially effective to self-cater your own breakfasts. Splurge on a nice breakfast or brunch on one or two days, but otherwise grab some easy and comparatively inexpensive morning goodies – like fruit, yogurt, bread for toast, or bagels – from a supermarket or convenience store.
Our fabulous Airbnb in Newport, Rhode Island allowed us to self-cater and save money in a pricey destination.
Split or share plates.
Most obviously if you’re traveling in the United States, portion sizes can be bigger than one person needs or wants to eat at a single meal. Save money and reduce food waste by splitting that meal between two people, or pick a few plates to share between everyone in your group.
Please be aware, though, that some restaurants prohibit splitting plates or tack on a small fee to do so. Please also be generous toward your server if you’re in a tipping country, since you’d be tipping on the cost of one meal even though two people were served.
We split two incredible bowls between three people at Stuffed Avocado Shop in Old San Juan and still had some left over!
Eat at high-end restaurants for lunch rather than dinner.
One of the secrets of fine dining is that you can often get the same quality food for a fraction of the price just by shifting the time of your visit to lunch instead of dinner. If you love high-end food or want to check out an especially fancy place, try going for lunch.
This lamb dish in Budapest, Hungary, was absolutely delicious!
Skip the appetizers and booze.
Two of the menu categories with the highest markup are appetizers/starters and alcoholic beverages. While I am certainly a lover of appetizers and finger food and enjoy a celebratory cocktail or glass of wine while on vacation, the fact is that if you can stick to non-alcoholic drinks and a good entree you can save a significant amount of money, especially over the course of multiple meals. Perhaps choose a meal or two to splurge on allllll the apps and zerts, as Parks and Recreation‘s Tom Haverford would say, but keep things more simple for the rest.
When your meal is as fresh and filling as this one, you don’t need to spend money on appetizers. (Ingenio, Peru)
Get dessert elsewhere.
Similarly, you can often satisfy your sweet tooth for less money (and more satisfaction) after a meal by hitting up an ice cream parlor, patisserie, or other sweet shop. Grabbing dessert at another spot also helps spread your tourism dollars around, supporting multiple businesses instead of just one or two restaurants.
Choose accommodations where breakfast is provided.
Similar to my earlier point about self-catering breakfast, if you can find a place to stay where breakfast is provided in the morning it can make a big difference in your budget. As an added bonus, eating breakfast at your guest house or hotel saves time and allows you to start your day a lot faster! Just make sure to do a comparison between breakfast-included and not-included rates to make sure you truly are getting a good deal.
Our beautiful bed and breakfast in Virginia’s wine country, The Farmhouse at Beautiful Run, excelled in the breakfast spread department, and it ended up being a highlight of our bachelorette weekend there.
Choose tours and activities that include food.
If you can combine sightseeing with some good eats, it can provide a real bang for your buck. This can take the form of anything from a cooking class to a combined food and walking tour to an all-day snorkeling adventure with a lunch stop on a private island.
And sure, you’re still technically paying for your meal in the price of the excursion or tour. But it doesn’t feel as much like a separate, out-of-pocket meal expense as it would if you were going to a restaurant. And the part of your ticket that’s going toward the meal is probably less than you would have spent at a restaurant anyway.
After spending the morning snorkeling the amazing Belize Barrier Reef, we got to enjoy a full barbecue lunch in this little slice of paradise.
Eat street food (when it's safe to do so).
Street eats are beloved the world over, and often you’re missing something special if you don’t try them out. This is true regardless of whether or not you’re trying to save money on food while traveling!
Making a meal out of street food has the additional benefit of often being cheaper and quicker than eating in a restaurant. It’s great to be able to grab something tasty-looking from a cart or a stall and either eat on your way to your next adventure or linger in a park or square watching the world go by.
It is true that in many places, eating street food may put you at a higher risk of contracting a food-borne illness, but there are also plenty of ways to mitigate that risk. A few of the most effective tips for avoiding food-borne illness are to eat where and when the locals eat (look for lines!), stick to hot foods, and order drinks without ice.
Lunch on the go in Paris‘s Jewish Quarter: a tasty handful of falafel!
Utilize local markets, grocery, and convenience stores.
Similar to the self-catering advice above, there are plenty of other ways to make or find a meal without having to visit a traditional restaurant. One of the best is to visit local markets, which has the added benefit of offering you a fascinating glimpse into culture and ways of life. Grab some pre-made meals or dishes, or go out on a limb and pick out some unfamiliar ingredients and try to make something yourself!
Grocery and convenience stores also offer lots of ways to make a meal or grab a quick snack on the cheap. (Oh, the number of 7-Elevens I visited in Thailand!) This is especially helpful if you’re not exceptionally hungry and just need something to hold you over.
Local markets, like Kyoto‘s famous Nishiki Market, provide ample opportunities to try local foods at lower prices than you’d find in a restaurant. (photo credit: Jeff Gibbard)
I hope these tips on how to save money on food while traveling were helpful to you! Going bare-bones (or just cutting back) on food costs while traveling may help make that seemingly out-of-reach bucket list destination possible, or you can just free up some room in the budget to splurge on experiences you’ll be more likely to remember later.
At the same time, though, I do want to empower you to seek balance when it comes to managing your food budget. I don’t want you to come back from Italy regretting that you never sampled the pasta or from Mexico despondent at how few tacos you got to try. So figure out where your values lie in terms of spending money on food vs. accommodations, experiences, or other parts of the trip, and make your choices accordingly.
Toward the end of my three-month backpacking trip across South America, we befriended a British guy in Brazil. (We actually met him when he saved my traveling companion’s life, but that’s a story for another time.) This guy’s travel MO was to stay in cheap hostels throughout his trip, but then book himself a luxurious, expensive hotel for the final night of his trips. I have always been intrigued by that strategy, and think it could easily be applied to saving money while on food while traveling as well. Keep things bare-bones for the meals and snacks you don’t care about, and then indulge in guilt-free cuisine where it’s most important to you.
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