Last updated: 3/17/23 | March 17, 2023
I like to eat.
In fact, eating is one of my favorite activities, and also one of my favorite aspects of travel.
Food is an integral part of many cultures, so skipping meals while traveling means missing out on a part of that culture.
I am always disappointed when I meet travelers who cook everyone Their meals are in the hostel kitchen.
Why do you come to Italy and not eat pasta?
No sushi in Japan?
Avoid eating steak in Argentina?
Skipping paella in Spain?
While you don’t need to eat every dish when visiting a new country, it is important to be as open as possible to their food culture.
Of course, many travelers have a real concern when it comes to food. For example, eating out all the time is very expensive. Imagine if you ate out every day – your food budget would be amazing!
Additionally, many people have diet concerns that prevent them from fully embracing new foods. And many travelers are also vegetarian or vegan, which may influence their choices.
As a backpacker, people often assume that I, like other backpackers, cook all my meals.
However, I don’t cook much when I’m on the road. While I love to cook at home, I hate poorly stocked motel kitchens.
To make sure I could eat out without breaking the bank, I had to learn how to balance eating 99% of my meals out while still finding a way to save money.
Yes, it takes a little smart thinking, but it sure is possible. Here’s how to eat out on a budget while you’re traveling the world:
1. Eat at buffets
Although they don’t always offer the best meals, buffets offer great value for your money, especially since they are all you can eat. Often times, you can fill up on one meal throughout the day. They’re a good budget choice and give you the most food for your money (while letting you try lots of different foods).
2. Visit the outdoor hawkers
Small stands selling hot dogs, sausages, sandwiches, and similar foods are great places to get a quick and cheap meal. While in Sweden I lived on these types of vendors. While it’s not fancy, it’s delicious and cheap!
In Amsterdam, FEBO and their croquettes kept my stomach full. In Costa Rica, an empanada seller filled me with $1 and I bought local food from vendors in the markets for pennies in Madagascar.
This fast and inexpensive food won’t win you any Michelin stars (although there are Michelin-starred food stalls in Singapore!) but it will keep you full without emptying your wallet.
3. Eat street food
In most places around the world (especially in Asia), the streets are lined with little food stalls and areas where food is cooked openly on the street.
You grab a plate, sit on a little plastic stool, and enjoy a delicious meal. Street food is some of the best in the world. Meals at street stalls (different from street vendors, which have a slightly more permanent setup) cost less than a dollar most of the time and are a great way to really experience the local cuisine.
Many places — like Thailand and Vietnam, for example — wouldn’t be the same if street food disappeared.
4. (Sometimes) eat fast food
Fast food isn’t the best for you, but it’s another option if you want a cheap meal in inexpensive parts of the world. For less than $5 (more in expensive countries like Norway, home of the $15 Whopper), you can have a filling (and massively calorie-packed) meal.
On top of that, your local dollar menu will get you more. Sure, it’s not the greatest food, and I’m going to skip the philosophical argument about traveling the world just to eat McDonald’s to say it’s cheap and just another way to help you rein in your spending. (However, note: In Asia, fast food is often more expensive than local foods.)
5. Go local
When you’ve been traveling for a while, it’s only natural that you crave a taste of home every now and then. That means sure, sometimes I get sick of Greek food when I travel there a bit. Other times, I can’t eat any more Thai food and just want a burger.
We live in a globalized world – whatever you want. However, non-local food is always more expensive than local food. For example, in Vietnam, a bowl of pho is less than a dollar, but a burger is about three times as much (or more!).
Go local and you’ll save yourself a lot of money in the long run!
6. Find lunch specials
Many restaurants, especially in Europe, offer lunch specials, where items on the dinner menu are offered at a deep discount. You can get a great afternoon meal for a fraction of the cost you would pay for the same meal in the evening.
I usually tend to eat my “nice” meal during lunch, because the lunch specials and dishes of the day are 30-40% off what I would pay at dinner. The options are usually limited, but the savings are more than justified.
7. Skip the soda
Getting a refreshing can of Coke or Pepsi may seem like an inexpensive way to quench your thirst, but it’s an option that adds a lot (like buying coffee every day). Sure, I may occasionally splurge on cola drinks, but I rarely buy soda because it’s so expensive (and so bad for you!).
When you’re visiting a tropical location, an iced soda definitely appeals. But spending a few bucks a day can really add up over the course of a long-term trip!
8. A refillable water bottle
Water may not be as expensive as soda, but buying a bottle (or three) each day can add up. While you’re walking around and sightseeing, you need to stay hydrated. But buying a bottle of water not only wastes the environment — it also makes a fool of your travel budget.
Assuming each bottle is about $0.75 and you buy three a day, you’ll be spending $67.50 over the course of a month!
That’s a lot of money spent on water! (Plus, in some parts of the world, bottled water costs much more than that!)
Carry a refillable water bottle (with filter) instead and use only tap water. I suggest the Lifestraw bottle. It ensures that your water is always clean and safe.
9. Don’t snack
Icecream here, icecream there. Soda. A piece of cake. ice cream. Small pastries. It all adds up.
Since the price tag is so small (“It’s only Euros!”), we don’t think the snacks have much of an impact on our budget. But buying snacks multiple times a day will only add up and blow your budget. Even if you buy only two snacks for €1.50 a day, that will be at least €90 (over $100 USD!) by the end of the month.
It’s not something many travelers think, but snacking is actually increasing in the long run. Avoid snacks and stick to large, filling meals instead. If you need a snack, make sure you factor it into your budget.
If you are someone who likes to snack throughout the day, consider buying snacks from the supermarket such as fruits, crackers, energy bars, etc., to take with you to eat throughout the day so that you are prepared instead of splurging. An expensive tourist trap snack.
10. Cook often
I don’t cook much on the road because I don’t like motel kitchens. They never have everything I need, and I hate traveling with a portable kitchen until I have all the ingredients I want.
However, when I’m in one place for a while (or if I’m into Couchsurfing), I do cook a few meals.
Cooking is one of the best ways to cut down on travel costs, and supermarkets are also great places to go to see what the locals are eating. The only place where cooking your own meals is not the most economical option is in Asia, where street food is usually cheaper.
Like I mentioned, I often go out for a better meal at lunch when I can find a good deal. This usually means I will cook my own food for dinner. This way, I will continue to experiment with the local cuisine but also keep my budget the same. Double win!
Another good way to self-cook is a picnic. This is something I often do for lunch if I’m somewhere with nice weather. I usually head to a local food market, pick up a bunch of food, and go for a walk in the park. Not only do I save money (sandwiches aren’t that expensive), but it gives me a good opportunity to watch the locals go about their daily lives.
If you’re staying in a hostel, this is a great icebreaker for meeting new people. Simply invite everyone to join you and you’ll be making new friends in no time!
12. Use tourism cards
Most people think that tourist cards like the iAmsterdam Card or the VisitOslo Card are just a way to save money on transportation and attractions. But these cards also offer discounts at many restaurants. Discounts are usually around 15-25%, but sometimes lunch specials can be as low as 50% off.
Visit the local tourist office when you arrive and ask about food discounts, which are included. You will likely be able to save even more money if you take the time to learn about the Tourist Card. It’s a worthwhile investment!
13. Find a free breakfast
If you can find hostels or hotels that include breakfast, you’ve already eliminated the cost of one. Plus, if you have a huge breakfast that keeps you full for most of the day, you don’t need to eat as many meals out. Moreover, many hostels around the world also offer free dinners, free coffee and tea, and other food-related perks. Look for them to save money and lower food costs.
14. Eat with the students
Where there are universities, there are students, and since students are usually penniless, that means there are likely to be cheap places to eat nearby. Check Google Maps for local post-secondary institutions and see what you can find in the immediate area. Many of the bars in the area likely offer cheap drinks and happy hours too, so you can save even more.
15. Use supermarket deals
In many countries, supermarkets offer lunchtime specials for those working in the surrounding areas. These usually include fresh sandwiches or some soup or salad. In addition, many supermarkets also discount foods that expire soon, including bread, baked goods, meats, and produce. Buy groceries in the evening and you’ll likely find yourself some discounted (but still perfectly safe and edible) foods.
I love nice restaurants. I don’t mind paying money for a good meal with a glass of wine. But doing every meal is simply too expensive.
But, using the tips above, I can keep costs low while still affording a high-quality meal now and then.
And that’s what’s really important – finding the right balance.
Because if you can strike a balance between eating great food and saving money, both your wallet and your stomach will thank you.
Book your flight: logistics tips and tricks
Book your flight
Find a cheap flight with Skyscanner. It’s my favorite search engine because it searches websites and airlines around the world so you’ll always know that no stone is left unturned.
Reserve your accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as it constantly shows the cheapest rates for guesthouses and hotels.
Don’t forget travel insurance
Travel insurance will protect you from illness, injury, theft and cancellation. It is comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
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