Now that we’ve covered some general ways to save money while traveling, let’s zero in on the real reason most of us travel: the food.
And not just the food, but the coffee, tea, and booze.
Eating and drinking well are essential to any travel experience — but doing so on a budget can be challenging.
That’s why, after having traveled to 40-something countries myself, I’ve developed a system for eating and drinking that’ll keep you satisfied without busting your budget.
So without further ado, here are nine ways to save money on food and drink while traveling.
1. Always bring a meal to the airport
After catching flights in and out of 41 countries, I’ve learned to always bring a meal to the airport.
Because airport food isn’t just expensive; it’s unhealthy. You’re often stuck choosing between a Big Mac and Panda Express, both of which are laden with preservatives that will slow you down.
Paying $17.81 to feel bloated and sluggish is no way to start a journey.
Instead, I like to fill a to-go container at home with rice, beans, and a cheap protein (tofu, tuna, etc.). Add your favorite seasoning, shake it up, and bam — you’ve got a delicious meal rich in protein, complex carbs, and fiber, all for around $3.
Once you’re through TSA, grab some plasticware near the gate and chow down. I’d recommend sealing the container inside a one-gallon Ziploc® bag, just in case of spillage.
Or, if you have the right credit card, your card’s benefits may grant you access to an airport lounge, where you can scarf down food and beverages for free.
2. Keep your water bottle full
While I’d encourage you to try the local coffee, brew, or smoothie, it pays to keep a water bottle on you at all times — and constantly rehydrate.
I’m serious. You should be drinking so much water that your travel companions start calling you Charlie Chugwater.
That’s because drinking tons of water keeps your energy high while being a free alternative to more expensive sodas or juices.
Or, at least it’s nearly free — in my experience, countries that lack potable tap water typically sell two-liter bottles of it for less than a buck.
3. Stock up on snacks at the grocery store
Once my companion(s) and I land in a new place and get settled, the first place we go is the grocery store.
For one, exploring grocery stores is just fun in foreign countries.
I once had to act out my entire grocery list for a young store associate in Saigon, as I don’t speak Vietnamese (I hope she enjoyed watching me desperately act out “deodorant”).
Plus, grocery stores offer a low-cost way to stock up on non-perishable snacks to tide you between meals: wasabi cashews, trail mix, etc.
4. Follow the locals to nearby street food
There’s an old adage in food tourism that probably started thousands of years ago and still rings true today: follow the locals.
The local population will always avoid overpriced tourist traps and instead lead you to cheap, safe, and delicious places. You can pop into the local hostel to ask for tips or simply ask folks on the street where to eat.
In my experience, it helps to be specific because often, the response is, “well, what do you want to eat?”
So a reasonable ask that saves everyone a little time is:
“Could you tell me where the locals eat [insert specific dish]?”
5. Follow hara hachi bu and save your leftovers
When enjoying a meal while traveling, the last thing you want to do is eat yourself into postprandial somnolence, aka a good ol’ food coma.
Take it from me; just two extra bites of doner kebab can drain all the energy you had on reserve to keep exploring that afternoon.
Instead, train yourself in the wise ways of the Okinawan eating code hara hachi bu, which roughly translates to “80% full.” Basically, don’t eat until you’re full. Eat until you’re not hungry anymore.
Then, save the leftovers. If you can stretch one delicious meal into two delicious meals, that’s a self-made BOGO.
Plus, saving leftovers gets easier if you…
6. Stay somewhere with a kitchen
When booking your accommodations, keep a keen eye on which kitchen appliances you’ll have access to. That’s because each one can be a money-saving tool:
- Fridges can preserve your leftovers longer, so you don’t have to eat the same meal twice in a row.
- Microwaves not only let you heat up your leftovers but open the door to the entire frozen food aisle of the grocery store for more substantial midnight snacks.
- Stovetops let you cook eggs, tofu, and other forms of protein for a cheap and filling breakfast.
Be mindful, too, that not all fridges are made the same. Many hotel “fridges” — especially those on cruise ships — are just coolers that are slightly colder than ambient temperature. So be sure to stuff a bag of ice in them before storing food or medications.
7. Splurge on lunch — not dinner
No matter where you go or what you eat, lunch is almost always cheaper than dinner.
In fact, in restaurants worldwide, you can often get the same meal at noon instead of 7:30 PM and save a few bucks.
Or dong, yuan, or hryvnia.
Anyways, restaurants basically treat lunch as “discount dinner” for a few reasons:
- Lunch portions are often slightly smaller.
- Lunch menus are shorter, making lunch production easier.
- The demand curve dictates that lunch should be cheaper.
So instead of having a big lunch and big dinner, which can cost $50, you might have a big lunch and ample lunch leftovers, which costs $20.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a fancy dinner abroad — candles, music, white tablecloth — but if you can sometimes switch your fancy meal to lunch — sunshine, afternoon cocktails, etc. — you can save big bucks without missing out on the finer things.
8. Have drinks at the nearest hostel
Choosing a bar can be trickier than choosing a restaurant because there’s a new factor: your personal safety.
For solo women travelers specifically, the importance of choosing a safe place to drink alcohol can’t be overstated. That’s why my woman-identifying travel buddies recommend that we all drink at the local hostel.
“Generally speaking, hostels are incredibly safe,” writes Kate of TravelFashionGirl.com. Not only do hostels offer cheap beer and cocktails, but they’re also safe little fortresses full of chill, globetrotting Gen Zs to hang out with.
9. Bring the right travel rewards credit card
Bringing the right travel rewards credit card on your journey isn’t just about saving 3% on foreign transaction fees.
Let’s say; instead of your regular, everyday credit card, you bring a Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card with you.
- If you book your travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards, you’ll earn 5x points.
- You’ll get 3x points on dining and 2x points on other travel expenses while you’re there (rail tickets, rental cars, etc.).
- You’ll get $50 off a hotel.
- You’ll have no foreign transaction fees.
- And once you spend $4,000 within the first three months (not hard when you’re traveling), you’ll trigger the 60,000-point bonus worth $750 (or more) when redeemed for more travel.
Between the hotel credit and signup bonus alone, that’s $800 off your travel budget at a minimum.
That’s the power of having the right travel rewards card in your pocket while you’re abroad.
Check out our complete list of the best travel rewards cards of 2022.
Saving money on food and drink while traveling isn’t about sacrifice; it’s about strategy. By staying hydrated, saving leftovers, and choosing your watering holes wisely, you can still eat like a king or queen without breaking the bank.
And for more ways to save on travel (and hidden costs to watch out for), check out 33 hidden travel costs to think about before booking your next trip.
Featured image: Benny Marty/Shutterstock.com