How to find cheap eats wherever you travel

One of the best parts of being on vacation is stepping outside of your routine, trying new things and immersing yourself in your destination. But, of course, much of that comes at a cost — and one expense you can’t avoid while traveling is food. Wherever you are, you have to eat — but you don’t have to blow your entire vacation budget to do so. Whether you’re a foodie keen on discovering delicious, unique restaurants or you just want to find decent food to sustain yourself between experiences, here’s how to do so on the cheap.

Research in advance

Food is one aspect of your vacation that you don’t necessarily have to plan in advance (unlike accommodations, transportation, and certain excursions) but if you want to stay within a certain budget, research will help you do that. “Prior to your trip, I would do research both on what the typical restaurant meal costs versus what street/fast foods cost, so that you can adequately budget accordingly,” said Regina Oake, marketing and traveller experience manager with Life Before Work Travel. “You know your own preferences better than anyone else, and specifically if you are traveling with lots of dietary restrictions, it’s pertinent to take the time to prep for locations that are available to cater to your requirements.” If you’re a big foodie and have your eye on specific restaurants or types of food, research will help you plan for those expenses; and if not, Oake noted, you can at least get an idea of how much you’ll need to spend even for quick meals on the go.

“Reach out to people you know that have traveled to these areas in the past, or search for blogs online, to scope out what the average meals cost in the areas,” she said. Sites like TripAdvisor and apps like LocalEats can provide valuable insight; and, as Oake mentioned, blogs that dig into your destination (which you can find with some Googling and hashtag-searching on social media) are another great resource. Gather information about other expenses you’ll incur while traveling as well, and carve out a food budget with those numbers in mind.

Ask locals for tips

Once you’re at your destination, Oake said finding great, affordable food is “as simple as asking a few locals to get a glimpse into the hidden gems of the area.” After all, if anyone has a lay of the culinary land, it’s the people who live there.

“Although it can sometimes be a bit more of a mission, I find it best to ask locals in the area where their favorite places to eat are, especially if you are looking to indulge in more off-the-beaten-path food adventures,” Oake said. While big travel review sites may lead you to good restaurants, “locals will know the less costly, secret spots,” she added. “Just make sure to ask nicely, so they are keen to share!” And even if you’re just looking for inexpensive street food, Oake pointed out that locals can help steer you toward the best options and away from any you should avoid.

Stay away from tourist traps

Tourist trap restaurants are inevitable in any destination where there’s a solid amount of tourism — and eating at them will cost you. Having those conversations with locals will help you avoid these pricey spots, as will actually observing the clientele. “I highly advise taking a peek inside a restaurant to see if there are locals eating there,” Oake said. “I have found that that’s a great way to spot a tourist trap from a local haven, as locals know to avoid those spots that tend to overprice mediocre food.”

Beyond that, look out for flashy signs, menus translated into English (if you’re in a country where English is not the primary language) and employees standing outside trying to lure you in to eat — these all tend to be signs of tourist traps, with prices to match. You’re also likely to find these types of restaurants close to major landmarks, hotel strips or popular tourist neighborhoods; head even just a little ways off the beaten path, and you can usually find more affordable options.

Remember to budget for drinks

When you’re researching in advance, chances are you’re focused primarily on food and the costs of local cuisine. But if you plan to drink alcohol or other potentially pricey beverages — like lattes, smoothies or juices — it’s important to take that into account as well, because those drinks can quickly add up.

In terms of alcohol specifically, Oake said it’s “something that travelers often under-budget for.” She recommended, “for those [who] know that drinking is an important part of their vacation, it’s essential to read up on alcohol prices in the area that they are traveling to...as often times imported beverages can carry a high price tag.” If you can, look for local beers, wines and other drinks to avoid that import price hike.

Prepare some meals yourself

If possible, stay in a vacation rental or hotel with kitchen facilities where you can store and prepare your own food; and eat some of your meals in. “Breakfast is the one meal I really recommend that travelers try and sort out on their own, as it’s generally very cheap items — [like] eggs, fruit, bread [and] cereal — that you end up paying far more for in restaurants,” Oake said. “As well, since it’s very easy to put together yourself, you can end up saving both money and time that be otherwise allocated towards the rest of your day.”

While eating out can certainly be a valuable part of your cultural experience, so can dining in. “Cooking while you are on vacation...allows you to scour through the local markets, which can be an awesome experience all on it’s own,” Oake said. “Markets are an incredible way to really immerse yourself in a new culture, experience a variety of different types of food [and] produce and work on your bartering skills in a new language.”