As the summer draws to a close, several bajillion Americans (self included) are itching to get the hell out of work; to soak up the last lingering rays of another warm season gone by.
Also, they’re hungry.
Transportation and housing aside, food’s a major budget concern when planning a vacation. Since most travelers are just trying to find a decent, affordable meal, nutritional considerations nearly always fall by the wayside.
What follows, then, is a plan: the ultimate guide to saving dough on food while you’re away, with extra emphasis on healthy options.
BEFORE YOU GO
1. Research. Dear god, you must. Citysearch, Frommers, Zagat, and Lonely Planet are just a few sites that highlight inexpensive, nutrition-conscious restaurants all over the U.S. Local newspaper sites and area-based blogs can point you the right way, as well.
2. Check for coupons and certificates online. Restaurants.com and eBay can help. Signing up for Entertainment Books is also a big boon to savings, while you’re at it.
3. See if your company can get you a deal. “Some restaurants shave 10% to 25% off the meal cost” claims USA Today. Check with HR before departure, and you might be able to score a bargain.
4. Consider an all-inclusive. Lots of resorts and cruises incorporate the price of meals in their room packages. While you might still be stuck paying for drinks, this can save hundreds in the long run. Most provide tons of healthy chow, too.
5. If you’re a foodie, travel during Restaurant Weeks. Now in Boston, Baltimore, Philly, DC, Atlanta, Dallas, Sacramento, Toronto, Puerta Vallarta, and New York City, Restaurant Weeks provide fantastic deals on four star restaurants. Seriously, we’re talking $20 for lunch at Nobu. Open Table is a phenomenal resource for this.
6. Look for festivals. Upon arrival in Little Rock, Arkansas, my roadtripping friends and I were greeted by Riverfest, a weekend extravaganza of food, music, and people-watching. Needless to say, we skipped lunch and grazed on corn, tomatoes, and good, cheap beer. Check Festivals.com or call the Chamber of Commerce for dates and possibilities.
7. Take Rachael Ray's advice with a grain of salt. While I don’t harbor the dislike some foodies have for the catchphrasey Buffalo doyenne, she cut some corners and tends to tip insufficiently on her $40-a-Day show. There's good stuff there, just beware of going too far in your quest for affordability.
8. Sign up for frequent flier miles. Some credit card companies will give them to you for dining at certain restaurants. Put your stomach to work.
GETTING THERE: IN THE AIR
9. Don’t buy food at the airport. Ludicrously expensive and often poorly made, airport food can cost you precious calories and cash.
10. Skip the plane chow, too. Airlines need money for gas, and they’re taking it out of your meal budget. Why pay $8 for a sandwich you might not even like?
11. Bring an empty. The TSA will confiscate full water bottles, but not empty ones. Slip one into your bag, and fill it using the airport tap. Voila! $2 saved.
12. Carry snacks. Even if it means raiding the local drugstore, packing your own bites will save big bucks, satisfy cravings, and keep the calorie count down.
GETTING THERE: ON THE ROAD
13. Bring a cooler. Fill it with ice, drinks, fruit, cut-up vegetables, cold cuts, bread – anything easily assembled that can be used for an in-vehicle bite or roadside picnic. You’ll conserve time and cash, and it’s easier to regulate what you eat.
14. Create a Port-o-Kitchen. Stuff a small plastic with meal-making necessities. Travel board poster MJ Hardy brings “a plastic container with a lid that I fill with a small paring knife, wine opener, small can opener, a couple of place settings of study plastic silver ware, packets of salt, pepper, other condiments, individual wet naps, and an assortment of zip lock bags, etc. I then put a small stack of paper plates and napkins in a large zip lock bag, a small plastic cutting board and a partial roll of paper towel.” Handy!
15. Freeze a thermos or two. Fill a reusable plastic water bottle with the drink of your choice and freeze it overnight. After it defrosts in the car, and you’ll have a cold beverage at your disposal.
16. Make a big bag o’snacks. On a recent road trip through the South, my friend S brought a massive backpack of granola bars, baked chips, granola bars, Smartwell cookies, and granola bars. It kept us happy and full for those eight-hour stretches through Oklahoma. Pretzels, nuts, baked chips, low-fat cookies, beef jerky, and popcorn are good, lighter choices here, as well.
17. Consider kids’ meals. If you have to resort to fast food, they’re cheaper and generally healthier than adult meals. Don’t try it at a fancy sit-down eatery, though. Not classy.
ACCOMMODATIONS: SHORT-TERM (ONE AND TWO-DAY STAYS)
18. Book places with free breakfast. When continental and buffet breakfasts are built into the overnight fee, everybody wins. Bed and breakfasts are, of course, included in this category. Grabbing an extra orange or apple for a snack can’t hurt, either. While you’re at it…
19. See if there’s free lunch and dinner, too. According to a USA Today article, one diner “says he stays at Red Lion hotels and fills up on the free food -- popcorn, nachos or hot dogs -- served during happy hour.” I’m still trying to find the health benefit from that, but the savings are pretty obvious. Of course, if neither of the previous pair of tips apply …
20. Pack your own breakfast. Oatmeal, cereal, English Muffins, and fruit are simple to pack and prepare, and they don’t need massive storage or bizarre cooking utensils.
21. Use your ice bucket. If you don’t have a cooler or fridge for leftovers, the ice bucket is a decent shotgun substitute. Wrap food tightly, though.
ACCOMMODATIONS: LONG-TERM (MORE THAN TWO DAYS)
22. Get a room with a kitchen. Cooking your own meals is the #1 cost-cutting measure whenever and wherever you travel. It makes it ten times easier to monitor your own nutritional intake, to boot. Pack some home-bought provisions or pillage the local supermarket for deals.
23. Ask personnel to empty the mini-fridge before you get there. This way, there’s no temptation from incredibly pricey shots of Jager, and you can stuff it with your own nutritious repasts.
24. Buy beforehand in bulk. If you’re gonna be there awhile, you may as well stock up. Just make sure you have enough storage space.
25. Pack your coupons. Hey, you never know.
26. Check the ‘net for circulars of nearby grocers. Depending on where you’re coming from (say … NYC), supermarkets local to your destination can have much cheaper food than your hometown grocer. Circulars will help procure deals, too. Keep in mind though, it might be best to …
27. Bring condiments from home. Staples like butter, olive oil, and mustard are often costlier than the main meals themselves. If you think you might only use a little of something, portion it out into Tupperware and throw it in the car.
28. Save leftovers. They’re not just for Wednesday night post-work dinner anymore. Whether you’re cooking in your room or ordering out, the extra can feed you for at least one more meal.
29. Browse brochures and newspapers. Often placed in or around rest stops, hotel front desks, and your room, they're chock full of discounts and coupons for local joints.
30. Avoid eateries located by major attractions. I work in a high-tourism area. (Let’s call it Schtimes Square, Schnew York.) The food here is easily twice what you’d pay in any other area of the city, and generally, the quality is the pits. Walking two blocks from a landmark, monument, or sightseeing highlight (say, Schtimes Square, Schnew York) can automatically save 50% off a bill. Special note: in foreign countries, beware of “touristy restaurants with ‘We speak English’ signs and multilingual menus” cautions the Chicago Times’ Rick Steves. They know the game, and will frequently charge more.
31. Don’t eat at restaurants INSIDE tourist traps. Again, pricey. This goes for museum cafes, theme park diners, Graceland, and their ilk. Wait until you’re well outside, then run. On the same note …
32. Skip the dinner shows. Remember the strip club guideline here: The entertainment might be eye-popping, but the food sucks. While you’re crossing things off the list …
33. Eschew mid-scale dinner chains. If you’re vacationing somewhere renowned for its food, stay out of Applebees, Chili’s, Macaroni Grill, Olive Garden, TGI Fridays, Bennigans, Hooters, Pizzeria Uno, Sbarro, Ruby Tuesdays, Red Lobster, Outback, and their ilk. Not only are their prices higher in tourist destinations, but the signature food is rarely health-minded. (Cracker Barrel excepted. Because it is awesome.)
34. Eat a fantastic lunch instead of a costly dinner. A mid-day meal can run half the price of a late-day one. The food is the same quality level, and you’ll often consume less calories, since eateries tend to serve lighter fare for lunch. This goes especially for upscale restaurants.
35. Go ethnic. The best Indian food I ever had was in Glasgow, Scotland. As travel writer Tony Robinson puts it, “Eating in ethnic neighborhoods provides great local color, a chance to meet interesting people, and very low prices as well.” A fabulous learning experience, ethnic food is also frequently less fattening than American meals.
36. Hit the buffet once a day. Inexpensive and full of options, buffets are a stellar choice for the health-minded. Odds are you’ll be able to skip another meal, as well. I think my parents go to Vegas for this sole reason.
37. Ask for discounts. Are you a Senior, Student, or member of a large group? Excellent. You might be eligible for a chunk off your final bill. “But be warned,” says Steves, “because the United States doesn't reciprocate, many countries don't give their standard senior citizen discounts to Americans.”
38. Doggie bag it. In the U.S., anyway, eat-out meals can be twice the size of a normal, human-appropriate serving. Conserve money and calories by bagging half and stowing it for another meal.
39. K.I.S.S. Really, this is applicable in any restaurant, but coffee, appetizers, and a fourth bottle of wine are just adding to your bill and your waistline. If you really want to conserve, split an entrée and drink water.
40. Pay attention to in-season specials. Cheaper, fresh-food-oriented, and often specific to region, the specials give you a great taste of local favorites.
41. Go before the crowds get there. He’s done so well so far, I’ll let Rick Steves explain why: “Most countries have early bird and ‘Blue Plate’ specials. Know the lingo, learn your options, and you can dine well with savvy locals anywhere in Europe for $15”
EATING ON THE FLY
42. Pretend you’re a native. Order like a Parisian. Buy groceries like a Londoner. Grab fish from a Seattleite’s favorite market. Making these simple shifts in thinking will help you garner tasty chow for optimal cash.
43. Hit up an open-air market. Popular in Europe and the U.S., you can score artisanal-quality foods for much lower prices than at a restaurant. Exotic cheeses, crusty breads, cured sausages, fresh fruit – it’s all at your fingertips. I survived in Spain almost entirely on baguettes, cherries, and Nutella, and damn, it was good.
44. Have a picnic. Instead of dining in an upscale boardwalk joint, set a blanket up on the actual boardwalk. Steves (again) says, “$15 buys a hearty picnic lunch for two anywhere in Europe.”
45. Ask a local. A citizen will know far better than any guidebook about where to buy the most delicious, most frugal food, and many will be flattered you thought to explore. If you’re feeling shy, though…
46. Follow the home crowd. Workers, old ladies, moms with strollers, and people who obviously live in your travel destination know where to go. Search for long lines and indigenous-looking folks, and you’ll walk away a sated winner.
47. Eat on the street. If you’re unsure about buying from vendors, travel writer Cindy Meyers suggests you “head towards the stand that's the most crowded, find out what everybody's nibbling on, and then point to what you want if you don't speak the language.” Worried about being inadvertently poisoned? Then go with Budget Travel Magazine, which advises: “request that your food be cooked fresh for you. A hot grill will usually eliminate any microscopic bugs that are present. And a plate of steaming noodles is safer than food left out for hours at a hotel buffet."
48. Be a mallrat. U.S. Food courts are a cornucopia of culinary choices. If you go a little before closing, you might even score a deal. See? Sometimes rampant materialism is a good thing.
49. Skip lunch. A big breakfast and nice dinner mean you can probably get by with a nutritional, filling mid-afternoon snack for the rest of the day. Grab some trail mix or a piece of fruit if you’re feeling peckish.
50. Starch yourself silly. Thrifty, tasty, and easy on discerning bellies, most travel destinations in the world offer some sort of on-the-go starch. Pasta, bread, rice – whatever – the stuff’s universal.
51. Smuggle your own. Especially in non-inclusive resorts, alcohol prices can be super-high. Either bring stuff in bulk from home (a la Trader Joe’s) or find an on-the-road liquor supplier to raid.
52. Go early. Happy hours are a great deal in most major American cities, and HappyHour.net is a good place to start.
53. Try the house wine. Frequently served in a full or half carafe, its freshness and lower price makes it a good buy. Go with red for heart benefits.
54. Sidle up to the bar. According to the oft-cited Rick Steves, “Throughout southern Europe, drinks are cheaper if you're served at the bar rather than at a table.”
55. Stick with local brews. Budget Travel Worldwide claims when traveling abroad, “an imported spirit will be triple the cost of the local tipple,” meaning a Dos Equis in Mexico will be a better buy than a Labatts in England. Lite beer will often be $1 less, as well.
56. Look for drink specials. Quarter drafts, Ladies Nights, and 2-for-1 deals are just a few of the lovely night-out offerings that can save cash on vacation. Check the local independent paper, or scan bar and club windows for ads.
57. Avoid foofy concoctions. They’re expensive and laden with sugar. Consider: a single pina colada has more than 400 calories, while a margarita can run over 300.
58. Don’t drink at all. The best booze control method is abstinence, no?
LAST, BUT NOT LEAST …
59. Tip where customary. If you can’t afford to tip, you can’t afford to eat out, and you probably can’t afford to be on vacation.
60. Loosen up a little. Whether you’re on a diet or just hesitant to taste something with tentacles, vacations are a one-time deal. You may never get the opportunity again, so go for it. (In moderation, of course.)
61. Get out there and eat. A healthy chunk of travel is experiencing local culture, and that means food. So be thrifty, but have a bite or two in town.
- Button, Kimberly. “Save Money on Vacation Dining,” Bella Online. bellaonline.com/articles/art8245.asp
- “Eating Well on a Travel Budget,” Budget Travel Worldwide. budget-travel.brilliant4biz.com/Budget_Travel_Dining_Out.html
- Hardy, MJ. “Tips for Saving Money on Food and Restaurants: Post #16 of 41,” Frommers.com. September 2003. frommers.com/cgi-bin/WebX?13@59.NqW9bnEq2r0%5E0@.eeb2bad
- “How to Eat Street Food Without Ruining the Trip,” Budget Travel. June 2007.
- Khan, Salina. “Eating on the cheap while traveling takes some creativity,” USA Today. October 1999.
- Maio, Kathy. “Tips for Saving Money on Food and Restaurants: Post #24 of 41,” Frommers.com. September 2003. frommers.com/cgi-bin/WebX?13@59.NqW9bnEq2r0%5E0@.eeb2bad
- Martin, James. “Saving Money on your European Vacation - 12 Frugal Vacation Tips,” About.com. goeurope.about.com/cs/travelbasics/a/saving_money.htm
- Meyers, Cindy. “Eating Well on a Tight Travel Budget,” BootsnAll Travel. March 2005.
- Robinson, Tony. “How To Save Money On Food When Traveling,” SavingAdvice.com. savingadvice.com/forums/travel-vacations/14017-how-save-money-food-when-traveling.html
- Steves, Rick. “The Thrifty 50: Rick Steves' budget Europe tips for 2007,” Chicago Tribune. March 2007.
- Wolf, Jennifer “Saving Money on Your Family Vacation,” About.com. singleparents.about.com/od/cuttingcosts/ss/save_vacation_3.htm