Q: How can I maximize my food budget while traveling and still get a taste for the area?
A: I’m happy to share a few tips and tricks I’ve used to get the most out of my travel food experiences.
You see, I’m a sightseer. When I’m on vacation, I’d rather spend my time and money out and about than languishing in a restaurant. So I look for ways I can include the meal as part of the travel experience.
Yes, it is possible to enjoy and still stay within a dining budget while traveling. You simply need to plan ahead, shop with the locals, volunteer your time, learn to negotiate and choose which of the local fare cuisine is a necessity to try.
Here’s how it’s done:
Plan ahead and take food with you. You’re not traveling so you can enjoy the airport fare, so don’t waste money buying food at the airport. I rarely check my bag so I have discovered there are some things you can bring through security at the airport: instead of eating fast food or chips with no nutritional value, I bring trail mix with a variety of nuts and dried fruit or granola bars. Sturdy fruit like apples and oranges hold up in my carry-on bag and don’t need to be refrigerated. Individual packets of peanut or almond butter are smaller than three ounces, provide some protein and pair well with fruit. You can also bring an empty water bottle and fill it up once you get through security.
Go to the grocery store. Once you’ve arrived at your destination, join the locals at the neighborhood grocery store. A lot of them have local specialties, salad bars and delis so you can get a healthier and cheaper meal than you would if you went to a restaurant. I’m one of those people who loves to go grocery shopping, so I think it’s fun to check out what the locals eat if you are in another country. When I was in Amsterdam, I went into a market and saw they were selling cans of energy drinks with Hello Kitty and Spongebob Squarepants on them. Plus, it’s easier for those with dietary restrictions to find out exactly what’s in their food at a grocery store versus a restaurant.
Bonus. Going to the grocer gives you a chance to also enjoy familiar foods. You know, in case the regional delicacy is made with extra spicy chilis that upset your stomach or big pillows of deep-fried dough coated in sweet flavors that will cause your waist to expand. If you have a hotel room with a refrigerator, Greek yogurt or string cheese are good sources of protein that don’t need to be cooked and will make you feel full longer. And don’t forget the utensils – any grocery store that has a salad bar or prepared food section will have plastic silverware and napkins.
Find a local fresh foods market. Farmer’s markets are a great place to check out the locally grown offerings. At the Mill City Farmer’s Market in Minneapolis, they have chef demonstrations which serve gourmet food samples to audience members after their segment is over.
Volunteer your time. An option to combine sightseeing and complimentary meals is to volunteer for a food festival or civic celebration. Most events are always looking for volunteers, offer free admission if you chip in a few hours and often provide meal tickets or snacks for your help.
Find a local expert. If you don’t have time to volunteer, the local tourist office may have coupons for discounted meals. Food and culture-related museums or shops frequently give away free samples as part of your admission price. (No, I was not bashful about taking the chocolate that was offered to me at the Schokoladenmuseum in Cologne, Germany.)
Look for people in line. Whenever I see a crowd of locals outside an eating establishment, I know I’ve found a good place. You can also ask locals about their favorite places to eat – not only will these places be better than the standard chains in touristy areas, they’ll often be cheaper, too.
There are other options if you are visiting large cities, but things like bringing your own food or going to the grocery store will work anywhere. I didn’t eat at one restaurant on my entire trip to Gettysburg and Philadelphia and I don’t feel like I missed anything. But then, I don’t like cheese steak! What are your tricks?