How to eat cheap on vacation (Hint: Ask the locals)

Traveling on a budget? You can still eat cheap on vacation while exploring the unique flavors of the local cuisine.

Your first buttery taste of a perfectly flaky Parisian croissant, the way a rich Italian hot chocolate melts in your mouth, the best Indian daal of your life—food memories are often the longest lasting. And for good reason: Tasting new cuisines is often why so many travelers love exploring the globe.

It might seem impossible to dine well and eat cheap on vacation, but it can be done. The secret is to act less like a tourist and more like a local.

Eat cheap on vacation by trying places off the beaten path.

Venture outside the tourist areas to eat cheap on vacation

A surefire way to save money on food while you travel is to venture outside the tourist zone.

Jessica van Dop DeJesus learned this lesson early, and it’s served her well. As a major in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve living abroad, she made friends in many countries and grew to love traveling. Now, whenever she’s headed to a new destination, she asks friends who live there to recommend places to eat cheap on vacation that are outside the tourist-heavy city centers. Not only do the neighborhood restaurants she discovers that way serve less expensive and delicious food, they also provide a refreshing change of atmosphere.

“Usually the spaces are a bit more quaint,” says DeJesus, who left active duty in 2009 and has been writing a food and travel blog since 2012. “It’s less noisy than when you’re dining with a bunch of tourists.”

Ask locals where they recommend eating

Word of mouth is another effective way to eat cheap on vacation. Find out where the locals like to go when they dine out, says Erik Wolf, executive director of a nonprofit that promotes the food tourism industry. Three of Wolf’s most interesting trips took him to Sweden, Spain, and Ecuador, where he made a point to ask hotel employees and other locals where they eat. “I was able to find some real gems,” he says.

Ask a local what their favorite restaurant is for recommendations that will allow you to eat cheap on vacation.

Baristas, bartenders, and passengers on local buses and trains are among the favorite sources for dining tips for Sarah Schlichter, a financial writer. On the other hand, she says the hotel concierge isn’t always the best guide to eating on a budget while traveling.

“Sometimes they’ll give you good recommendations, but a lot of times they kind of have their standard places they recommend that are tourist-friendly,” Schlichter says.

Lean on expert reviews from trusted sources

Another way to find the can’t-miss restaurants where you can eat cheap on vacation is to check out dining websites that share restaurant reviews from local patrons around the globe. There are also restaurant discover apps that let you in on where some of the world’s best chefs like to dine when they’re not at their own restaurants, Wolf says.

If you can read more than one language, try using the “all languages” option when you check out restaurant reviews on dining apps and websites. DeJesus and her husband, who speak five languages between them, will often read the tips in the local language of their travel destination for insights into how to save money eating out on vacation. Even if you don’t speak the local language, you can still benefit from local reviews by pasting them into a translation app, DeJesus says.

Try these 10 tips to eat cheap on vacation

Along with tapping locals for dining tips and exploring neighborhood restaurants, another secret to eating on a budget while traveling is having an attitude of adventure and flexibility. Carry that mindset with you and follow these 10 tips for how to eat cheap on vacation:

  1. Rethink your definition of fine dining. The idea that great dining automatically means gourmet food and expensive wine is “old school,” Wolf says. “You don’t need to spend a lot of money to have a great meal.”
  2. Have lunch instead of dinner at your splurge restaurant. If you’re trying to save money on food while you travel, note that lunch menus tend to have lower prices, often for just slightly smaller portions than the same dishes you find on the dinner menu.
  3. Opt for cafes over more formal restaurants. “A lot of times cafes will have cheaper food than higher-end restaurants,” Wolf says. Going the cafe route will go a long way toward eating on a budget while traveling.

Trying to determine how to save money eating out on vacation? There are plenty of options if you’re willing to be adventurous.

  1. Grab some groceries. Visit a local supermarket or farmers market to pick up the ingredients for a simple picnic meal to take to a park.
  2. Eat light and share. Ordering an appetizer in place of an entree, or splitting one entree between two people, is another good way to save money on food while you travel.
  3. Taste some tax-free home cooking. If you sign up for a peer-to-peer dining program—or get invited to the home of a newfound friend in your travel destination—you won’t pay any taxes or service charges on your meal, Wolf says.

Sign up for a peer-to-peer dining program for a creative way to eat cheap on vacation.

  1. Eat on the street. It’s a fun way to eat on a budget while traveling, but be careful where you grab a bite. “Street food is very affordable and very local, but you do, of course, want to take safety precautions,” Schlichter says. “I always make sure I’m going to a stall that’s really busy, with a high turnover of the food so it’s not sitting around.”
  2. Be water wise. Instead of buying bottled water at a souvenir shop, it’s more economical to get it at a local grocery store, Schlichter suggests.
  3. Rent a place with a kitchen. Cooking some of your own meals is a great way to eat cheap on vacation. Choose lodging that comes with a kitchen, such as a vacation rental or hostel.
  4. Keep snacks in your pack. Carry something to nibble on—like fruit, nuts or a baguette—when you go out on a tour or excursion. With a snacking strategy, you won’t be starving every time you sit down to eat—and you’ll be less likely to over order.

It’s not always easy to eat cheap on vacation, but if you dine and shop like a local, you can find some great bargains—and some of the best bites around.

Now that you know how to save money eating out on vacation, learn even more ways to travel on a budget.

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