In 2001, as we deplaned on Maui, my husband was handed a survey from the Hawaii Tourism Authority. It sought our assistance in tracking daily vacation spending. As a CPA, he took to it like a duck to water, and as we went from restaurant, to activity, to luau, he tracked every last cent we spent. (See also: 10 Things You're Paying Too Much for When You Travel)
Scrutinizing the cost of the activities and meals so closely made us spend less money than we may have been inclined to on that trip, but it also altered our spending habits on all vacations thereafter. After finding the best deals on tickets and lodging, we tackled daily food costs. Below are our tips for saving money on those.
A caveat, though: Dining in great restaurants and trying out new foods are often part of your travel adventure. If you find yourself eating a peanut-butter sandwich in your hotel room in Chicago instead of a street-vendor hot dog or a deep-dish pizza, I think you are missing out. Better to save a larger travel fund than to miss out on a fun part of the experience.
Here are 14 ways to save on food costs while traveling. (See also: 4 Secrets to Eating Great Food for Cheap While Traveling)
1. Choose an Apartment Instead of a Hotel
This tip is at the top of my list, because it is so much cheaper to eat in than rely on restaurants. However, if you don't like to cook, and part of "vacation" means a break from the kitchen, this suggestion is not for you. If you do like to cook, though, look for condo advertisement comments where people have mentioned "well-stocked kitchens." This is usually code for decent knives, pots and pans, cooking oils, and seasonings. Also, look for condos that have outdoor grills. Grilling adds to that vacation-y feeling and shares the cooking workload.
I usually make a shopping list on the plane or in the car, hit a grocery store when we arrive at our destination, and then go unpack. I wouldn't suggest that you eat every single meal at a condo, lest you miss out on local restaurants and foods, but this will give you a big savings over needing to frequent restaurants three times a day.
2. Look for Hotels With Refrigerators
If you can't do the above, let's hope your hotel has a small refrigerator. If so, you can at least store some milk for cereal, juice, yogurt, etc. for in-room breakfasts. Many hotels also have microwaves, which is another bonus.
Not everyone loves to camp, I realize — but if you do, it's a really inexpensive way to go. And what's better than bacon and fresh trout with coffee in the morning? If you like just a little more luxury in the great outdoors, consider a KOA Deluxe Cabin which has a kitchen, or an RV rental. Camping food is, by its very nature, cheap! Think about hot dogs, pork and beans, pancakes and of course — s'mores.
4. Eat Lunch in Restaurants, Instead of Dinner
My husband and I rarely go out for dinner, but we frequently go out to lunch because it is considerably cheaper. Although the menu choices or portions aren't as large, we never feel limited. Often, we find that the same menus are featured for both lunch and dinner — the former is just much lower-priced.
My mother was a champion picnic-er and made terrific salads, fried chicken, snacks, and soups in thermoses. We'd just pick a pretty spot and pull the station wagon over. It also gives everyone time to stretch their legs, take some pictures, and relax (while saving money). It's also fun to pack a lunch and head to an area park. Many even have barbecues available.
6. Take Advantage of the "Continental Breakfast"
Many hotels now offer free breakfast as part of the deal, so you might as well take advantage of it. While cereal and muffins may be the only fare at some, higher-end places have eggs to order and trays of bacon. I usually grab a few pieces of fruit to snack on later, too.
7. Eat Local Foods
As the saying goes, "When in Rome..." Food grown locally will be the most inexpensive, and usually at its best. This doesn't just mean produce, though — think of the inexpensive, ubiquitous musubi in Hawaii, street tacos in Southern California, or gyros from stands in New York. Keep the travel adventure going by trying new (and often inexpensive) foods.
8. Check Out the Appetizer Menu
Want to try a restaurant, but are frightened off by the dinner prices? Check out the appetizer menu. The prices are lower, the portions often generous, and you'll still enjoy the restaurant ambiance.
9. Look for Deals
10. Ask a Local
Don't be bashful! Somebody who lives where you are traveling is probably your best bet for finding cheap, great eats.
11. Read Up on Restaurants
Do some homework before you go. Check the area's local paper, blogs, TripAdvisor, and Yelp.
12. Any Food Trucks Around?
Want great food in a casual atmosphere? Find a food truck. Take it to go, or find a spot to picnic. Roaming Hunger will help you find the trucks!
13. Buy in Bulk
Even when traveling, if we're staying in a place with a kitchen, we seek out a nearby Costco or a Sam's Club. There are items we know we'll want (such as eggs, bagels, or muffins) every day.