As I mentioned in my post about travel budgeting, I consider us to be “fat budget” travelers — we keep a close eye on our costs, but spend money where it counts. I think food is an area where you can strategically cut significant costs, and still have a grand time. Skeptical? Here’s what we do. (What don’t I do? Take good pictures of my food. I’m either A) too sheepish to do it well inside a restaurant or B) too busy actually eating to remember to take a picture! Usually B, my friends, usually B.)
Maybe it’s because I like to cook, and find foreign grocery stores fascinating to browse anyway, but food abroad, in my opinion, is not typically any more expensive than food in the States. If you’re staying in a place with a kitchen you can economize in small ways that add up big. (Notable exceptions are Iceland and Switzerland, which I’ve heard are both very expensive places to eat!) Restaurants may look more expensive when you first sit down to eat, but bear in mind that the price listed is what you pay, period, zero — tax and tip are already figured into the price. So, let’s say the lunch menu is 15€, and you think “This would only be $10 at home!”, remember that back home you’d pay close to another $3 in tax and tip, bringing your total to $13. Suddenly it’s a lot more comparable, right?
We have one basic method for our meals that saves money and sanity: every day we eat one sit-down restaurant meal, one picnic, and one meal at our lodgings. How this method plays out varies slightly depending on how small the children with us are and what we’re planning on doing. Our first variation is to make a yogurts/eggs/milk/coffee run from the local grocery when we first arrive, and supplement that with something from a bakery every morning for breakfast at the house (hey, that’s experiencing local culture– it’s educational!). We’ll then eat a picnic/bakery sandwich lunch, and end the day with a sit-down dinner when we’re all tired out. Sometimes we’ll switch lunch and dinner; restaurant for lunch, picnic/take-out for dinner. There are pastry/gelato snacks in between, obvs. France is made for “pique-niquing”; all boulangeries have sandwiches ready-made, so you can pick up your lunch at the same time as your breakfast pastry and be set until dinner. This eating schedule works well with older children or no children (or babies tiny enough to not care!).
If you have toddlers, I highly recommend the beautifully explained rhythm of starting your day with a bang — either an early start with breakfast at home, or a big, eat-out breakfast. (Especially nice when the city is known for its brunches. Oh Prague.) Then do a picnic sort of lunch (or a sit-down lunch if breakfast was at the house), and finish with an early night in to put kids to bed. For dinner, either cook an easy meal or do take-out. (Did I mention that pastry/gelato/coffee stops are also sprinkled in liberally throughout the day? Don’t they say an army travels on its stomach? We do.) We’ve found that this early-to-rise-early-to-bed plan capitalizes well on children’s natural rhythms and keeps everyone happier.
When planning our trip in advance, I keep a running list of all the markets/cafes/bakeries/restaurants we want to try, and group them by neighborhood/planned activity as much as possible. The night before we head out we check that we have a list of possibilities for maximum flexibility and preparedness (this does sometimes happens the day before…). We have previously mentioned our love of Rick Steves’ books, but we have found his restaurant recommendations to be inconsistent. (Nobody’s perfect, right?) We can always rely on him pointing us to something to eat nearby, but sometimes those somethings have been amazing, and sometimes they’ve left us feeling we could have done better choosing blindly. So we cross-reference when possible! We still wing it sometimes, but definitely prefer having known solid options near where we’re going.
If you don’t have options researched, this article has some sound strategies for finding good restaurants on the fly. Wikitravel will have restaurant recommendations; when heading to a large city, read the wikitravel article on the neighborhood you’ll be staying in. (Look! The Marais in Paris!) This is handy for countries that lack our favorite guidebooks, too. Also, if you’re staying locally, don’t forget to ask your hosts for recommendations, and don’t be shy about asking strangers for recommendations too. (No, don’t flag down random people, but do strike up conversations with docents and shopkeepers. It has stood us in delicious stead.)
As mentioned earlier, we picnic daily; this usually involves exploring local markets and grocery stores. The experience of shopping for food in a foreign country (and language!) is almost always simultaneously exhilarating, fascinating, bewildering, and humbling. It’s a cultural experience in a way eating in a restaurant isn’t. (They keep the eggs where?!) In addition to being an adventure, it keeps our extra food expenses down to one restaurant meal a day. (Well, plus the coffee and pastries, but those aren’t going anywhere.) To me, not eating out lots while traveling doesn’t feel like deprivation; our other meals are so full of the delicious local food that they’re just as much of a treat, just one that happens to be much more economical. (Cheeses! Fresh fruits from the markets! Breads and pastries! Yogurts!)
Other helpful food tips in no particular order:
- Always carry a snack in your bag for children who get hangry and begin to melt down before a meal is imminent! (Also for adults to whom this may happen. We name no names.) Food isn’t always close at hand when we want it to be.
- Unless you’re in France, anticipate the likelihood of paying for water at dinner, and do most of your hydrating in advance with refilled water bottles. I don’t like spending 5-10€ at a meal just to slake my thirst…
- The larger your group, or the busier the city, the more reservations I suggest making (you can call on wifi for pennies using Skype, or stop by the restaurant earlier in the day if you’re in the area). Many restaurants are cozy, and not well-prepared to handle even 6 people walking in suddenly. If you’re making a special trip to a particular restaurant, it never hurts to call ahead.
- Don’t buy groceries you can’t transport or eat — it winds up not saving you money after all. Who, me, get carried away in an aisle of new foods?
- But do explore those stores and eat adventurously!
Are you hungry for some European treats yet? Next part of the series I’ll talk about how I pack and what I’ve learned not to worry about when packing.