Travel Easy - How to save money on food
When you want to save money on your Food, start here!
Most Expensive -> Less Expensive
Fine dining–multiple courses, dress codes, limited/exclusive seating, service that feels personalized– this will be the priciest option when eating out. How can you have a fine dining experience without breaking the bank? Check to see if there are any dining festivals in the area. Plan ahead and time your visit to the festival dates. Some restaurants participate in the festivals by offering prix-fixe menus at a price point much cheaper than ordering ala carte. When we were living in Orlando, we were able to try a lot of great restaurants that would normally not have fit our budget otherwise during their Magical Dining month. If you're budgeting, you may want to allocate part of your entertainment budget as some restaurants are just as much about the experience as well as the food. If fine dining is out of your budget then try casual dining.
Expensive -> More Affordable
For casual dining you'll still order at your table and be served but you can dress down and prices will be much lower than fine dining. In the US, many casual dining chain restaurants are owned by parent companies (i.e. Landry's, Darden, Bloomin' Brands) that offer discounts or perks if you sign up for their loyalty card. We only sign up if the cards are free, as we don't dine out enough to make any sort of fee worth it. Check to see if they have any birthday specials as well. Sometimes you'll only get a free dessert, but there have been restaurants that offer 2-for-1 deals or a free meal on your next visit or for your birthday month.
For places outside the U.S. and restaurants without loyalty cards, you may be able to save some money by ordering two appetizers instead of a main dish. In some places like Italy and Spain, bread is placed on the table but it is an additional charge. If you don't want the bread, send it back and make sure it is not on your bill at the end. Another way to cut costs is to reduce or eliminate alcohol beverages while dining at a restaurant.
Affordable -> Exceptionally Affordable
Eating at restaurants where you're waited on is nice but pricey. To stay on budget, we like to frequent locations where you order at the register like fast-casual restaurants, delis, and bakeries. Going out for breakfast or lunch is usually cheaper than dinner, and some places have lunch specials. When we went to get shawarma in Marrakech it included fries and a lemonade. You can save even more by just getting the main item without sides and drink, if you carry your own water bottle and snacks. For bakeries, we've found that many of them usually carry some type of pizza or sandwich rolls that are much cheaper –and sometimes more delicious– than going to a dedicated pizza or sandwich shop. Cutting out soft drinks and drinking tap water or bringing your own bottle of water saves a lot over time.
To save even more money, skip eating out and make your own food by going to the supermarket. If your accommodation has a kitchen then it will make it even easier to cook meals as well. But if you don't have a stove, an oven, or even a microwave, you can still get things to make your own sandwiches. If we got a salami and cheese sandwich from a deli in the Canary Islands it was around $4-6. But if we went to the supermarket we could get a large baguette, salami, and cheese and make TWO sandwiches for around $2.50. That makes one homemade sandwich come out to around $1.25!
Be aware of different types of supermarkets as you travel because some are cheaper/better value than others. For example: in Florida, Goodings is generally more expensive than Publix. In Japan, department store markets are pricier than AEON, Valor, or Apita. In the Canary Islands, Hiper Dino is usually a little cheaper than Spar. There are also discount supermarkets like Aldi/Hofer or Poundworld. If you can shop outside of the touristy areas, you'll likely save quite a bit as well. Also, if you need to buy bottled water then get it at the supermarket rather than at any restaurant or convenience store. Restaurants in Venice were charging around $3 for a 500ml bottle, but supermarkets in the middle of the city had 1L bottles for around $0.20.
Hopefully you budget well and never run out of food money, but here are some free food ideas if that ever happens. Food challenges from restaurants could potentially grant you a free meal. Just make sure you're up to conquering the challenge! Otherwise you usually have to pay for the meal and it could run well over $50. If you have a Costco card you can use it to enter any of their locations around the world and try all the free samples. A time-consuming but also potentially free option would be a attend a timeshare presentation. It isn't recommended if you're not able to say no to high-pressure sales tactics though. Additionally, some Airbnbs include meals with your stay. We've stayed at some places where the food provided for breakfast was enough for lunch too! In the worst case scenarios, we've heard of people who ask restaurants for free meals in exchange for scrubbing their toilets. Our advice, make sure you save enough for food!
General money saving tips on dining out
Use a credit card that gives higher points/cash/percent back for dining. We use the Chase Sapphire Reserve card and get 3 points/dollar spent on dining.
Make breakfast or lunch your biggest meal of the day. Dinner menus are almost always pricier.
Do an online search for “budget restaurants in [insert city here]” to get ideas on where to go for cheaper meals.
If you can, share your meals. Some countries give large portions and you can save by sharing a meal with a travel buddy.
Skip dessert at the restaurant and go to an ice cream shop instead. We often pay $1-2 a scoop instead of for a $3-9 dessert.
Drink tap water if possible. While traveling, you'll need to be aware of how safe the drinking water is but if you can, opt for free tap water.