How do you save money when you dine out?
One of the worst ways to burn through your "coffee can" savings is a disappointing meal. Food costs are one of the biggest expenses in the average vacation, no matter how frugal you are. I hate that sinking feeling you get when you have a bad meal – it almost stings like a betrayal and, despite the fact that you are not at fault, you feel guilt and regret. There have been so many times when I've thought “For the $50 we just spent, we could have gone to McFood 5 times and been so much happier.” So what's the best way to avoid these tourist traps and dining disasters?
What Do You Really Want To Eat?
Eating on vacation is a lot of like eating at home – there will be overpriced restaurants and there will be hidden delights. There will be real bargains and there will be occasional indigestion. On every trip I've enjoyed, I usually fall into a similar pattern. I go crazy in the first few days wanting treats and specialties galore – full English breakfast, casino buffet lunches, open terrace dinners, with plenty of iced coffees and snacks in between. About midweek I experience the duel discomfort of a heavier stomach and a lighter wallet and, oddly enough, I crave a combo of simple comfort foods (toasted BLTs, scrambled eggs on toast), and healthy dishes (roast chicken and vegetables, fruit salad). It's taken me a few vacations to learn that the best use of my limited dining budget is on what make me FEEL happy, relaxed, excited, or just plain good. It's not on what I THINK good vacation eating should be about – and it's definitely not what everyone else SAYS it is!
Mysterious Lines Make Memories
Don’t get me wrong, I've made wonderful travel memories while dining out at “typical” vacation spots. I've splurged on overpriced room service and loved every minute of it. I've had a blast enjoying mediocre drinks by a hotel pool. But my best travel memories involve a more authentic, less expensive experience - trying Indian cuisine for the first time with university friends at a rural restaurant in England, joining a mysterious long line by a Hawaiian food truck to discover it was selling malasadas, and fixing a breakfast out of fruit cups, mini cereal boxes, and coffee maker hot chocolate in Death Valley cabin. What do these experiences have in common? The food was terrific, the setting was unique, the mood was relaxed, and both wallet and stomach were full.
Those I'd Rather Forget...
Less memorable was the third buffet of the day in Vegas (so we’d max out the value of buffet pass), a “hidden gem” in Boulder City that was featured on a popular TV food show and served forgettable diner fare at bistro prices, a beloved taco chain in O'ahu (ugh!), and a hotel breakfast buffet bar in Sault Ste Marie that cost $25 for little more than dry muffins and old apples. Utterly forgettable, miserably mundane, horribly overpriced. In each of those cases, I would have been much happier with a drive-thru value menu and putting the leftover cash towards something fun.
Happy Wallets, Happy Tummies
So here are a few tips for living large on a coffee can budget during your next vacation and avoiding regret:
1.) Try what the region is famed for. Save your dining dollars for amazing Indian food and fish n’ chips in England. Chances are you will be disappointed with their coffee and burgers.
2.) Enjoy local baked goods and forgo restaurant desserts. Always invest some travel dollars in a small neighbourhood bakery – a more delicious and budget friendly choice than the hotel's mass-produced frozen cheesecake.
3.) Relaxation Rules! Most people would rather have chocolate milk, peaches, and oatmeal in their hotel room, wearing their pajamas and enjoying cartoons and newspaper crosswords. Budget friendly and delicious! You've worked hard for your travel budget – would you really have fun standing in line for 30 minutes at a trendy bistro for cold eggs on a rainy Sunday morning? You'd be amazed by the delicious meals you can create by cooking in a hotel room.
4.) Ask cleaners and valet boys for their favourite spots – chances are, it will be budget friendly, generously plated, and a million times better than the place across from the hotel.
5.) Just like at home, present the manager with a firm but polite and professional complaint if you are dissatisfied. A manager at Wolfgang Puck’s in Vegas won us over with his amazing customer service when we presented him with a concern. You should never lose your precious travel cash when they aren't up to the job.
6.) The old tips still work: While in Europe, save money by eating your breakfast at the bar, not at a table. If you want to splurge on a fancy restaurant, go at lunch, instead of dinner. Ask if there are discounts for seniors, children, or students. If you are set on a certain destination, do a search for online coupons or specials. Review travel promotional literature for coupons. If you only want wings and nachos, get them half price at happy hour. Save your full price splurging on something more unique.
7.) And if you’re going casual, consider takeout. We were exhausted our first night in Kona and Ryan went out to grab us a pizza. We discovered Bianellis and it was the perfect pizza – inexpensive, great value, and a neat local find that featured delicious island pineapple. We thought it was so great we enjoyed again several days later, this time by dining in. By the time we added on the impulse salad, two drinks, and tip, our cost was almost double compared to takeout night. And, while a nice enough restaurant, eating out was nothing special. We would have been just as happy saving $15-$20 and watching the waves and sunset in our PJ's.
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Great tips! So true about the bakeries in Europe! I come back to Canada and miss the simple desserts you can pick up for a fraction of the cost of restaurant sweets! We used to also go to the bakery for fresh bread in the morning. Memories of sitting on the balcony in Mallorca with fresh bread and hot tea, feet on the railing, looking at the Med in pjs. You don't get that in the restaurants.
30/4/2013 03:55:59 pm
I agree - some of the most relaxing, rejevenating moments of a trip come when I am watching the view from my hotel, enjoying the simple treats I picked up during the day.
9/7/2013 04:02:38 pm
Thanks Jenna! I LOVE a great meal, but I hate it when I end up feeling ripped off or - even worse!- hungry!
9/7/2013 03:09:23 pm
Yes, asking a local is the best way to go when it comes to finding a good place to eat that doesn't break the bank. I think I had one of the best meals of my life in San Juan Puerto Rico when I asked a woman I was sitting next to at a park fountain where to grab lunch.
9/7/2013 04:04:15 pm
Love it! People ultimately love food - I think just asking for advice gets a pretty honest recommendation from most people. I was just thinking that I bet office workers and government workers know their way around a great downtown coffee shop - next time I see someone with a suit and briefcase on the bus, I'm gonna grill them for lunch ideas.
7/8/2013 10:19:16 am
Great tips! Just got back from England and you're spot on. I was never disappointed by the Fish 'n' chips and found a crazy great neighbourhood Argentinian restaurant not far from the Tower. Also had the best fish tacos at a local hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant away from downtown. The most disappointing meals were at the higher price, tourist attractive places right along the Thames. Part of the enjoyment of eating in London was the food presentation. Immaculate, every time, no matter the size or quality of establishment. We need to get some of that going over here!
7/8/2013 11:24:55 am
I think London is really having an amazing food scene - so much innovative things are happening there. And delicious too!
Great tips Vanessa! And moreover a great topic that you have touched. Its one of the biggest things to decide upon where to eat, especially when backpacking with a limited budget. I simply hate the feeling of counting money in the pocket after every meal. Some of the tips you have listed I generally use, especially asking locals and takeout.
27/12/2015 09:45:56 am
I have a great hostel community kitchen story! At HI Boston, I joined the crowd for a community meal celebrating International Day of Peace. There was great cuisine from all over the world. I saw one guy HEAP his plate with about 6 servings of fish and I couldn't help but laugh. This was probably the first 'real' food he had scene in a long time of backpacking. And then we went back for more!
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