Eating Cheap While Abroad

By Thursday Bram on 25 January 2008 14 comments

I've been on the go a lot this last year: I lived in Dublin for four months, accompanied my family to Israel, and made it to plenty of other points on the globe. But no matter which city I was in, I still had to eat. I learned a few tricks to keeping myself comfortably fed on the go, without breaking the bank.

Pack a Lunch

I bet you looked at 'pack a lunch,' and laughed. How can you pack a lunch while living out of a suitcase or staying in a motel room? But everywhere, from Cardiff, Wales to Tel Aviv, Israel have grocery stores, and most even have cheap little markets with fresh produce. Even if you'll only be around for a few days, toss a couple of staples in your backpack and skip restaurants all together! As long as you don't pick anything that needs refrigerating, you're safe.

I had the opportunity to go to Spain with my grandparents when I was a kid. I had two years of introductory Spanish, but, between the three of us, that was it. My grandfather managed to find a bakery in every town we stopped in, and could usually find a farmer's market of some sort, too. We ate bread and apples, often with some cheese, and I don't think I ever got bored of it. It wasn't even an issue of frugality — we could just see more if we weren't stopping for a meal every couple of hours.

Make Friends

I've managed to get myself invited along on cheap evenings out with the locals. Even though I hadn't been around long enough to learn which restaurants and bars were significantly cheaper, my local friends always knew the places to go. It's no good to just ask for recommendations, unfortunately. Most people will just point you towards the obvious tourist traps, especially if you don't speak the local lingo so well. I think a lot of them think that they're doing you a favor — making sure you can get a meal where someone speaks English.

It works in English-speaking countries, too. By hanging out with fellow college students on a trip to Oxford, I managed to get myself invited along to their version of the cafeteria on someone else's meal plan. Their food was much better than the typical American college's, too!

Order the Soup

I was able to stretch my food budget in Ireland by ordering the soup, and I've been able to use the same technique in a lot of places. As long as you enjoy chowders and stews, you're set! Most restaurants will add in bread, and I've never been hungry after a good-sized bowl of soup and some bread.

I try not to ask what's in soup anymore, though. I was in Doolin, Ireland (population 500) and in dire need of some lunch. The cheapest thing on the menu was seafood chowder. I ate a huge bowl, and it was delicious. Afterwards, I made the mistake of asking the ingredients. The waitress gave me an odd look — turns out that scraps of just about every item on the menu made it into the chowder.

Greasy is Okay

If you walk as much as I do when you're traveling, you'll burn the calories from that greasy kabob off the cart. I realize it's not the healthiest thing in the world, but it works for a quick, cheap meal. As long as you don't restrict your diet to greasy street food, you'll survive. And I think a lot of those barely identifiable meals on a stick can be pretty tasty.

In Jerusalem, I always make a point of visiting the nearest falafel and shwarma stands. My money goes far, and I get what may be my favorite meal in the world.


I hope these tips help you on your next trip, and if you've managed to stretch your euros, pounds and pesos on your meal plan, I'd love to hear how.

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Myscha Theriault's picture

Woohoo! Another shwarma and falafel fan. I think I could eat it until I freaking dropped dead. We had a blast seeing the sites in Jerusalem, although we were there during Easter week / Passover, so . . . VERY crowded on the streets.

Also, a ways away from the old walled city is the National Museum. Are you of the same opinion I am? I think it's one of the best national museums I've ever been to. Man!

Guest's picture

I second the "pack a lunch" suggestion, and would add "stop at a grocery store" under the same category. I studied in Italy for a semester and we spent a lot of time on field trips and traveling on our own. After a few weeks of buying meals at restaurants we realized how quickly it would add up. We started finding a small grocery store (un'alimentari, in Italiano) in whichever town we were visiting and buying food there. The bread was baked fresh each day, and the cheese and meats were always delicious. It also gave us a chance to try the various local foods we couldn't get everywhere. And, it usually only cost a few Euro per meal. =)

Guest's picture

If you are going to stop for a meal in Spain, I highly recommend the menú del día! It's a fixed price, usually between 10 and 15€, for two courses, a dessert, bread and a drink. For the courses, you can usually choose between 3 or 4 things (though in some, maybe more); sometimes you have a dessert choice; and the drink is usually wine (red or white; sometimes a whole bottle!), beer (whatever they have) or water. While it's a great way to sample a lot of Spanish fare, it was jarring at first to not have a whole lot of choice in the drink department: but then I found it refreshing in a way to not have so much choice.


That being said, next time I'll definitely try out some bakeries too!

Thursday Bram's picture

Myscha, I've had to be talked out of installing a spit in my kitchen three times this year alone. I want to be able to get shwarma whenever I want!

 And, Bobert, you  have a fantastic point. There are many places where restaurants customarily have a meal of the day, which can be the cheapest way to sample local food.

David DeFranza's picture

I also agree that eating out of the grocery store or 'packing' a meal is a great way to save some money when traveling.

However, I would suggest packing the dinner instead. Most restaurants have a cheap lunch option or set meal. It is a great way to eat at a fancy place for half the price.

Also, street food always seems to be bountiful (or maybe it just looks more appealing to me) during the lunch hours.

Myscha Theriault's picture

That's so funny because . . . I want one TOOOOOO!!!!!!! Man, I love those things. Middle East food in general rocks my world, and as much as I like the fancy stuff, shwarma beats a stateside fair hot dog in my book any day. The flavor combination is to die for, especially when they slather it in that garlic sauce. Man, when's the first plane to the region?

Guest's picture

Many hotels offer a free or very cheap breakfast. Stoke up and you can get by on much less the rest of the day. Sometimes you can discretely make some sandwiches or wraps of breakfast foods and stash it for lunch. Get some fresh whole fruit, too.

Street food is too often passed over by timid tourists. If it is prepared fresh and served hot there is little chance that it will make you sick.

If you want a bit of added safety you can chew a couple Pepto-Bismol tablets before. The medicine in them has a mild antibiotic effect and many people swear they can eat anything and not get sick.

Potable water can be an issue in many places. Bring along a Steri-Pen and you can drink any clear water on the planet safely. It is very quick and after a few weeks it will pay for itself in savings on bottled water.

Guest's picture

We haven't traveled extensively but did Italy with the kids. Generally the breakfasts (though sometimes modest) were included. Besides hitting the grocers (bread, cheese, fruit, bottled water), we did alot of pizza and gelati. We came back saying we could never use Rita's and gelati in the same sentence again.

In London we stayed on the outer rim of the city and tubed in. A huge breakfast was included (cooked mushrooms, grilled tomatoes!) so we thought bread and some P.B. would tide us over. Not recommended. Brits do not do peanut butter well. We should have stuck with cheese.

Guest's picture

We haven't traveled extensively but did Italy with the kids. Generally the breakfasts (though sometimes modest) were included. Besides hitting the grocers (bread, cheese, fruit, bottled water), we did alot of pizza and gelati. We came back saying we could never use Rita's and gelati in the same sentence again.

In London we stayed on the outer rim of the city and tubed in. A huge breakfast was included (cooked mushrooms, grilled tomatoes!) so we thought bread and some P.B. would tide us over. Not recommended. Brits do not do peanut butter well. We should have stuck with cheese.

Guest's picture

In Italy, it was a loaf of bread and a 2-liter bottle of orange Fanta in a backpack supplemented with fruit from street markets and cheeses from little shops.

In Russia, it was shaverma (like the shwarma).

In Germany, it was the hotel breakfast as late and large as possible (broechen, Nutella, pate, meats, cheeses, coffee, etc.).

In England, it was pub food, curry nights, train stands, full English breakfasts, beans on toast, and Tesco for their ready-made meals.

Also, don't spend change until you have to. Near the end of the trip, when you're feeling broke and wondering how to pay, you simply pull out your bag of change and can pay for nearly everything. Added bonus, loose change makes for a GREAT souvenir for people back home!

Guest's picture

I always try to travel with a spoon, fork, paring knife (in a sheath) and a bowl tucked into checked luggage. I will also toss in a few packets of instant add-water-and-stir type oatmeal or cup-a-soups... you'd be surprised how many times I get to a hotel at odd hours and am unable to order in anything.... the tummy clock can run on different time from local time, and the oatmeal is a welcome filler. Many places have kettles in the room, or at least a coffee maker that you can use to heat water.

Like many have already stated, the local markets can be wonderful places to buy interesting, unusual and fresh foodstuffs. Who doesn't love a picnic?!? There is nothing quite like a meal of pita bread from the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem.... piping hot and puffed up into a pillow when they package it for you, wrapped up with some fresh local cheese, a couple of slices of perfect sunripened tomatoes.

I also like the soup idea, and have followed it in a number of places. Very vivid and wonderful memories of amazing tomato soup made from scratch of course, served with cheese naan during my travels to Rajasthan.

Guest's picture

Savvy travelers with hardly any means find groceries the only way to go. I covered this topic in my series "Budget Eats" and "Budget Drinks," as well as how to picnic like a pro in "Fighting Hunger on the Road."

Even if you're not broke, grocery stores are a wonderful cultural experience. Who doesn't get excited over all those cheeses and olives? It often makes me sad that I can't put liquids in my suitcase, since there are always sauces or mustards or wines that I'd love to try at home . . .

Guest's picture

i know when we travel i make our lunch in the morning so when we stop for eating we can enjoy the environment along with our choice of food. we are big packers... stop at a store and get some deli meat/cheese and bread/fresh and then some fruit and wah lah lunch! add in some soda.... and off we go. we also travel with children so we prepare their lunch as well. cutting up the foods and store the in something disposable... and easy lunch on the go! enjoy!!!

Guest's picture

If you're going to pack a lunch (or dinner) make sure it's local though - what's the point in eating a sandwich you might make back home if all of the locals eat shwarmas (as pointed out above) or baguettes?

Travellers should keep in mind, though, that in some places, the local version of fast food, eg. a shwarma, is probably going to work out cheaper that buying the ingredients and making your own. And shwarmas aren't all greasy by the way. In Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and the Arabian Peninsula, they're little more than succulent meats cooked in their own natural juices with pickles, fresh mint, lettuce or rucola, tomatoes on the beef, potatoes on the chicken, some tahini - a tenth of the calories of a hamburger.

I'd also recommend a local fresh food market and local delicatessens over the grocery story. Buy some local cheeses and sliced meats, in Italy it's essential to buy some fresh buffalo mozzarella, a bunch of fresh basil and bag of tomatoes - all of that would cost use less than 2 euros at a local market - buy a small bottle of olive oil for another 2 euros (it will last you the whole trip) and you can make your own Caprese salad. A local bottle of wine for 4 euros and you're set! Like always, do as the locals do - or eat as the locals eat - and you can't go wrong!