Food costs might not command much attention in your travel planning. For example, airfares and hotel room prices can be determined and paid before departure. Food costs are less predictable.
Many a budget has been wrecked by guessing an arbitrary figure and then finding the actual cost was twice the estimate. It has happened to all of us.
The simple solution is to recommend fast food for every meal or a backpack full of protein bars.
But missing out on local cuisine is as bad or worse than missing the top attractions of a destination. Balance is required.
Here are five money-saving tips for enjoying a few signature meals while remaining solvent.
Tip #1: Make the least expensive meal of the day your biggest meal.
In London, hotels and restaurants often provide delicious, filling breakfasts. In Paris, the custom tends to be a cup of coffee and some pastry. If you insist on a multi-course meal in the morning, prices will reflect your departure from that norm.
Do some research. In most of the United States and England, for example, big breakfasts with all the trimmings are quite a bit cheaper than a big lunch or dinner. This important meal could tide you over until dinner, downgrading lunch to a quick snack.
For many travelers, this selection is easy. Free breakfasts come with rooms in many places. If breakfast isn't cheap or free, many budget travelers prefer to make the midday meal their largest, and reduce dinner to a snack-sized dimension.
Generally, lunches are cheaper than dinners in most restaurants, so the strategy makes good financial sense.
Train yourself to take advantage of these opportunities. Some of us aren't big breakfast eaters at home, but change habits when the meal is offered at no additional cost with the room rate.
Tip #2: Average in several inexpensive dinners with a splurge.
Let's say you're about to spend three nights in Rome, and you want one of those nights to include a special dinner.
You've budgeted $30 USD for each dinner, a total of $90. Night one, visit a street side vendor and order a few slices of pizza ($10). Night two, try a low-cost neighborhood trattoria, where a filling meal can be purchased for about $15. You now have $65 remaining for a very nice dinner on your final night, yet you're on budget.
It's important to enjoy a nice meal every few nights during a trip. This simple strategy allows for a moderate splurge every few days. But few travelers follow it. Be the exception.
Tip #3: Discover which foods are in abundance at your destination.
Novice travelers often try to buy their favorite foods on a trip rather than simply ordering what the natives consume. It only stands to reason that the most common foods are also the cheapest.
A few examples: In Central America, pocket change might buy all the bananas you can carry, while the same purchase in Sweden could blow your food budget for the day. Teetotalers are often dismayed to learn that beer is cheaper than bottled water in Germany.
This strategy pays off in more ways than balancing the budget. Sampling the specialties of a destination is a good way to learn about the culture, one of the main reasons you're traveling in the first place.
Tip #4: Visit the supermarket.
Most of us wouldn't dream of eating every meal in a restaurant while at home. Why do we change attitudes on the road?
Part of the answer is a lack of cooking facilities. But if you can make do on one meal a day that isn't cooked, you have an opportunity to save money for other travel expenses.
In almost any locale, you can find a supermarket that sells the basics of a healthy, satisfying meal. The price of this meal might surprise you.
In Poland, I once visited a market and spent the equivalent of $1 USD on sandwich meat, two large rolls, a piece of fruit, and two cans of soft drink. That might not be possible these days, but supermarket prices are usually less expensive than buying the same food in a restaurant. You know that's true at home, so it should be no surprise that the same structure exists almost everywhere else.
Picnics and meals on a train or bus can be memorable, too. The scenery outside your window or in that lovely park usually beats what a restaurant has to offer.
Tip #5: Ask the locals for advice.
In Venice, there are several high-profile restaurants near the Rialto Bridge that cater mostly to tourists. Some are in small alleys, which makes the tourist feel as if he or she has "discovered" a restaurant.
What they discover is a big bill for an average meal.
A few minutes away, there are small neighborhood restaurants that serve better food for a fraction of the tourist-menu prices. Venice is not unusual in this regard. The same story can be told in almost any city.
Best Cheap Eats in NYC aren't all that hard to find if you've taken the time to get solid advice prior to your visit.
When you ask for advice, be certain you word the question precisely: "Where do you like to eat?"
Notice we're not asking "what's a great place to eat?" or "what's the most famous restaurant in town?" That will get you a list of the top restaurants with prices to match.
We're not asking "where do most of your patrons go?" because that will send you down the tourist alley. Find where this person likes to eat and you're likely to get a better (and often cheaper) alternative.