If you love food as much as I do, it’s rough to consider skimping on it, especially when you’re on vacation. Along with hotels and entertainment, food costs while traveling can add up quickly. However, sampling local cuisine is one of the best ways to experience your destination, and that should not be sacrificed!
Fortunately, you don’t have to. There are plenty of ways to please your palate on vacation without breaking the bank.
How to Eat Cheap on Vacation
1. Plan Ahead
When I finally visit Maine, the first thing I plan to do is sink my teeth into a lobster roll. But while I’m still in the Midwest, I’ll be researching the best restaurant to fit my small budget.
If you know you want to indulge in a specific dish, check out numerous restaurants’ websites first, or call directly to inquire about daily specials. Also, sign up for email alerts to receive restaurant coupons and information about promotions.
By planning in advance, you can more easily stick to your budget. For example, if you know you want to visit an expensive restaurant one night, plan to eat cheap the day before.
2. Be Flexible
I dreamed about the Bellagio Buffet in Las Vegas all Saturday night. However, when I awoke Sunday morning, I realized the cost of the Sunday brunch buffet is $29.95, while on Monday it drops significantly to $15.95. Since I was going to be there anyway, I waited a day and saved money.
Restaurants and bars offer more deals during the week when less people are out. Not only is lunch often cheaper than dinner, but eating during “off” times can save you money. Many restaurants offer late afternoon or happy hour menus, and half price appetizers are common at bars. Visiting a bakery at the end of the day is also a good way to score a deal on food.
3. Pack Smart
It’s natural to be a little hungry between meals, but buying snacks and drinks when you’re out and about quickly adds up. Always keep filling snacks on hand like nuts, granola bars, or dried fruit, which won’t make a mess or go bad. Backpacks or a large purse allow you to easily transport snacks or pick up inexpensive food for later while you’re sightseeing.
Additionally, a reusable water bottle can save you a ton of money on drinks. For instance, Brita makes a bottle with a built-in filter that’s perfect for traveling. Or to get your caffeine fix, fill up a thermos with coffee at your hotel in the morning.
If you’re driving to your destination, consider packing a cooler and a portable grill. And remember to save leftovers! Tupperware or plastic baggies allow you to efficiently store leftovers from a restaurant or hotel buffet.
4. Take Advantage of Your Hotel
When a hotel offers free breakfast, eat smart. Skip the sugary cereal for a filling combination of protein, fruits, and vegetables to avoid becoming hungry an hour later. Before leaving for the day or checking out, look for fresh fruit, water, and granola in the fitness center, healthy snacks at the spa, and coffee in the lobby or business center.
Lastly, inquire with the concierge if there are any coupons or deals available for nearby restaurants. If not, ask if they can recommend affordable options.
5. Do as the Locals Do
Tourist traps often equate to jacked up prices. Simply ask locals where the best place is to grab an affordable bite. The local hole in the wall will likely give you more bang for your buck compared to the resorts.
6. Choose Locations Wisely
Avoid hotel room service, which is invariably expensive. Instead, try to hit up restaurants, bars, and stores around colleges, which are oozing with deals since students are generally broke. If you’re near or staying at a casino, you will likely find incredible deals on food. And lastly, if you decide to do your own shopping and food preparation, ethnic and local grocery stores are cheaper than chains.
7. Find Accommodations With a Kitchen
Whether it’s a condo, apartment, or a hotel, staying somewhere with a kitchen can do wonders for your budget. You can buy local ingredients to cook with and have plenty of snacks and beverages on hand.
8. Find the Deals
Check online for daily deals and coupons for restaurants, grocery stores, and bars – Yelp Deals, Groupon, LivingSocial, and Valpak are all great sites. Coupons can also be found at your hotel, the airport, bus or train stations, or any other location that caters to tourists.
Grab an old-fashioned newspaper too, and search for deals and coupons in the advertisements. And before you leave on your trip, visit the state, city, and county tourism websites to request a free guide book. Often, these contain coupons good for discounted meals and entertainment.
9. Use Your Discounts
There are a number of membership cards that save you money, and you may not even realize you’re already entitled to discounts. Students, senior citizens, military members, and certain professions, such as teachers, police officers, and firefighters, may be given a discount. It never hurts to ask!
10. Join a Restaurant Rewards Program
In addition to seeking out restaurant discounts and coupons, joining a rewards program to add up points while you dine is an excellent way to score a cheap dinner. For instance, T.G.I. Friday’s offers a free rewards program which allows you to earn one point for every dollar spent to be eventually exchanged for free food. Lettuce Entertain You operates thousands of restaurants across America, and their frequent diners club allows you to add up points for free meals, wine, and trips.
Another way to take advantage of a rewards program is to sign up for a Upromise account. If you have student loans, or are saving for college for yourself or your children, you can register your debit, credit, and dining cards for free. When you make certain purchases, including at restaurants and grocery stores, a percentage is applied to your loans or savings account.
11. Drink up, but Be Smart
If you’re looking for ways to save money on a meal, many people will advise you to skip the alcohol, but I beg to differ. Experiencing a unique, regional craft beer or wine is just as high on my list as trying the area’s famed cuisine.
Drink in moderation, though. At a restaurant or bar, always inquire about the specials, or find a restaurant that’s BYOB (a corkage fee may apply).
Look for free samples as well. Grocery or liquor stores often have beer and wine tastings for free or for a very low price, and breweries and wineries may give free samples as well. Find out if any pub crawls are taking place, since bars offer deals to participants. Lastly, consider an all-inclusive package on cruises or resorts that include alcohol.
12. Combine Food With Entertainment
When I stumbled upon the Taste of Minnesota on a trip to St. Paul, I thought I’d grab a quick bite and be on my way. My husband and I stayed there all day, trying different foods together and enjoying the music. By combining our food budget with entertainment, it ended up being a very inexpensive day.
There are other options to combine food with entertainment outside of fairs and festivals. You can take a cooking class, or visit a farmer’s market or specialty store. A food tour is another perfect example of being entertained while eating. Chicago offers a walking tour that allows patrons to sample their iconic cuisine, including pizza and the Chicago-style hot dog.
13. Find a Free Lunch
If you’re traveling with kids, find a restaurant where kids eat for free. As for adults, if you volunteer your time or participate in a fundraising walk, you’ll often receive a small meal. Alternately, visit the local Costco or other grocery stores during peak times when free samples are in abundance.
Free food is usually offered at open houses, grand openings of businesses, and art shows. You can also find free food at professional networking events or at various presentations, especially on college campuses. While you don’t want to crash someone else’s event just for the food, remember these tips in case you’re traveling for business or plan on attending such events anyway.
14. Let the Server Know It’s a Celebration
You don’t need to come in with a birthday hat or a crown, but casually mentioning an anniversary, birthday, honeymoon, or even your first time at a restaurant can score you a free treat.
Several months ago, I mentioned to a server that it was my first time at a cafe, and she treated me to a cup of soup, insisting I try it. And several years ago, my husband mentioned we were celebrating a new job offer. The waiter brought us complimentary champagne and capped the meal with a free dessert.
15. Beware the Fine Print
Just as with hotels and credit card bills, you need to be aware of any hidden costs or fees while dining. Several years ago, while dining at a cozy Italian restaurant, my husband and I were pleased by the service of our diligent waitress – until we realized that every soda refill cost an additional $3. We ended up paying more than $20 for soda alone. Restaurants can charge you for splitting a meal, extra toppings, substitutions, and for sitting in the restaurant as opposed to the bar (especially abroad).
It is also important to check the fine print before you purchase any coupon or deal from discount sites, such as Groupon or LivingSocial. Often, there are specific days or times you can use the coupon, as well as expiration dates or stipulations.
16. Order Slowly, Eat Slowly
My whole family is guilty of having eyes bigger than our stomachs. By the time I eat appetizers and any bread, soup, or salad that comes with the meal, I’m stuffed and end up wasting my entrée.
When dining out on vacation, remember to start off slow, and split appetizers or meals with your fellow travelers so you’re able to try a variety of different foods for less. Or, instead of an entrée, order several different appetizers.
Many people diligently search for bargains when grocery shopping or dining out, and these same frugal habits can carry over to vacation time. Budget wisely, search for deals, and plan your meals in advance, just as you would at home. Remember, appreciating the flavors and unique culinary styles of a destination doesn’t have to equal overspending!
How do you save money on food while on vacation? What’s your best money-saving tip for dining out?
(photo credit: Kenneth Sponsler, Shutterstock)