The United States General Services Administration, which manages the functioning of federal agencies, sets per diem rates for federal employees traveling on official business in the continental U.S. Per-diem rates cover three types of expenses: lodging, meals, and incidental expenses. The last two are usually grouped as “M&IE.”
The M&IE per-diem rate is the reasonable maximum outlay for three square meals per day and whatever other incidental expenses arise during a day of official business away from the home office. It varies considerably by local market. In 2021, the M&IE per-diem rate for San Francisco was $76. A few hundred miles away, in Elko, Nevada, it’s just $55 — the standard rate for most rural areas and small cities.
If you’re accustomed to dining well, $55 might not sound like enough to earn your full allowance of daily calories. If you’re a frugal eater, $55 might seem like an embarrassing amount to spend on three meals. But either way, it’s in your financial interest to reduce the cost of food on the road — if only to have more left over for nonconsumable travel expenses.
Tips to Eat Cheap & Save Money on Food While Traveling
Whatever your appetite, you can find ways to shave a few dollars off your vacation food budget at every meal. Implement these cost-effective strategies for saving money on food on your next trip.
1. Look for Accommodations With Kitchen Access
A hotel minifridge doesn’t count as a “kitchen.”
Whether you’re traveling solo, with a spouse or partner, or with a larger group of friends, make a point of checking reputable short-term rental sites like Airbnb and Vrbo. If you can find an affordable, well-reviewed, conveniently located rental, it’s often best to take it over a traditional hotel room.
Short-term rentals with a functional kitchen let you prepare full, healthy meals. It’s often worth it to pay a premium for those kinds of accommodations. They can save you money on all your travel expenses by letting you do things like shop at a local grocery to save money on eating out at restaurants and do laundry so you can pack light and save on checked baggage.
Kitchen access is especially advantageous for larger groups, where communal meals can really trim per-person meal costs. During my two most recent destination bachelor parties, we made full use of our rentals’ generously appointed kitchens. Based on the meals we ended up eating out, we probably saved at least $50 each weekend — not bad for less than three full days.
2. Find Hotels With Free Breakfast
Free breakfast is a common hotel perk, one that’s by no means relegated to the sorts of upscale 4- and 5-star gems most travelers visit infrequently. I’ve paid nothing out of pocket for filling continental breakfasts at otherwise forgettable roadside motels.
Go just a tick or two up the quality ladder to brands like Hampton Inn, and that continental breakfast becomes a sumptuous hot-and-cold buffet complete with waffle makers and omelet stations.
Most hotels proudly tout free breakfasts. But when in doubt, call ahead.
3. Avoid Airport Meals
No matter what kind of meal you’re in the mood for — upscale sit-down, grab-and-go, or anything in between — you can expect to pay significantly more for it at the airport.
One of the easiest ways to save money at airports is not eating there. That’s easier said than done when you’re facing down a long layover.
Instead, fill up right before heading to the airport and stash enough snacks in your carry-on to tide you over until you land. Just don’t pack any snacks that can qualify as liquids, or you may be forced to part with them at security.
4. Hit the Grocery Store When You Arrive or Just Before You Leave
If you’re flying, reserve time to visit the nearest grocery store when you arrive in your destination city. If you’re road-tripping, shop the morning you leave.
As with any shopping trip, planning makes all the difference. Review your itinerary and determine:
- How many meals you expect to cook on your own
- How many days and nights you’ll have access to a full kitchen
- Your anticipated level of snackage
- Your beverage requirements
If it’s logistically feasible to maintain a continuous cold chain using ice packs and in-room refrigerators, you’ll have more leeway to procure fresh ingredients and prepared foods. That’s more feasible for trips that don’t involve lots of time in transit. Otherwise, modify meals to accommodate shelf-stable ingredients.
5. Use a Refillable Water Bottle
Don’t buy bottled water on the road unless tap water isn’t safe or readily available. It’s bad for your wallet and the environment.
Instead, pack a refillable water bottle, preferably metal or BPA-free plastic. Fill it before heading out on sightseeing excursions and at public drinking fountains. It costs nothing for the refreshment, and you can avoid adding to local landfills.
This strategy has limitations. In parts of the world without reliable or readily available public water supplies, you’ll probably need to purchase bottled water at some point. Just be sure to save and reuse the bottle as you’re able.
6. Bring Plenty of Shelf-Stable Snacks
It’s not just the airport where you might get inopportunely hungry. Pack enough healthy, shelf-stable snacks to last you the entire trip. Think dried fruit, mixed nuts, peanut butter with no added sugar, energy bars with no or low added sugar, granola bars, and whole-grain crackers.
On extended vacations, this strategy may be limited by your cargo space. If you’re flying to your destination and aren’t planning to check a bag or have minimal space in your checked luggage for your own food, wait until after your flight to make your snack run. On a road trip, you’ll have an easier time finding room in your ride for snack boxes and tubes.
7. Avoid Touristy Restaurants & Neighborhoods
You probably won’t cook every single meal in your kitchen away from home. Nor can you sustain a longer trip on snacks alone.
When the time comes to tuck in away from your room or rental, avoid overtly touristy restaurants. In fact, steer clear of tourist traps period — or at least venture off main commercial streets. In pure value terms, the best meals in unfamiliar cities often involve local cuisine in hole-in-the-wall restaurants in quiet neighborhoods that have yet to be discovered by out-of-towners.
The best meal my wife and I ate in Portugal was at a low-lit family-run place that served homestyle seafood the likes of which I’ve never had before or since. We hit up a busier, more touristy place the next night, paying maybe 25% more for a far less memorable meal. So when you can’t make your own food, look for local food establishments where prices are lower.
8. Learn to Love Street Food
If your stomach turns at the thought of eating a $7 burrito from a random food truck, to say nothing of a $2 noodle plate from a rickety cart that appears ready to burst into flame, you might need some convincing.
When in doubt, follow the local popularity rule: If locals frequent the place in decent numbers, it’s probably fine. That rule served me well in Thailand, where I ate more street noodle meals than I could count on both hands.
Harvard Medical School advises food truck fans to scan online reviews for potential cleanliness-related red flags and look for local health authorities’ inspection records (some grade trucks on a letter scale) if you’re still not sure. My Health Department has an easy-to-search database of health inspection records for many municipal and state health departments.
Safety aside, it’s indisputable that street food is cheaper than restaurant food.
9. Fill Up on Restaurant Freebies
I like the premeal bread assortment you get at some nicer restaurants almost as much as street food. But that’s probably because it’s free, at least in the U.S.
In some parts of the world, restaurants charge for that satiating little assortment. The going rate in Portugal, for instance, was 1.50 to 2 euros (roughly $1.80 to $2.40 in today’s U.S. currency) when we visited. Not quite the cost of a full appetizer but not pocket change either. Plan accordingly, and definitely use that bread (and cheese in Portugal) plate as a replacement for your first course when dining at full-service establishments.
10. Use Local Coupons
Before you arrive at your destination, look for daily deals and social coupons at tasty-looking restaurants there. The right Groupon deal can reduce your tab by 40% or 50%, depending on the vendor’s generosity.
You can also try industry-specific coupon sites, such as Restaurant.com, though I’ve had mixed experiences with that one. It’s no fun arguing with a server who swears up and down his employer doesn’t honor Restaurant.com coupons. When in doubt, call ahead.
Finally, check with the local tourism bureau or visitor’s association for timely promotions. When I visited Oregon, Travel Portland hooked me up with a nice swag bag that included a coffee shop discount coupon. Local guides published by such groups often have a whole coupon section in the back. Check their websites for mobile coupons as well.
11. Turn to Yelp or Google Restaurants for Price-Sensitive Searches
Both Yelp and Google Maps have user-friendly price-filtering tools that exclude overpriced restaurants. Add at-a-glance star ratings and (usually) accurate menu details, and you have pretty much all the information you need to make an informed, cost-conscious decision about lunch or dinner.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to do the old-fashioned thing and pick up a local newspaper or alternative weekly. Weekend editions in particular often have extensive coupon sections. Most of what’s in there won’t be particularly relevant, but it doesn’t hurt to look through.
12. Eat Out at Lunch or Brunch, Not Dinner
Pound for pound, lunch and brunch are almost always cheaper than dinner.
If you’re looking forward to trying new restaurants on your trip, limit your sit-down meals to one per day, and make them midday meals. You’ll pay less for the same appetizers and entrees, perhaps in slightly smaller portions. Plus, restaurants are more likely to run prix-fixe meals (several courses for a fixed price) or cut-rate daily specials at lunchtime, especially during the week.
If you don’t have a place to cook dinner, you don’t have to fast. Instead, hit the prepared foods section at your local supermarket, patronize a food truck, or look for a fast-casual option that won’t break the bank.
13. Price Out Prix-Fixe Meals
Don’t assume the multicourse prix-fixe (fixed price) menu offers better value than the a la carte menu. Restaurants often compensate for multicourse variety with smaller, more basic portions. Ask servers for their honest opinions about prix-fixe value and read Yelp or Google reviews to ensure you make the right call.
But some upscale restaurants don’t give you a choice. If you show up for dinner, you’re getting a prix-fixe tasting menu. That’s more common in some countries and regions than in the U.S., so make sure you know what you’re in for before you travel.
14. Space Out Splurges
Special occasions call for special experiences. If your trip coincides with a birthday or anniversary, you likely plan to have a spendy celebration dinner. It’ll be that much more special as the undisputed culinary centerpiece of your vacation — not simply another nice meal out.
Don’t forget to tell restaurant staff you’re celebrating, either. You might get a free dessert or drink out of it.
15. Look for Value-Added Dining Opportunities
Value-added dining experiences kill two (or more) birds with one stone: They fill your tummy while entertaining or informing.
Two of many possible examples: dinner theater and cooking classes.
In the U.S., look for free or cheap outdoor performance series that permit picnic dining, sell food on-site, or welcome food trucks and street vendors.
Weather is a factor — in less temperate climates, outdoor performances are generally relegated to the summer months. New York City’s Shakespeare in the Park is representative: It’s free, low-key, and family-friendly.
Cooking classes generally aren’t free, but they’re not always more expensive than a nice restaurant meal.
The more significant issue is time. In Bangkok, my wife and I devoted about three hours and $60 to a memorable, well-run group cooking class that led a dozen or so attendees on a kaleidoscopic culinary tour of Thailand. It was delicious, and we picked up a handful of easy recipes we’ve since prepared successfully in our home kitchen.
16. Look for Free or Low-Cost Food
You don’t have to embrace freeganism, a bridge too far for buttoned-up travelers and definitely not a good look to show your boss. Nor is it necessary to learn as much as you can about urban foraging before you visit a new city.
All you have to do to sniff out free or low-cost food is be in the right place at the right time. For example, make sure you get to these eateries during the right time of day:
- Bakeries near closing time for a fire sale on the day’s last goods
- Bakeries near opening time, when day-old bread and pastries sell for way below regular price
- Pizzerias and other establishments that sell “display” foods that don’t keep overnight
Years ago, during an extended (and very frugal) journey across Europe with a few friends, we got a free extra-large pizza off a kindly Parisian proprietor who we suspected was legitimately worried we’d starve if he didn’t feed us.
17. Seek Out Events With Free Food
Clever event organizers use free apps and refreshments to lure on-the-fence attendees. Affirm their decision-making by patronizing said events, such as museum exhibit openings, university lectures, teach-ins, and rallies.
That alternative weekly you picked up earlier should highlight the highest profile of these events. Do some Internet sleuthing or check individual institution websites to fill the gaps.
18. Eat Less (or No) Meat
Going vegetarian or vegan is a healthy, frugal lifestyle choice. But it’s tough to execute when you’re used to eating meat regularly.
Travel an opportunity to break out of your animal protein routine and try plant-based alternatives. It’s easier in big U.S. cities, where vegetarian and veggie-friendly restaurants abound, and in countries where meat is less central to the local diet. (Think India and Southeast Asia.)
Who knows? When you get back, maybe you’ll be ready to make the switch for good.
19. Join Restaurant Loyalty Programs
For hungry, thrifty travelers, restaurant loyalty programs are gold. Nowhere is this truer than in North America, where you’re more likely to encounter participating chains in your travels.
Make a habit of joining every restaurant loyalty program you can, even if you’re not a regular. You’ll get occasional freebies via email, push notification, or snail mail as a result. But if you’re lucky, you might qualify for a standing discount.
I’ve been a Panera Bread loyalty club member for longer than I can remember, and I rarely patronize the place. But I get a $5-off coupon on every birthday and the occasional free beverage or side to boot.
If you belong to other associations, such as AAA or AARP, you likely qualify for discounts at national and international chains as well. Unfortunately, those discounts may not work outside the U.S. or Canada. When in doubt, ask your server or cashier.
20. Drink in Moderation
You don’t have to give up drinking alcohol, but your travel budget will thank you for saying no to that second beer or glass of wine with dinner (and sadly, that after-dinner cocktail). If you want to drink, take advantage of predinner happy hours with drink discounts.
You can also wait to unwind until after your meal. In the U.S., and indeed in most parts of the world, store-bought alcohol is cheaper than booze served in local restaurants and bars. When you arrive at your destination, hit the liquor section of the nearest bodega or supermarket to stock up.
21. When in Doubt, Confirm Pricing
In Portugal, I learned the hard way not to assume anything is free. I should have known those bread and cheese baskets were too good to be true.
Even something as innocuous as a soda refill could set you back. If you’re unsure whether a restaurant offers free bread or soda, clarify before you order something. Don’t worry about coming off as rude — your server would probably do the same if the roles were reversed.
22. Use a Rewards Credit Card
Premium cash-back and travel rewards cards can return 5% or better in select purchase categories, including restaurants and grocery stores.
Some high-end travel cards confer even more valuable perks, such as free breakfasts at participating hotels or in-flight discounts with participating airlines. For example, the Delta SkyMiles Gold credit card from American Express slashes in-flight Delta purchases by 20%. Read your card’s terms and conditions, and plan accordingly.
I’m away from home at least once per month, usually for trips considerably less elaborate than journeys to Portugal and Thailand. But in a typical month, I eat at least a dozen meals outside my home county.
I’ve developed two parallel systems for staying fed away from home: one for flying vacations and another for driving vacations. The former involves street food galore, while the latter features lots of (healthy) snacks and (less healthy) fast food.
Similarly, you can mix and match these strategies based on your needs, whether that’s the type of travel or even a life circumstance. For example, if you have specific dietary restrictions or food allergies, you can lean heavily on some tactics and avoid others. As long as you can stay well-fed without breaking the bank, you’ll come out ahead.