5 Tips for Sticking to Your Vacation Food Budget

updated Dec 17, 2019
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(Image credit: Liz Clayman)

There are certain times when budgets go out the window. For many, vacations are one of those times. But while I fully support letting things slide a little while you’re on the road, or even taking a staycation, I’m not a huge fan of returning from tropical paradise to find I have to eat rice and beans for the next month. (I have done this and, as much as I love rice and beans, it gets very, very boring.)

So over the years I’ve developed a few strategies for sticking to my food budget while traveling. Bonus: It also means I don’t come home feeling so overfed that I need a vacation from my vacation.

1. Make the most of your hotel.

If you’re staying at a hotel, chances are it’s a significant part of your overall travel budget — and I would argue it should be. I love hotels. I love sleeping in a big king-sized bed (mine at home is a double), using the tiny toiletries, and scoping out the mini bar to see what local treats they have.

I also love taking advantage of everything hotels have to offer, which almost always includes free coffee and tea in the hotel lobby and often includes some kind of breakfast. And even when the breakfast isn’t free, a breakfast buffet can be a good value, so I always check it out.

Some hotels also have other freebies, like happy hour wine and snacks, fancy water stations with lemons or cucumbers or strawberries and basil, or bananas in the gym. Obviously, use your judgment. Don’t hoard the bananas! But it is okay to have a glass of wine and some spiced nuts every day.

P.S.: If you’re trying to keep to your budget, room service is generally a bad value, but I have to confess, it’s something I do splurge on occasionally. Just make sure you know what and how to order!

2. Go grocery shopping.

Grocery shopping in another place, be it two towns over or in an entirely different country, is one of my very favorite things about traveling. It’s also extremely economical and an easy way to stay healthy-ish while on the road. I like to stock up on nuts, fruits, and water, plus any local snacks I can get my hands on (these make great, affordable gifts and souvenir, too).

You can find international snacks much more readily now than you could a decade ago, but I used to love getting Lion Bars in London and Hanuta Hazelnut-Chocolate Wafers in Germany. And last year, I came home from Sweden with a trove of gummies and chocolates (although you can always find these sweet treats at your local IKEA).

3. Take yourself out to a fancy lunch.

Lunch is almost always the cheaper option and it’s also almost always easier to get a reservation at that fancy, trendy, cool-girl spot. You’ll eat just as well, your waiter will be less harried, and you’ll have an excuse to get a glass of wine in the middle of the day to go with your duck confit (or whatever). For dinner, you might find that your hotel’s happy hour snacks plus your grocery stash will suffice.

4. Try the street food.

Street food is delicious and cheap. This is basically a fact. I can’t think of a street food meal that I’ve ever had that was expensive. And nearly every street food meal has been not just good, but really, really good. One of my most vivid food memories from Paris is of a paper-thin crepe with a scrambled egg, frites, red sauce, and white sauce from a cart. In Reykjavik, I cannot remember what I ate, with the exception of rotten shark (gross) and a late-night hot dog, topped with crunchy fried onions (very good).

Related: Worried about traveler’s tummy? One road warrior swears by this remedy.

5. Have a picnic.

Another way to eat well without spending beaucoup bucks is to go on a picnic. Of course, this might not work in the dead of winter, but if it’s warm(ish) outside and there’s a park, I’ll hit up the farmers market, the bakery, and the cheese shop and put together a little spread. I’ll take my book, find a nice spot, and have a little feast (and then maybe a little nap).

Do you try to keep to a budget when you travel or do you splurge and worry about the consequences later?