The cost of travel: How to eat cheap when travelling

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Eating is one of my favourite things to do when I’m travelling. I absolutely love sampling local cuisine and some of my most memorable travel memories revolve around meals I’ve had. I honestly still dream about that matcha sundae I had in Kyoto, Tokyo. 

The problem is, eating out is expensive so I’ve had to learn how to eat cheap when travelling. Although I think saving money when travelling is important, eating is part of the travel experience so it would be a mistake to completely cheap out. Heck, food is practically one of the main tourist attractions in some countries. Sushi in Japan, fries in Belgium, and steak in Argentina – there’s no way you would skip out on those experiences.

Balancing your budget while having good meals can be tricky. Obviously, you can’t eat out every meal, but with these tips on how to eat cheap when travelling, you won’t feel like you’re missing out.

How to eat cheap when travelling

Street food

Whenever I travel, street food is one of my favourite things to look for. Unlike North America where it’s really just limited to pretzels, hot dogs, and quick food, in Asia, you can get some delicious food for next to nothing. In Thailand, I was able to get fried rice for $1 while in Istanbul, I found fish sandwiches from a boat for $3. Some tourists worry about cleanliness but I always say that if a vendor has a long lineup of locals, then consider it safe to eat. Keep in mind that the food isn’t necessarily sold on the street, in many cases, it’s sold from vendors in outdoor markets with tiny kitchens. Again, just eat where the locals do and you’ll be guaranteed a good meal.

Local food

I’ve always found that local dishes in their home country are much cheaper compared to back home. A 3-course steak dinner in Buenos Aires was on average $20 while back it home it would cost be closer to $75. Sushi in Japan is reasonably priced but as you can imagine, the fish quality doesn’t get any better. It’s also worth looking up local speciality dishes for the experience. Deep dish pizza in Chicago, poutine in Canada, and cake in Budapest are some of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

Grocery stores

If you’re still wondering how to eat cheap when travelling, then you need to visit grocery stores. This is the best place to pick up snacks e.g. water, fruit, and granola bars on the cheap. If you have a kitchen available to you, then you can cook full meals and pack some meals. If that’s not an option, most grocery stores will sell sandwiches and prepared meals that will still be much cheaper than going to restaurants.

How to eat cheap when travelling takeaway

Fast food

Say what you want about nutritional value, but fast food in every country tends to be reasonably priced. Some major chains will have some kind of value meal which is great on your wallet. I wouldn’t recommend eating fast food every meal, but you can surprisingly still get some local dishes. Every restaurant adapts local dishes into their menu so it’s worth popping into McDonald’s to see what they offer. That being said, fast food is actually more expensive than local foods in some countries, so be sure you know your exchange rates.

Avoid buying drinks

Unless you’re buying from grocery stores, buying drinks when travelling can be pretty expensive. When I was in Paris, a can of Coke cost more than a glass of wine while in parts of Europe a small bottle of water was 3 Euros. This may not sound like a lot, but it definitely adds up fast. In many places, it is safe to drink tap water. So save yourself some money and bring a reusable water bottle you can refill. If that’s not the case, buy from the grocery store.

Splurge on at least one meal

With food being such an important thing in many cultures, it would be a huge disappointment if you didn’t set aside some of your travel budget for at least one nice meal. I’m not suggesting you set aside hundreds of dollars for a Michelin starred restaurant, but just enjoy one meal and don’t think too much about the costs. It’ll make the travel experience that much better.

Check out other parts of the series below

Part 1: Budgeting for a trip
Part 2How to pick a vacation destination
Part 3How to find cheap flights
Part 4: How to save money on hotels
Part 5: How to eat cheap when travelling
Part 6The best way to exchange money
Part 7: The basics of travel insurance
Part 8: Sticking to your travel budget

About Barry Choi

Barry Choi is a Toronto-based personal finance and travel expert who frequently makes media appearances. His blog Money We Have is one of Canada’s most trusted sources when it comes to money and travel. You can find him on Twitter:@barrychoi


  1. Andie on August 15, 2016 at 10:05 AM

    We really try now to book apartments instead of hotels. It means we have a kitchen. Our first day we go to a grocery store, which is always fun in another city and pick up some basic breakfast stuff, bread, cheese, water, etc. We tend to make our own breakfasts most days and even do simple things like grilled cheese and fruit for dinner if we are back at our place for a break, and then go out later for drinks or something. Of course, we eat out too but it is both economical and a bit more relaxing if you don’t have to rely on a restaurant or going out for every meal.

    • Barry Choi on August 18, 2016 at 11:28 AM


      I’m a huge fan of Airbnb. I haven’t cooked any meals there, but what I do like is access to laundry which allows me to pack less. Of course, I use the fridge also to store snacks.

  2. The Dividend Mogul on August 26, 2016 at 4:59 PM

    Street food always gets me!!! And I agree about the drinks… those can add up quickly (especially when they include water)!


    • Barry Choi on August 26, 2016 at 5:00 PM

      The Dividend Mogul,

      The only problem with street food is that I tend to overeat. It’s so cheap so I want everything which usually leads to a tummy ache =(

  3. Weekend Reading - Tawcan on September 3, 2016 at 12:24 AM

    […] Barry shared ways to eat cheap while traveling […]

  4. W G Verhoeven on March 2, 2017 at 11:43 AM

    When traveling we will stop at hospitals & collages. Good fresh local fare and reasonably priced. Also some colleges rent unoccupied dorm rooms.

  5. […] per one of Barry Choi’s excellent tips on saving money on food while you’re travelling, most of the places we stayed afforded us access to a kitchen, whether it was with family in their […]

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