When we’re on vacation, the world is our oyster (ready to be shucked and eaten). There are new restaurants to try, new types of cuisines to sample, even new kinds of produce that we might never have seen before.
Unfortunately for budget travelers, dining costs make up a huge part of our vacation expenses. Of Americans’ travel-related expenses, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found in 2008 that food and beverage spending was tied with lodging in terms of amount spent, accounting for 23 percent of the cost of travel, second to transportation (44 percent) and ahead of entertainment costs (10 percent).
How can you shave off some of that expense? Read on.
Leverage your Complimentary Hotel Breakfast
A complimentary hotel breakfast will go a long way toward keeping you filled up throughout the day. You may not be a big breakfast eater back home, but it’s worth filling up on a free breakfast that’s available at your hotel.
Eat Some Apps
Budget diners usually overlook the appetizers on the menu as overpriced preludes to the main event. But given their relative low price in comparison with entrées, you might consider ordering appetizers in lieu of a heavier meal. Another bonus to this tactic: Sharing small plates allows you to try several different restaurant specialties, especially if everyone in your party is into sharing.
Share and Share Alike
Being open to sharing will save you money, create camaraderie, and let you sample a variety of foods. If you don’t want to go the appetizer route, consider sharing an entrée with your partner. Typically, restaurant portions can be larger than you normally would eat, anyway, so it’s like getting two for the price of one (provided the restaurant doesn’t include an extra charge for sharing, which some do).
The Leftover Strategy
When you’re at home, you may not spend much time thinking about leftovers. In my household, leftovers are usually warmed up for late-night snacks or taken in a brown bag to work for lunch the next day.
But on vacation, leftovers mean a meal you’ve already paid for that can be parlayed into another meal (or even multiple meals). This strategy works particularly well if your hotel room is outfitted with a mini-refrigerator and microwave, as many are.
Though they can be hit-or-miss on quality, buffets are places to have a huge main meal of the day, supplemented by smaller meals or snacks the rest of the day, usually for a low price. Check Yelp or other review sites to get a good read on other diners’ experiences before you go.
All-day breakfast diners, also known as “greasy spoons,” are another budget-conscious option, and the portions are typically quite large relative to the low price you’ll pay.
Lunches and Happy Hour Specials
When you eat sometimes can be just as important as where you eat. You have probably noticed at your hometown restaurants that lunch can be a lot less pricey than dinner. Often, a restaurant will feature a special lunch-priced or happy hour menu that includes the same dishes as the dinner menu with smaller portions for a much lower price.
From hot dog vendors to food trucks, the reputation of street food has become slightly elevated in recent years, and for good reason: Some of the most authentic, delicious, and innovative food is slung street-side. If you’ve never tried poutine from a Canadian food truck or an authentic bratwurst from a German street vendor, well, you have a few more things to add to your bucket list.
Make Your Own
Not every meal has to be a four-star, gourmet experience. Plan for splurges in addition to meals that are simple nourishment in between your other adventures. Usually, the cheapest meals will be ones you can prepare on your own (think: sandwiches, microwaveable meals if your hotel has a microwave, etc.)
Saving Even More
You can pile up additional savings by keeping your eye out for coupons and other discounts, starting even before you hit the road for your trip. Here are a few places to look:
• Sunday newspaper coupon insert or weekly alternative paper.
• Restaurant websites or Facebook pages.
• AAA membership.
• Entertainment book (entertainment.com). You’ll need to purchase one in advance of your trip. This works best if you intend to stay for a while or if you can go in on the cost with another family.
• Online deal sites, such as Groupon, LivingSocial and Travelzoo.
Find out more great travel savings tips in Cynthia’s book Budget Travel for the Genius.
Cynthia J. Drake is a freelance travel and finance writer based in Austin, Texas. She is author of the book Budget Travel for the Genius.