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  • Writer's pictureDiann Schindler, Ph.D.

Tips to Save on Meals when Traveling Abroad.

Name a country, I love its food! Half the fun of exploring the world and its cultures is enjoying the variety of foods. Guinea pig in Peru, moussaka in Greece, pasta in Italy, pad thai in Thailand, unagi in Japan, jamon in Spain, the roquefort in France, alzeida in Portugal, the stuffed peppers in Montenegro… the list goes on and on.

And, that’s not even the incredible desserts…like dondurma, Turkish ice cream that has the consistency of taffy, thickened with salep, a flour made from orchids, which only adds to its exotic appeal.

Of course, if not careful, meals go blow up your waistline and your budget. Here are my money saving tips:

FIRST AND FOREMOST: I’m confident you already know the importance of staying hydrated. Always have a refillable water bottle on hand. This not only helps the environment, but by filling up your own bottle at a water fountain or from a water cooler at your hotel, you will save on buying additional water or drinks.

Airport Lounges. Even before you leave, think about eating at home. Of course, sometimes it’s too early in the morning. I pick up a coffee from the McDonald’s drive-thru. Too late, bring a small snack from home. In any case, eating at airport restaurants is a costly mistake…and, I think, airport food just tastes bad. Further, the cost of airport food can ruin your budget even before you are out of town! Consider these alternatives:

  1. Join a lounge network, like Priority Pass or LoungeBuddy . Priority Pass' least expensive membership costs $99 per year, and then you pay $27 visit fee each time you enter a lounge and $27 if you choose to bring a guest. Its most expensive plan costs $399 per year. With that plan, there are no additional charges to enter a lounge. Priority Pass then offers you access to a network of 1,200 lounges across the world. LoungeBuddy doesn't require a membership; instead its app allows customers to buy lounge passes when they need them. Day pass costs begin at $25 each. If you find yourself in a long layover, ask to buy a day pass. Note, you do not need a ticket for the particular airline lounge. And, sometimes, if you are alone and quietly explain your unforeseen circumstances, you may be granted access for free. (Finally, be sure to get the cell phone app for any lounge network you join to have access to information at your fingertips.)

  2. Premium credit cards, such as the American Express Platinum card, include access to some airport lounges. Not all cards are alike, so read the fine print before signing up.

  3. Consider a club membership, especially if you are a frequent flyer and often choose the same airline. Memberships usually cost about $500 a year for an individual and more than $900 for a family.

Finally, if none of these options work for you, bring along some snacks to keep your hunger at bay until you have access to a more appealing restaurant at your destination.

Find the Local Supermarket. When I land in Hanoi, I don’t immediately go to the Opera House. In Athens, I’m not trekking to the Acropolis right away. After touching down in Paris, I don’t hop on the train to the Eiffel Tower. First, I must find the local supermarket to stock up on drinks, fruit, and high protein snacks to tide me over in-between meals.

Shopping at a local supermarket not only helps with your budget, it also allows you to experience more of the local culture and find some food items you don’t normally see at your home supermarket. Find a farmer’s market for an even better experience and get some fresh local fruit for healthy and tasty snacks.

Eat With the Locals. Here, you know it’s really good food and traditional dishes from the country you are visiting. Furthermore, it is much less expensive that any tourist trap restaurant that often tries to appeal to the western palette. How to find local eats? Just ask the hotel staff, your Airbnb host, or the clerk at the supermarket, “I’m looking for a simple, traditional restaurant. Where do you eat around here?”

Free Food. Eat at your hotel, if your hotel provides breakfast as a part of your hotel stay. Often, it’s not all traditional foods; however, usually it costs less than eating somewhere else. I always make sure I get protein and fruit. I also take some fruit…an apple, an orange, or a banana… with me as I leave to stave off any hunger or for a meal substitute.

Some hotels also have happy hours with free drinks and hors d’oeuvres, which can be a nice way to relax after a day of touring and/or preparing for a night out on the town.

If you’re staying at a hostel, there is usually a free food shelf and fruit left by other travelers and some hostels include home-cooked evening meals.

I’m not saying you should eat all your meals where you stay. That would take away from the full-fledged traveling experience, but including some free food will certainly help save money.

Lodgings with a Kitchen. Airbnb, HomeAway, as well as some hotels such as Residence Inn, Hilton Homewood Suites, and Marriott include fully equipped kitchens. Be sure to find out where the nearest and most inexpensive grocery store is located. Note, I have found that often even the nearest grocery store is geared to tourist and is much more expensive than a store serving locals. Better yet, I love open markets. That’s where I find, once again, that I’m steeped into the local culture. Yes, maybe only a few of the vendors speak English, but that’s half the fun!

I encourage you to eat out, of course, but having a kitchen can save money, even if it’s simply warming up left overs. Plus, I don’t know anything better than freshly brewed, made to my own specifications, in my Airbnb kitchen, in my PJ’s.

Lunch Specials. Enjoy an extravagant lunch at a top-of-the-line restaurant. Lunch menus may have fewer options and smaller portions, but you’ll still get the same great tasting food, cheaper that what you will pay for slightly larger portion of the same meal later in the evening.

And, there’s more: I found a local restaurant in Madeira Island, Portugal, that offered just three plates each day… fish, poultry, or meat…open only from noon to 2:30 pm. The fee of 3.50 euros plus .80 euros for a glass of wine was a great lunch. I ate a great meal nearly every day and chatted, as best I could, with Portuguese lunch buddies.

Eat on the Street. Street food is a great way to experience some culture and usually only cost a few bucks or a fraction of what you’ll pay in a restaurant. I ate street food throughout Thailand and Vietnam. The one and only time I ate at a rather high-end restaurant, I suffered a touch of food poisoning. I say a touch, because my digestive system was severely challenged for about 4 hours within an hour of eating, and then, mildly affected for the next three days. Even that, however, was enough for me to trust street food even more!

Of course, be careful, and look for food stalls that are busy.

Food Tours. Why not combine a city tour with food? Many day tours include lunch. I had a great lunch when I went on a tour of an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Yet, try a specific food tour to taste and sometimes learn to cook local foods. You often learn about the history of the foods and the country, as well as a chance to visit other city attractions during the tour.

Finally, eating affordably while traveling is all about finding a balance…balance dining out with taking advantage of all the money saving tips above. Stay within your budget and, if you are like me, you will find great local foods and remain guilt-free. Ah…. a perfect international journey!

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