What’s a trip without enjoying the unique food of a given place? Regional fare is the gateway to a place’s culture, history, and people — not to mention enlivens the senses.
Particularly if you’re a foodie, not indulging in culinary adventures while traveling can make you feel outright robbed. What’s an excursion to New Orleans without a steaming bowl of seafood gumbo, or beignets paired with espresso? What about stacked enchiladas smeared in green sauce or warm, crispy sopapillas while traversing the terrain of New Mexico? There are some places were it feels like if you didn’t eat local, you didn’t go there at all.
On the flip side, it’s far too easy to go over your food budget while vacationing. Americans spend an average of $27 a day on food while traveling in the U.S., and $35 a day when traveling internationally, according to ValuePenguin. If you spend more than you’ve budgeted, you might run the risk of going into debt. But you don’t have to spend a small fortune on dining.
Here are a few ways to have budget-friendly food experiences while traveling:
Research Unique Food Offerings
What kind of food is the area you’re exploring best known for? And what types of cuisine do you and your travel companions typically like to get a taste of? A quick online search will help you narrow in on regional flavors and dishes. From there, you can decide on which ones you’d like to try.
My partner and I have adventurous palates. While vacationing in Hawaii last year we tasted everything from noni fruit (its reputation for smelling like rotted goat cheese is earned) and breadfruit, to traditional dishes such as kalua pig and poi. And because you’re at the stomping grounds for where a particular food tradition originated, you’ll find more places with different price ranges to try those dishes. You don’t need to even eat at a sit-down restaurant. We stumbled upon yummy local eats at a liquor store and at food trucks.
Besides traditional dishes, we also wanted to check out hole-in-the-wall eateries that have been touted by celebrity chefs and food critics. We stopped by a bakery well-regarded for its Portuguese donuts. We also dined at a drive-in that featured loco moco, which is a dish with a mound of rice stacked with a hamburger patty, fried egg, and drizzled with brown gravy goodness. For these places with less fanfare, we spent less than $20 for two.
Shop at Local Markets
An easy way to enjoy regional fare is to hop around local markets. While in Hawaii, for the most part my partner and I skipped the fancy Zagat-rated restaurants. Instead, we shopped at local grocery stores.
For example, we asked our ride-share driver where the best place to get fish in Oahu was. He pointed us toward a fish market in Honolulu. We filled our cart with poke, giant crispy shrimp chips, and small bags of red alaea salt. It was fun to see what goodies we could find stocked in each aisle. The best part was that we paid $70 for groceries (plus $20 for the ride-share) that lasted us for several days. If we weren’t careful, that money could’ve easily been spent on a single meal.
See Where the Locals Eat
Oftentimes the restaurants touted by airline magazines and those actually considered choice eats by a place’s denizens can differ. While on the big island, we scoured local online publications and reviews on Yelp to figure out the “must-try” haunts. On the list was a highly rated burger joint that was founded by a renowned chef. Menu items included burgers with pasture-raised Hawaiian beef, and umami-flavored mushroom burgers. We spent a total of about $30, which included fries and milkshakes.
Check Out Gourmet Food Halls
More and more food halls are opening up in major cities around the world. Think food court but with a gourmet slant. Not only is it affordable dining, but you can choose from a bunch of different options in one place. If you’re in Tijuana, there’s the Food Garden. Traveling in the Netherlands? Check out Markthal.
In Los Angeles, where I live, the Grand Central Market in downtown features everything from woodstone oven pizza to pupusas. Some of these places use seasonal ingredients and produce from local farms. And because you’re dining food court style, you can try a starter-type dish in one place, your main meal at another, and hop over to one more for dessert.
Prepare a Few Dishes Where You’re Staying
If your accommodations have a kitchen, consider preparing a few meals yourself during your trip. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate; a few simple dishes could enhance your trip and be light on your wallet. While we were in the Big Island we stayed in a condo with a full kitchen. Although we didn’t cook all five days we were there, we grilled a few taro burgers, as well as sides of poi and a simple salad for lunch a few times.
Decide on a Few Fancy Meals
When I travel, I typically just choose a few must-try foods at finer, high-end establishments. Not every meal has to be amazing — or expensive. I decide beforehand a few meals to splurge on, and eat small bites and everyday staples the remainder of the time. This approach helped us balance our budget.
If you want to try out a more upscale restaurant, try dining for lunch. Oftentimes they feature smaller portions of their dinner menu at a discounted rate. You can also dine during happy hour. A few years ago when my family and I visited Hawaii, we ate at a fancy, rooftop restaurant. As the establishment was known for its ambiance, we skipped the four-course dinner and ordered off the happy hour menu instead.
Dine at Airport Restaurants
You’ll be surprised by your eating options at the airport terminal, particularly at the larger, international airports. While some of the sit-down restaurants are pricey, there’s often local cuisine in the food court. So you might want to skip the salads at the quick-bites counter and venture into offerings that are more specific to the area. While traveling to Texas, you’ll most likely find a place that serves up BBQ or Tex-Mex fare. Have a layover in the Motor City? Try a Detroit-style Coney dog.
Enjoying food during your travels doesn’t have to eat up your entire budget. By doing a bit of planning, and carefully mapping out what and where you’d like to eat, you can satiate your inner gourmand and stick to your spending plan.
Jackie Lam is a personal finance writer. Her work has appeared in Investopedia, Magnify Money and The Bold Italic, and she’s been featured in Money, Kiplinger, Forbes and Woman’s Day. She runs Cheapsters.org, a blog to help freelancers and artists with their money, and to balance their passion projects and careers.