Travel Cheap By Eating Like a Local
Today, we’re going to delve into two of my most beloved topics: food and travel! As I’ve shared, Mr. Frugalwoods and I are afflicted with ardent wanderlust and feel extraordinarily fortunate that we’ve traveled so much. But, we never spend a fortune doing it. Just as we frugalize our meals at home (remember, breakfast is the hidden budget destroyer!), travel eats-on-the-cheap are a key element of a Frugalwoods-style journey.
The Easy Way Out (aka Amsterdam Brunch, Baby!)
If you can finagle a free breakfast out of your lodging arrangement, excellent! Eat hearty and scavenge scraps for lunch. Two meals done!
Let me tell you about our most epic free breakfast occasion ever. We use Starwood hotel points for free hotel stays worldwide and the hotel we stayed at in Amsterdam (Hotel Pulitzer) included a free buffet breakfast. I’m going to go ahead and say that this hotel would’ve saved money if they’d just given us $50 for breakfast every day instead of allowing Mr. FW and I free reign of the breakfast buffet. This was no Old Country Buffet, Golden Corral, Perkins, Bob Evans-type of buffet. This was a Ritz Carlton, St. Regis, Four Seasons-type of buffet.
We walked in the first morning expecting some modest cold cereals, bagels, and hard boiled eggs, which we would’ve been perfectly happy with. What we found instead was a quaint dining room awash in sunlight replete with white linen table cloths, a personal waiter for every 2 tables (at a BUFFET, mind you), smoked salmon, champagne, cooked-to-order eggs and omelets, waffles, pancakes, a barista making coffees, a plethora of pastries, a ton of fresh cut fruit, oatmeal, cereal, bacon, sausage, cold cuts, finger sandwiches, petite fours. Basically every Western European food that could ever, or has ever, been considered a brunch item.
I’m sure you know what happened next. We shamelessly gorged ourselves every day. Mr. Frugalwoods is so shameless that he ate the entire platter of smoked salmon one morning and HAD THE GALL to ask for more (which of course they brought out)… I scampered away to the make-your-own mimosa bar and pretended not to know him. Needless to say, we didn’t ever eat “lunch” in Amsterdam. We leisurely lingered at the brunch buffet for as long as humanly possible, took a few croissants in my purse, and didn’t eat again until nightfall.
The Next Best Option
Now this Amsterdam brunch is atypical and when there are no free food options, we explore the local grocery store. As at home, it’s always cheaper than restaurants. Our fave items are the exact opposite of what we buy at home to stay healthy and frugal. When traveling, we go for packaged, processed goodies. They last longer, are cheaper, and don’t require cooking.
A typical meal for us while abroad: loaf of day-old bread (every country has an equivalent), some weird packaged protein (usually a cured meat like salami), another unusual packaged dairy product (funky or hard cheese), beer or wine (we are on vacation after all), and sweet rolls/chocolate/cookies. Preservatives! YUM. We’ll occasionally buy fresh fruit, but it’s usually too difficult to transport and ends up bruised and unloved. Don’t worry, we go on a salad diet when we get home.
We’ll often hit up a grocery store each morning and then carry our sack-o-food around with us all day. We’re intrepid walkers and explorers, so we don’t want to scurry back to our lodging every time we want a snack. You can see why we aim for stuff that’s not going to spoil easily. I once had to check our sack-o-food at a museum’s coat check (thanks, Prado Museum in Madrid), but it’s generally a pretty solid way to have lovely picnics throughout the day.
Be Fancy People
Dinner is when we’ll sometimes dine at a restaurant. We are indeed closet foodies and we relish testing out local delicacies.
One thing we can say for sure: do not eat at any restaurant suggested by any guide book. Ever.
We’ve been burned so bad by these touristy, over-priced, mediocre assemblages of “local” cuisine. SAVE YOURSELF! What we’ve found works best is The Frugalwoods Wander & Stare Method (C). Divest yourself of tourist-laden plazas and spin off down local, neighborhood streets. Then, begin peering into restaurant windows and reading menus. Locate a venue packed with locals (trust me, you’ll be able to tell) and with reasonable menu prices. Enter and enjoy!
One of the best meals we had in Poland was at a cafeteria-style, linoleum floor, fly-filled diner. NOT at the white tablecloth spot our travel guide touted (still mad about the money we wasted on that meal). And if dining out is too rich for our blood—rinse and repeat with a grocery store run.
Calibrate By Region
Dining prices obviously vary by region and in expensive locales it may be best to just stay away. We ate at exactly one sit-down restaurant the entire time we were in Paris, whereas in Bratislava we dined out for every single meal (it was like $3 a person). Best part about Paris is that there was a grocery store right next door to our 5 star hotel (again, thank you Starwood hotel points!).
The concierge looked down her nose at us every time we rolled in with our grocery sacks. And one evening we ate our sack-dinner in the lobby next to the roaring fireplace. I don’t think anyone had ever done that before, so the hotel staff didn’t tell us to leave, but they were visibly rattled. All I could think as we drank wine straight from the bottle was, yep, Frugal Weirdos Do Paris.
Know Your Comfort Level
Unless you flawlessly speak the language of the country you’re visiting, it’s best if you’re OK not knowing exactly what you’re eating. If you have food allergies or true dietary restrictions, I suggest you conduct research in advance of your travel to determine what types of food you’ll be able to safely consume. I say this because, for example, vegetarian does NOT mean the same thing the world over. In many countries, fishies are included as vegetarian fare.
Depending on the region you visit, menus might be translated into English, wait staff might speak English, or, none of the above may be true. While Mr. FW and I always put in the effort to learn the key phrases of the language of every country we visit, our language skills never extend to the ability to truly read a menu in detail. We can identify the gist of a meal, but heck if we know all twelve ingredients listed.
Since Mr. FW and I are blessed not to have any food allergies or food aversions, we are what you might call extremely adventurous eaters. We’ve both had food poisoning (me once on a transatlantic 10 hour flight–ask me about air sickness bags and how to get through customs REALLY quickly!), lived to tell the tale, and it hasn’t dampened our courageous palates.
For us, the food of a region is one of the most intimate ways to understand and experience the culture. Since we immerse ourselves in the local, we sacrifice a good deal of knowledge about the ingredients of our meals. I previously shared that we were regulars at Zagreb, Croatia’s “Christmas Wine and Culture” tent and who KNOWS what meat we were eating there (no menu, it was the point-n-smile method of ordering).
Same deal at Bratislava, Slovakia’s outdoor Hlavné Námestie Christmas Market. There, festive tents greeted us selling warm honey wine (that was the best I could do with translating the sign) and steaming bundles of meat and dough (with no sign). To this day, no clue what was actually in those sandwiches. Again, no menu or list of ingredients. We simply observed that everyone else was devouring and loving these delicacies, so we dug in amid the glow of Christmas lights, gently falling snow, and Slovakian Christmas carols.
If the thought of eating unknown foods terrifies you, you can certainly hew to restaurants that a guide book recommends as they often have English menu translations and simpler fare. You’re on vacation and should enjoy yourself, so select cuisine options that won’t stress you out. Embrace what you’re comfortable with and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
That being said, if you travel with me and Mr. Frugalwoods, expect to be buttonholed into some roadside kebab stand cooking their halal meat on an outdoor smoker. Don’t say I didn’t warn you :).
What’s the most unusual food you’ve eaten while traveling?
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