Of course, we all have our favorite foods, our preferences. Things we prefer to eat if we have the choice. But when you’re on the road for months and on a budget, your diet and eating preferences become less important. Many times, you take what you can get.
If you’ve been reading you know we eat some weird (read: undesirable) stuff and we also don’t eat a ton, but we have some pretty stellar – and repeatable – strategies to keep food costs way down. This allows us to save it for the good stuff.
Note: Despite the contents of this post, food is an important part of travel. We ensure we try (and budget for) any local specialty, street food or cocktail in each place we go. This post provides recommendations for the rest of the time.
5 Tips For Keeping Food Costs Down on the Road
1: Free Breakfast
Always, always book a hostel with free breakfast. Unless there is some outstanding reason not to, book with breakfast (most hostels offer it, these days). While breakfasts vary in quality, they always offer savings. Even the skimpiest of breakfasts usually offer bread, cereal and some fruit juice and coffee. You can always pair this with peanut butter (see #2), and even if not, it’s still food. Some of the better breakfasts go the extra mile to offer fruit, ham, delicious homemade pastries and even eggs or salad! At these times you should overeat (see #4). If you can stretch your breakfast to fill you up until dinner, do it. If you don’t want to gorge yourself, you can always swipe fruit, bread, or even sandwiches (combine free bread + free ham) for lunch later. You will save a huge amount of money if you only have to buy or prepare 1 meal/day.
2: Peanut Butter, Peanut Butter, and More Peanut Butter
We eat peanut butter a lot. I’m sure you’re bored of reading about it, but we certainly aren’t bored of eating it. Children eat peanut butter sandwiches for months on end, and you can too! It’s cheap, travels well (no spills here, and shelf stable), is great for day-trip sandwiches, is great to pair with fruit AND bread swiped from aforementioned free breakfast. It also offers easy protein because sometimes (always) cooking meat in a hostel is awful, and pb can be spooned straight for a quick energy boost. Buy a jar. Buy some bread. Buy some bananas. You’re good to go for weeks. In a country that doesn’t eat peanut butter? Buy dulce de leche or hazelnut spread instead — a little sugar won’t kill you, I promise.
3: Know When to Overeat [AKA Gorge]
We’re all taught not to overeat, to stop when we’re full. OK great. In normal life, yes. But on the road the rules change. If the free breakfast is good, eat a lot. Eat enough for breakfast and lunch so you save money (it’s the same concept as brunch, right?). If you do go out, finish your plate — even if you’re not hungry. If you are spending the money, choose a buffet or place with large portions and EAT IT ALL. Will you feel full and ill for a bit? Maybe. Will you get your money’s worth and pack in some nutrition? Definitely. Will it be your only real meal all week? If you are us, then yes. I never ever finish my plate at restaurants at home, but on the road the rules change.
4: Plane Food: Ask for More, Plain (Plane) and Simple
American airlines suck, we know this. But foreign airlines are much better. You almost ALWAYS get free snacks, and quality snacks at that. I always try to save the wrapped snacks if I’m not hungry as they certainly come in handy later — nothing new there (sometimes I do get greedy and eat them, I admit). But something I often do which surprises most people is is to ask for more. When they come back to see if you want another drink, nicely ask for additional snacks:
“Could I possibly get another trail mix, please?”; “Do you have any pretzels left?”
If they don’t come back around, flag a stewardess in the aisle or even head to the back and aggressively ask. I kindly explain I’m so hungry today, or I’ve been travelling for hours without a chance to eat (!). Sometimes I just ask nicely with zero explanation. I have never been refused. You get more snacks to hoard for later when you need them…and it’s budget-proof. It’s amazing what you can get if you ask nicely, which brings me to #5.
5: Talk to Strangers…and Eat Their Candy
Sometimes people in the hostel offer you things.
“Oh we made way too much pasta.”; “Do you want some salad? We can’t possibly eat this all.”; “You have to try this wine!”
Many times, our first instinct is to say “no thanks” (why this is I do not know). But when you’re on the road, you should accept it — not only because it’s free food, manners also dictate this. We recently had a nice woman on our tour offer us a premium alfajore (Argentine cookie). While we at first declined, feeling badly, in the end we accepted. This made her happy, and it made us happy too (clearly we were starving and wanted it). Food aside, it was actually more polite than repeatedly declining. Always be grateful, of course, and be sure to return the favor. Offer others in the hostel your extras when they arise, and be sure to offer up a glass of wine to that girl who forgot to buy a bottle. It’ll all even out in the end…and that way karma won’t get ya.
6: Plan Ahead & Pack Snacks
If you’re preparing for a long bus ride, day trip, overnight transit, day of exploration, whatever, plan ahead. Go to the grocery store and grab some fruit or snacks and stash them in your bag. While often you can buy similar snacks when the bus stops or in the road, if you’re in a remote place or on a tourist-created route, the food will be way more expensive. Packing snacks ensures you are always prepared and don’t mistakenly buy a pricey tourist meal in a bus station at 2am in a deranged state of hunger. A pre-purchased banana and pack of crackers is like 25 cents. A tourist-stop meal is like $5. You do the math. (this applies in non-travel life, too).