In This Post: Smart and only slightly-questionable ways to save money on food, find free food (!), and avoid wasting your entire budget on eating out. If you’re looking for tips on how to eat out on a budget (which mostly just involves eating street food), click here instead [link coming soon].
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.
I’ll admit, I eat some weird stuff. I’m OK to not eat for 12-24 hours if no cheap options present themselves. I have zero issue subsisting on crackers and bananas for multiple days in a row. But none of this is ideal, meaning I use several strategies to keep food costs down while not totally starving or achieving malnutrition. Making your own hobo meals and finding and hoarding free food is actually much easier than you may think!
How To Keep Food Costs Down While Traveling
#1. Make The Most Of Free Breakfast
Always book a hostel with free breakfast, unless there is some outstanding reason not to. 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 regardless, 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 #5). 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 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
I eat peanut butter a lot. I’m sure you’re bored of reading about it, but I certainly am not 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. It can even 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 hazelnut spread instead — a little sugar won’t kill you, I promise.
#3. Don’t Eat Out – At Least Not All The Time
Depending where you are, sometimes the best way to save money on food is simply to make it yourself. While in some places (Southeast Asia, for example) eating street food is literally cheaper than cooking, in many others (Europe, I’m looking at you) eating out on a budget is nearly impossible. Either way, it’s easy to save money by making your own food. This can be a simple peanut butter sandwich paired with fruit from the market. It can be as fancy as fresh local veggies paired with rice you bought off the street. Making some meals yourself will help keep costs down (and keep you healthier) throughout your journey.
→ Best Budget Meals You Can Make Yourself, Without Cooking [Link Coming Soon]
#4. “Brownbag” It
If you’re preparing for a long bus ride, day trip, overnight transit, tour, or day of exploration, 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 at a rest area, if you’re in a remote place or on a tourist-created route the food is guaranteed to be way more expensive. This is especially true on tours where you are a captive audience. I always, always bring my own lunch (or just refuse to eat) rather than break my budget at a forced tourist stop restaurant.
Do I sometimes have to sit outside or on the end alone? Yes. Do people look at me weird as I eat stale bread from my purse? Yes. Do I stay in budget? ALSO YES.
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. (Note: This applies in non-travel life, too).
#5. Know When To Overeat
We’re all taught not to overeat, to stop when we’re full. In normal life, great, 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? It’s hard to say. I never ever finish my plate at restaurants at home, but on the road the rules change.
#6. Ask For More Plane Snacks
If you’re traveling outside America and have not purchased an uber-budget fare, it’s likely you’ll get free snacks on the plane. I always try to save the wrapped snacks if I’m not hungry as they certainly come in handy later. But something I often do which surprises most people is to ask for more. When they come back to see if you want another drink, nicely ask for additional snacks. 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 don’t even offer an explanation, but I have never been refused. It’s amazing what you can get if you ask nicely, which brings me to #7.
#7. Talk To Strangers…And Eat Their Candy
Sometimes people in the hostel offer you things. While many times my first instinct is to say “no thanks,” I’ve learned it’s best to accept. Not only because it’s free food, but because manners also dictate it. In Brazil my sister and I 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.
#8. Save It For Later
This has been touched on above, but whenever I have leftover food and am no longer hungry I stash it for later. This can be fruit (usually bananas) from a free breakfast, snacks from an airplane, leftovers from a meal, or whatever else. Obviously, snacking on something you got free or already paid for is cheaper than buying new snacks later.