Behind accommodation, keeping ourselves fed and watered is probably our biggest expense while backpacking. For us, discovering new and interesting foods, trying local specialities and learning a different cuisine is one of the real joys of travelling. From ramen in Japan to steak in Argentina, it’s a big part of the cultural experience that we love to immerse ourselves in. But eating out can also be expensive if you don’t get a bit savvy and figure out the best ways to eat cheap.
We’re not suggesting that you eat out in fancy restaurants every day. In fact, definitely don’t do that or you’ll blow your budget faster than you can say nouvelle cuisine. But you also don’t need to survive on plain pasta cooked in the hostel kitchen in order to eat cheap while backpacking.
Here are some top ways to keep your costs down and save money on food whilst travelling.
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Find Local Markets
These are not only a fantastic place to pick up fresh produce, but many local markets also have kitchen sections where they serve freshly prepared, simple, cooked meals.
One of the first things we do when we arrive somewhere new is to check out where the local markets are and head down there straight away to scout them out. Try and avoid the big tourist markets, as the food will usually be more expensive. Seek out the local ones where residents go and you’ll find the real bargains.
We found a great market in La Paz, Bolivia where one half of it was full of fruit and veg and butchers stalls, and the other half was dozens of tiny individual kitchens. Each kitchen had no more than a single table, which we shared with other customers whilst a lady cooked a two course “almuerza” meal to order for under a quid. In Asia we found plenty of markets with food sections providing a bowl of broth and a plate of rice, meat and veg for as little as 50 pence!
Eat Street Food
People are often scared of street food and put off by horror stories of poor hygiene and sickness. Though these concerns may be valid in a tiny minority of cases, eating street food is actually often the cheapest way to eat, and we have never had a single issue from it health-wise.
Street food has also provided us with some of the most memorable and delicious food experiences we’ve had whilst travelling. Most cultures across the world have great street food traditions and it would be a shame to let fear stop you from enjoying them.
It’s extremely important to choose where you eat wisely and there are a few tips and tricks which will virtually guarantee you will never get ill from what you eat. Number one is to pick places that are busy! If a street stall is continuously busy it means two things – the food is good and the turnover of food is high. That’s important because it signifies that the food is freshly prepared and hasn’t been sitting there since yesterday. It pays to observe for a while before you buy so you can see how the food is stored and prepared, and if you don’t like it then move on.
Utilise the Kitchen
Though I enjoy cooking, when we’re on the road it’s not something that I tend to do regularly for various reasons. Firstly, in many countries it’s often as cost effective to eat out, you just have to find cheap ways of doing it. Secondly, I’m not a massive fan of cooking in kitchens I’m unfamiliar with and get frustrated when they don’t have all of the utensils and equipment I’m used to using. Thirdly, in many hostels with kitchens there is a scrum come meal times as loads of people descend on it at once, leaving you with little space to work in. And lastly, I feel as though I’m missing out on a part of the culture that I enjoy if I’m cooking myself.
Having said all of that, cooking for yourself can be a great way to eat cheap while backpacking.
It’s better to buy in bulk, so many travellers will find a buddy to shop and cook with to reduce the cost. In hostels you will usually find a free food shelf full of ingredients that people haven’t used and have left behind. We often came across herbs and spices as well as staples like rice and oil in these. It’s not just hostels that have cooking facilities, Airbnb’s tend to have well stocked kitchens and we cook more often when we’re in our own apartment.
Look for Supermarket Bargains and Eat Local Food
If you are cooking for yourself then you should buy local produce to cook with rather than brands that you’re familiar with. Though you’ll often be able to find foods from companies you know from home, you’ll pay a premium for it as they are imported. Instead, look at what other shoppers are buying and try to think of meals that you can make with the local produce available.
All supermarkets reduce produce that is close to it’s sell by date, and fresh produce tends to be reduced on a daily basis in the early evening. If you head to the supermarket at around 6 or 7 o’clock you’re bound to find plenty of great stuff knocked down to rock bottom prices. We have found this particularly helpful in Japan where food is more expensive than most places we visit and were able to make great meals at a fraction of the price it would have cost us to eat out.
Choose Accommodation with Free Breakfast
Many hotels, hostels and homestays will offer a free breakfast included in the price of the room. They’re usually really simple, but free breakfasts that we’ve had have ranged from cereal and toast to pancakes and eggs. There is always complimentary tea and coffee to go with it and sometimes juice and fresh fruit as well.
Bear in mind that though it’s billed as “free”, it just means they factor it into the price of the room. So don’t be swayed to book somewhere with breakfast included, solely for that reason, if you can find cheaper alternatives elsewhere and pick up breakfast for less.
If you do find somewhere that does a free breakfast, make the most of it. Often it will be buffet style so you can fill up before heading out for the day, trust me we do – that’s not to say you should take the mick!
Don’t be the idiot wrapping up bread rolls in a napkin for lunch or taking a whole bunch of bananas to snack on for the week. These offers work on very tight margins and things do run out so be mindful of your fellow guests.
We always advocate spending more on what makes you happy, so if great food is something you love then don’t be afraid to splash out every once in a while. We tend to do all of the above when we’re trying to eat cheap while backpacking, but not at the expense of enjoying ourselves. It’s all about finding the perfect balance.
What are your tips to make sure you eat cheap while backpacking? Ever had a bad experience with street food? What happened?! Drop us a comment below and let us know.
Travel lover, professional writer and football (soccer) obsessive, James loves nothing more than getting outside and exploring little known corners of the globe. He’s also very partial to a drop of Guinness.