Cheap Meals Guide: How To Find Cheap Eats (Or Free) While Traveling

While we all have to eat to survive, dining abroad can be both the best and worst part of traveling. The best part is that we get to experience new foods and flavors! I still have dreams about drool-worthy meals I've had while traveling. The worst part is that we might spend a lot of money on these experiences. We often want to sample everything we can, as frequently as we can, and we usually eat a lot more than we would in our average day to day lives.

If you don’t have a big budget to spend on meals, that’s okay! There are many ways to eat for cheap, or even free while you are traveling.

The tips below will help you save a bit of cash for other splurges while still allowing you to have an enjoyable meal experience.

Enjoy Breakfast At Your Hotel

Many accommodations include a complimentary breakfast in some capacity. Some complimentary breakfast may be toast and jam, others may be more elaborate. Either way, it will give you a bit of sustenance to start the day off right, and you don’t have to waste any time seeking out a breakfast spot (unless you want to of course).

Celebrate A Special Occasion

Are you celebrating a birthday, anniversary, honeymoon, or some other special occasion? Let the restaurant know! You may get a complimentary dessert, drink, appetizer, etc! Always worth mentioning.

Hotel Welcome Gifts

Some hotels are famous for leaving treats for you upon arrival (cookies, chocolate covered strawberries, etc.). If you’re celebrating a special occasion, this is another place to mention it. You may get a complimentary bottle of champagne or a dining credit for their restaurant. Some hotels even have a special welcome hour where you enjoy free cocktails and some light bites upon check in.

Happy Hour

While called many different things around the globe, many restaurants and bars will offer specials in the early evening so you don’t end up paying full price for a drink or dinner.

Prepare Your Own Meals

Does your hotel room have a kitchenette? If you buy what you need at the local grocery store, you can prepare a meal without leaving your room. Even buying some basic ingredients for simple sandwiches can be perfect for a picnic lunch in a park.

Browse Coupon Sites For Deals

Sites like Groupon, Yelp, and TravelZoo are great in the United States when you want to try out a new restaurant. Did you know that they are also abroad? Searching through daily deal sites can shave a bit of money off your final bill but do cut back on spontaneity. Be sure to do your research to make sure the location is up to your standards and somewhere you can get to easily (e.g. near your hotel).

Tapas Or Apertivos

Some of my favorite meals have been eating tapas as I drink lovely Spanish wine. The concept is that you order a drink from a bar or restaurant, and for every drink you purchase you are served some small bites for free! Okay, yes, you are paying for the drink, but in some places a beer or glass of wine is cheaper than bottled water! In Spain, the more you drank the better the tapas! Most locations won’t give you a choice as to what is served to you, so stay open minded. Some locations have buffets of tapas that you are free to choose from while you drink. You may find you don’t need to have dinner afterward depending on the size of the tapas and the quantity you consume.

Use Discounts When You Can

Are you a student or a senior? Depending on where you are traveling, you may be entitled to a discount for your meal by flashing your ID. Are you traveling with children? Some restaurants have options where kids eat free! Check local newspapers or pamphlets for coupons or specials.

wine tasting while traveling

Choose An Experience With Lunch Included

Want to learn how to make pasta like a true Italian? Perks of a cooking lesson is that you get to eat what you make. Want to get our of the city and travel the countryside? Pick a tour that has a lunch included or provides wine and cheese pairings at each stop.

Attend Events

Check to see if there are any local events taking place. If you do a little research in advance you may see that a brewery is hosting a special free food and beer pairing to celebrate their anniversary (as was the case when I traveled to Portland earlier this year – a happy surprise!). City event listings online and even Facebook events are a great way to start the search. Even a local farmer’s market is bound to have some free samples for you to try.

Other Helpful Dining Advice --

save money while dining abroad

If You Are Going To Splurge On A Meal, Splurge On Lunch Instead Of Dinner

The lunch menu is almost always lower in price than a restaurant’s dinner menu and often have the same items.

Plan Your Meals In Advance

If you let your stomach guide you, you may end up eating wherever you are when your stomach begins to growl. Knowing where you are going to dine in advance gives you several advantages: You’ve already read the reviews about the quality of food, know the price points, hours of operation, and if they offer happy hour prices or other discounts. If you eat at the first place you see, you may spend more than expected and may not find the same quality of food you were hoping for.

Pack Snacks & Water To Tide You Over Between Meals

I usually pack a full case of energy bars every time I travel or buy snacks from a local grocery store. They are great while you are on the go, and when you aren’t hungry enough for a real meal.

Flexibility Is Key

If you have a very specific diet, most of these money-saving methods won’t be ideal for you. You might not have the luxury of choosing your meal or snack, so you have to be open to all types of cuisine.

Avoid Tourist Traps

A sure fire way of spending more on a meal is choosing a location where other tourists frequent. Find a restaurant where the locals frequent. One that doesn’t have a special menu in English.

Order Tap Water If You Can

If the water is safe to drink from the tap, do it! If you insist on bottled water, it will add up.

happy hour travel

Drink In Moderation

Alcohol can be expensive and will add up quickly if you order a glass or two with every meal.

Take Your Time & Don’t Over Order

Unlike the United States, in many countries the table is yours for the entire evening so don’t feel rushed to order a ton of food quickly, scarf it down and leave. Taking your time has a lot of advantages. If you finish your appetizers and you find yourself full, there may not be any need to continue to entrees. If you’re still hungry, no problem! Keep ordering as needed.

Use Social Media To Your Advantage

Following restaurants, bars, and cities on different social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat can lead to some potential discounts or freebies. They may have a secret password to get a free dessert with your order or percentage off your final bill.

Treat Yourself Once In Awhile

Saving money on certain meals is great, but you owe yourself a nice meal on occasion. Don’t miss out on a unique culinary experience!

Your Turn

Do you have any advice for your fellow travelers on how to save a few bucks on food?

We welcome your comments below!