Food is what I plan most of my waking hours around and one of my absolute favorite parts of traveling (and existing).
Living in Los Angeles, I have good access to culturally diverse cuisine, but man... I don’t care how authentic Yelp says that overpriced food truck on the corner is, nothing beats slurping Pho on a sidewalk in Vietnam or munching on tapas on a cobblestone street in Granada, Spain... which are free btw.
Eating cultural specialty foods abroad is a truly breathtaking experience. (In my case that is especially true because I'm so focused on shoving food into my mouth that I often forget to breathe).
So How Much Is Reveling in the Euphoria of Stuffing Your Face Going to Cost You on Your next Trip?
The show answer is that when traveling, food will usually cost you however much you want it to cost you.
Seriously! What if I told you that you could have breakfast for free and lunch/dinner for an average of $2.50 a piece in some of the most expensive cities in the world?
I’ve done exactly that in pricey places like London and Paris and have done much better than that in cheaper countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia.
Before I go over what getting incredibly low food prices entails, let me first walk you through...
The Conventional Method of Budgeting for Food When Traveling
If you're asking yourself, "How much should I spend on food when traveling?", below is the way most people will direct you to answer that question.
Open up Google and ask “traveling to X how much does food cost?” (replacing X with the name of your destination).
Assuming the destination you asked about isn’t incredibly unique, your Google results will bombard you with articles written by fellow travelers who have been where you’re going and have taken the time to write about how much your daily eating costs will be.
Once you’ve found a few websites relevant to your destination, go through at least two of them to get an idea of the average daily food cost people are recommending you plan for.
For example, I’ll go ahead and ask about food costs for a place I’m looking to visit soon - Dublin, Ireland. Not surprisingly, the first result Google turned up did a good job of answering my question.
This blog Google directed me to has informed me that a "budget traveler" will spend about 4€ on breakfast, 7.50€ on lunch and 10€ on dinner. It goes on to say that if I’m a "frugal traveler", the cost would be 0€ on breakfast (assuming your accommodation offers complimentary breakfast), 6€ on lunch and 6€ on dinner.
Based on my travels through Europe and the hundreds of pages I’ve read on the subject of food expenses in most of its popular cities, this blog’s food cost estimates are perfectly reasonable.
So, let's say I’ve cross-referenced the estimates I found on the blog above with two other websites and I’ve come up with final estimates I think are a good average of everything I’ve read in regard to food expenses in Dublin.
What I’d do next is...
1. Write out those final estimates:
2. Add those numbers together to come up with my daily food expense total:
15€ per day
3. Multiply that number by the amount of full days I’m spending in my destination (full days meaning days I’ll be eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner):
45€ (assuming I'm spending three full days in Dublin)
4. Add in any fringe meals I'll be eating on partial days (for example, if I'm leaving at 11 am one day, I'd need to budget for breakfast that morning)
45€ + one 3€ breakfast = 48€
Just like that, I have a conservative estimate to answer "how much should I spend on food" during three full days and one additional morning in Dublin, Ireland.
After locking in that food estimate, I’d record it like so:
Food Expense Estimates:
Dublin, Ireland = 54€
And then move on to any additional destinations on my itinerary, repeating this process and adding the estimates I come up with to my record:
Dublin, Ireland = 54€
Paris, France = X€
San Sebastian, Spain = X€
Santorini, Greece = X€
That's the conventional process of answering the question of how much should I spend on food when traveling!
Now that you've just finished learning the conventional method for pricing out food for a trip, let's shoot some holes in it, shall we?
The Freestyle Method of Budgeting for Food While Traveling
While the numbers you'd come up with using the conventional method are solid, depending on where you're traveling, you might add everything up for all your destinations and have a panic attack when you realize how big your food budget needs to be.
I remember when I was planning my first trip to Europe (after having traveled through South East Asia where food is incredibly cheap) and was shocked that, based on estimates I was reading, I would have to drop 3€ on breakfast 6-8€ on lunch and 8-10€ on dinner every day of my trip (about $20.00 - $25.00 a day) and that’s if I considered myself a “budget traveler”.
What bothered me was, being the frugal guy that I am, I couldn’t imagine spending anywhere near that much money eating during a regular day in my life in Los Angeles. Here in LA, I'll pack sandwiches when I go to work, I'll buy things when they’re on sale at the market and after, prepare delicious meals at home that average a couple of bucks a plate.
So why is it that because I’m in another location I need to spend so much money to feed myself?
The truth is, you don't.
You certainly can and doing so would be a lot of fun because who wouldn’t love eating at a restaurant for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day?
But unless you’re staying somewhere that’s very cut off from the general population (ex: some tourist island you discovered while watching an infomercial) you always have the option to eat similar to how a thrifty local would.
When I was in Rome, I definitely splurged on Grade-A authentic Italian food occasionally but 7/10 times I grabbed a couple of dollar menu items from McDonald's for lunch. That got me nice and full and allowed me to go about my day exploring ruins and getting lost in museums.
When I was in Paris, I usually went to a local market, grabbed some bread, some cheap ham, a small tube of Mayo and made multiple sandwiches that me and my travel partner would enjoy in a beautiful park. Those awesome picnics set us back about $1.75 a person and we always left stuffed! Then, later at night, we usually had enough fixings left over to make one more sandwich which we’d split as a midnight snack.
When I was in Florence, my travel partner and I would get fresh-baked large takeout cheese pizzas for 5€ (just 2.5€ per person) and would eat it on a bridge surrounded by warm summer evenings while street musicians serenaded us.
Here’s the point to all of that bragging... I feel like a lot of blogs I read are hyper-focused on the idea that if you’re in a different country you need to spend a lot of money and make sure you’re taking every opportunity to taste your destination’s unique culinary palate.
I agree that you should try to splurge occasionally and make sure you eat that gyro in Greece, have those tapas in Spain, etc. but you don’t need to do it every day for every meal. In most places, you'll find an affordable fast food option and a local market that carries a $1.50 loaf of bread and a $1.50 jar of peanut butter or some variation of that you can leverage to keep yourself fed for next to nothing.
It doesn’t matter if you’re in London, Paris or Los Angeles.
So if eating the way I describe above doesn’t offend you, start asking Google things like, “how much is food at the markets in X” and “what fast food do they have in X” (replacing X with your destination).
Once you have an idea of what ultra-affordable options you can leverage based on grocery store availability and fast food choices in your travel destination, do your best to re-think how much food is going to cost you on your trip by taking that knowledge into consideration and averaging it with the generic daily food expense estimates you get quoted on various blogs.
With Dublin for example, I just asked Google about fast food options and found out they have McDonald's all over the city and those McDonald's carry my beloved chicken sandwich for 1.50€ and hamburgers for 1€. That means I have a guaranteed small meal for 2.5€.
Google is also telling me that there are also plenty of grocery stores in the city where I'm sure I can pick up cheap fixings for simple sandwiches which would likely save me even more than if I opted for fast food!
Wrapping Up How Much Should I Spend on Food When Traveling?
There are so many subjective factors when estimating food budgets that I can't be overly prescriptive when it comes to giving you "how much should I spend on food" advice for your trip.
My summarized grain of wisdom for you as you create your food budget is to see what travel writers suggest online, weigh that against the fast food/market options your destination has available and come up with an eating strategy and budget that aligns with how much you want to spend.
Remember, there’s nothing wrong with having a huge food budget. If you have the money and want to splurge on every meal in an expensive or inexpensive city, do it. It's a lot of fun.
Just know that if you're not able to do that, there are always cheap and satisfying options available to you!
(Especially those free tapas in Granada… Man those are free.)
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