Eating well while traveling

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Brian and I often travel together in conjunction with his business trips. In fact, just last week, we were in Washington DC. Luckily, Brian receives a pretty generous food allowance $55 per day while traveling. That’s a lot of food money for us – we usually only spend $100 each per month on groceries per person. Of course, eating while traveling is more expensive… But it doesn’t have to be!

We usually end up eating on his stipend alone AND we still have money left over for shopping. We do stay away from McDonalds and we’re NOT eating rice and beans.Β Here’s how we do it:


Split up your money into daily amounts

I usually allocate $10 for both of our breakfasts, $20 for both of our lunches and $25 for both of our dinners. This is a baseline amount that I later tweak. But I find that starting with these values ensures that I have allocated a good minimum amount.

So, for example, these amounts can get you:

  • Breakfast: 2 breakfast sandwiches or two bagels with coffee and fruit
  • Lunch: Two sandwiches, pizza slices or burgers
  • Dinner: Shared large pizza or two pastas or Chinese takeout for two

This is assuming you don’t eat crap but that you do stick to casual restaurants and take-out eateries. As you save money, you can re-allocate the savings so that you have money for an expensive dinner or shopping.


Figure out what meals you don’t need

Often when we’re traveling, you don’t actually need three meals per travel day. When you fly, for example, you can make at least one of your meals at home and take them with you to the airport and onto the plane. Depending on what kind of food you make, you might even be able to make food to eat later that night at your destination. Sandwiches, salads and granola bars are great foods to make for traveling.

Then, re-allocate the money that you save onto other days. For Brian and I, that meant taking our breakfast allocation from the first day and putting it towards a purchase of craft beer. Yum!


Get groceries if possible

It’s always cheaper to get groceries instead of eating out. Breakfast is a great meal to eat in for because you don’t have to prepare or heat anything. If your hotel has a fridge or mini fridge, you can even get milk or cheese.

Some good options include:

  • Milk and breakfast cereal
  • Granola bars and fruit
  • Bagels and cream cheese

When we were in New York, Brian and I never ate out for breakfast. We bought a stack of bagels, a bag of oranges, and a container of cream cheese for less than $10.


Figure out where you can eat and drink for free

When we are at conferences, there are usually some meals and snacks provided. At this conference, we got coffee and snacks twice a day for free. We were also provided with on lunch and one dinner. As a result, I did not need to budget for coffee and I did not need to budget for two meals. Since we got snacks, I knew I would not be as hungry during meal times, and could reduce my spending.

From those savings, Brian and I were able to pay for local transit and purchase more drinks.

Even if you do not have the benefit of conference food, many hotels offer free snacks in their lounge. I always make sure to eat in the Fairmont lounge for example, because they provide free fruit and snack bars, and free appies in the afternoon. Other hotels I’ve stayed at offered wine services or afternoon tea – all for free.

If you’re staying in a hostel, you might even have breakfast included! In Quebec City, they provided cereal, toast and jam for breakfast while in Frankfort, we got breads, deli meats, cheese, and fruit.


Learn to love happy hour

Eating and drinking during happy hour is extremely cost effective. You can often get small portions of food for $3 to $6 and drinks from $2 to $5. Most happy hours run for two to three hours at some point between 3pm and 7pm. You’ll end up eating dinner a bit early, but you can always have a small snack later. Just be sure to check out restaurants in the area to make sure that they offer happy hour.

In Washington, Brian and I had happy hour tapas and drinks at a Spanish restaurant. For $25, we had 4 pieces of chicken in a spicy guacamole sauce, 4 beer battered shrimp skewers, a dish of spicy potatoes and two large cheesy breads, plus a sangria and a beer. I was full for the rest of the evening! When we’re in Seattle, we eat exclusively at happy hour locations for dinner.


Only get as much food as you need

I cannot emphasize this enough because it’s singularly the biggest way Brian and I save money while traveling – portion sizes. I will be blunt: most restaurants and food services give you more food than you should eat.

Brian and I will often get tapas to share or split a large meal rather than ordering a separate meal each. That way, neither of us simply eats until our plate is empty. We eat until we are full. If one of us is still hungry after, we order more food.


  • Split a sandwich or pasta and get two side salads or two cups of soup to go with it.
  • Share a pizza
  • Get a Chinese “combo with two items” – and only eat one item each
  • Split a large coffee or soda instead of individual ones

For example, we split a small pizza and shared a smoothie for lunch at the airport, which only cost us $15 in total.


They key point is that by eating smartly, you can save money and eat fairly well. Then, you can take those savings and spend it on other things! Brian and I actually had a net profit of about $50 at the end of our trip!

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Posted in: Food and Grocery, Travel

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  1. Happy hour is full of bargains but they’re mostly fried foods that probably aren’t best to be eating. My wife and I typically split a subway sandwich and do our best to limit portion sizes. I’ll have to admit though that I like food…and often eat more than I should. πŸ™‚

  2. Great points, especially on the portion sizes. My wife and I commonly do the same thing, or get our own meals and only eat half & take the rest if our room has a fridge in it. We also commonly look for hotels that offer a decent breakfast. If we’re able to find one, then we can manage to not have to buy lunch and just have a piece of fruit or granola bar around lunch time.

    • CF says:

      It’s really useful when the room has a fridge, especially since you can also keep drinks and fruit chilled. Our room in DC did not have a fridge, grrr….

  3. Good tactics you two. I need to learn to eat more economically while traveling. Usually I end up using it as an excuse to splurge on all my meals. It doesn’t have to be that way though. Breakfast in particular is something I could easily save money on since I really love cereal.

  4. Getting groceries while traveling can really help keep costs down. I am guilty of going to places like McDonalds that serve cheap food, but I prefer to eat a little better than that. Splitting food is a great tip too!

    • CF says:

      I’m guilty of making a McDonalds trip here and there too, but I try to eat healthy for the most part. I try to remind myself that McDonalds is cheap for a reason… :/

  5. I actually don’t like to have three restaurant meals a day. I eat way too much. When we travel, we usually eat one meal a day out and do breakfast and lunch from the grocery store if possible.

  6. Michelle says:

    Wow $55 is a good! Usually I get around $35 when on a work trip. These are all great tips.

  7. That is a large allowance! And really great tips! One place you can usually eat for free is breakfast at the hotel during certain hours in the morning. Usually there’s both healthy and unhealthy options. Along with portion sizes…if you order a meal that’s too big you can request to have it boxed up and just have the rest of it for lunch the next day or dinner later that night. That’s assuming you have a fridge/microwave in your hotel room, though, which usually isn’t the case.

  8. eemusings says:

    On our recent holiday we actually didn’t eat very much! Most of our time was spent sitting in our campervan on the road, and so our appetites weren’t their normal selves.

  9. Jose says:

    This is what I love about “Isla De Mujeres” (Isle of Women) in Mexico, it’s one of our favorites vacation spots. My wife and I can eat well and drink for on average $75 a day!

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