The time I used to eat badly when backpacking is long gone. In an attempt to save money, I ended up living on noodles, hot dogs, McDonald’s, etc…. but over time I realized that we cannot save money if it’ll sacrifice our health. Moreover, backpacking is really demanding on body, you walk a lot and most often with a heavy backpack and sleep poorly (by sharing a room with up to 40 people as I did once in Norway). Therefore, eating at least a little healthy will keep you from getting sick and spending a wonderful day in Paris on your bed or cancelling an excursion you had already paid and will probably not get any money back for.
What I usually do now is a set of actions in order to almost always have food available in a very economical way.
- Stock up at the nearest supermarket when you arrive at your accommodation: Arriving at your destination (hostel , house, hotel , camping) , ask where the nearest market is and stock up on food so when you ‘re strolling through the streets , mountains , trails etc, you will not get hungry and can avoid having to buy that salty snack on the street which is expensive and probably less healthy. I’m not nutritionist, but I like to be healthy and usually I’m concerned with what I eat so this is what I typically buy and take with me during the day: fruit like apples or bananas (just remember that ripe bananas can make a mess inside a tight bag) , nuts (peanuts are usually the cheapest), bread with some filling inside, or drinkable yogurt (even if you open it, you can save for later if you are in a cold region);
- Take advantage of your free breakfast to eat well and compensate for the rest of the day: Cast the first stone who has never made a small snack from a free breakfast in the hostel. Obviously we should not abuse this facility; just because the breakfast is included in the price does not mean that you should make 5 sandwiches, take 5 fruits and fill up your whole bottle with orange juice. Usually what I do is eat REALLY well during the breakfast and bring something to snack….tip: be discreet!!
- Cook at the hostel or in your accommodation, it’s much cheaper than eating out: I know it would be much more desirable to have dinner at a traditional French cafe looking over the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The problem with this is that usually backpackers can’t afford to dine out or eat out at expensive places unless trying the local food is one of the main focuses of your trip.
Consequentially, the most economical way to eat is to prepare the food at your hostel.
Several times I’ve met people in hostels and we ended up doing groceries together and then cooked in a group to share everything. The good thing is that you may even meet someone who likes and knows how to cook and you will end up eating very well….. in my case, I make up by doing the washing and cleaning the whole mess in the end. Plus, it is a great way to meet other backpackers which, in my opinion, is always one of the most important things of any trip.
If you are alone, remember not to buy a lot of food if you are leaving the next day because otherwise you will have a lot of leftovers. Besides having to carry extra weight, milk and butter are not things to be taken in a backpack. In this case, leave the food in the “Free Food” section which every decent hostel should have. You can also cook with the food from the “Free Food” section. There was one time when I was staying in a hostel in the north of Scotland and I managed to prepare pasta with pesto and vegetables without paying a penny by just using the food available on the “Free Food” section!
Cooking your own food is really important on expensive countries where eating on the street is a fortune. However, in some countries in South America, Africa and Asia, eating out is so cheap that it doesn’t worth wasting your time cooking. Eggs, bread, pasta with tuna, chicken and rice, cereal with oats and milk are easy and cheap to prepare.
- Eating out from street vendors is part of the overall experience, but be careful to where you are going to eat: Obviously a large part of the pleasure of traveling is experiencing the local food. Imagine going to Asia and not eat noodles. The problem is usually good restaurants are expensive and, although street food is definitely cheaper, sometimes, depending where you eat on the streets, you might have some unpleasant surprises. I remember staying in a hostel in Guatemala where I met 4 English girls who slept for 3 days hugging the toilet because they were sick from something they had eaten on the street. However, I’ve also had already a lovely lunch in Thailand for US$ 1.00 in an alley in the middle of a market with questionable hygiene and nothing happened…..generally, you have to feel out look of the place, see if there are a lot of people (especially locals) eating there and also rely a bit of luck.
- Bring your own water bottle and fill it up whenever there is free water: This is very important while you are traveling especially if you are in a warm place. Dehydration makes you tired, gives you headache and can even make you feel sick, without realizing that the cure is simply drinking more water!! If you are in a country or city where the tap water is safe to drink, keep in hand a water bottle and fill up whenever possible. Believe me, some European cities you get to pay 3 euros for a bottle of 500 ml on the street. If you fill up whenever you see a bathroom or fountain you will end up saving quite a bit. However, if the water is not safe to drink, you will always have to buy water. To find out if it is safe or not, ask the locals. Or, better yet, check with your hostel because often the locals are used to the water and can drink it while you might not be able to.
TIP 1: USE CAUTION WHEN BUYING WATER FROM STREET VENDORS. Specially in developing countries, they take used plastic bottles, fill up with whatever water they have and seal a lid on it as if it was new…. the diarrhea comes later…
If you are in the countryside, ask the locals if the water streams are safe to drink, but remember, their body is used to that water, not yours. Just in case, you should take tablets to purify water, but it’s better to use them only in emergency. Another option would be to buy a water bottle that comes with a built-in purifier.
Once in Bolivia, a local told me that it is very easy to distinguish a traveler from the local people. In general they are taller and lighter and always holding a water bottle!!
TIP 2: IMPORTANT INFORMATION ABOUT BATHROOMS. Like I said before, staying hydrated is always important but it has its downside too…. you will need to go to the bathroom constantly. If you’re in the countryside, this problem is easily solved. When you are in the city, things get more complicated. Some cities, especially in Europe, charge for using public toilets. One euro here and another there and your budget will start to get tight.
My tactic is to try to hold up until I go somewhere where there are free bathroom like museums , shopping malls , train or bus terminals (in El Salvador the price depended on whether it was number 1 or 2!!) . You can also ask nicely in a bar or restaurant if you can use the bathroom…. good luck with that in Paris!! Or simply enter with a straight face in office buildings, busy restaurants or hotels to use the one at the reception.
Just remember to always have some toilet paper with you. Depending on the region of the world you are traveling to, toilet paper worth more than gold!! Read more about it on my page about How to prepare your backpack.
- To enjoy the party, save when buying alcohol: I’ll be honest here. Partying is a part of a lot of backpacking trips and with it usually comes alcohol. If you are staying in a hostel, playing drinking games with other travelers before going out is almost a rite of a backpacker. In this case, it is best that you have already bought your beer, vodka or whatever you drink in a supermarket. Besides being a great way to socialize and make friends at the hostel, you will save on alcohol at the club or the bar or club because you won’t have to buy as many drinks there.
Special info regarding Scandinavian countries: since alcohol is highly taxed here, getting drunk in these places is VERY expensive even if you buy it in supermarkets. The ideal is that you bring your own alcohol from some other cheaper country (from Estonia when going to Finland, for instance) or buy it at the Duty Free shop if you arrive by plane. Also pay attention to alcoholic beverages purchase hours restrictions. In some countries such as Norway and Macedonia you cannot buy alcohol on the street or in bars after a certain time.
Also note that while drinking on the street might be okay in some countries, in others it can result in fines and alcohol seizure.
In many Islamic countries, alcohol is prohibited in most public places or even the whole country. If that’s the case, go for some Hookah!!
Finally, like anywhere in the world, pay attention when ordering drinks in bars (especially if you are female). Since you are a tourist, will be specially targeted and considered an ideal victim for spiked drinks which will cause you to lose consciousness and wake up the next day without any memories or belongings. I have already heard some dice stories and they were not pretty.
And what about you?? Do you have any good tips on how to eat well and economically during your trips?? Give me your testimony in the comments area or write me if you still have any questions not clarified in the text and I will try to help you the best I can.
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