Cheapest Destinations Blog is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Food for Trips: Finding Local Grocery Bargains and Dining Deals

I was in cheap Thailand in December, expensive Switzerland in March, then cheap Bulgaria, now semi-expensive Greece, then I’ll be in cheap Albania next. Whichever country I’m in however, I’m quite good at finding the standout grocery bargains, the local food for trips that will be priced better than the average. I also tend to drink local too, zeroing in on what people who live there can easily afford.

food for trips when traveling

Why are some food and drink items a deal where you’re going? Why do some items seem overpriced, while others are a clear screaming bargain? Often there are complicated factors behind the scenes, but you usually find bargain-priced food for trips as a traveler because of some key factors:

1) The produce item is grown in abundance locally. (Olives and oranges in the Mediterranean, mangos in Southeast Asia, limes in avocados in Mexico, etc.)

2) It’s a major industry with high volume. (rum in the Caribbean, chocolate in parts of Europe, junk food in the USA, wine in grape-growing countries, sheep meat items in Turkey, tortillas in Mexico, etc.)

3) There are local subsidies to keep the population from revolting in anger over food staples. (Items often making the cut include corn flour, cooking oil, pasta, beans, and rice.)

Sometimes the screaming bargains in the grocery aisle don’t make a lot of sense, but that’s okay. Just accept your good fortune and enjoy. One of the best bargains we’ve found in Greece is chocolate, at one or two euros for a giant bar that’s good quality with high cacao count, sometimes with almonds or hazelnuts inside. When I was in Switzerland, sausages were a bargain and cheese to make fondue was sold in vending machines. Fizzy mineral water is 25 cents for 12 ounces in a Thai 7-11 for some reason.

finding local food bargains - Swiss vending machine

This is a yet another reason why slow travelers make out so much better than people in a hurry who are ticking off boxes every day. They have time to recognize the patterns, see the deals, and come back for them.

When I was in Bulgaria last summer I was gorging on red cherries that were so cheap they seemed almost free. Meanwhile, I saw some new arrivals eating imported fruit that wasn’t even in season, probably wondering why they spent so much at the grocery store.

When you are traveling to a foreign place, it is sometimes hard to get your bearings and you end up spending lots of money on things you didn’t realize were expensive until it was too late. Take some time to scope out the prices, doing the calculations for a foreign exchange rate.

Food for Trips and Drink Deals: Finding Local Bargains

Wherever you go, if you are on a traveler budget instead of a tourist budget, it is important to sniff out the screaming bargains and adjust your buying accordingly if you’re on a budget. When we were in the Philippines, for instance, the dirt-cheap items were cashews, rum, and mangoes. Often we had mangoes for breakfast, cashews for snacks, and bottles of rum shared with friends for entertainment. That left us lots to spend on not-so-cheap adventures.

In some countries, bread and pastry items are some of the best values in the store, while in others the fruit and vegetables are priced far below any items that required some production. Things that locals eat all the time will usually cost far less than items that only the foreigners are seeking out. Staples that show up a lot though also include pasta, rice, beans, and (in the Americas) corn-based items.

local market fruit and vegetables

Then of course if you can find a local market and avoid the supermarket altogether, that’s where you’ll find the true local bargains. Most of what you see will be in season and since the market is a competitive place and not a walled garden, you’ll see prices gravitate to their market level.

Just understand that government taxes can really muddy up the market, especially when it comes to alcohol. Vietnam has some of the cheapest beer on Earth and beer is pretty cheap in Laos, but in Muslim-dominated Malaysia, one sin-taxed beer can easily triple the price of your meal. Imported booze in Ecuador is taxed at 100% or more, so wine prices are higher there than anywhere else in the Americas. In Panama though, you can drink up well for some of the world’s lowest prices thanks to the lack of import duties. 

In places where a beer or glass of wine with dinner is considered a God-given right, you’ll usually find much more reasonable prices. I was pleasantly surprised about that in Spain last year and here in Greece where I am now, a half-liter carafe of house wine is usually just a few euros, less than the price of an appetizer and cheaper than ordering two sodas.

Food to Pack for a Road Trip or Sightseeing

food to pack for a road trip

If you’re going on a road trip in a country that you’re not familiar with, it can make sense to spend a little time on grocery store research ahead of time. Or just ask around with locals to see what they pack when they’re going on a trip.

Often what you may take in your own country—like sandwiches, nuts, fruit, and chips in the USA—may be completely out of left field for them and they have different options. Like mango sticky rice in Thailand. Yum!

If you’re on a budget, you generally want to plan this out rather than leaving it up to what you find beside the highway. In some countries, including Mexico, there are surprisingly few places to shop or eat along the major toll highways. In the USA you’ll have a hard time finding anything healthy off the interstate exits. So if you shop before taking off and pack things that will nourish your body for a good price, you won’t arrive bloated and feeling like a salt-filled processed food blob. And you won’t blow a bunch of cash at fast-food places.

Again, what’s grown regionally will usually be a better deal than other items, so see what fruit, nuts, and snacks are in abundance and stock up accordingly, hopefully with items that won’t spoil.

Find Cheap Places to Eat on Vacation

cheap restaurant in Peru

$1 = 3.4 soles in Peru

Restaurants can easily eat up a big chunk of your travel budget and in some countries, you’ll end up spending more on those than you do on lodging. So making some good decisions on where you eat out—and how often—can have a bigger impact than almost anything else you do on a day-to-day basis.

The easiest solution to apply quickly is to eat out less often. If breakfast is already included where you’re staying, load up then. If you’re renting an apartment with a kitchen, take advantage of it and prepare meals at home at least once a day. Make a picnic for lunch instead of going to a café. (My wife likes to tell people that when she backpacked through Europe as a college student on break, they ate nothing but cheese, bread, and oranges for weeks.)

This isn’t always a smart move though, especially in The World’s Cheapest Destinations. Filling lunch meals at a simple restaurant or market stall near the town square can be found most anywhere in Mexico for a few dollars. It’ll cost you more to make the same meal in your apartment. The same goes in Southeast Asia, where you would have a hard time making meals for less than you can buy them in inexpensive places in Thailand, Malaysia, or Vietnam. In India, the all-you-can-eat thali lunches are often less than a dollar in the south, so you pig out at mid-day and forget about cooking for yourself.

It’s a different story in expensive countries, though you could argue that there are still bargains to be found if you look where the local workers of limited means eat, like noodle shops in Japan or sandwich shops in France. After you’re in a neighborhood for a while, you can usually find a few reasonable places to eat or take-out places with prepared food at a good price.

Bulgarian food meal for $7

A $7 restaurant lunch in Bulgaria

In much of the world, lunch at a restaurant will set you back a lot less than dinner at a restaurant. So it pays to eat your big meal in the afternoon and then eat lighter in the evening. Look for multi-course set meal bargains, buffets, filling sandwiches, street food stalls, and market stands. You can sometimes find coupon deals and happy hours with food, either through old-school coupon books, Groupon and the like, or just scouting around.

If you follow the local lead, you might eat better too. The first time I traveled through Bulgaria, I was blown away by how farm-fresh and tasty the food was and was also impressed by how few obese people I saw, despite all the tons of dairy they were eating every day. 

When you first get into a country, spend some time looking at prices at the local market, in the grocery stores, and at simple restaurants filled with local workers. Best of all, ask other travelers who have been there a while, “what’s cheap here?” There are always plenty of items or services that are a deal; find out what they are and then adjust accordingly. You will find your money taking you much further.

Dorothy Young

Tuesday 30th of May 2023

I find it handy to take a few kitchen tools with me: knife, small cutting board, can opener.

Tim Leffel

Tuesday 6th of June 2023

Not a bad idea, though of course that means you need to check your bag for flights if there's a knife. Fortunately most rental apartments already have these things.