Travel on a Budget: Food, Entertainment, & Souvenirs

This is where saving money gets fun! Airfare and accommodations are pretty…boring (to me at least), though they certainly pack the biggest fiscal punch.

While saving money on getting there frees up funds for activities on the ground, adventures can feel even more memorable when I know we’ve done it economically.

Of course, the internet is full of people that devote themselves to this sort of thing with far more experience than I can offer so, again, take my advice for what it’s worth. Use what’s valuable and leave the rest.

ways to save money on food

I love food but am not particularly fussy. I’m not motivated by fine dining but do like to eat like “locals” when exploring a new location. When you see a steady stream of morning commuters popping in to the same coffee shop, chances are it’s good!

  • Find a grocery store. This is one of the best ways to save money on food. Fruit, breakfast items (see below), drinks and even some basic meals (salads, subs) can often be found for a fraction of the price.
  • Bring a light daypack along. If you’re interested in carrying some meals/lunches, it makes life so much easier to have something compact to transport the grub.
  • Look for accommodations with a breakfast option included – or create your own (regardless of whether you have a kitchenette). In Australia we bought two tubs of blueberry yogurt and a few boxes of granola. We stashed the yogurt in our little fridge and ate heaping bowls sprinkled with granola and fresh fruit for breakfast…every day (I happen to enjoy eating the same thing over and over again).
  • If your hotel doesn’t include breakfast, and you’re not keen to prepare your own, look to eat a large, late breakfast and late afternoon supper (when you might still be able to get lunch deals). Two larger meals also cuts down on the amount spent on surcharges and gratuities.
  • Pack a lunch. Usually sourcing things from a local grocery store, we buy sandwich materials (wraps or soft buns are more palatable and easier to transport than sliced bread) like cheese and sliced meat and make picnic lunches that will fit in our daypack. Bring along a few Ziploc baggies to hold apples, crackers, carrot sticks and other fingerfoods that travel well with minimal refrigeration.
  • Go for water; drinks (even non-alcoholic) can really add up on a grocery or restaurant bill. We always bring our own water bottles and many hotels lobbies (pre-Covid at least) have water jugs that you can use to refill bottles.
Consider going for the water, unless it’s hot chocolate that looks like this. Hot chocolate that looks like this is worth almost any price.
Our bill after a 3-course meal at a lovely little family-owned restaurant in the Latin Quarter. 46€
  • Look for things off the main thoroughfare. In NYC we discovered a hole-in-a-wall sushi joint (apparently a favourite of Michael Buble’s) by looking at reviews online. Because it wasn’t on the main strip, prices were considerably lower but it was absolutely delicious. As a bonus, before the meal they distributed hot faceclothes which felt amazing after exploring the city on foot for 10 hours.
  • Make food part of the entertainment. Wait in line outside Magnolia’s to get one of their world-famous cupcakes. Eat poutine and maple candy in Canada. Eat authentic sushi in Japan. Buy an eclair while strolling the Champs-Élysées. Go to the beer garden during Oktoberfest. Also, sitting and people watching can be as much fun as taking a roller coaster ride or strolling through a museum (perhaps especially at Oktoberfest).
  • Make one meal special. We usually choose supper. We tend to go, go, go all day. We economize on daytime meals, and supper feels like a nice time to relax both our bodies and the grip on our wallet.

Look for free museums/experiences or combo deals

A lot of museums have special rates, free entrance, or other incentives that allow you to save money. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, for instance, operates under a pay-what-you-wish mandate.

  • Consider packages (but take the time to do your math). You can get sightseeing bus tickets that offer free entrance at an assortment local landmarks. These typically have a limitied shelf-life of 24-48 hours. Depending on your itinerary these can be a great deal. We’ve never opted for this option because they tend to involve 1 or 2 high-quality attractions and then a dozen or so “throw-aways”. I don’t want to get lost in the weeds of going places that aren’t a priority just so I feel like I’ve gotten my money’s worth.
  • A related option is combo entrance tickets; these tend to be two locations that are relatively well-aligned. For instance, in Paris we wanted to visit Musee d’Orsay and for a marginal increase we could get a combo ticket to the Musée de l’Orangerie. This was a great decision – it ended up being one of the highlights of our trip.

  • Explore discounts for special demographics. Students, seniors, military personnel and a range of other groups often qualify for reduced rates at many cultural locations.
  • In terms of entertainment, consider day-of tickets. Broadway is a great spot to test this out. We ended up with front row seats to Newsies (though any seat would have been amazing), and booked the tickets at a huge discount hours before the show. Even here, you can save. By going downtown to the South Street Seaport TKTS booth we spent less than going through the main TKTS stand in Times Square. (Now if you’re organizing an entire trip around seeing Wicked, for example, as one of my friends once did, it would be a priority to prebook the tickets). We’re back to priorities again
  • Sometimes even layovers can be long enough to fit in some special entertainment. On our way home from Denmark we flew through Iceland. We purchased tickets that gave us a long layover (we could have stayed for up to 7 days); enough time to get a deal on transport and entrance to the Blue Lagoon.
  • Research different ways to accomplish the same thing. In New York City it’s a rite of passage to get a birds-eye view of the skyline. The Empire State is iconic, but the views tend to be better (and the lines shorter and price lower) to go to the top of Rockefeller Centre. Plus, then you get a view of the Empire State Building! I also wanted to go high in Paris (not easy to do). It felt a bit counterprodutive to go up the Eiffel Tower – because what one really wants to see from a high perspective is the Eiffel Tower itself. So we did the Arc de Triomphe instead, along with the roof-top terrance on Galeries Lafayette (which happens to be free).
Our Top of the Rock tour was so much fun.
View from the Arc…
Free (!) view from the top of Galeries Lafayette.


Souvenirs can be a great reminder of happy travel memories. They can also be a major source of clutter and typically aren’t going to translate well in terms of the financial investment. Tourist trap souvenirs tend to be of poor quality, with inflated prices, that are likely destined for the garbage bin.

My advice. Invest a bit more to buy something meaningful. Some of our favourite souvenirs:

  • Pictures, pictures, pictures. They are almost always free and a provide a treasure trove of memories for years to come. Invest in printing off your favourite shots and frame them. What about setting up a rotating gallery wall of photos from your most recent vacations? The two photos below are part of a Paris trio we printed off and hung in our basement hallway.
We didn’t go into Notre Dame (we were visiting shortly after the catastrophic fire) but the pictures were free…and gorgeous.
We never set foot in this Parisian shop, but sure loved the photo opportunity.

  • I buy engineering prints from Staples (about $4 per print), plus inexpensive frames from IKEA.
Some of our favourite photos from Nova Scotia destinations hanging in our guest room (engineering prints in Ikea frames; less than $75 all-in). Peggy’s Cove, Cape Sable, Cape Forchu.
  • Local art. This can be tricky, especially if you’re only bringing a carry-on. Small prints, posters that come in cardboard tubes, and textiles can all be transported in pristine condition while requiring minimal space. Souvenirs don’t have to be things to hang on walls or in closets. We bought van Gogh coasters from Musee d’Orsay and I still get a thrill everytime I use them (we happened to need coasters, too, so it wasn’t just excess clutter). Hand-crafted jewlery or a knitted scarf made from locally sourced wool could make a fun piece of wearble memorabilia.
van Gogh coasters (there are 6 total) + my new White Point mug.
  • Reusable canvas bags. This is one of my favourite things to give and receive. They’re easy to pack up to bring home, make great gifts, and even high-quality ones tend to be relatively inexpensive. A friend brings me back new Trader Joe’s bags every time she visits California. In a sea of local grocery chain bags, I love how my unique bags stand out.
  • Don’t assume people want random stuff from your trip. If you’re bringing something home, ask in advance if people have preferences.
  • Consumables. Buy strombowaffles in the Netherlands, macarons in France, maple syrup in Canada. Buy a face mask from the Red Sea or chocolate from Belgium. Buy things you can appreciate and then use up!
  • Send postcards. This is a great way to tell someone you were thinking of them. They’re inexpensive, it’s always fun to get mail, and they can be easily disposed of once the sentiment has been adequately conveyed (aren’t we trying to tell people: “We were here, we thought of you;” a postcard is a much cheaper alternative to the “Someone Who Loves Me Very Much Bought This in Mexico” T-shirt).
  • Start a collection. One of my aunt collects demitasse cups whereever she goes. She has a specific item she’s looking for in any destination which takes the guess work out of what to buy.
  • Consider keeping location-specific paraphenlia. A friend of mine sent me speciality tea from New Zealand that came in a very unique metal tin; this is now what I use to store bobby pins. When we visited Tivoli Gardens, the third oldest amusement park in the world, my brother bought us all hot chocolate. It came in these adorable Tivoli-branded plastic cups. You could return them and get back a few cents deposit…or keep them and drink out of them for years to come at home. We opted for the latter.
Tivoli hot chocolate.
  • If buying clothes (which can be a great memento), get things you’ll actually wear. We bought our son a shirt from Paris and another from the Dominican Republic. They were his style and he’s gotten a lot of use from them.
One of my favourite pictures of the kids from 2020, with Levi rocking his Paris, France t-shirt (which is decidedly too small now but one of his favourites).
  • Bring home something familiar but from a new location. We like to visit LEGO stores abroad and bring some home – LEGO is always a hit in our house, regardless of where it was sourced.

There are lots of ways to save when traveling – at macro and micro levels. Remember your priorities. Maybe it’s going to drain a lot of fun out of your trip if you’re rationalizing how much to spend on food for a day, but you’re more than happy to swap out for a cheaper hotel room. You do you and look for ways to save along the way. It can actually make the whole experience more enriching and satisfying.

…and your credit card statement called to say thanks in advance.

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