Travelling through Europe is an expensive affair. The accommodation costs, the transportation costs, costs to see various sights and then on top of all that, you have to eat as well! Food offers a window to understanding a place and the people so whilst it is good to save money, it should be balanced with trying to experience the local cuisine. Here are some tips on how to eat cheaply in Europe.
Get off the main tourist strip – Rule number 1 to reduce the cost is to steer clear of the main tourist areas. If a shop or restaurant appears to be catering predominantly to tourists, there is a good chance the food will be subpar and pricey. Look for places where working class or local families might eat in districts where the local people live and work.
Look for marked down items in the supermarket – This hardly warranted a separate point except that we were in Carrefour in France and spotted some marked-down beignets with a chocolate filling. These were so divine and memorable, they had to get mention. These tasted amazing despite the fact they were marked-down in price. I assume they were not fresh. They tasted fresh to me which makes me wonder how heavenly, freshly made, warm beignets would be.
Germany is a great place for cheap food – Due to the number of Turkish migrants, the Turkish food in Germany is outstanding. It’s fresh, good quality and of a very high standard. We were in a touristy square in a German city and bought a falafel wrap from a street food van. This was expected to be average because buying food from a touristy location usually results in bad food. On the contrary, the dough was pulled and shaped right then and baked in a wood fired oven to make the wrap! The fillings were tasty and fresh. I had never seen wraps being made fresh before but it is not uncommon in Germany.
Breads dominates German cuisine. Their breads are usually dense, dark and filling. Sandwiches, baguettes and rolls made of these types of breads are found everywhere e.g. train stations and they make for a healthy and filling meal at low cost. Another favourite from the bakery is their freshly baked pretzels. They seem plain but are delicious, not too unhealthy and relatively cheap.
Try to eat healthily – The strong temptation on holiday is to indulge all the time. If you are on a short holiday, that’s OK. If you are on a longer trip, it’s best to eat in a more balanced way whenever possible.
A restaurant is not your only option – Restaurants in Germany expect you to purchase a paid drink when you sit to eat. Restaurants in Italy will charge you a cover charge (coperto) and sometimes a tourist surcharge (maggiorazione) of up to 15%. Both will not give you free tap water. On top of this, there will be an expectation that you tip. With all these costs adding up, it’s important to remember that a restaurant is not the only option to get some food. Takeaway places e.g. kebab shops are much more reasonably priced and there are healthy and filling options. Similarly, you can go to a hole in the wall place or a street food stall / van. Markets often have food options and of course, you can always go to the supermarket. It’s often nice to pick up a few things and head to a park or local square to eat and watch the world go by.
Use the local supermarket – If you have a choice, choose a larger supermarket vs a small one. It is likely to be cheaper. We ate many supermarket meals when travelling Europe. For less than price of 1 course for 2 people in a restaurant, we could easily buy 3 courses and some fruit in a supermarket for 2.
Perusing the local supermarket gives an insight to what the local population eat. For example, French people don’t eat instant noodles for there were none to be found. The cheese section in a French supermarket is humongous. In the German supermarkets there were a lot of mayonaise-heavy salads and spreads in toothpaste like containers. These were all for bread!
Eating from the supermarket is not necessarily substandard from eating at a restaurant. We found, especially in France, the quality at the supermarket was extremely high. The fresh produce was beautiful and flavoursome and even the microwave meals were truly delicious! Unfortunately, this could not be said for Germany. Strangely, the savoury food from the supermarket was all very salty. I suspect the expectation is that the food would be accompanied by bread which would balance out the salt.
A hot weather favourite of ours are yoghurt drinks. These are not common in Australia but widely available in Europe. They are tangy and refreshing on a hot day and more filling than just juice or water.
Fill up if it’s free – Nothing is actually free but if your accommodation comes with breakfast included, make sure you eat lots!
Look for Lunch Time Menu Deals – These might be called Menu Del Dia or Menu Du Jour or Formule. These are usually multiple courses and can include a drink. These deals are only available at lunch time, so when travelling, make lunch your restaurant treat meal and do a supermarket dinner to save money.
If you see Plat Du Jour (plate of the day), this is often a good deal too.
Another memorable lunch menu meal was partaken in Bilbao. It was entree, mains, dessert and a whole bottle of wine per person for about 16 euros! It was also an interesting insight into Basque cuisine. The Basque are a separate ethnic group that live in parts of France and Spain. They speak their own language and have their own cuisine. I had Mimitako, a tuna peasant stew that they ate on fishing boats and red fish with garlic oil. I like the use of potatoes in the Mimitako. Real food for working class people always had carbohydrates because they are a cheap and filling way to stretch a meal.
Restaurant Selection Impacts the Price – If you go to a fancy steak or seafood place, your price per head will be inevitably high. Choose a more modest place, for example a place specializing in French galettes, a cute brunch cafe or humble “mom and pop” eatery for a more reasonable price. Asian and Ethnic food places can also work out cheaper.
The UK Supermarket Meal Deal – British people eat a lot of sandwiches. Almost every supermarket change has some version of the meal deal where you get a sandwich/baguette/wrap, a snack and a drink for between 4 to 6 pounds. It’s very good value. There is an astounding variety of sandwiches, most of which cannot be found on the supermarket shelves in any other country. Some examples include coronation chicken, egg and cress, cheese and pickle and ploughmans. For a snack you can even get a Scotch Egg which is a hard boiled egg, coated in sausage meat and a crispy bread crumb. A Scotch Egg is very British!
Get a Restaurant Discount – When in Europe, you can use websites like TheFork to book restaurants at a discount. With discounts up to 50% off, this works out to be very good value! In London, you can even eat at a reduced price at brand new restaurants when they are doing their soft launch. This is a testing phase where the new restaurants are ironing out their issues. You can find these new restaurants offering discounts on the Soft Launch website.
In Toulouse, the local specialty is cassoulet, a peasant sausage and bean dish. We managed to found a restaurant specializing in cassoulet with a 50% discount on TheFork. What a great deal! We also had a delicious duck breast dish with an extraordinary pepper sauce at the same restaurant.
Not all supermarkets are the same – Supermarkets are aimed at various parts of the demographic and can therefore be at different price points. If you shop at Waitrose or M&S in the UK vs Lidl, Aldi or Iceland, you will have a much high bill. Our favorite and consistently the cheapest is Aldi. It’s nice that it’s always good value but another selling point is that it has only one product of any type of thing in the store. For example, if you want a can of chick peas, there will only be one brand to choose from. Multiply this for all the different types of products in the store and you have an experience where you can do your shopping with a lot less decision fatigue. You spend less time comparing prices on the same item across different brands.
Aldi was actually started by two brothers. They did very well together up to the point they had 300 stores. Then they had an argument about whether cigarettes should be sold in the store. They could not reach an agreement so they split Germany down the centre into Aldi Nord and Aldi Sud and operated their own stores each. As they expanded internationally, the world was also split into Aldi Nord (north) and Aldi Sud (south). Instead of letting an argument break down the family business, these brothers just split up the world and got on with it.
Whilst it is important to watch the pennies when travelling, be careful that it doesn’t take away from the joy of having new experiences and trying new cuisines. Enjoy your travels and eat good food!! Good food is a joy!
If you are the type of person who finds eating too time consuming and you consider food only to be fuel for your body, consider these liquid food substitutes. These are definitely not for me because if food has to be labeled “This is Food”, I’m not really sure it is.