When people are considering a road trip, they generally assume that their biggest expenses will be gas or accommodations. In reality, it’s often food. Eat out three meals a day, and you can easily spend hundreds of bucks before you know it. With a little strategy, though, it’s not hard to keep your stomach (and your wallet) full.
Who the hell am I to give you advice? Well, I’ve spent the last three years living on the road full-time in a converted Sprinter van for a project I’ve been calling Connected States (you can follow my adventures there or on Instagram @brentdangerrose). Over the years I’ve picked up a ton of tips and tricks for eating cheap in strange places. And, for this how-to, I gathered tips from a few other nomadic friends on what works for them, too.
Cooking For Yourself
Living on the road is no different than living in a stationary home, when it comes to eating cheaply. You’ll save a ton by making your own meals. That said, cooking on the road isn’t exactly like your home kitchen.
Personally, my van has an electric refrigerator, a two-burner propane stove, and a microwave. So, I’m pretty self-sufficient. However, if you’re road-tripping in something smaller, like a car, it’s going to take a bit more effort.
Keeping food fresh when on the road is easier than it used to be, largely because you can now buy coolers that don’t suck. The better insulated ones, like those from Orca, Yeti, and Pelican can keep ice icy for up to a week. I’d recommend re-upping the ice every few days regardless, since it’s a great way to keep produce, dairy, and meat nice and cold.
If you’re driving something that can spare some power (or you have solar panels and an extra battery), you might want to look into a Dometic CFX fridge. Really, it’s more like a powered cooler that requires no ice and draws surprisingly little power (depending on which size you get). I’ve seen people run them off some pretty small batteries.
As for cooking, if you have the space, just grab a classic two-burner propane stove, like the ones Coleman makes. They’re cheap, they provide a solid cooking surface, and it’s easy to find propane pretty much anywhere in the U.S. If you’re traveling internationally or you’re light on space, I’d look at the MSR Dragonfly backpacking stove. It’s tiny, it can simmer, and you can use just about anything as fuel, including gasoline (though plain old white gas will burn a lot cleaner). Either of those and some nesting pots and pans and you’ll be ready to whip up some real meals pretty much anywhere you want. (But please only cook with fire when you have adequate ventilation, okay?)
Lastly, you probably already know that buying groceries at big stores can save you a lot of money over eating out. However, you can often support local businesses and buy local produce at an extremely reasonable price, too.
“Farmers’ markets and local grocers are a great way to get a ton of fresh produce, in season now, for often a fraction of the price,” said Lindsey, aka @girlgoneglamping, who has been traveling full-time in an Airstream for the last year and a half.
“I think I ate out only once in the seven months I was traveling,” photographer Chauncy Lockwood told me. “I had a budget, and I followed it pretty well.”
He and Lindsey both stressed the importance of having non-perishables around. Lindsey always has a few cans of soup on hand, as well as some oatmeal, for quick and easy meals on the road. Quinoa is a staple here, as well.
Now that we’ve hammered home the point that cooking is the absolute cheapest way to get by, let’s get to the fun stuff.
Happy Hours and Early-Bird Specials
This is where doing a little bit of research can really pay off. One of the best Google searches the world has ever known is: “Best happy hours in (city, state).”
Do that, and you’re bound to find lists that include some of the town’s tastiest eats at a fraction of the price. Hot chicken sliders for a buck in Nashville? Twenty-five cent oysters in New Orleans? That’s what life on the road is all about.
Not only will you be able to sample a lot of local flavors, you’ll get a great opportunity to meet local people as well.
Happy hours aren’t typically on a tourist’s radar, so you’ll often be ahead of the curve and dining with people in the know who may be able to tip you off to other local haunts. The same trick works for early-bird specials, too, though those aren’t typically promoted as hard as happy hours, so they may be tougher to locate.
The Chipotle Add-On Strategy
If you’re going out to eat there are sneaky—but legal—ways to get more food than normal. For whatever reason, Chipotle has long been the most “hacked” chain restaurant, with dozens of people posting different strategies to get more food for the same price.
These tricks include getting a burrito bowl instead of a burrito, then asking for a tortilla on the side (which is free). Extra rice? Also free. Ask for both types of beans, which is liable to get you more of each. The same applies if you ask to go 50-50 on two types of meat. Get the fajita-style veggies. I’ve heard estimates that you can get 50 percent more food for the same price.
You can also be strategic about the way you approach a salad bar, like those you’d find at Whole Foods. There, it’s all a game of weight. Pile on the greens and other light veggies, but, if you can use your own dressing (keeping some olive oil and balsamic vinegar in your car will do the trick nicely), you can save even more. Dressings add a ton of weight and therefore cost disproportionately more than they should.
YOU CAN ALSO BE STRATEGIC ABOUT THE WAY YOU APPROACH A SALAD BAR. IT’S ALL A GAME OF WEIGHT.
Also, if you’re passing by a bakery, you can almost always find a rack of day-old baked goods that still taste fresh and delicious—especially if you’re getting them in the morning. While they may be a bit less fluffy than they day they were baked, what you lose in freshness you more than gain in savings, as day-olds are typically 50 percent off.
Looking for Gems in Strip Malls
Having driven through nearly every state in the country, I can tell you that my favorite food in any given town is rarely at some overpriced fine-dining establishment. It’s almost always the hole-in-the-wall place that looks like nothing from the outside. Inside, though, these places are bursting with flavor. It’s almost always little mom-and-pop shops that serve authentic ethnic cuisine, especially Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Mexican. Though you can find killer greasy spoons with American staples, too.
Of course, not every strip-mall restaurant is a winner. In fact, some are as bad as they look from the outside. A little homework goes a long way in search of the diamond in the rough. Your best plan of action is to ask a long-time local. You can usually find someone willing to share their favorite spot just by walking around the main drag or stopping at the local bookstore or gas station.
If you’re feeling shy, Roadtrippers has a ton of these places listed just about everywhere you might want to go. If all else fails, I usually check Yelp and TripAdvisor. While they aren’t perfect, sometimes they can still lead you to something wonderful you would have driven right by.
To the Internet
Lastly, and I know this might come as a shock to some of you, but you really can find just about everything on the Internet, including some serious discounts on restaurants. This especially holds true for bigger cities, where food is often more expensive.
“I will look up some deals on websites like Spring Rewards, Groupon, or LivingSocial,” Lindsey said. “There are a ton of discounts out there—on activities, too. You can often find deals on some of the best restaurants in town for 20, 40, even 50 percent off. These are typically newer spots that are trying to get on more people’s radar—and they’re often fantastic. I’ve also scored deeply discounted tickets for plays, whale watching adventures, white water kayaking, and amusement parks on those sites.”
So there you have it. These strategies have enabled me to live on the road for three years without having to sell any of my organs to pay for chow. It takes a minimal amount of effort to save a lot of money in this arena. The best thing is that these techniques—or variations on them—work in just about every city or small town you can name. Employ just a little creativity, and both your taste buds and checking account will reap the rewards.