How to eat for (almost) free while traveling

Wondering how to eat well when traveling while keeping your overall trip costs low? Eating street food is a great way to go! Often tasty, usually safe, and always cheap, street food is not as scary as it sounds. This is one of the best ways to save money on food when traveling because it allows you to eat on a budget. More often than not, savings are substantial.

The same meal you’ll find in a restaurant can be 50% cheaper if you accept to eat outside and enjoy the gorgeous landscapes. You can get a filling meal for almost nothing, and as a bonus, you’ll be integrating with the culture at the same time, as their daily fare often includes these little street-side stands. Plus, this inexpensive cuisine is generally quick. Sounds like a good deal to us!

So what is street food? We know it has a bad connotation in the western world as being unhealthy, unsafe, and undesirable. In fact, street food is just prepared food from food stands set up along roads or in town plazas, where vendors have a high chance of pedestrian traffic. Many carts are mobile and come and go at certain times of the day. You go up to the merchant, place your order (they probably have 2-3 options), and they’ll prepare it for you.

Not always the best option

Tostada in Jocotenango, Guatemala
Tostada in Jocotenango, Guatemala.

We admit we’ve had some bad experiences. We’ve gotten food poisoning a couple times, sometimes weeks at a time. Yes Bolivia, we’re talking about you. On some occasions, we have also been disappointed with bland food. Nevertheless, we can say with confidence that this is not the norm! Or at least, poisoning is generally rare.

After 5 months of eating Guatemalan street food, we haven’t gotten sick once! This feat seems to have impressed a few locals, apparently. Our best guess is that we have suffered so much in the past that we have become some kind of Marvel superhero. Stomachs of Steel. More often than not, we have been pleased with the quality for the cost. We can eat a filling meal for a great price, and save our money for other travel expenses.

To us, the saved money more than makes up for the occasional trouble. All the money we save ultimately allows us to travel longer and for us, that’s the ultimate goal, the essence of Dirt Cheap Travel Guide.

Quick Guidelines to Getting Street Food

Street tacos in Flores, Guatemala
Street tacos in Flores, Guatemala
  • Choose stands frequented by locals. There is a reason they are popular! Perhaps this stand has the tastiest food or the fairest prices.
  • If possible, check what the finished product looks like by spying on the clients around the stand. It will probably look different than the pictures.
  • You can usually watch them prepare your food, and if you see them wiping raw chicken against the cooked chicken they’re about to serve you, run away! We were sick for days from this.

See also: How to Cope With Food Poisoning While Abroad

  • Make sure to get an idea of what it should cost. Depending on the culture, raising the price for foreigners may be standard. Always settle on the price first.
  • In countries where the tap water is undrinkable, avoid fresh juice stands (unless it’s orange juice) and salad stands. Their intentions may be good, but that fresh produce was probably washed in that sketchy water, so if it’s not cooked, it’s risky!
  • Try a variety of things. You’re bound to find some favorites.
  • Talk to the locals! Food brings people together.

Food is a great way of breaking cultural barriers, and showing that you appreciate their food and are happy to eat the same things they do is appreciated by most locals. You’re supporting their small businesses, you’re trying their home cuisine, and you’re walking evidence that not all tourists want to eat at the fancy tourist restaurants (which most locals have never stepped foot in). Eating street food is a great way to really get to know a country.

orange juice in Guatemala
Squeezing oranges for fresh juice. If it can be peeled, it’s usually okay to eat!

Our favorite street food in the world

Here are some of our favorite meals we’ve gotten for around one US dollar. In Turkey, the master was Doner, kebab in a loaf of fresh bread. Found everywhere, it is very filling and is the perfect complement to your amazing Turkish Breakfast. Egypt had a star for us and it’s not the one you’d think! Instead of the cliché’ed falafel, we fell in love with koshari. This odd meal consists of a large bowl of rice, noodles, and sauce with caramelized onions and other goodies. Tasty, salty and sure to take a few years of your life away from you, we regularly find ourselves dreaming for it!

Guatemala has few choices but each stand adds its own flavor. Try tortas, tacos, and tostadas and be sure to plunge them in hot sauce! Kürtőskalács were a chief warm dessert in the cold Hungarian winter, while Bolivia was the land of saltañas (hot pockets). One thing to be particularly careful of, saltañas sometimes contain deceptive olive pits. They also seemed to be a safe haven for many bacterias skilled at stomach-upsetting. Regardless, they were often the cheapest option and a little addictive, too.

On a slightly more expensive side

Italian poutine
Dereck was really craving this Poutine as he wrote this segment.

In Canada, street food culture is definitely different. More expensive? Certainly! Varied and even gourmet? Clearly! What you would normally find in street food carts abroad will instead be in seasonal ”shacks à patates”. Synonym of summer in Quebec, these shacks are typically open only from May to September. Each of them has a different take on some fast food classics but most importantly, each has unique poutine. For a real treat, order an Italian Poutine. Not charmed? Try the next shack, a few hours later. Each is different and locals are sure to be very opinionated about which one is the best!

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And now we’re hungry

Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone of established restaurants. Street food can be just as good (or better!), and the feeling of getting a full stomach with a few coins is super satisfying! Embracing it is sure to save you a significant amount of money over your trip.

If you found this article interesting or if it made you hungry, be sure to share it! Dirt Cheap Travel Guide caters to the budget travelers and relies on you, dear reader, to spread the word and help keep it going!

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1 thought on “How to eat for (almost) free while traveling”

  1. Kathleen Salinas

    Street food does sound amazing when you approach it in the way you’ve suggested. Thanks for the tips!

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