Should you eat at American chain restaurants when you travel?

denny's japan american chains travelFor people traveling the world in search of culture, adventure and, in a philosophical sense, themselves, it’s probably discouraging to see so many signs of American consumerism all across the globe. Virtually anywhere you go, you’re bound to see American restaurant chains serving variations on the “classics.” Is that a bad thing? Should we be avoiding these establishments in favor of eating only in local restaurants? I’ve been giving this topic a lot of thought lately and don’t profess to have the answers to all of these questions. Like most travel conundrums, this one comes down to personal preference. So, how do I feel about American chains overseas? My travel experiences will make that pretty clear.Truth be told, I don’t eat much fast food when I’m home (road trips being the exception). It’s typically unhealthy, unsatisfying and unappealing. However, I’ve found that the quality overseas is significantly better than at the American locations. I ate at a Burger King in Israel and my burger was fresher, tastier and resembled the photograph on the menu more than anything I’d ever had at one of the chain’s domestic locations.

I also ate at a Denny’s in Auckland, NZ. It was 2am, I was intoxicated and needed to get my fix of greasy breakfast foods. Some things are universal, so whether I was at home in New York City, back in college or on the other side of the world in New Zealand, Denny’s seemed like a good idea after a few drinks. Was it my favorite meal of that trip? Of course not. Did it serve its purpose? My lack of a hangover the next morning would signify that it did.

pizza hut indonesia american chains travelOn a recent trip to Indonesia, my girlfriend and I stopped into a Pizza Hut to pick up dinner for our friends. Not only did the menu contain items that no American Pizza Hut carried, the location itself was as lovely as many high-end restaurants in New York. Much like when I was in India, it was obvious that Pizza Hut was catering to the burgeoning middle class. A trip to Pizza Hut was part of a special evening. Why’d we choose an American chain when the streets were lined with warungs serving every type of Indonesian food you could imagine? The answer to that question explains every trip to an American chain I’ve ever made overseas.

We were curious. We wanted to see the Indonesian interpretation of pizza (there were chicken sticks in the crust!). I didn’t have the Maharajah Burger at the McDonald’s I saw in India, but I wish I did. Not because I expected it to be better than any saag paneer I might enjoy there, but because I wanted to see how McDonald’s handled not being able to serve beef in the predominantly Hindu nation.

This is not to say that every bite of American food I’ve had while traveling internationally was an act of investigation. Sometimes I just want a taste of home. The longer the trip, the more likely I am to eventually crave a burger, a slice of pizza or a bagel. If I can find those in a chain, so be it. Cravings are fun to satisfy.

Whether you like them or not, American chain restaurants are becoming ingrained in cultures around the world. While many people are seeking out “authentic” experiences, they are ignoring the fact that modernization and globalization are redefining the very sense of authenticity (not that any one person can ever explain what is or isn’t truly authentic in a place – it’s a word that should be removed from every travel writers lexicon). I love eating locally and experiencing the cuisines of the world. But I also love seeing how American culture is reinterpreted to fit into the social norms of other places.

I’ll continue to visit American chains overseas (though I passed on going to the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in Bali) purely out of curiosity and a thirst (pun alert) for familiar tastes. I understand why others eschew these businesses. I get that people want to fully immerse themselves in new places. For me, however, those chains are part of my immersion.

What about you? Do you eat in American chains overseas? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments.

Celebrate the Windows 7 launch with a 5 inch tall Whopper

Today is “Windows 7 day” – the first day the new Microsoft operating system is available to the general public.

In the US, the launch involved electronics stores opening at midnight so they can sell the new software to eager geeks.

In Japan, they do things a little different. Japanese Burger King restaurants are selling the “Windows 7 Whopper”, which is a regular Whopper, stacked with 7 patties.

The first 30 customers to order one, will get it for ¥777 (or $8.55). After that, it’ll cost just over $17. The price seems a tad insane, but not as insane as the tummy ache you’ll end up with if you manage to pound down one of these monster burgers.

As much as I’m loving Windows 7 (and it really is very, very good), I’m not sure I see myself celebrating its launch through masses of meat.

Creative ways to work the system for cheap travel

Call it cheap. Call it resourceful. But when you’ve got travel on the brain and you’re on a budget, you gotta do whatcha gotta do.

A post on embraces the cheap with ingenuity. They’ve pulled together a list of ideas for shaving a few dollars off of some of those travel necessities. Some are a little questionable, others are tried-and-true favorites, but they all do the trick. Try them for yourself:

  • Access free wi-fi from hotel parking lots. (“As long as you don’t camp out for too long, you’ll rarely get hassled.”) Holiday Inns and Best Westerns come highly recommended.
  • Ask for the flagpole/boiler/ice machine room (the one that nobody wants because it’s too noisy)
  • Earn a free Whopper at Burger King after answering the phone survey found on receipts
  • Ask the parents to come along so you can use the senior discount
  • Grab food from the complimentary breakfast and save it for a snack or lunch
  • Snatch pre-read magazines from seat-backs on the way off the plane
  • Buy food souvenirs from local grocery stores instead of tourist shops
  • Make your own oatmeal, with the help of the in-room coffee maker
  • Take advantage of membership discounts through Costco, AAA, and AMEX

What about you? What are your own unusual tips for saving money?

Gadling Take FIVE: Week of Dec. 16-Dec. 26

Minutes after I wrote last week’s Gadling Take FIVE, giving a plug to Gadling’s newest blogger, Tom Johansmeyer, Kraig joined our mix of people who are wild about travel. Kraig Becker has been getting his feet wet this past week and is now not the newest blogger on the Gadling block.

Alison Brick joins us today. For any of you wondering if family travel influences children to travel, it did Alison. She has memories of searching out AAA hotel vacancies with her folks. If that doesn’t scare a person off from hitting the open road, nothing will.

Here are posts that caught my attention. They range from the serious to the whimsical.

  • Scott posted on a new rule that requires permanent U.S. residents who are green card holders to get fingerprinted upon entering the U.S. through an immigration check-point brought up an interesting question. Why?
  • If you’re heading to New York City, be prepared to pay more for a subway ride. The fare may go up. Jeffrey’s post tells just how much.
  • Aaron, who sniffs out controversy, and he’s such a nice guy, wrote a post on Burger King’s new ad campaign which has been called by some to be culturally insensitive. I’m with Aaron on this one.
  • Jeremy gives a thumbs up to the 2008 edition of The Best American Travel Writing.
  • If you’ve ever wondered where fruitcake comes from, check out Brenda’s post. She knows the scoop. Personally, I like fruitcake–all kinds.

If you’re traveling and bored, here are 4 pen and pencil games you can play. I’ve played them all.