The Budget Traveler’s Guide To Cut-Price Restaurant Meals

Eating out three meals a day can do some serious damage to your travel budget, especially when you want those three meals to be as good as possible. Sure, you could self-cater to save a few bucks, but if you’re a real foodie who wants to taste the best a city has to offer, how can you do it without breaking the bank?

Filling up on street food or tracking down food trucks are two tried and true techniques used by backpackers and budget travelers the world over, but those who want to eat at traditional restaurants cut their costs too. Here are five ideas for eating at sit-down restaurants on a budget.

Enjoy a pre-theater meal

Restaurants located in a city’s theater district will usually offer discounted meals to diners who want to get a bite to eat before heading to see their show – but you don’t necessarily have to hold theater tickets to take advantage of this deal. Most restaurants will happily accommodate you, although the catch is you’ll have to eat early with pre-show meal deals usually ending around 6:30 p.m. Cities with a strong theater culture like NYC and London have long lists of pre-theater meal venues to choose from but the trend is catching on in many smaller cities as well.


Seek out prix fixe menus

Ordering from a prix fixe (“fixed price”) menu can work out significantly cheaper than ordering individual items off a traditional a la carte menu. As an added bonus, you get to try out extra dishes you may not have considered ordering, which sometimes turn out to be the highlight of the meal. With a prix fixe menu, you know upfront exactly how much your meal is going to cost so there are no nasty surprises when your bill shows up.

Eat well at lunch

Most restaurants have separate menus for dinner and lunch – with the latter being significantly cheaper. So if you’re traveling on a budget, the midday meal is the perfect opportunity to try out the fancier establishments that would be too pricy to enjoy at dinnertime. There’s usually a fair bit of overlap between the lunch and dinner menus anyway since few restaurants can afford to offer drastically different items for lunch and dinner.


Eat at markets

You’ve probably already heard the tip about heading to a local produce market, picking up some bread, cheese and fruit and making a picnic out of it – but that’s not what I mean when I say you should consider eating at markets. Instead, I’m talking about dining at one of the small restaurants or food booths set up inside many popular markets. You’ll usually have to sit at a counter or in a cafeteria-style setting and there are typically only one or two menu choices at most of the booths – but the upside is that the dishes on offer have been perfected.

You also get to enjoy fish, meat and vegetables that are super fresh and a fraction of the cost they’d be at a typical restaurant. Quincy Market in Boston (see image above) and Kauppatori Market in Helsinki, Finland, are two examples of markets offering great meals.


BYOB where possible

Depending on where you’re traveling, alcohol can put a real ding in your budget. For example, Singapore puts a heavy tax on alcohol so a beer in a bar or restaurant can set you back $12-$20 while a cocktail will leave you with serious sticker shock. You may already BYOB when eating out in your hometown, so why not do the same thing when traveling? Supermarkets are often a good source of reasonably priced alcohol that you can take along to your meal.

[Photo credit: Flickr users zoetnet; franklin_hunting; Darryl Whitmore; Christine Cowen]

International Budget Guide 2013: Athens, Greece

For budget travelers, there’s never been a better time to visit the Greek capital. Despite being on the Euro, the country’s debt crisis has made this popular tourist center dramatically more affordable than the balance of the European Union, making once expensive resorts now surprisingly reasonable.

As unemployment and other economic problems take their toll, Greeks have all but stopped taking vacations, which means most of the city’s tourism bookings rely on foreigners. Unfortunately, many visitors have been scared off by the tide of uncertainty. Fears of a Greek exit from the euro zone and strikes and demonstrations in Athens caused many potential visitors to cancel their bookings – in the first half of last year, the number of tourists visiting fell 9%.

The silver lining to this distress is that for the budget-conscious, it presents a great opportunity. Tourism is the backbone of the Greek economy making up more than 16% of GDP, so the travel industry is bending over backwards to welcome travelers. Hotels, which lost 10-12% in profits last year, have had to drop their prices dramatically to attract tourists. Visiting Athens now means fewer crowds and better deals than ever before.

Athens is also the jumping off point for travel to the Greek Islands. Like the country’s capital, the islands have also seen a reduction in the number of tourists and have had to lower their prices accordingly. As an added bonus, the strikes, demonstrations and closures that occasionally afflict the capital are not really felt in the islands.

Activities

The New Acropolis Museum. This modern structure opened a few years back but it’s actually one of the few newer developments in a city that has dramatically cut back spending. Even if you’ve visited Athens before, the New Acropolis Museum provides an excellent reason to return. The beautifully curated exhibition details the historical and archaeological significance of the Acropolis and is a great primer for a visit to the ruins. The museum also hosts various temporary exhibits, and this year visitors can see the caryatids – sculptures of Greek women who form part of an Acropolis temple known as the Erechtheion – being restored. Earlier this year, the museum also launched a series of workshops during which visitors can learn about ancient technology, modern preservation techniques and the production of replicas. The workshops, which are run by archeologists and conservationists, are free with museum entry on a first come first served basis. At 5 euro for entry (or 3 euro for reduced admission) the museum is a great value.

The Antikythera shipwreck exhibit. The National Archaeological Museum already boasts some of the most important artworks and artifacts from ancient Greece, and this temporary exhibit provides another compelling reason to visit. The Antikythera Mechanism is an ancient astronomical instrument that was lost for 2000 years when the Roman ship it was on sunk in the Aegean Sea. Experts have only recently come to understand the complexity of the mechanism, which has been referred to as the “world’s first computer.” The shipwreck exhibit is on display until August 31st and is free with museum entry, which costs 7 euro (3 euro reduced admission).

See a performance at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. Situated on the slopes of the Acropolis, this ancient amphitheater comes to life as orchestral concerts, operas, plays, and dance performances take place during the warmer months. Spectators are provided with cushions to place on the tiered, marble seating of the amphitheater, which makes for a spectacular backdrop. Previous performances have included the Athens State Orchestra, a German contemporary dance troupe, and a tribute to Greek folk music. Tickets start at around 15 euro for seats in the upper tiers. Check out a schedule here.

Hotels

Athens Backpackers. Centrally located just a few minutes from the Acropolis metro station, this hostel offers easy access to all the main sights. Accommodation includes self-contained apartments as well as dorm rooms with access to a fully equipped kitchen. The hostel is air-conditioned and boasts a sports bar as well as a rooftop bar that is open during the warmer months. From 17 euro for a dorm bed, including free breakfast and Wi-Fi. backpackers.gr 12 Makri St, Makrygianni.

City Circus Athens. Located a five minute walk from Monastiraki Square, this budget accommodation option is found in a 20th century mansion complete with frescoed ceilings. The atmospheric hostel has been decked out with reclaimed furniture and was decorated by local street artists. There are a range of room types, including dorm beds and doubles with private bathrooms. Guests receive free breakfast and Wi-Fi and have access to a roof terrace with Acropolis views. From 16 euro for a dorm bed. citycircus.gr 16 Sarri St, Psirri.

Hotel Amazon. If you want to step it up a notch and stay in a hotel, this is a great budget option. Located right by Syntagma Square, the hotel is an easy walk to the popular Plaka area and most tourist sights. The establishment, which is part of the Best Western chain, has been recently renovated and provides guests with television, Internet and breakfast. The only drawback is that some of the rooms do get quite a bit of street noise. Official rates start at 80 euro for a double, but you can often find deals in the 40-60 euro range through secondary hotel booking sites such as trivago.com or opodo.co.uk. amazonhotel.gr 19 Mitropoleos & Penelis St, Syntagma.

Restaurants

Kostas. This hole-in-the-wall restaurant serves up juicy souvlaki at bargain prices and the long line out the door is a sure sign of its popularity. The closet-sized eatery is located in the same square as the Agia Irini church, and diners can either take the food to go, or eat it at one of the standing room only tables located outside in the small plaza. A serving of souvlaki or kebabs topped in a rich and spicy tomato sauce will fill you up for around 2 euro. 2 Plateia Agia Irini, Monastiraki.

Mani Mani. Located in the leafy Makrygianni neighborhood close to the New Acropolis Museum, this restaurant serves up food traditional to the Peloponnesian region of Mani. The restaurant is tucked away on the 2nd floor of an unassuming building, but once inside, there’s an open kitchen and warm, modern vibe. Dishes have a haute cuisine feel and include a type of traditional pasta known as chilopites, a pork belly cooked for 17 hours, and a desert flavored with mastic liqueur from the islands. Mains cost around 10 euro, but most plates are also available in half portions for half the price. manimani.com.gr 10 Falirou St, Makrygianni.

Tzitzikas & Mermigas. Despite being in the heart of Athens and close to the tourist sites, this restaurant seems to attract a large local clientele. The décor has a kitsch feel with shelves of jarred and canned goods lining the walls. Butcher’s paper covers the old-school wooden tables and you’ll find your silverware stashed inside drawers beneath them. Dishes include saganaki (cheese fried in olive oil and spices), traditional greek salads, and chicken with a mastika sauce. The mezedes (small plates of food) cost around 5-10 euro and diners are treated to a free shot of ouzo. Be sure to check out the unusual tomato can sinks in the bathrooms before you leave. 12-14 Mitropoleos St, Syntagma.

Logistics

Getting Around

If you’re staying in the downtown area of Athens, you’ll find many of the tourist sites are easily accessed on foot. For traveling longer distances, the metro is cheap and efficient. Individual tickets are good for multiple trips within 90 minutes of being validated in the machines at the train stations. Tickets cost 1.40 euro from the vending machines and can be used on buses as well. While you’re at the metro stations, keep an eye out for artifacts that are on display – these were found while the metro was being constructed.

You can also get to the international airport via metro although you need a special ticket that costs 8 euro. Buses to the airport also depart from Syntagma Square. Tickets cost 5 euro and are available from the bus driver.

Seasonality

Summer is the peak travel season and hotels raise their rates (sometimes doubling them) during this period. The temperature in Athens can also shoot into the high 90s and beyond, making sightseeing feel like an exhausting Olympic sport. But if those things don’t deter you, summer is a great time to visit with the Hellenic Festival taking place – the summer arts event that involves music, theater, and cultural programs. However, for those who prefer lower prices and milder temperatures, the best times to visit are spring and fall when the mercury hovers around 70 F.

Safety

Like with most large cities, you should beware of pickpockets, especially when traveling on packed buses and trains. At night, some parts of the city can feel a little unsavory. While most tourist haunts such as the popular Plaka area are fine, it’s best to steer clear of Omonia.

Given the economic unrest in Greece, you should be careful when sightseeing near the parliament building on Syntagma Square, which is often the site of demonstrations. While it’s still safe to visit this area, it’s a good idea to keep abreast of the latest political developments to avoid getting caught up in any potentially violent protests.

Lastly, it’s worth being aware that Greece has been cracking down on illegal immigration and recently made headlines after a number of tourists got caught in the net.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Panoramas]

7 Free (Or Nearly Free) Things To Do In Hong Kong

free things to do in hong kong

By many measures, Hong Kong is one of the most expensive cities in the world.

But for every five-star hotel, luxury boutique and gourmet restaurant, there’s a budget room, quaint flea market and cheap dimsum stand waiting in the wings. In fact, apart from high accommodation costs, Hong Kong is a great destination for budget travelers, with its cheap public transport, vibrant street food scene and plentiful sights and attractions. Even if you’re low on cash, there is never a shortage of things to do. Here are seven of the best free (or nearly free) ways to experience Hong Kong on the cheap.

Take the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour.

Some call it a commute; others call it a bargain way to cross one of the world’s most scenic harbors. The Star Ferry has been shuttling people across Victoria Harbour for more than a century, with its most popular route connecting Central Terminal on Hong Kong Island to Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon. The view from either side is breathtaking.

Fares run between HK$2 (US$0.25) and HK$3.40 ($0.44), depending on what day you’re traveling and whether you’re sitting on the upper or lower deck. Drink medicinal tea with healing properties.

Locals line up around the block for a cup of the famed ya sai mei at Good Spring Company Limited, one of Hong Kong’s oldest herbal pharmacies. The bitter tea is said to have immunity-boosting powers, and Good Spring’s formulation is a result of years of experimentation by the pharmacy’s original proprietor, whose grandson now runs the shop. A cup of the cure-all will cost you HK$7 (US$0.90).

8 Cochrane Street, Central

Ride the world’s longest covered escalator.

The Central Mid-Levels escalator system is the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world, extending 800 meters and connecting the hilltop districts of Hong Kong with the rest of the city. The system, made up of 20 escalators and three moving walkways, acts as free public transportation for Hong Kong’s working classes. Tourists can hop on the escalator at any time, but be advised of its schedule: service runs downhill from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and uphill from 10:30 a.m. to midnight.

Starts at Cochrane Street and Queen’s Road Central and ends at Shelley Street and Conduit Road, with multiple stops in between.

Take a tour of Hong Kong history.

Learn about Hong Kong’s fascinating past through a magnificently curated exhibition called “The Hong Kong Story” at the Hong Kong Museum of History. For just HK$10 ($1.30) you can journey from prehistoric times, to the Opium Wars, to 1960s pop culture, straight through to the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997. It’s the perfect indoor respite from Hong Kong’s suffocating heat.

100 Chatham Road South, Tsim Sha Tsui

Eat at the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant.

Tim Ho Wan might be the only place on earth where you can eat a Michelin-starred meal for under US$10. Chef Mak Pui Gor, formerly of the Four Seasons, opened this non-descript dim sum joint on a back street of the Mong Kok district to bring high quality dim sum to the masses. The waits are legendary, lasting two, sometimes three hours. But if you don’t mind getting squeezed into a table with a family of five, try venturing there solo between the off-peak hours of 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. I did and managed to get in immediately.

2-20 Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok

Hit up happy hour in SoHo.

Short for “South of Hollywood Road,” this up-and-coming neighborhood has a more quaint, intimate feel than other parts of Central Hong Kong. But don’t be misled – SoHo comes alive in the evenings, when its trendy bars and restaurants fill with young professionals taking advantage of Western-style happy hour specials. The deals usually kick off at 5 p.m.

The best way to arrive in SoHo is via the Central Mid-Levels Escalator; get off at Staunton Road.

Watch the world’s largest sound and light show.

Hong Kong’s “Symphony of Lights” isn’t just one of the best tickets in town; it’s also free! The nightly spectacle, run by the Hong Kong Tourism Commission, features sound, lights and lasers from 40 buildings on both sides of Victoria Harbour. Stake out a spot on the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade for the best view, and toast to the fact that the best travel experiences can still (sometimes) be free.

The “Symphony of Lights” runs nightly at 8 p.m.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Budget Hong Kong” chronicles one writer’s efforts to authentically experience one of the world’s most expensive cities, while traveling on a shoestring. Read the whole series here.

Eating history at Manganaro’s Hero Boy in New York

manganaro's NYCWhen finding a restaurant in New York, it’s pretty easy to find crowded, quirky themed restaurants with high-priced menus geared toured tourists. It’s actually easy to dine with aliens, ninjas, monsters, drag queens, and just about anyone or anything else when you’re in the Big Apple. But what about when you’re looking for somewhere unique to dine that is both historical and can give you a local experience?

Manganaro’s Hero Boy in Hell’s Kitchen is the perfect budget-friendly place. The eatery has been around for more than 50 years and began as a family tradition. In 1956 a man named James Dell’Orto, who ran Manganaro’s with his mother Nina, came up with the brilliant idea to create a sandwich that could feed the 30-40 people. It was the birth of the Six Foot Hero Boy.

I stopped in Manganaro’s for dinner the other night and order the Grilled Chicken Parmigiana hero with homemade potato chips. Small subs run from $6.50-$7.75, while a large sub will give you more meat and can be purchased for $8.50-$12.00. Some of the other sub choices include Meatball Parmigiana, Grilled Vegetables and Mozzarella, Prosciutto di Parma, and the Mile High Special, the meatiest of them all with Prosciutto di Parma, Genoa salami, mortadella, sopresata, cooked salami, provolone, marinated peppers, lettuce, tomato, extra virgin olive oil, and imported red wine or balsamic vinegar.

While you should not come here if you’re looking for an Italian restaurant with overly pleasant waiters, crowds of people, and Tuscan-inspired music and decorations, you should come here if you want to grab a bite by yourself or with a few friends and enjoy a delicious sub made by the people who invented the 6-foot Italian-style sub.

Located at 488 Ninth Avenue near 38th.

The king of the food trucks in Los Angeles, California

As the food truck craze continues to grow in Los Angeles, California, it can be difficult for business owners to stand out from the swarm of the moveable eateries. This challenge was taken literally by Travis Schmidt and Jason Freeman, owners of World Fare busTAURANT, who bought a Vintage Double Decker bus to house their mobile restaurant. While the bottom level of the bus holds the kitchen, the top deck is filled with tables so diners can relax and take in the view of L.A.

Patrons can enjoy cuisine prepared by culinary masters, such as Executive Chef Andi Van Willigan, who has worked with the likes of Gordon Ramsey and Michael Mina. Some busTAURANT fare favorites include Truffle Mac and Cheese Balls, Red Velvet Cheesecake Bunnies, and Braised Short Ribs.

For a better idea of this unique concept, check out this video: