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]

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:


New York on a budget: Your free day in New York

new york on a budgetVisitors to New York often think that to experience the culture of the city they will have to pay a fortune. To disprove that theory, here is an itinerary that will allow you to enjoy a free afternoon (well, you might have to pay $2.25 for the subway).

The walk begins in Rockefeller Center. Take the F, D, M, or B to to the 47th-50th St. Rockefeller Center stop, the N or the R to 49th St., the 1 to 50th St., or the 6 to 51st St. Begin your day by exploring the many shops, cafes, and studios in Rockefeller Center (tip: visit Rain to sample South African bath and body items and get free advice on how customize your perfect scrubs). Stroll through the Channel Gardens and Promenade and admire nature and art. There are also traces of art and history located around the entire Rockefeller Center, including oil paintings, stone statues, bronze sculptures, and more. Another fun free thing to do is to sit in on a live taping of the show. If you haven’t made arrangements in advance, you can try to get standby tickets when you are there. If it is winter, enjoy the feeling of Christmas in the air by watching ice skaters and characters in costume move around the giant lit-up Christmas tree that New York is so famous for.When you leave Rockefeller Center, begin walking down 5th towards 50th. Here, you will see the famous St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Explore the many sections of the church, including the crypt, chapel, sanctuary, baptistery, and more with a free guided tour.

After St. Patrick’s, continue walking up 5th towards 52nd street and make a right. Walk for less than a minute and you will come to the Austrian Cultural Forum New York. Located at 11 East 52nd St., this free museum hosts art and exhibits of all different forms, including oil paintings, photography, video, multimedia, sculptures, and more. Most of the artists have some kind of connection to Austria, whether they live, work, or grew up there. From now until January 3, 2012, the Austrian Cultural Forum New York is hosting their Beauty Contest exhibit, which uses different perspectives to convey and breakdown different concepts of beauty.

Get back on to 5th and continue walking uptown. Fifth Ave. is famous for its shopping, and while buying merchandise isn’t free, window shopping certainly is. The walk will allow you to peruse an array of shops, from the reasonably priced Forever 21, Hollister, and Abercrombie and Fitch, to upscale designer stores like Gucci, Fendi, and Prada. You will also pass the well-known Trump Tower.

If you would like to see some more of the religious structures in New York, you will pass both St. Thomas Episcopal Church and the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church on your left.

central parkOnce you hit 59th you will be able to enter Central Park, which is basically a day trip of its own. If you would like to keep your day free of charge, you can walk the park either by yourself or with one of the free walking tours offered by the Central Park Conservancy. There are many different tour focuses, such as art, the castle, a memorial walk, and many more. If you are going to explore on your own, you can either purchase a map (remember, the park covers more than 800 acres) or just have a spontaneous adventure by choosing your route at random (you will come to many different forks in the road as you explore). Visit the many memorial statues erected around the park, take photographs of the various ponds, fountains, bridges, and plants, play Frisbee in Sheep Meadow or chess at the Chess & Checkers House, be entertained by live performers, visit Belvedere castle and much, much, more.

Hungry? Head over to Tavern on the Green to check out some of the local food trucks. Enjoy a delicious, filling meal for under $10. You can also check out Ball Field Cafe & Beer Garden to sample sangria, discounted buckets of beer on ice, and meals such as burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, and salads for a reasonable price. Sheep Meadow Cafe will also allow you to full up for free, with meals for under $10.