Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Stretching your dining dollar

Stretching your dollarThe three biggest expenses in travel are transportation, lodging and food. For the uninitiated, controlling these costs may seem daunting. With a little research and insight, learning to travel for maximum enjoyment on minimum dollars is within reach. In this first of a three-part series on controlling costs we'll look at ways to save on dining.

For the hard-core foodie who has a hard time dining on anything less than gourmet or the latest trend, stop reading now. For the open minded … read on!

Whether within the U.S. or around the world the first rule of dining on the cheap is “street food”. From the red hots cart in Chicago to the panelle stand in Palermo, Sicily, street food holds the distinction of being the “food of the people.” Primarily regional, these tasty treats are often overlooked by travelers as not fresh, or worse … contaminated. Truth is that the ingredients are usually very fresh, despite the condition of the makeshift booth or cart they are being sold from. Whenever I travel, especially abroad, I seek out these delicious and cost-effective treats that give you a taste of the local culture. But, how do you find them?

Begin your travel planning by researching the local cuisine of your destination. A little pre-planning will give you a heads up on not only what to look for, but, if you're lucky, the best place to get it. Google the city, state/country and the words “street food” and you'll be surprised at what you might find. Once you find a particular item you think you might like to try, refine your search using specific names of the foods. Let your adventurous side take over and soon you may have a list of places you might want to add to your itinerary.

Though these quick meals are great when you're on the go, and as a great alternative to what is considered typical “fast food,” sometimes you just want to sit down and dine in a restaurant atmosphere.

When dining at restaurants while traveling, especially abroad, you must get away from the “tourist trap” areas. Typically, the closer to tourist attractions, the higher the cost. The owners of the restaurants know that many tourists don't want to stray far from “the beaten path.” Taking time to explore the side streets and alleyways going away from the tourist areas can turn up some surprising results. Often what you'll find are the places where the locals like to eat. The “mom & pop” type places that are full of atmosphere, tradition and reasonably priced local cuisine. But, what happens when you want to try that “hot spot” that everyone is talking about?

Sometimes there is a place like the “House of Blues” in Chicago that you just want to check out. Common sense tells you that you're not dining cheap there … so what can the frugal traveler do? When traveling in the United States, go to www.restaurant.com.

The first step is to register. Registration is free and registered users get access the the best deals. The web site allows you to search by zip code, major city or state. Once your results are displayed you can then refine the search alphabetically, by cuisine, by city or any number of other ways. What they offer are discounted gift certificates. Typically you have a choice of a $10 certificate for $4 or a $25 certificate for $10. On occasion you'll run across a special that allows you to buy at even a deeper discount. On a recent trip to Chicago I purchased a $10 certificate for under $2! These discounts do come with stipulations.

To use the $25 certificate your bill must be $35 or more. To use the $10 certificate your bill must be $25 or more. Sometimes, like at the House of Blues, a gratuity is automatically added before the discount is taken. All the information about the stipulations are listed before you make your purchase so there are no surprises. Done right you can save as much as 30 percent at some of the touristy hot spots!

When traveling I find I get more enjoyment from the trip if I travel as a local instead of as a tourist. Dining on street food and in the places that the locals frequent tend to give the best bang-for-the-buck when it comes to eating. Next time you travel forgo the big names and the fancy signs and find your self a little piece of the local flavor. Your tummy will thank you for it!

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