The “locavore” and “slow food” movements have taken off bigtime in the last decade, but budget travelers have been following them for ages for economic reasons. If you eat local and drink what’s made in the region, it’s much easier to be a budget traveler.
Sure, there are high-minded environmental and social reasons for consuming what’s produced locally too. Less fuel is used, more locals get employed, more of the money stays in the community, fewer preservatives are needed, etc. If you’re on a $30-a-day travel budget though, those things are icing on the cake. The real driver is lower travel costs.
Almost every country has a group of items that are cheaper because they’re local and not imported. The most prominent usually include locally grown food items, as well as drinks produced from local ingredients. Here are a few random examples of screaming bargains I’ve found over the years:
Oranges in Portugal
Wine in Eastern Europe
Yogurt in Bulgaria
Coffee in Colombia
Bia Hoi (sidewalk draft beer) in Vietnam
Cashews in the Philippines
Rum in Nicaragua
Vanilla in Mexico
Watermelons in the southern USA
Bananas in Honduras
Any fruit or vegetable in Ecuador
Tea and vegetarian thali meals in India
Beef in Argentina
Sticky rice and mango in Thailand
Fish in Indonesia
Dal bhat in Nepal
Part of the reason I found Portugal so inexpensive when I visited was that almost everything I ate and drank came from Portugal. Well, apart from the coffee. When I’m in Southeast Asia, I eat Asian food. I don’t order a Jack Daniels when I’m somewhere like Central America that makes great rum.
Maybe try some chicha in Peru…
An Eat Local Experience Anywhere
One of the best ways to get to know a culture is through its food and drink. Whether it’s dried cheese balls or fermented mare’s milk in Kyrgyzstan or pilsner beer in the Czech Republic, at least trying the local food gives you a window into the country’s people. Sometimes I learn more about a place on a food tour than I do from one that takes in the sites. (Shameless plug: I own a company that runs a great street food tour in Guanajuato, Mexico.)
The best way to try local food is, of course, to connect with a true local. If you’re staying with friends from that country or doing some kind of home stay, that will make it a whole lot easier to figure out what’s local. If you can take a tour of the city market with them, or a grocery store, even better. Let them order when you go out to eat.
The next best way is to get info from a guide, whether that’s the one who is with you on an organized tour or one you hire for the day through a local program. This is much easier than it used to be. Not only do you have the usual suspects like Viator and GetYourGuide offering lots of options, but now even more people can connect with you through Airbnb Experiences by just signing up there and offering their services (minus a 20% cut for the platform).
One interesting option that has popped up in recent years is EatWith.com. With that service you actually eat a meal with a local that is cooked and served in their home. Sometimes this will be from a professional chef, but other times it’s just with someone who likes to cook and entertain.
After this research, you’ll be able to go out confidently on your own and order street food, buy local produce in the market, or order the right things in a restaurant. Don’t be afraid to ask a bartender or waiter, “What do the local people around here eat and drink? What’s popular?” If it’s popular with the masses, it’s usually reasonably priced as well. Eat local and your food budget will go down a lot.
Locally Made Goods and How the Residents Get Around
Also look at utilitarian items produced for local household use (like wooden cooking utensils), as well as clothing items made for domestic purchase. This is harder than it used to be since so much plastic crap from China has infiltrated seemingly every corner of the globe, but the locally made items are still there if you’re paying attention. When you can, try to buy from the makers themselves or at most, one step removed. The more steps there are between you and the artisan, the less money they’re actually getting for their trouble and the more you’re paying middlemen.
Sometimes the items that are looked at as utilitarian or old-fashioned by the young locals are some of the most interesting to buy and cherish. Pottery, native textiles, and carved wood items are some of the most obvious examples, but take a spin through local markets and you might find other intriguing items.
Also, what are the locals of normal means doing for fun? Watch or ask them and you’ll probably find out about free local concerts, cheap activities, and museum days where there is no charge.
The idea also extends to transportation methods that working class people use. Upper class people and executives shun the metro in many cities for example (including Mexico City), so join the masses and you’ll get from A to B for cheap. Sometimes the getting there is half the fun and in the case of colorfully painted jeepneys in the Philippines or the buses in Guatemala, your ride might even make for a good photo op.
When fuel itself is a local commodity, that may be the greatest bargain of all. Filling up a rental car in an oil-producing country is usually not going to set you back very much.
What kind of great local bargains have you found in your travels?