On the cheap

Saving money

If you crave authentic travel experiences, chances are, you’re  often thinking about that next trip.  This also means reflecting on how to pay for it -and how to save money during the experience.  Here are nine ways to save money while travelling, that also bring you closer to the local lifestyle.

1.  Do lots of walking and transit vs taxis

This seems obvious, but it’s surprisingly easy to forget.  It’s comforting to fall into a taxi when you’re unsure of your route.  So instead, make the alternatives easier.  Prepare well, by downloading maps in advance.  And consider downloading an app that allows you to navigate offline.  While it still has some glitches,  the Navmii app is one example.  Finally, don’t be afraid to ask friendly locals for advice. Most people do like to be helpful.

2. Spend less on food

We often try to have at least one meal a day on the cheap.  Often this involves buying street food from a local vendor (see upcoming blog for more tips on this topic).  It can also mean buying fresh produce, cheese, and bread for an outdoor picnic, whether from a farmer’s market or local shop.  And, save costs by eating your main meal at lunch -many restaurants charge less at lunch and more for dinner.  Then have dinner in your room/apartment, freeing up funds for entertainment -or a future trip.

 3. Avoid the guided tour, but if you do one, choose a walking over bus or trolley tour.

We’ve come to love walking tours, both because they are less costly than bus tours, and because they provide a more interactive and immediate way of learning about the local history and current lifestyle.  Walking tours are often more amenable to creative touches, including story-telling and personal anecdotes.  Also, they tend to be smaller.

4. Go to a local sporting event -especially if it’s minor league or amateur.

While travelling in Granada, we stumbled on a local cricket game, which gave us fascinating insights into the local community.  Cricket is the slowest game imaginable (you can tell I’m not a fan).  But an hour watching people just hanging with each other, having a laugh, catching up, was worth the entry fee.

And in Mexico City we took a walking tour that culminated in going to a Lucha Libre match.   Definitely one of our trip highlights.

Lucha Libre. Author photo, January 31, 2017


5.  Use your own steam at local viewpoints

Try to walk up and down on your own steam -or at least walk on the way down.  It’s an antidote to any over-indulgences , and you may get to see some overlooked sites.  We paid to go up in the funicular in scenic Guanajuato, but enjoyed the walk down.  The photo  below is of one of the new friends we made in that process.

A new friend we made when we decided to walk down the hill, instead of taking the funicular
A new friend we made when we decided to walk down the hill, instead of taking the funicular

6.  Research local liquor laws

I can remember taking a picnic to a free summer concert in Florence, complete with wine.  Buying your own bottle is way cheaper, when local liquor laws allow it.  Unfortunately most Canadian provinces don’t, but a blind eye is often turned in Quebec cities like Montreal.  It helps if you’re discrete.

7. Check out the local parks and their programming

At least in summer, many North American and European cities often have free festivals, or free events linked to those festivals that charge admission.  Also, look for buskers.  I do believe in paying buskers, but do so according to what you can afford.  It will still be cheaper than attending a more formal event.

8. Use your social network.

If a friend, relative, or a friend of a friend lives in the spot you’re visiting, buy them lunch or dinner in exchange for a half-day tour.  They may lack the in-depth historical knowledge of a paid guide, but they are more likely to point out sites, features, and customs that will interest you personally.

9.  Learn the language

Or arm yourself with at least enough words/phrases plus Google translate to be comfortable reading basic text in the local language.  How will this save you money?  Any restaurant in a non-English speaking country that offers English menus is at higher risk of charging tourist prices.  Conversely, local hangouts will be more ŕeasonable.

When we stayed in an up-and-coming suburb in Prague, the local bar /restaurant had prices 1/3 the cost of those in tourist areas. We had taught ourselves just eight words in Czech, but using them on Day#1 as foreigners must have endeared us to the locals.  One man with a bit more English than my Czech helped translate a few items so we could order.  And so this helped me, as a vegetarian,  quickly learn to say -and spot Greek Salad on menus exclusively in Czech.  (In case you wanted to know -it’s recky (pronounced “retzky”) salat.)

These are just a few tips which could help you save money while travelling, while also putting you in more direct contact with locals and local experiences.  By saving money you’ll be able to extend your travel budget further, giving yourself room for more authentic travel experiences on your next trip, and others in the future.


Authentic food culture -Part 1

Everyone has to eat while travelling.  And eating has the potential to add to, or detract from, an authentic travel experience.  But how do you know what constitutes authentic cuisine in the place you are visiting?  Do you call out the food police?  Here are two ideas to consider while looking for authentic food abroad.

Are locals eating it?

Not everything that locals do automatically expresses local culture.  Locals are as likely as foreigners to patronize chain restaurants, for example.  In fact, many of the international food chains dotting European and Asian landscapes are catering to a local market.  In some instances, these are even adapting accordingly, at least paying some tribute to local eating patterns. (Whether this constitutes authentic cuisine, however, is the subject of another debate.)  Chains aside, it may seem like the best approach is to go to a restaurant clearly known for serving local /regional specialties.  But if you notice that your (would-be) fellow diners are all foreign tourists like you, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate.  That local restaurant may be popular with tourists because it serves up a nostalgic version of regional cuisine.  This is likely because its management believes that nostalgic food is what the tourists will pay for.

In contrast, truly authentic local cuisines still continue to evolve and adapt to new ways of being.  They may start to add some fusion twists, particularly if that region has been influenced by immigration, and new immigrants have brought new herbs and spices into the mix.  I will never forget eating at a locally-focused restaurant ten years ago in Rome, where I had the most amazing butternut squash ravioli with an array of seasoning I had never encountered before while eating in Italy.   The restaurant, which local friends took me to, also served organic Planeta (Sicilian) wine –an up and coming brand in vogue with all the locals at the time. Bottom line: consider consulting restaurant listings that cater to locals, or that have been written by them.  In large cities, Time Out guides can be helpful.  And in cities of varied shapes and sizes, an increasing number of locals and ex-pats living abroad these days are also writing about great local restaurants and neighbourhoods, based on a closer relationship with the community and, ideally, conversations with friends from that culture.  Some even offer food-based tours, based on their local knowledge.

Is my eating experience connecting me with  the local terroir?

I only encountered the term “terroir” two years ago, but it’s an idea that resonated with me.  It recognizes that the context where food is grown, raised, and/or processed will have a big impact on how it tastes.  This includes how much sunlight and warmth particular crops receive (or don’t), down even to the minerals and microbes that various fruits and vegetables take in as they grow.  It also considers traditional relationships between people living in the region and how they produce their food.  The concept of terroir, then, boils down to respecting regional food. And, of course, giving yourself the experience of eating food that was produced in the local terroir when you are travelling.

home grown strawberries_Tate

This doesn’t have to be an elitist concept, or force you into eating only at the priciest of restaurants.  Sometimes a trip to a local market or grocery store will expose you to regionally produced foods /emerging local favourites in delightful (and reasonably priced ways).  But these outlets are less likely to be in the heart of a town’s tourist district.  In at least one earlier column I’ve encouraged readers to live like a local by  exploring the suburbs of their host city -and with good reason.  Because real people live (and shop) in them.  As an example, one of Montreal’s best public markets is a 20-30 minute metro (subway) ride away from downtown.  In my hometown of Victoria and the nearby Cowichan Valley (1-hour drive away) there is a terrific awareness of local food culture.  One of my favourite grocery stores,  The Root Cellar  , makes a point of selling as many locally-produced fruits, vegetables, meats, and delicatessen items as are available in any given season.  To get there you either have to rent a car, or rent a bike and take the Lochside cycling trail as far as McKenzie Avenue before diverting east for an additional five minute cycle.

While there are many options for authentic eating while travelling, a good starting point is to try to find restaurants that are popular with locals and offer some connection to the region, either through the cuisine served, the ingredients used, or its popularity as a local hangout.  Also consider venturing out a bit further from the downtown core, in search of food supplies grown and produced in the local terroir.  This blog post has explained why these two approaches might help, and suggests a few tips for starting your own search for authentic local food.


Bon appetit!