We've offered tips on everything from finding cheap flights to saving money on hotel stays. But there's another big part of your trip cost that you can pare down with some smart planning: your food budget. You know what they say about free lunches? Well, they're wrong. Gratis gourmet meals, complimentary appetizers, and snacks on the house aren't hard to procure -- as long as you know where to look. Here are 10 clever little tips for finding free food on the road.
Find No-Cost (or Low-Cost) Restaurants
Non-profit, pay-what-you-want, and ultra-low-cost restaurants exist; you might just have to look for them. On a recent trip to Amsterdam, I discovered a flyer for a three-course vegan meal at a "squatter's cafe" (a cafe for which the occupants lack legal tenure) called Molli for €3.50. It wasn't Le Bec Fin. But it wasn't supposed to be -- the low-cost meal was meant to bring together the local vegan community. (Naturally, it'll be easier to come across similar alternative eateries in big cities like New York or Paris as opposed to, say, a small town in nowhereland.)
Nonprofits are another option. They're not exactly free, though. A donation is typically recommended. The Panera Bread Foundation operates five pay-what-you-want cafes in U.S. destinations. One World Cafe in Salt Lake City is one of the oldest pay-what-you-want restaurants. Even Jon Bon Jovi owns a nonprofit restaurant, JBJ Soul Kitchen, in Red Bank, New Jersey. Try entering "nonprofit restaurant in [your destination]" in a search engine to find locations in your destination.
Check In with Foursquare
A new website called Poorsquare is helping travelers seek out food freebies or low-cost meals in exchange for checking in on Foursquare. According to the blog About Foursquare, "You tell [Poorsquare] what neighborhood you're in, what kind of offers you're looking for, and whether you're hanging out with friends (they come in handy for acquiring friend specials). It spits out a list of the freebies in your area that are yours for the taking just for checking in."
The service is available in 85 U.S. cities, plus London. If you don't mind advertising your whereabouts on social media, it could prove an easy way to obtain some tasty handouts. A Poorsquare iOS app is in the works, too.
Attend a Food Festival
Battle the crowds for free samples and cheap food galore at food festivals, which tend to spotlight seasonal cuisine, homegrown wines, and local restaurants. Sure, some festivals charge admission. But the entrance price is often a steal, especially when there are vendors dishing out abundant tasty samples. For ideas, check out this list of free festivals and markets from National Geographic.
Want to avoid admission costs? Chip in for a few hours. Help set up, man a food tent, or collect tickets. Sign up to volunteer and you could receive free admission or free meals, depending on the festival. At the Maine Lobster Festival, for example, admission costs $5 to 8 for adults (admission is free for everyone on Sundays), but volunteers get in for free.
Scout Out Group Deals
Though they don't often offer out-and-out free stuff, group-deal sites can provide some pretty significant savings on eats. We'll call it "almost free." Groupon, for example, promises up to 90 percent in savings with its limited-time coupons. In advance of your trip, sign up for group-deal sites like Living Social or Groupon for your destination. Both companies have local micro-sites for an array of international and domestic cities. Since group deals are marketed toward locals, though, the international coupons are published in native languages. So you may have to do a bit of copy-and-paste into Google Translate in order to read the bargains.
Have a cocktail with a side of free food. Lots of venues, especially ones in U.S. cities and towns where happy hour is a cherished tradition, offer free food with the purchase of a drink or two in the afternoon (plus discounted cocktail and beer offerings, of course). Philadelphia, for example, has a whole spectrum of dirt-cheap specials for happy-hour patrons. As does Los Angeles. As do international cities like London. You get the idea.
Keep in mind that not all destinations offer happy-hour deals. A total 26 U.S. states have some kind of happy-hour restriction in place. (Although many establishments find ways to wiggle around the laws.)
Watch a Cooking Show
Sign up to participate in the production of a cooking show and chow down on gourmet food whipped up by star chefs, for absolutely free. Casting website Onset Productions lists opportunities for those who wish to participate in studio audiences in Los Angeles, New York, and other destinations. You might even get to help judge reality-show contestants after taste testing their cuisine. Shows like Food Network's 24-Hour Restaurant Battle in Brooklyn or The Next Food Network Star serve up free tastings of cuisine prepared by competing chefs. And sometimes audience members receive cash payments for participating.
Join Local Events and Activities
Immerse yourself in a destination by getting involved with local events and community activities. It's a great way to meet locals, and you might just run across a free meal or two—or some food on the cheap, to say the least. Cookbook signings, church activities, art-gallery openings, film screenings, open houses, and the like often include complimentary appetizers or meals for participants—you just have to get ahold of a good-quality local-events calendar. Check out sites like TimeOut or Meetup to browse events and activities in your destination.
At the Hare Krishna Temple in Boston, a free vegetarian meal is served every Sunday following a religious discussion. One reviewer calls it "the greatest secret meal in Boston!" This is just one example of the no-cost community-dining opportunities that abound in cities around the world.
Leverage Your Free Breakfast
Here's an idea from our sister site IndependentTraveler.com: Leverage every last crumb of your hotel's free breakfast. "Tuck an apple or muffin into your daypack for a snack. We've never heard of a hotel objecting to that. (Have you?)"
If your strong moral code prevents the pilfering of a banana or two for a light lunch, a free breakfast is still a free breakfast. According to IndependentTraveler.com, "Abra Benson Perrie of Gainesville, Virginia, says she always asks for a hotel-room upgrade to the concierge level, where continental breakfast and afternoon snacks are included. 'I did this in both Bermuda and Bali, and it worked out great,' she says. 'I only really needed to buy lunch.' Even if she can't get the upgrade for free, sometimes the cost differential is still less than she and her husband would pay for two meals a day."
Join a Dinner Party
Travel social-networking site Couchsurfing has long gone beyond the domain of living-room accommodation arrangements to offer meet-ups and events—including, natch, free dinner parties for travelers. You'll find listings for such get-togethers on the "activities" page for your destination on the Couchsurfing website. Yes, you'll get to eat for free, but this is also a smart way to meet locals and make friends—especially if you're traveling solo.
A batch of brand-new start-ups are similarly connecting travelers with hosts in destinations around the world. NewGusto is a free site that sets up dinner parties for globe-trotters. Some of the gatherings are no-cost; others require a small stipend to reimburse your host's food expenses. U.K.-based site Food Host does pretty much the same thing, though it's not entirely free. It costs a few pounds to sign up for events through the site.
Follow Food Blogs
Want to discover dirt-cheap pop-up restaurants, inexpensive eateries, and free foodie tours? Gain insider's knowledge of word-of-mouth food and dining events in your destination by following food blogs. Some of our favorites: Paris by Mouth, The Skint (New York City), Broke-Ass Stuart, GrubGirl (San Francisco), Good Cheap Eats, and Dine Out Cheap.
You may have to do a bit of digging on Google to find a good foodie blog for your destination. Urbanspoon, which has lists of local blogs for popular destinations, is a good source.
What's your favorite cheap-eats blog? Share it in the comments!
-- By Caroline Costello