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Foodies On the Road: 11 Tips for Dining Well Without Breaking Your Budget

photo: Nelson Minar

For a foodie, the prospect of a road-trip, weekend getaway or lengthy vacation prompts a flurry of planning, mainly around the all-important question: “Where will we eat?”

Frugal Foodie tends to map out a plan of attack on her destination city, aiming to make pit stops at big names and local favorites; with a focus on trying regional cuisine and local ingredients she can’t get at home. She even goes so far as to pick a hotel that’s located near a few of the spots, for convenient dining.

But finding good food while traveling doesn’t have to mean shelling out a small fortune. With some good pre-planning, you can find great food at reasonable prices. Don’t be afraid to do more impromptu reviews, either, using the hotel WiFi and printer, and your smartphone:

Keep a consideration list

“Write down places that sound good, even in places you aren’t currently considering, so when you do travel, you’ve got all sorts of potential ideas,” says Cynthia Clampitt of “World Plate”. Frugal Foodie keeps a file with tear-outs from food magazines, and reviews it when she’s planning a trip. 

Follow local foodies

Figure out which restaurants locals are raving about at Chowhound and Yelp. “They’re great at giving you the lowdown,” says Michael Tulipan, editor of The Savvy Explorer. “They’ll also steer people away from over-hyped places or spots that aren’t as good as they used to be.”

Tamara Remedios, before heading on a recent trip to Southeast Asia, hunted for local food bloggers and ones who traveled there. “For very local places where no one spoke English or didn’t have a sign, they came in handy with exact directions to stalls within markets or how to ask for a table,” she says.

Ask friends

While you’re checking in with local foodies, don’t forget to ask people you know who live (or have lived) in the area, even if their idea of fine dining doesn’t mesh with yours. You might be surprised.

Eat early

Happy Hour (or its deal equivalent) happens in plenty of countries, says Beth Whitman, the editor of Wanderlust and Lipstick. Be on the lookout for specials ranging from discount drinks to buy-one-get-one-free meals in exchange for venturing out in the early evening.

Stay in

Look for a hotel with a kitchen or at the very least, a microwave and mini refrigerator, says Barbara Messing, the general manager of Travel-Ticker.com. That lets you save money on at least a few meals by preparing your own — or just taking advantage of last night’s doggie bag.

Join the crowd

Frugal Foodie takes advantage of city-specific deal-of-the-day sites including Groupon and Tippr — and especially, food-focused ones such as Open Table, InBundles and Chewpons. Discounts can top 50%. (Considering you’ll be visiting a new, unfamiliar place, though, check the reviews beforehand, to make sure the restaurant is worth trying.)

Make a reservation

DinnerBroker offers a discount of up to 15% when you make a free reservation at participating restaurant and pay with an American Express card. OpenTable.com awards points for free reservations, redeemable for gift certificates. There’s also VillageVines, which offers discounts of up to 30% — but charges a $10 fee per reservation.

Use the app for that

“My favorite research method would have to be apps,” says Annemarie Dooling of “Frill Seeker Diary”. Her picks: Around Me, Foodspotting and Yelp. “Even [location-tagging app] Foursquare will show you what cafe in town has the most check-ins, ensuring a popular local pick,” she says. Jay Ducote of “Bite and Booze” likes the Urban Spoon iPhone app. “The ‘talk of the town’ posts are typically some good calls,” he says. Looking for coupons? Frugal Foodie uses MobiQpons to find restaurant deals near her.

Enlist the concierge

They’re a wealth of information. “Simply tell them what you’re in the mood for and the budget you have and they should be able to recommend the perfect place,” Messing says. “Sometimes they have sway at the restaurant and can get you priority reservations or even discounts.”

Weigh the meal plan

Sometimes resort plans are a great deal; other times, they’re a waste of money. You be the judge.

Take risks

“If a place looks good and the posted menu sounds appealing, try it,” says Clampitt. “Some of the best meals I’ve had have been in places no one has every recommended — little places where someone’s mom is cranking out local classics.”

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.