Photography by crnlious

You thought you had everything under control. But suddenly, you’re jet-lagged and starved in the middle of a strange city with no clue where to eat.

It’s not like you have money to throw away and, come on, you didn’t travel all this way to live on Cup Noodles or the dollar menu.

For Cheryl Davis, this nightmare—traveling to exciting locations and then subsisting on McDonald’s cheeseburgers—is a distant memory from childhood vacations. Today, after years of traveling, she and her husband, Robert, have found the perfect balance between delicious and cheap. They believe that “if you really want to experience a locale, you should experience their food.” From their travels, they offer six simple tips to satisfy both wallet and appetite.

1 Eat like the locals

If you’re looking for a good deal, eat the local cuisine. You know you’ve found the best eatery in town when it’s swarming with locals. A hint: if you can see more than three camera bags from the door, just turn around and leave. Being willing to step outside your comfort zone when you step outside your front door will help you better immerse yourself in the culture of food. Cheryl explains, “You have to find what a place is famous for. In LA, I thought, ‘They’re good at sushi. I’ve got to find the best sushi in LA.’” Surprisingly, she found that the most popular sushi joint was one of the most affordable in the city.  

2 Make a plan

You don’t want to go on your trip unprepared. With a couple of thorough Google searches and a carefully selected guidebook, you can make a plan so you know what restaurants to check out when you get there. And be willing to dig a little. Check the reviews so that you don’t travel across town only to find that a restaurant’s specialty is three-for-a-dollar deep-fried frog legs. “You can go to a high-cost, lousy restaurant if you’re just on the spot,” warns Robert, “so search out highly rated low-cost restaurants.” If you put in some work before you go, you’ll thank yourself later.

3 Ask around

Break free from the confines of the Internet and talk to real people. See that person sitting next to you on the subway? Assume they have a secret, and get it out of them. The hyped-up tourist hot spots you see on the travel channel are likely not your most economical choices, and there is no need to settle for Wendy’s to stick to your budget. Hole-in-the-wall eateries, local bakeries, and quaint coffee shops are in every city, and area natives know where they’re hidden. So ask them—chances are, they’ll be flattered you asked for their advice, and you’ll save some change for another key chain souvenir you don’t actually need.

4 Embrace the street food

Although you may have grown up being afraid of street food, give it a shot. Street foods like fried yams in Ghana, flatbread in Italy, and pretzels in Switzerland are not only inexpensive, but are also some of the best ways to experience local cuisine. “In third-world countries,” suggests Robert, “street food can be pretty risky. But if you see it coming out of boiling water or deep fried oil, it’s probably a better bet.” Robert, who has eaten many a street-side churro during his visits to Mexico, adds that with a little bit of knowledge about food safety, you can successfully navigate the street carts “to make a wise choice.”

5 Discover farmers’ markets

Farmers’ markets sell more than dirt-coated tomatoes these days. In fact, when you’re on a budget, farmers’ markets can become your best friends. In addition to crisp fruit, fresh-squeezed juices, and homemade baked goods, “you can get food from local chefs,” says Cheryl. “At a farmers’ market in Ithaca, New York, we tried ethnic food we had never had before, including delicious Thai curry and Mexican breakfast burritos, and it was cheap.” Even better, many farmers’ markets also offer entertaining glimpses at local culture at a minimal cost, including live music and independent vendors selling everything from scarves to lip balm to pottery.

6 Don’t go to the formal place

Tight travel budgets leave no room for lacy tablecloths and polished silverware. But don’t despair; there are ways to find the best local food without breaking the bank. In Boston, lobster could easily cost over $30 at a four-star restaurant. But when Cheryl went, she found another option in a small-scale local business: the Hingham Lobster Pound. “We knew we could afford lobster at the lobster pound.” For a fraction of the price, Cheryl and her family dined on fresh, delicious lobster at a nearby park. And their unconventional eating arrangement only added to the experience.

—Christina Johnson and Hillary Mousley