If I had a free 24 hours (no strings attached, no commitments), I’d be eating the entire time.
Seriously, I’d just eat and eat and eat and be a Jughead Jones’ style bottomless pit. But (as I learned at University) restaurant bills can add up very quickly.
In my early days of traveling, I’d dine at places like McDonald’s, Denny’s, and Chipotles (mostly Chipotle) to save money for attractions. I always thought it was a one or the other deal.
It’s not. I’m really glad I don’t do that anymore because I seriously love eating out while traveling. Experiencing local cuisine is one of my favorite ways to get to know a culture.
So today, I’ll be dishing out all my favorite restaurant hacks (pun completely intended – I have no shame). Let’s get started.
Arrive At Happy Hour
For the longest time, I thought happy hour was reserved for drinks. In reality, most pubs, bars, and fine-dining restaurants offer certain menu items for less as well (between 2-4 PM). While most of the dishes on discount are appetizers, you can sometimes also snag an entree for half off.
Try Weekday Lunchboxes
Most Asian, Eastern European, and African restaurants in the United States offer a lunch box special. During weekdays (for a short span of time), you can pick up a combo meal for less than the normal price of an entree.
Unfortunately, there’s not really much choice with lunchbox specials (usually one vegetarian and one non-vegetarian option). But if you want to taste-test a restaurant, it’s a great way to save money.
Sign Up For All The Delivery Services
I’m not loyal to any delivery app. Let’s be honest, I only care about the discounts.
Most delivery apps offer a first-time use discount that ranges between $5 to $15 (I once bought two Halal Guys combo bowls for $6 using this hack). Now, these discounts aren’t listed on the apps so I use Retail Me Not to find the coupons instead. One small note though, some of the promo codes aren’t valid or are referral links. You just have to be patient when sifting through.
I also follow DoorDash on Twitter and am signed up for email alerts from GrubHub.
Short list of USA delivery services:
- PostMates (note: you can only enter one valid promo code per purchase so if you find something better, you can’t override it)
Don’t Order Hot Chocolate Unless There Are Different Flavors Available
The number of times I’ve ordered hot chocolate at a local cafe and received Swiss Miss in a cup is astounding.
I’ve actually lost count.
My current rule of thumb is check for multiple flavors. If a cafe is willing to offer mint hot chocolate, cinnamon hot chocolate, or even something as simple as white hot chocolate, they probably make it from scratch (or at the very least, use a pump).
At Family-Run Restaurants, Ask The Server About Their Favorite Menu Item
If a business is family run, ask the staff about their favorite menu items. I’ve noticed that most family-run establishments don’t care about making a quick buck but instead look for long-time customers. The staff will happily (and passionately) tell you about most menu items. When you try to build a bond with the wait staff, you’ll often get nicer service (and that’s always a plus) and occasionally, larger portions.
Know This Popular Restaurant Menu Trick And Don’t Fall For It
There are a lot of cuisines around the world that I’m obsessed with. But for countries I’ve never been to, there is one easy way to tell whether a restaurant is authentic or not: the menu.
Authentic restaurants will never try to sell to you how “ethnic” their food is. They state the country once but not within the individual dishes (unless a distinction needs to be made). They don’t use cheap psychological marketing to get you to pay more.
I’ll give you an example. There’s a local Italian restaurant near where I live (or used to live) and the owner is from Northern Italy (he doesn’t know much English, barely has customers, but is an extremely talented cook and one of the nicest men I’ve ever met). On his menu, he sells Bruschetta, which he describes as “toasted bread, tomatoes, black olives, onions, basil”.
Another Italian restaurant I went to around the same area (owned by a chef with no Italian roots and a culinary background in Mid-Atlantic cooking) was bustling, lively, and full. Why? The menu describes Bruschetta as “Italian toasted bread, Tuscan tomatoes, and Mediterranean olives”. The food was terrible and completely burnt.
But the menu description had led people to believe that this was authentic Italian cooking. Sigh.
The first restaurant’s menu (although a million moons better) sounds like something you can make at home and the second restaurant’s menu sounds exotic. It’s a trick used all the time and I’m so glad I no longer fall for it. I’ve found the best hole-in-the-wall places by deliberately avoiding menus that have over-the-top juicy descriptions.
Don’t Fall For This Menu Trick Either
Another menu trick restaurants use is the pricing design. A lot of restaurants do one of the following so you don’t pay attention to pricing:
- don’t show the dollar sign (or currency symbol) next to the number
- don’t add the number of cents (so it blends in better with the text)
- make price font smaller
- mix the prices (expensive and inexpensive) together so it becomes a hassle to look for the cheapest option
- make the cheapest option hard to find
- highlight medium priced deals so you think you’re getting a discount
In other words, take your time with the menu. It’s okay to ask the staff to give you a few more minutes to decide.
Be Nice To The Wait Staff
Being a waiter or waitress is a tough gig. Many of my close friends have worked as wait staff at local restaurants and cafes.
For the most part, it is a tiring, thankless job. Trust me, a smile, some friendly banter, and genuine niceties goes a long way.
Buy Groceries If You’re Traveling Long Term
If you’re traveling long term, buying groceries can sometimes be a better option. Make a nice picnic lunch, visit the cutest park in town, and eat to your heart’s content.
If you’d like to give back to the community you’re visiting, try to find a local urban market.
Find Hotels That Include Free Breakfast
Several hotels offer an inclusive complimentary breakfast. Often times, these are budget hotels so it’s a win-win situation.
Some hotels offer a free breakfast for only two (with an access card) so know what the rules are beforehand.
Ask The Hotel Staff About The Best Restaurant In Town
Motels and budget hotels always have the best restaurant recommendations. When I spent a night in Stafford (near Houston), the owner told me about a small Indian restaurant just down the street.
Nukkad Dhaba wasn’t the kind of restaurant I would normally enter – small, low lit, and in an empty area. But it had the most authentic butter chicken I’ve tasted since my last visit to India.
Hotel staff (especially budget hotel owners that don’t have an on-site restaurant) always know what’s cheap and good in town.
Travel Tip: Don’t pay too much attention to Yelp. They only give you the most search engine optimized results (not always the best ones).
If The Restaurant Has “Vegan” In The Title, It’s Probably Overpriced
I’ve tried to be vegan full-time and failed miserably so I have a great appreciation for people who are committed to that lifestyle choice.
I always try to eat one vegan meal whenever I travel. When I first started doing this, I immediately defaulted to restaurants that had the word vegan in the title. What I noticed was that most restaurants that were non-vegan but vegan-friendly (open to adapting menu items, have vegan menu items alongside meat items) were a lot cheaper.
It’s all a matter of competition. If a place is not known for vegan options, the prices at a purely vegan restaurant will be higher.
So if you’re traveling and are interested in trying vegan food, Google search “vegan-friendly” restaurants in the area instead of traditional vegan restaurants.
Gorge On Street Food
I love eating street food. Five tacos for two dollars? Yes, please. Street food is some of the cheapest, greasiest filling eats you can find.
In America, most food trucks do not sell reasonably priced street food. So when I refer to street food in the US, I’m talking about local gas station vendors (like Fuel City Tacos in Dallas), pop-up stands, and shanty booth food.
Try Sampler Plates
Sampler plates have a little bit of everything on the menu. They hit all the most popular dishes in one meal. They normally go one of two ways: extremely tiny portions or extremely huge portions. Depending on what I’m seeing ordered around me, I sometimes hedge my bets with these.
Eat Food Made With In-Season Ingredients
Meals made with in-season ingredients (especially at farm-to-table restaurants) are usually cheaper. What’s in-season depends on which city you’re in and the current climate. So always do a quick search before your trip and try to spot dishes that are made of mostly those ingredients.
Did you enjoy this restaurant hacks post? What is your favorite hack? Let me know in the comments below!