Traveling can be expensive, and for Americans visiting Europe our dollar doesn’t go as far as it used to, with the current exchange rates being what they are. But don’t despair. Food costs in many places in Europe are far lower than in the states. In fact, I find that I can eat for less in Europe than back home in Seattle. Here are a few tips for keeping meal expenses down while still allowing you to enjoy great local food.
In Europe many hotels and hostels offer a breakfast buffet for a small charge. Sometimes it is already included in the room rate. In Germany it’s known as fruhstuck, and the quality and variety of food you’ll get make it a great value. A typical breakfast will be buffet style and includes fresh local cheese, meats, hearty bread, eggs and fruit. When I’m in Germany I make this my biggest meal of the day. This is both cost-effective and healthy… there’s plenty of time to burn off those calories walking!
Many restaurants in Europe offer a daily lunch special for around 10 Euros. In Spain it is called the menu del dia and typically includes a glass of wine, beer or a bottle of sparking water, a first course, main course and dessert. In Germany look for the taglich mittagstisch. Restaurants that cater to locals are typically more authentic, and the prices will be lower than a menu aimed at tourists. Pay attention to where workers head to eat during the weekday lunch rush, and join them for some great deals.
Not in the mood for a restaurant, or a full meal? Grab one of the ready-made sandwiches that are sold everywhere from vendors at street stalls, food shops, and in train stations. You can choose from high-quality bread, meat, cheese and vegetable options for under 5 Euros. Great ice cream is also available in the warmer months, in delicious flavors like citron, straciatella and pistachio for about 1 Euro per scoop. I confess, I have no problem putting away a scoop per day when I’m in Europe in the summertime. A sweet treat in Brussels is the wonderful Liège waffel, starting at 1 Euro. And no trip there is complete without trying some frites, those famous twice-fried potatoes which the Belgians have perfected! If you’re in the Netherlands in the spring, try the raw herring, known as Matjes or Hollandse Nieuwe. Eat these the way the locals do, holding it above you and tipping your head back as you lower it bite by bite. And don’t forget the great ethnic food you can get in Europe, like shawarma, falafel, and doner.
Beer is also very affordable in many places in Europe, usually just a Euro or two, depending on the country. You’ll pay slightly more than that for a glass of wine, but nowhere near the $6-$10 per glass you would pay in the states for equal quality. In Spain’s wine-growing Rioja region, a glass of crianza, a barrel aged red wine, can go for less than a Euro per glass. Mixed drinks will cost more, so you’ll save if you order what the locals drink. When in Rioja I like red wine, and in Cologne I love a refreshing glass of Kolsch. Tap water is typically not offered in restaurants, but when dining in France, it’s required for restaurants to provide a free carafe of tap water if you ask. Simply ask for “une carafe d’eau, s’il vous plait”.
A quick note about tipping in Europe: In most places it is not customary or necessary to tip. You can round-up to the next Euro if you liked the service, but it’s not required to tip 15-20%, as it would be back home in the states. Check out a guide to tipping customs like this one from the Savvy Backpacker for country specific information. A big part of learning about a new culture is trying local foods, and being on a budget doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy dining out when visiting Europe.