Straight-up Travel Tips - vol. 1 - Cheap Eats

In this, the first edition of Straight-up Travel Tips, I'm talking about eating on the cheap while enjoying the best local culture has to offer.

You want your funds to last, but if you're anything like me, you're staying in a hostel and there's no way to cook, which is often the cheapest way to eat.  (The most I've gotten in a hostel is a microwave in the common room, or an electric kettle in the room)  The leaves three main options: prepared foods from the local grocer, fresh fruits and veg from local markets, and eating out.

Stopping by local grocers can be a lot of fun if you're looking to some insight into the local culture.  Depending on where you're traveling a local market can look totally different from one in your home town.  In Europe you can't find a cold soda to save your life, while in China you can pick up pickled crabs on a lark.  There may be places you can pick up a lark on a lark, but I haven't been there.  Even if you don't end up buying anything, check out the markets to see how different (and often, how similar) they are to the ones you grew up with.

Crabs at an airport quick stop.  Shanghai, China.

Next choice is the outdoor markets you can find in most cities.  These can be fun, but don't get ripped off.  You can always compare prices between stalls, and when you're ready to buy, make sure to hand the shop owner the fruits and veggies you have picked out yourself.  If you just point, often the owner will grab less-than-fresh produce from behind the counter, and when you open your bags you'll find nothing but past-ripe and overly bruised offerings.  Be polite, but firm.  Try to drop by these markets daily to get your five fruits and veg, traveling is no fun when you're sick.

Outdoor market in Hong Kong.

The last choice, when you get tired of apples and pre-packaged snack cakes, you're going to want someone to cook for you, which leads to eating out.  This can get expensive if you're stopping at sit-down restaurants every night.  So look for some good eats out on the street.  Street food may seem seedy, but a lot of street vendors use gloves and good food handling practices, you just have to keep your eyes sharp.  Also, if you want to find a really good place, look for lines of locals.  If the locals are willing to wait in line for an eatery, it's a good bet you'll like what you find.  

I got two rolls of sushi made to order for less than $2US.

Sometimes the food you find on the street won't be so inviting.  I say buck up and try it. When in Rome.  Now, sometimes the Roman diet doesn't agree with you, but you might be surprised what you find that you love.  In Beijing I found out that scorpions are delicious, and taste rather like popcorn.  Even if you aren't the world's biggest foodie, try something new.  Part of traveling is experiencing other cultures and traditions.  Even though you can find a McDonalds almost anywhere in the world, it's not worth it to stick to what you know.  If you stick to what you know, you might as well stay at home.