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Mar 05

Tips to Saving Money When Self-Catering

In our last post on What Things Cost Around the World, we compared the dockets of our Price Check shopping lists from some 24 destinations we stayed at around the world on our yearlong grand tour. Our goal was to give self-catering travellers who like settling into places for a while an idea of what groceries cost in the destinations we visited.

During our trip, some readers of our Price Check series pointed out that there were cheaper supermarkets than the ones we shopped in a few of the cities we stayed, that Whole Foods was the most expensive supermarket in the USA, that markets are cheaper than supermarkets, and so on.

While some of these things (though not all) are true, as I explained in our methodology in the last post, we chose quality over price, and wherever possible, bought free-range and organic produce from an identifiable farm or supplier, which is nearly always going to be more expensive. There were ways that we could have reduced the cost of our grocery bills on our travels, so in this post I’m going to provide some tips as to how you can do so on your next trip, along with some general shopping advice for self-caterers.

12 TIPS TO SAVING MONEY WHEN SELF-CATERING

1. Stay out of the tourist zone – grocery stores, mini-marts and supermarkets in city centres, especially near hotels and sights, are nearly always going to be more expensive than supermarkets in residential suburbs, so choose your holiday rental location carefully if you’re on a tight budget or are simply planning to shop and eat in a lot.

2. Choose everyday ’burbs over hip ’hoods – even when you get out of the tourist zone, you’ll find that you’ll pay significantly more for groceries in affluent areas than you will in ordinary suburbs. In Istanbul, we discovered that the prices at Kadıköy markets on the Asian side were far cheaper than the supermarkets closest to us in cool Cihangir.

3. Do your research – before you do that first major shop to stock the fridge and cupboard, find out where the locals shop. Ask around or simply compare the prices of a few basic items in different supermarkets and grocery stores.

4. To market or supermarket? – generally local markets, especially farmers’ markets, are where you’ll find the freshest produce, because you’re often buying direct from the producer and cutting out the middle men. But markets might be the cheapest places to shop in cities like Venice and Paris, they won’t always be in places such as Marrakech, where there’ll be different prices for locals and tourists. (The reason why that is warrants a separate post.)

5. Market tips – in destinations like Marrakech, get a local to introduce you to their favourite stalls (and stallholders!) the first time you shop to avoid being over-charged. At most markets, the stalls with the long lines or that sell out of their stuff earliest are generally the best. The freshest and finest produce sells out early, however, close to closing time stallholders will often slash prices to get rid of produce.

6. Supermarket tips – if you’re renting a place for a couple of weeks, pick up the flyers advertising ‘specials’, just as you might at home, and find out if there’s one day or night of the week when prices are reduced. In many cities we found that it’s a Thursday night to get rid of stock before the weekend. In some places (such as small European towns, like Ceret), this is because the supermarket closes at noon on Saturday and all day Sunday, while elsewhere (in Edinburgh, for example), it’s because the weekend is the busiest time and new stock comes in on Friday.

7. Price versus quality – better quality products, including global ‘name’ brands like Twinings tea and Lavazza coffee, are always going to be more expensive than no-name local brands, however, the cheapest cuts of meat can sometimes result in the tastiest dishes, such as this oxtail stew.

8. Buy local – local products, such as local teas, coffees, jams, etc, will always be cheaper than imported products, because of the shorter distance they’ve travelled and fewer taxes and duties on them; sometimes they taste better, sometimes they don’t, but buying ‘local’ is more sustainable and affordable.

9. Drink local – while we make it a habit of drinking whatever the locals drink – from caiparinhas in Rio de Janeiro to homemade liqueurs in Krakow – we like to drink wine with dinner, yet in places such as Bali, where wine is outrageously priced, you’re better off sticking to beer. If you can cope without your favourite tipple you’ll save money by downing whatever the locals drink.

10. Factory versus free-range – we only buy free-range products and mostly buy organic produce, for ethical reasons and because we don’t want to consume too many chemicals and other crap. These products are always going to be more expensive, but that’s the price we pay. You can shop for less, if you don’t.

11. Bargain if you can – at markets, do haggle for the best price if it’s the local custom, but don’t even think about it if it’s not! Watch what other shoppers are doing.

12. Do as the locals do – we rented our first apartment in Venice 12 years ago and have been shopping the Rialto markets for fresh seafood, fruit and veg ever since. We learnt during that first stay that the best-priced produce is to be found at whichever stall the little old Venetian ladies with their push-carts are crowded around, while the finest produce can be had from wherever you see suave guys in suit jackets with big wads of cash – usually restaurant owners.

11 comments

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  1. Valerie McTavish

    Great tips – we love to self-cater (kinda have to since I’m a gluten-free vegetarian). I’ve got another one for you…travel with tupperware. We hate throwing out food when we’ve cooked too much. A couple of plastic containers help keep food fresh until the next meal or when you want to take it on a picnic. Two little ones that fit together do the trick and don’t take up too much room. We also travel with our favourite spices so that we aren’t constantly having to buy what we need for each meal.

    1. Lara Dunston

      Travelling with tupperware is a super suggestion actually – even one container. I’ve often thought that over the last 12 months as many apartments/houses we stayed in didn’t have plastic containers to store leftovers, and like you, Terence would often cook a little too much (no doubt thinking of my healthy appetite) and we’d often have leftovers we’d waste cause we also eat out a lot.

      Terence also travels with a basic kitchen kit (inc. a good knife, spatula etc), good salt and pepper, and we’ll often gather spices etc along the way. Can’t take them everywhere of course, but we’ll leave them in one of the rentals if we’re about to get a flight.

      We did this post that might interest you http://grantourismotravels.com/2010/05/19/with-holiday-rentals-the-little-things-make-a-difference/ on the little things that make a difference in holiday rentals, but I’m going to do follow-up post, as more things have come to mind since that one. Any more ideas you have for that post are most welcome!

      Thanks for dropping by!

    2. Kay Funk

      I have taken to putting some gallon ziplock freezer bags in my suitcase for those pesky leftovers! We also take cloth bags to carry groceries.

  2. Anne

    Markets are rarely cheaper than the supermarket in Paris.

    1. Lara Dunston

      See 1) & 2) – in Paris, like most cities, it depends on the neighbourhood you’re living in – markets in the working class areas are cheapest. Try:
      * the MidEast Barbès market on Rue Poulet (18th) & African Dejean Market on rue Dejean (also in 18th), both most definitely cheaper than local supermarkets – and with beautiful fresh produce and herbs and spices
      * Batignolles Market (17th) – a big buzzy covered market that’s excellent, with great specialty shops too, not too far from Montmartre/Pigalle; there’s also the Organic (Bio) market here on Saturdays on Boulevard des Batignolles on the median strip
      * La Chapelle Market (18th), rue de l’Olive & rue Lemercier – a small but lively local market with local prices
      * the covered Marché Beauveau and outside market on Place d’Aligre (12th) – long been two of the most affordable close to the centre
      * Marché Convention (15th), Rue de la Convention, bet. Rue Alain Chartier and Rue de l’Abbé Groult near Metro Convention – a local morning market on 3 mornings a week; we used to go here when we stayed at a friend’s apartment on Rue de Vaugirard & it was wonderful & cheap; def. off tourist trail

  3. Kieron

    Thanks for sharing this Lara – we’re going to be doing a lot of our own cooking on our RTW and these tips are extremely helpful.

    Do you have any specific tips for saving money in the US/Canada?

    1. Lara Dunston

      Hi Kieron – sorry, guys, missed this one. Thanks!

      The tips above come from our year on the road, which included a month in the USA (we haven’t been to Canada yet – only to its airports!), so you could also click on ‘New York’ and ‘Austin’ under our destinations list for more ideas.
      * try to get out of the major tourism destinations, and when you’re in them, rent apartments in more off-the-beaten-track locations rather than the city centre.
      * eat out just once a day, and shop the local markets and cook in for your other two meals.
      * eat in local neighbourhood eateries rather than destination restaurants; lunches and mid-week evenings are often cheapest, when some restos offer cheap business lunches.
      * take advantage of cheap ‘happy hour’ drinks when you feel like hitting a bar or pub.
      * seek out free stuff to do – kick back in local parks, find out when the free days/nights are at museums and galleries, look in local listings magazines for free events, etc.

      Enjoy!

  4. Bethany

    I’m so pleased to see your recommendations ~ especially 8-10. I’m a local and sustainable food enthusiast at home in Portland, Oregon, and my husband and I are looking forward to some time overseas in 2012. I’m eager to carry the same ethic into our shopping/cooking/dining habits while traveling, and I appreciate your practical suggestions. Cheers!

    1. Terence Carter

      Thanks Bethany. I wish we could have come to Portland, but Austin won out on the number of properties.

  5. bethany

    Great tips! Totally true about the grocery stores as well. The tip you discovered in Venice is perfect! I am definitely going to use that the next time I am out shopping in a new market. :)

    1. Lara Dunston

      Oh, I somehow missed this comment at the time – so sorry! – I’m eager to know if you have started following little old ladies and men with fat wallets around markets :)

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