There’s no doubt that when you travel, food can take up a big chunk of your budget. And the United Kingdom isn’t one of the cheapest places to keep body and soul together while on the move. Here’s my collection of the best travel hacks to eat well for less while exploring the United Kingdom.
1. Choose your Accommodation carefully
If you love hotels, try and choose one that has a good breakfast deal. Many hotels now have a lot of choices, whether that’s continental style with fruits, cold meats and cheese, plus breads and pastries, or the traditional Full English. The latter is particularly rib-sticking and can set you up for a full day of exploration.
If self catering or hostels are your thing, you can save lots of cash by preparing some of your meals yourself. Check out the facilities carefully before you go to know what will be feasible once you’re there. We’ve stayed in places with all sorts of self-catering options, from just a microwave and fridge to a fully equipped kitchen, complete with dishwasher and more gadgets than at home.
The Full English Breakfast. You can get plenty of vegetarian versions, some vegan ones, and smaller options containing some of the ingredients, like beans and mushrooms on toast.
2. Redefine your thoughts on fine dining
If you are someone for whom food is fuel, then many of the economies for dining out will come naturally to you. But if you are a bit of a foodie, then sometimes economies come with all sorts of compromises on the kinds of foods that make you happy. For foodie budget travelers, don’t despair, as there are lots of suggestions below.
Think about the food experiences you want to have at your destination, and plan your visit around them. Then you will have highlights to balance your trip. It’s then easier to think of some of the other options available as less of a compromise, as they are funding your priorites. It’s always worth reminding yourself that some of life’s eating pleasures are often really unexpected and inexpensive. I still remember a big bag of pears, bought roadside on the Col De Tende and still icy. I ate the last blushing beauty somewhere south of Milan.
Traditional British Toad In The Hole – you might be lucky enough to find some in a cafe, or else find it as a ready meal. It’s made of sausages in batter, and is a real warmer on a chilly day.
3. Choose one meal of the day as your main meal
Whether it’s a massive brunch or a fine dinner, it’s helpful to pick one meal as the main focus for that day. It’s good to factor that in to the other things you have planned for the day, so you don’t find yourselves tired, hangry and making choices that may not be ideal.
One great hack is to consider lunch rather than dinner if you want more of a gourmet experience. Many places that would be eye-wateringly expensive by night are much more reasonably priced at lunchtime. You may also avoid the crowds, and still experience the great food and service that makes the experience memorable.
4. Pick Your Location to Eat Well For Less
If you’re thinking of dining on a budget, you already recognise that you probably won’t be eating on the main squares and streets. Nor will you be in any restaurant that has a persuasive caller outside trying to beckon you in. Nor will the menu come in many different languages.
There are a number of places I’m always keen to eat on a budget. Student areas are great for cosmopolitan, interesting dining at decent prices. Anywhere that has a local community focused on food from another country is also a brilliant place to find delicious food for less.
Even within the UK, you’ll see marked differences in the prices of similar food in different locations, especially once you are outside London. It would be wrong and over-simplistic to say that there is a north/south divide in prices. Yorkshire, beautiful and well-traveled as it is, has always seemed to us to be more expensive than its lovely neighbour Lancashire. Even within areas that have many visitors, such as the Lake District, you’ll find marked variations in pricing between the places that are generally more traveled, such as the east side of Windermere, than the westerly destinations.
Beautiful, bargainous lunchtime specials at Smatt’s Duo Bistro in Sedburgh
5. Do your research
All of this leads me nicely into suggesting that you do your research beforehand. If there are particular dining experiences you’d like to have in the United Kingdom, then knowing what’s available is great. It will also lead you to lower cost options that could be great choices.
For foodies heading to Birmingham, for example, renowned chef Glynn Purnell’s bistro has a prix fixe menu with three courses that is also available for an early dinner on most weeknights. You can eat in the bar at Gingers to try out his highly rated cooking for less.
So I’d suggest coming with that kind of information to hand. A list of a few places you’d really love to try, plus a few cheaper meal options will give you a great start anywhere you decide to travel.
6. Eat Well for Less by Asking the locals
This is always a way to find brilliant recommendations. Instead of asking people whose experience is focused around what travelers have asked, such as a hotel concierge, try asking people you meet and get chatty with. We’ve found vegetarian restaurants we didn’t know existed, special brunches and even new locations for street food stalls.
And ask people about their favourite meals too. My bank manager let me in on her best local supplier for all kinds of spices and ingredients. Prowling social media for particular hashtags or blog recommendations has sent us to so many great places to eat.
If you are going to be catering for yourselves at least part of the time, then supermarkets are a great option for basics and even interesting local food. The prices charged in supermarkets vary for the same things, and also vary by location; you’ll often pay more at a small city centre branch than you would at a suburban branch of the same chain.
In the UK, the main names are Tesco, Sainsbury, Morrisons and Asda. Waitrose and Budgens are smaller and have more niche and locally produced foods. Aldi and Lidl are the prominent bargain chains. Most of the main names also have a big counter for lunch items from salads to sandwiches, pastries, fruits and drinks. If the quantities aren’t too enormous for your needs, always buy salad and fruit from the greengrocer section rather than the lunch shelves; it will be less expensive.
Bigger supermarket branches have cafes for inexpensive meals and snacks. Here you can get everything from an English breakfast to lunchtime salads, snacks and a selection of hot dishes. The same also applies to department stores. The Birmingham branch of House of Fraser, for instance, has three places to eat: the rooftop cafe, a smaller cafe with deli-style offerings on the second floor and a bar with bar food on the first floor.
In addition to supermarkets, many other shops sell lunchtime takeout food. Chemists, like Boots and Superdrug, sell sandwiches, sushi, fruit and snacks.
8. Food Markets
Note that I didn’t say Farmers’ Markets. While the United Kingdom still has some fine and delicious Farmers’ Markets, they can be difficult to visit for the traveler. Many happen on one particular date, such as the first Thursday of the month, making them less easy to plan to visit without research.
Food markets, on the other hand, are more often open daily, or at least on several days in each week. Here you can find fruit, salad and veggies at really great prices, and able to be purchased in quantities that fit your needs. Some food markets have really local produce, and there’s nothing like the pleasure of fresh goodies in season, whether Pershore plums, Worcester apples or asparagus from the Vale of Evesham.
When you’re researching, think farm shops too. If you are on a road trip, farm shops can give you great supplies. There’s one – Hillers – near Alcester in Warwickshire, where seasonal fruit and veg comes from the farm and nearby producers, plus meat from the Ragley estate next door. Late summer will see you gorging on more perfect soft fruit than you could imagine.
You may have gathered from my recommendations of places to buy ingredients that I’m a great fan of the picnic. Here are some places to buy your stash:
- supermarkets – for picnic cutlery and any necessary wrappings, ingredients, chilled drinks, ready prepared salads, sandwiches and even sushi
- bakeries – from filled rolls to breads, cakes, baked savouries such as Cornish pasties, sausage rolls, hot breakfast pastries
- markets – breads, sandwich fillings (ask for things like cheese to be cut if they’re not too busy), fruit, salads, cakes
- chemists – for drinks, snacks, even prepared sandwiches and salads
As for choosing a picnic spot, the world’s pretty much your oyster when it’s dry and warm. There are lots of places that you might not think of as a picnic spot but happen to become one. The greens around the cathedral in places like Birmingham and Exeter turn into dejeuner sur l’herbe come summer, and you’ll definitely meet all the locals.
Also think of harbour walls, on the beach or in a beach hut, sheltering under a rocky outcrop on the moors, on a river bank, and even parked up by some rolling countryside on a chilly day. In some spots, it’s perfectly fine to bring a disposable barbeque if that’s your thing. There are picnic tables in locations you wouldn’t expect, like beside the Grand Union Canal at Hatton Locks, or on top of wild Yarningdale Common nearby. Many open air concerts and plays also allow you to bring a picnic, so you could get your Shakespeare fix along with your own choice of meal.
In winter, a hire car can provide a room with a view, and you can pick up some takeout soup or a warm pie to make life more cozy. If you’ve had a massively busy day, I can also recommend the room picnic by night; spread out your best deli collection, pour a glass of something lovely, and recall all your best memories of happy travels.
10. Chain restaurants and bars
You may not get a gourmet experience in chain restaurants and bars, but we’ve had good food in many. And some offer a chance to try out a few English traditions too. You’ll find carvery restaurants on many routes into and out of towns and cities, which offer great options to the hungry road tripper. Toby Carveries, for example, offer a choice of roast – turkey, beef, gammon or pork, with Yorkshire puddings and as many different vegetables as you can fit on a plate for under £10. There are veggie options too.
For chains at reasonable prices, we’d suggest Nando’s (Piri Piri), Pho (Vietnamese), and Handmade Burger (which has lots of offers – check the back of your parking ticket, as this will sometimes give you 2 burgers for the price of 1).
11. Independent Restaurants and Bars
Here’s where that local knowledge comes in. There are so many great places to explore that are not part of a chain. And many are local secrets, so do ask away. People are only too happy to boost the success of places they love by letting you know all about them. We’ve been so pleased to share places that we’ve found and loved such as:
- Working Together in Ludlow, a community cafe with charming staff and scrummy cakes
- The glorious Smatt’s Duo Bistro in Sedburgh on the edge of the Lake District – every little detail was gorgeous in their lunches
- Bensons restaurant and tea rooms in Stratford-upon-Avon – great food at good prices in a location that can be expensive (just opposite Shakespeare’s Birthplace)
- the aforementioned Hillers near Ragley Hall in Alcester. Seriously great home cooking with a ham salad that my nan could have made (and that’s a massive compliment indeed)
- The Bartons Arms in Aston, Birmingham. Real beer, delicious Thai food and the most splendid stained glass and tile surroundings.
- Fremington Quay Cafe on the Tarka Trail in North Devon. Incredible local produce including cheese and crab and a magnificent view.
- Cherry Reds in Birmingham – retro settings and crockery, healthy and delicious homecooked food, plus a great drink selection
There are way more than I could list without taking over a whole website. But do see what’s out there; you’ll find great food and drinks that don’t cost a fortune.
12. Happy Hour
The concept of happy hour is still very much alive and well here. And even more happily, it often extends to food as well as drink. So if you’ve got plans to see a show that night, or even to hunker down early after an exhausting day exploring, a happy hour can be a brilliant way to drink for less.
Craft beer, known as real ale in the UK, is a big thing. I’ve mentioned some of the places to find real beer here, such as the Post Office Vaults in Birmingham. Here you’ll find local, regional and international beers at reasonable prices, plus a collection of traditional ciders.
Bar prices across the UK have both regional and local variations. As you would expect, you’re often paying more to eat and drink in the centre of towns and cities. But that isn’t always the case. The Wellington, right in the centre of Birmingham, has a long list of great beers. But it also has a fantastic policy whereby you can bring your own food. So everything from takeout to supermarket buys are most welcomed – just tidy up after yourselves.
13. Street Food
There’s so much been written about street food that you’ll already have this on your radar for budget options with flair. Check out the best local street food for where you are headed. There are tons of options in the big cities like London, Birmingham (where I’m a big fan of Vegan Grindhouse) and Manchester.
Don’t forget the UK’s traditional street food when you’re considering your grub on the go. From pie’n’mash in London, to Cornish pasties (superb warm from the shop and eaten straight out of the bag on the beach) to Cromer crab sandwiches in Norfolk, there’s so much to try and enjoy.
Crispy and crunchy: fish and chips
Don’t forget to grab some fish and chips too. In my youth this came straight from a newspaper (an early form of recycling our papers to the local chippy), but they’re now in a flat parcel. And you can dispute what the little bits of extra crispiness that fell off the fish are called. I say scriblings (Devon). Husband (Black Country) says batters. Either way, we say delicious.
And when to splurge
Budget travel and economies are great. It helps you to travel, and to travel more frequently. But along with these economies, sometimes you want a special experience, whether it’s to taste the work of a chef you admire, or to try a particular cuisine. Go for it!
When you’re eating a perfectly pleasant but not stunning meal on the road, it can be a little disappointing. And it might feel like a bit of a travel fail; after all, isn’t travel meant to be about maximising every experience? But I firmly believe that not only can you eat well for comparatively little in the UK, but that every competent meal helps you to budget for those experiences that will have you starry eyed.
Exploring the United Kingdom
I hope that by now you’re totally ready to eat well for less on your trip to the United Kingdom. If you’re here on a budget, find out more about affordable travel here, and about how to get your holiday funds together. We’ve also got lots of recommendations for you for all parts of England from her hidden travel treasures to some of her literary landscapes. Then we’ve visited many counties, cities, national parks and beaches. Check out the Britain tab in the sidebar to find lots more locations we’ve explored.
If this made you hungry, why not pin it for later!