How To Eat On The Cheap

by THE RUNAWAY on February 17, 2011

If you want to learn how to eat cheap or even free while on the road, you must have an open mind and a sauce made of hunger. It’s really not as hard as you may think though and you may actually form some habits, though not always legal ones, that could save you thousands when you return home.


Eat For Cheap

One of a travelers biggest expense is food. In this guide I will teach you the techniques that will enable you to cut your food costs and prolong your adventure indefinitely. The first section will covers some simple ways that you can enhance the value of your dollar. I will then introduce you to some strategies, albeit unorthodox ones, that could potentially eliminate your food expenses all together.

Let’s say you’re backpacking with a group of friends, all of whom are much better endowed financially than yourself. You have been hitting the town every night since your trip began and inevitably, your funds are beginning to dry out. Although you still have 3 weeks left, the last 300 dollars is threatening to cut that time in half. What do you do? Have an epic night out and reschedule your flight back home for the next day? Well, you could, or you could implement a few simple budget saving methods.

Though these tactics are fairly obvious, they are often overlooked. 1. Only buy food from supermarkets. Your best bet is to stock up on bread, chocolate, cheese and cold cuts. 2. Never buy food in the train station or other tourist traps. Prices here tend to be 30-40% higher than the rest of the world. 3. Simply try and cut back on your consumption. If you are still struggling with finances, the following methods will bring your food costs down to 0$.

Eat For Free

These next methods are reserved for the traveler whose not afraid to get a bit dirty. 1. Dumpster diving. Every market has very strict regulations when it comes to aging produce and meat. In the result, they are forced to dispose of myriad edible foods, on and sometimes even a few days before their expiration dates. What does this mean for you? If you’re willing to jump on in that dumpster, you may just find your self in Zagat heaven. Well, not quite that nice but nice enough if you’re starving. While you’re in the dumpster, carefully selecting and gathering food, keep on the look out for additional items that you might be able to resell or recycle. Flowers, cans, and bottles are always good finds. If you aren’t able to sell the flowers on the street, you can always use them to try and pick up a girl or guy, provided you’ve showered recently.

The next approach in your quest for complementary dishes is in some ways, depending on your perspective, a bit more unsanitary than the last. How could it be more unsanitary than getting up inside a dumpster you ask? 2. The buffet left overs. In some ways it isn’t as bad though because the food is still luke warm and you can chose which peoples leftovers you want to eat. Just wait till they place their unfinished plate on the rack in the corner and help your self! I would try and be discreet about this method though if you want to avoid a mix of sympathetic and disapproving stares. In the end though, you will really be amazed with what you can walk away with. I once managed an untouched hot dog and a full plate of fries. One of the best days of my journey!

Another method, similar to the last, is to ask 3. restaurant and cafe owners for their leftovers or expired foods. Many times these owners will be kind and let you help your self. And if they are really nice, they might even treat you to a proper meal. Similarly, you might even find a meal in the offer of a friendly local whose invited you to his/her home. These are often the best meals because the food is traditional and never in short supply.

The final and illegal option is to 4. steal. However, this is the least advisable option and should only be utilized as a last resort. Karma is real and when you steal food, more times than not you will end up with diarrhea or with several birds pooping on your head. True stories.

To sum up, if you’re not too strapped for cash, shop smart and eat less. If you’re starving, be savvy, hit the dumpster and stay positive, you never know when you might run into an old friend for the first time.

Good luck and safe travels


Ps. If you have ever utilized these techniques or have some of your own, I would love to hear about them. Feel free to post below.

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{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve April 4, 2014 at 4:12 pm

This all sounds great, but what do you do about water?


The Runaway Guide April 11, 2014 at 6:40 pm

That’s easy, I usually get myself a big water bottle and ask if restaurants will fill it up.


Walter February 12, 2014 at 7:37 am

if you guys are ever down in melbourne, Australia we have a restraunt called Lentils As Anything. where you pay as much as you can for the food, sometimes homeless people come and staff treat them with the same dignity as a paying customer. it is vegan food (for those concerned) but im certainly not complaining its incredible.


The Runaway Guide February 19, 2014 at 7:03 am

Hey! I’ve heard of your restaurant! I actually saw it on 5 takes pacific rim. I can’t wait to check it out!!!


Bat January 3, 2014 at 9:11 pm

One thing is at all you can eat places, bring extra containers and then take all you can.


The Runaway Guide January 13, 2014 at 4:05 pm

That’s a good idea. Tupperware is a great thing to travel with especially when you come across a buffet.


Luke Morstad April 29, 2013 at 4:08 pm

Another nice technique is hitting the food court at a nearby mall! People tend to leave many left overs on there trays just waiting for you! Pop a squat and enjoy yourself some nice left overs. When you finish that plate, scope out the next and repeat :)


The Runaway Guide May 3, 2013 at 12:39 pm

Nice, good tip Luke! Hope things are going good dude!


cam March 25, 2013 at 11:48 am

We’ve got honesty boxes up north leif! Rhode island


The Runaway Guide March 25, 2013 at 4:31 pm

Really! That’s great. To be honest, I’ve never really gone backpacking in the US ><. Maybe that’s my next adventure.


Bee February 5, 2013 at 7:57 am

^ Honesty boxes are usually on farms/side of the road, they have the eggs/fruit/bread there for you to take and leave a locked box for you to put your money in as no one is around to ‘watch’ the stall.


The Runaway Guide February 5, 2013 at 2:14 pm

Those sound so cool. I’ve never seen one. I’m guessing their mostly in the South and Mid West?


Hannah December 8, 2012 at 8:34 pm

these tips are epic!
usually you see tips for well off travellers, “try and eat at a roadside cafe instead of restaurants, youd be amazed at what you can save!’ oh would that i could.
My boyfriend and I live in pretty much the same way all of your tips describe, and we have just relaised the beauty of travel. on a fuckin shoestring!
1)Buying bread and stealing cheese/chocolate etc. and i dont feel guilty stealing from supermarkets, just never independant shops, although once a really awesome kiwi lady let us off with 2 free fish and chip dinners in new zealand provided we came and paid her the next day which we promised faithfully to do, whilst not looking at each other, and feeling really guilty cos we knew we werent, obviously we didnt enjoy doing that but a free fish and chip dinner is a free fish and chip dinner when you have little to no funds
2) dine and dash from chain restaurants. pizza hut-sit buy the door. or if you do decide to pay buy one pizza each and one unlimited salad, fill up tupperware boxes under your table and refil your water bottles under the table too! eat half your pizza each, fill up on salad and have them box up your pizza and you have a meal for later
bin diving, feels a bit scary when in foriegn countries, and ive yet to build up the courage to actually do that but we live off it at home.
3)buying a gas stove and buying off roadside vendors and the honesty boxes by farms and country houses. (i NEVER steal from honesty boxes or id be dammed in the karma stakes) buy eggs, avocados, tomatoes, fruit, potatoes, and make giant omelletes and salads for next to nothing.
4)fill up on hostel breakfasts and consider paying more for a hostel that serves breakfast. and steal the rolls for lunch. with your stolen cheese you dont even have to buy bread! pair that with your gas stove omellet, a big tub of fresh strawberries from a roadside vendor and youve got a nice lunch
5)we always fill our water up at petrol/gas stations, the little tap that is next to the air pressure machine i susually free.


The Runaway Guide December 11, 2012 at 7:24 pm

hahaha, yea, there are too many articles like that. Nice techniques! I never heard of honesty boxes, what are they exactly? Where are you traveling? -Leif


Cruiser December 3, 2012 at 10:30 pm

Also a good idea, if you don’t plan on getting a steady job..
Is to get into jail for short times in west european countries.

For example in the Netherlands being in Jail is like being in a hotel. Actually most jail go-ers over here have better food than the people that struggle with their job to make a living.


The Runaway Guide December 11, 2012 at 7:29 pm

Hahah, I love it. Jail treated me well in Greece, lots of gourmet greek food.
I can’t even imagine how nice it is in the Netherlands. Maybe I will try it ;)


Jonathan August 31, 2012 at 8:39 am

Got this idea from a rap song (Dead Prez – Hell Yeah) Order delivery food and rob the driver. If your REALLY hungry (and desperate) {Just wanted to add I don’t recommend stealing from anyone, but i would rather be in a jail eating food than lying on the floor dying of hunger.} Also maybe even carry seeds of quick growing edible foods, sit still for a few months… Having an understanding of the local edible plants (and consciously keeping an eye out for them) can help with money and hunger (and knowing the seasons for the plants).

Not that I really know, but I plan on traveling the world for cheap/free (out of necessity), so I watch a lot of Bear Grylls and Ray Mears (currently downloading a bunch of Ray Mears videos and books). This guide has given me some much needed confidence for cheap/free world travel. Thank you.
(I also love the site, great stuff) I hope you finish that book someday. Goodluck with your travels.


The Runaway Guide August 31, 2012 at 10:25 am

Haha, thats funny but nuts. I like your second Idea though, sit still for months :) Good stuff dude. Those guys are good role models. Thanks man, I’m going to keep building that site and get some good articles from people who also have experience traveling free. After your trip, maybe you can contribute. Cheers, Leif


Claire Walsh April 30, 2012 at 3:10 am

These are excellent techniquies, when I was in Thailand I lost all my cash and litteraly haggled a street food vendor to give me some spring rolls in exchange for a t-shirt I had. xx


The Runaway Guide May 1, 2012 at 11:40 am

haha, thats awesome. You gotta do what you gotta do. I remember I once traded my coat for a shish kebab and a coke in Turkey.


Smulen April 29, 2012 at 6:55 am

Well, in Norway there is this store called Kiwi. They have a durability guarantee that says; If you find something that expiers today or tomorrow you get it for free! What most people don’t know is that you don’t get the expierd product, but a new one for free! And if they don’t have what you need; the money for the product… In CASH! Also, if you find beer or tobacco products, then you get the cash back, since it’s illegal to give you these for free!

I spent 25 minutes in a Kiwi store and I found a lot!

I got cash for theese; 3 six-pack’s of beer, 4 packets of Skruf Potion.
And this I got a new product; 5 plates of chocolate, a packet of Oreos, 3 packs of Pringles, 300g beef, 3 packs of sliced cheese and a diet coke!

Though you may have to look for a while, you’ll most likely find something, and you just say that it’s expierd to the cashier and; cashing! Money or free new product! :D


The Runaway Guide May 11, 2012 at 5:50 pm

Oi, det er fantastisk. Takk. That’s great to know, next time I’m there, I’m definitely doing that!


Cruiser December 3, 2012 at 10:26 pm

Hey, I am usually working ona cruise ship, so not travelling alone. however I do visit quite some places.

I love norway, as also: Whenever you get thirsty…from most rivers and waterfalls it’s perfectly ok to drink the water. the locals even get their water from there instead of from the tap!


The Runaway Guide December 11, 2012 at 7:30 pm

Yea, everything is so crisp and clean in Norway you could probably eat food off of the street.


Maze McPunklet April 19, 2012 at 3:10 pm

I’m not travelling at the moment, but whether I’m at home or on the road, I’ve always relied on dumpster diving as means of survival. However, this has come back on me on one occasion. A while ago i was at home and struggling to get by, so to cut some expenses out of day to day life, i went into my local bins every couple of days. However, I would go at night so i never had a good view of what i was doing while in the bin. It’s dark in there. Anyway, I started to get ill. I thought it was maybe because I wasn’t getting enough iron or something. But as i got more and more sick, i ate less. There was a loaf of bread i’d found that hadn’t even gone out of date when i took out of the bin and after 2 days of not eating due to being sick, i went into my bread bin to find that it was all mouldy. It shouldn’t have been. I’d cleaned that bread tub a few days before. So i went to the bin, in daylight, to see what was going on. When i looked in, the bin has gotten mouldy. I mean, really mouldy. Turned out, they’d been delaying pick-ups for the rubbish by an extra few days for the previous weeks which meant all the food at the bottom of the bin had gone rotten, and the bin was more disgusting than usual.
Like i said, i got ill. Turned out (from eating mouldy foods and inhaling mould spores on a regular basis) I had gotten sinusitis and the infection had spread to my lungs. This explained why i couldn’t breathe. I was proper ill for weeks.

It hasn’t put me off dumpster diving. But the moral of this story?? If you go at night, take a torch and have a scope of the bin before climbing in. Check the expiration dates on the packets. Be careful of dairy/meat products. Anything vegan is usually fine. Be cautious of anything that looks like it’s been in there for a while. And if it’s raw fruit/veg, try and find a way of washing it!

Hope you find this story useful Xx


The Runaway Guide April 25, 2012 at 4:41 pm

Hey, thanks for sharing. This is definitely a good lesson.


Los Angeles March 13, 2012 at 11:17 am

Quick question, how can you tell if the food has bacteria and/or maggots on it? And what are the consequences for eating food like that?


The Runaway Guide March 14, 2012 at 9:06 pm

The best way , if you can’t see anything visibly wrong with it, is to simply sniff it. Trust your nose cause it can usually tell.


Steph December 31, 2011 at 10:49 am

In dowtown Portland (Or) they have these waterfountains on the sidewalks everywhere called ‘The Benson Bubblers’, if you’re down there looking for water.


John October 18, 2011 at 7:18 am

Many supermarkets have a section near the back with marked-down items that are old or damaged, with the UPC written over with a new price. Cashiers ring up these items using the new price no questions asked, so one can do this for any item.
If you can find an old CueCat or other cheap bar code scanner you can scan some inexpensive or generic item that you find in the trash and then print new UPC’s on sticker paper to stick onto goods at the market, be sure the description is close to what you are sticking or a sharp checker might bust you. Don’t try this scam too often with the same checker or at the same store in case the management starts looking for you.


John October 18, 2011 at 7:15 am

Another method is to enter a supermarket armed with shopping bags and a receipt(from said supermarket). Put what you want into a shopping cart. When you’ve got what you want, find a low traffic, low security area(The bedding section, garden center, discount aisle) and put your goods into the shopping bag(s). Then just walk right out(with the receipt in hand). If you’re stopped, hand them the receipt, they usually won’t take the time to check for each item. This works best during medium to peak business hours.


Katie North September 18, 2011 at 2:15 am

hello guys,
i ran away yesterday and came home an hour later, it was an decreasing experience and very exciting, i advise everyone to do it!!!!!! i am doing it again tonight for 2 hours this time WOW :O so if i come on the news then you’ll all know where i am. up the top of my street. love you all and safe journeys … p.s i you run away then i’ll meet you in manchester, much love run away friends xxxxxxxxx


Kia May 26, 2012 at 6:59 am

… Leaving the house for an hour isn’t running away. That’s going for a walk.


Michael James September 16, 2011 at 3:39 pm

I had a friend who would walk into a grocery store and fill up a cart and walk right out. He did it 100′s of times but got arrested 1 or 2 times and had to stay in jail for a few weeks. He also did dining and dashing. Though when I traveled with him we started a system where we got things cheap or for free from dumpster diving and sold on ebay and craigslist. That made enough for us to travel and eat. If your overseas you can often offer to teach english for room and board with a local family. It worked for me a few times. Also if you got some skills with website design or anything else you can offer that to local business for $$$ or food. There are so many options for bartering and making money anywhere one goes.


The Runaway Guide September 17, 2011 at 7:27 am

I had a friend who would do the same thing lol. Crazy guy. There definitely are a lot of opportunities to make money and ways to get by so you don’t starve while on the road. Thanks for sharing your experiences.


none September 15, 2011 at 4:14 am

another option is to eat in the supermarket but do it carefully away from employees so try to sneak it into the restroom. one way is to rip the bar codes off the food and hide it on you.


The Runaway Guide September 15, 2011 at 3:01 pm

those are some good but risky/illegal tricks. Gotta do what you gotta do to survive sometimes though


carebearz August 2, 2011 at 12:57 am

i noticed you never mentioned anything about water but ya where i live if you drink from the water in the lakes you get really sick so what do you do ya cant boil the water ethier bc of what you are doing so what would you do for water ?


The Runaway Guide August 6, 2011 at 2:39 pm

You’re right. I usually get water from restaurants. I just ask them if I can fill up my bottle and it’s usually ok with them.


ICJ - To pay is to fail. June 20, 2011 at 7:00 am

I’ve done it many a time.

Stuck in an airport waiting 24hours for a flight I had no money what so ever I managed to get an English bloke who had just arrived to buy me a meal, I asked him if he had any spare change, explained my plight and he was kind enough to buy me a hot much needed meal.

I’ve stole countless times, supermarkets are piss easy in europe, europe is very very naive and it’s extremely easy to do.


Leif June 20, 2011 at 10:29 am

People can be really kind. I found that the more poor the country the kinder the people. I think it’s because they know what it’s like to suffer. I have hit up the markets a few times but every time bad karma would follow me. Birds shitting on my head, people robbing me ect. Any run ins with karma for your self?


Adam May 21, 2011 at 12:17 am

When you are hungry, you just never know what you’ll do or what you’ll eat.


Vanilla Foehn March 2, 2011 at 10:48 pm

I travel around the country, living out of my van for a year for a project I call Leafless Diaries. It’s self-funded, so I’ve been living on the cheap since the start, 8.5 months ago.

I, at times, will ask restaurants just before close if they have anything they’re going to just throw away. This works well with bakeries of sorts, if they don’t have a deal with a local shelter.

One thing I’ve been having fun with as of late, and probably something every broke college student knows well, is trying a myriad of concoctions with a protein (such as canned tuna or hot dogs) and condiments. Over my time on the road, I’ve collected a buffet of various condiments, and I’ll tweet or Facebook my meals. And sure enough, I generally have those who have eaten something similar.

My favorite, however, if you’re really craving a warm meal on a budget, you can opt for asking the local gas station for use of their microwave, OR do what I do, and use your vehicle’s engine. I had a great tasting Thanksgiving meal last year because of this technique. Aluminum can be your best friend. :)


Shauna Miller January 22, 2014 at 12:35 am

Why not just check with the local government offices. Most areas have food banks or homeless shelters/soup kitchens.

Bakeries are great. Ask employees when they do their food turn around and ask if they could keep some of their throw always.

As far as drinks. Find a place that offers free refills. Buy one take away cup and go back to refill.


The Runaway Guide January 24, 2014 at 3:18 pm

Hey Shauna, that’s true. When I was in Southern France I used to get break fast and lunch at social services and dinner at the local church :)