The Joy and Practicality of Grocery Shopping Abroad

“Find out how other people live and eat and cook.”

Anthony Bourdain

One of the best ways to learn about a culture is through its most simple food. But a travel complaint we hear all the time is that eating out every day gets expensive. Yes it does. But what if we told you that eating in restaurants while traveling is unnecessary? Food can be one of the most controllable aspects of traveling. No matter where you are in the world, you can eat cheaply by shopping in grocery stores, in outdoor markets, and at street food stalls. And any of these options will end up being one of the most memorable things you’ll do abroad, you have my guarantee.

Tips and Tricks

Other than maybe castles or bookstores, grocery shopping is one of my favorite parts of travel. First, what you came here for–the tips and tricks. Then, I’ll include some of my own memories and photos below to get you thinking about your next trip.

  • See what your lodging has to offer: Before your trip, see what amenities are included with your hotel or rental. This may include a meal (usually breakfast). Sometimes you’ll have a mini fridge in your room or, even better, a kitchen or shared kitchen, all of which can save you some money each day. One of my travel mottoes is “always take a free banana.” If you see a bowl of complimentary fruit, take a piece of fruit for snack or breakfast the next day.
  • Get outside your comfort zone: If you’re traveling in a big city, it’s rare that you’ll see a supermarket like we’re used to in the US. Don’t be afraid to step into a store that seems small or crowded. Tiny corner markets often hide your new favorite snack, wine, cheese, charcuterie, or baked goods behind a nondescript facade. We get that it can be overwhelming and confusing to grab a mystery item off the shelf and put it in your mouth. But you’ll find that most packaged items have photos, and these are good moments for your favorite translation app. You will end up finding your new favorite snack you never knew existed. I’m looking at you, Marzipankartoffeln
  • Get ahead of the learning curve, but you may not have to: The biggest challenge with shopping can be learning words for numbers and making calculations with unfamiliar currency. However, most transactions (other than street vendors) allow credit cards. And even if you’re not using a card, you’ll see the cost of your purchase on a register or tablet, which helps if you don’t speak the language. Many places have self checkout as well, just like at home.
  • Hydrate: Depending on how long you’ll be in your location, pick up a gallon or two of water at the store to use to refill your individual bottles. This is a huge money saver, and also insurance against the tap water, which may not always be safe or pleasant to drink. Also pick up extras of your other favorite forms of hydration. You’ll be glad you did after coming “home” from a long day.
  • Observe locals before checking out: You may be able to Google local shopping etiquette, but usually you can discern what to do by watching locals and wandering around for a bit before checking out. We’ve observed that the norm is bringing your own reusable bags, as the store may not provide them for you. Also be prepared to have your produce weighed and tagged with a bar code before checking out.
  • Stock up on edible gifts, souvenirs, and cards: Bringing back consumable gifts and souvenirs is the best. Even at the most simple corner market, you can find candies, teas, snacks, jams, honey, perfumes, soaps, spirits, and more. These are exotic gifts that won’t break the bank, don’t take up much space in your bag, and are welcome by people who don’t collect tchotchkes . It’s also fun to buy foreign language greeting cards and postcards to send back home, or to have on hand when you need a unique birthday card.

(Non-Restaurant) Food Memories

Mexico

We loved shopping at the Chedraui in Akumal. It was basically Walmart but, when you’re traveling, normal things seem magical. Chedraui was our one stop shop for canned refried beans, fresh tortillas, queso fresco, “counter” eggs, perfect avocados, limes, and mezcal (with the worm of course). Nothing fancy, but it was delicious because we made it ourselves with fresh ingredients and lots of love and fun. I am still instantly transported to that efficiency apartment on the sea whenever I taste mezcal. And in La Paz, I don’t even remember the food we bought. But for some reason I enjoyed buying unfamiliar laundry soap, washing clothes in the sink, and hanging laundry out to dry.

Germany

In Dortmund, I walked way too far in the rain to the Real for breakfast bananas and “nature waffles” (rice cakes), hazelnut spread in a tube, Weihnachten cards, nice malty beer, and marzipan potatoes. And then I quickly learned how to open a beer bottle without a bottle opener on hand. In Frankfurt, we discovered our first ebbelwoi (apple wine), which we chilled in a bathroom sink full of cool water. 

Paris

Around the corner from the English-speaking Canadian Embassy pub, was a bodega where we found our “hotel snacks:” delicious and cheap red wine, pâté, rotisserie chicken flavored potato chips, and stinky cheese (sorry, mini fridge). Later on the trip, it was macarons in the Tuileries Garden while watching a goat eat grass. And on a different trip, it was a delightfully touristy picnic by the Eiffel Tower complete with a baguette, wine, and gooey cheese. 

Hawaii

We ate a meal of gas station spam musubi; farmers market papaya, lychee, and rambutan; poke and seaweed flavored potato chips; kona coffee and rum; and we ate those things on a blanket spread on black rocks at a secluded beach after a hike across a scalding hot lava field. One of the most triumphant meals ever.

Be on the lookout for our future posts on this topic, including: shopping lists, suggestions for meals at “home” for all levels of lodging and amenities, famous outdoor markets, and in-depth features on common street food. We love to talk about food! Let us know your favorite cheap food options and best food-based memories!


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