Practical Travel Tips

Thrifty & Fun on Vacation: Skip the Touristy Restaurants and Go On a Picnic

You’re on vacation. Everyone is tired, maybe a little crabby, and definitely a lot hungry. How do you deal with this situation like the mommy boss you are while saving money, saving time (or just whiling away an afternoon), saving your sanity, and having fun? By going on a picnic!

For some of you this will be blasphemy, but — when we’re on holiday — the Husband and I very quickly get very tired of eating out.

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Why? First, let me assure you that we love to eat. For example, guilt-free eating was of the main reasons that most of our trips from 2001 to 2009 featured long-distance cycling. When we put in 60+ miles on the road, we really didn’t have to worry about that big basket of frites we inhaled while sitting at a seaside café in Zeebrugge, Belgium, or that half of a roast chicken I ate all by myself at a restaurant in Arras, France. Or the occasional (frequent?) glass of beer. So, let it be understood that the Husband and I love our vittles.

Picnic baguette

Picnics Rock

But in addition to meals out, we also feasted on delectables we picked up in supermarkets, at bakeries, and at farmer’s markets. Pretty much anywhere in Europe it’s cheap and easy to walk into a grocery store, buy an excellent loaf of bread, a chunk of local cheese, an apple or two, and a bottle of beer or the cutest little can of wine. (By the way, unlike the US, most European countries allow alcohol in public places, such as sidewalks and city parks. And no, though I’m sure it happens, I’ve never seen anyone take advantage of this and get rip-roaring drunk in public.)

The Advantages?

  • Picnicking is cheaper than eating out. According to Expatistan, the 2016 average cost of lunch out in Paris is €16. If you’re a family of four and you’re in Paris for four days, then that cost can add up quickly: €16 x 4 x 4 = €256. As of May 2016, that’s $287 (USD). Factor in the other meals and snacks you’ll eat out, and your food budget could approach $1000.
  • It’s potentially a time-saver. You have tickets to get into the Louvre at 2 PM. It’s 12:45, and everyone is starving. Do you risk going to a restaurant and losing your chance to get into the museum? Remember that European restaurants don’t try to “turn over” their tables every 40 minutes. You won’t find that Applebee’s mentality. Instead, you’ll be expected to enjoy your meal at a reasonable pace. But what if you simply don’t have time for a reasonable pace? Then you pop into a bakery and get ham and cheese croissants or slices of quiche while your partner ducks into a corner store and grabs water, Orangina (yum!), and adult beverages. In 10 minutes, you’re all sitting in a park or on a bench, enjoying a quick and tasty lunch. You’ll be fueled up and right on time for the Louvre.
  • Or it’s a great way to relax and not feel pressured to be a tourist. It’s like a little vacation from your vacation. Instead of being a tourist, you’re a local for the afternoon, enjoying food meant for the locals – and not tourists – and soaking up the sun, like all Europeans, especially Northern Europeans, do when the weather is good. Bonus #1: if you find a good park, your kids will have a chance to run around and burn off some energy. Bonus #2: that time in the sun will wipe out any residual jetlag. Picnic cheese
  • Grocery shopping abroad is an adventure. Some people like to visit high-end stores when they’re on holiday. In Paris, they hit Chanel. In Milan, they flock to Dolce Y Gabbana. Me? I love visiting grocery stores and supermarkets while abroad. They’re familiar and unusual all at the same time. Sainbury’s in the UK, Carrefour in France, or Albert Heijn in the Netherlands. Each one offers a lovely selection of breads, cheeses, chocolates, and so on, and a trip into one gives you a glimpse of real life, life off the tourist trail.
  • It’s (probably) the only way to go if you’re traveling with a really little one. Now that Little A has joined our team, we’ll be picnicking even more. I’d like to meet the toddler who enjoys a leisurely restaurant meal, but I suspect that child is a myth, like Bigfoot. Embracing the reality that we have a sweet little girl who is quite happy in a high chair for upwards of 20 minutes, the Husband and I look forward to lots of picnics. We hope they’re in the sunshine, but we can live with feasting in our B&B room or even our rental car. Picnic wine

Putting Together a Picnic Kit

Here’s what you need:

  • Sturdy, reusable plastic cutlery (available online here and here and at camping stores and large discount stores)
  • Sturdy, reusable plastic camping mugs (also available online here and at camping stores and large discount stores). Ours have been lots of places and filled with Italian wine, Belgian beer, and even French calvados.
  • Paring knife: If you’re checking luggage, then PACK THE KNIFE IN YOUR CHECKED LUGGAGE. You don’t want an incident with the TSA. If you’re taking only carry-on luggage, then buy a paring knife when you get to your destination.
  • Corkscrew/bottle opener: Apply above advice about the paring knife!
  • Cheap vinyl table cloth: To minimize bulk, cut the table cloth to smallest size that accommodate your family comfortably.
  • Hand wipes: Enough said.

Have you tried picnicking while on vacation? Where did you go? And equally important, what did you eat?

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