By far one of the most exciting aspects of travel is the food and drink experience.
Taking part in local cuisine is one of the best ways to really experience a culture and you never know what type of amazing food you might discover.
Below, I’m going to give you some tips that will help you optimize your restaurant selection while also potentially saving yourself some time and money.
Table of Contents
1. Discover the local delicacies
Before you start looking for individual restaurants it helps to first become aware of the types of food a specific region is known for.
For example, when we recently visited the Northeast we knew we wanted to find quality lobster rolls and cannolis. Then it was just a matter of finding well known and established places that could serve those up.
Focusing on the types of food a region is known for will help you discover local dishes you may have never heard of.
It’s also a great starting point to help you find good restaurants with bucket list worthy dishes.
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2. Round up a list of quality restaurants from various sources
The second thing I do when planning out travel food spots is I start to round up a list of places that look amazing.
A sure-fire way to find the best restaurants in a travel destination is to source recommendations from multiple sources.
Reach out to people who have visited
If I know anybody who has visited my future destination in the last few years, I’ll reach out and ask them if they have any recommendations.
To make life easy on the people you are contacting, you can simply tell them that you’re looking for “just a couple of recommendations” so they don’t feel the need to dig up a huge list.
Master dining related Google searches
A lot of people will simply Google “best restaurants in [name of the city]” and then look at the top results which probably will be TripAdvisor, a few other national outlets, and maybe a travel blog.
You can find good recommendations this way but getting a little bit creative with your searches can yield even better results.
Consider these search queries where “X” equals the city name:
- Oldest restaurant in [X]
- Newest restaurant in [X]
- Best food trucks in [X]
- Most expensive/cheap restaurant in [X]
- Unique restaurant in [X]
- Hidden gem restaurant in [X]
- bucket list restaurant in [X]
- restaurants with a view in [X]
- Guy Fieri [X]
- Anthony Bourdain [X]
- Gordon Ramsay [X]
Don’t forget to enter these into Youtube as well.
Do a search on Google Maps
Google Maps is also one of the best ways to find good restaurants.
Just zoom in to your destination, search restaurants, and a lot of results will populate.
I always look for restaurants with at least 4.3 stars and many reviews, although I’m definitely open to giving less established venues a chance.
Most restaurants will have photos of the food and the menus to help give you a sense of what to expect. You can also look for the keywords highlighted in the reviews to see what the more popular dishes are.
I also usually supplement my findings with a Reddit search.
Just typing in something like “best places to eat in [city X] Reddit,” will probably yield a few threads where you can find good recommendations.
Get recommendations from your hotel
And finally, I will usually also ask for recommendations from my hotel.
Hotels often provide dining recommendations on the website but you can always call the hotel you’re staying at beforehand and ask them if they have any recommendations for good local restaurants.
Try calling in the morning and then once again in the late afternoon so that you can get recommendations from different people working the front desk.
And of course, while you are there if there is a hotel concierge you can utilize them.
Eventually, you will start to see the same names mentioned by these different sources and that will help you prioritize a list of must-eat destinations.
3. Verify hours and open days (with your itinerary)
It’s not enough to just find a restaurant that people constantly recommend.
You also need to remember to:
- Verify the open hours
- Verify the open dates and
- Make sure that those hours /days fit into your itinerary
Some restaurants close on random days of the week and the hours may also be funky.
And do I need to mention covid closures?
There’s nothing worse than looking forward to a highly rated restaurant only to ariive and figure out that they are closed on Tuesdays or temporarily shut down due to the pandemic.
It also doesn’t hurt to verify that the venue has what you’re looking for.
In Hawaii, we were really excited to try a shaved ice place that serves it’s shaved ice right out of a coconut shell. We drove out of the way quite a ways just to hit this place up only to find that they were temporarily out of the shells for a few weeks.
So if you’re looking for something very specific to experience and it’s going to require you to go out of your way it won’t hurt to call beforehand to make sure that you won’t be wasting your time.
4. Consider your energy level
We once flew from the Maldives->Doha->London->Rome and then arrived at our hotel which featured a rooftop Michelin star rated restaurant that overlooked the Colosseum.
The only availability they had for us was that night so we went upstairs to dine there just a couple of hours after arriving (having not slept in I don’t know how long).
It was one of the most spectacular dining venues I think I have ever experienced.
The problem? I had zero energy left in my tank due to all of the flights. To this day, I barely even remember the meal because I was dozing off so bad.
So my advice is to think about how much energy you will have when planning meals because you want to make sure that you can take full advantage of special dining opportunities especially if it will cost you a pretty penny.
5. Ask for your check when your meal comes out
As a travel blogger, I often find myself on a tight schedule.
And if you are someone who likes to see everything you can when traveling you probably are also pretty time conscious. One thing that I often do is request for the check whenever we receive our meal.
It catches the server off guard sometimes but I’ll take that minor infraction if it means potentially saving me precious time down the line, especially if I have somewhere to be.
6. Get by with appetizers
Speaking of being on the go, a lot of times I think we get locked into the idea that when we go to a restaurant we need to order a meal or entrée.
But sometimes it just makes sense to go with something lighter like appetizers or tapas, especially if you are on a time crunch.
Not only does this help you get in and out quicker but it’s a great way to still be able to try out different drinks or just experience the vibe of a restaurant.
Plus, you’ll be surprised how quickly you can get filled up on appetizers.
7. Pull a reverse card on dessert
Sometimes due to your itinerary you may not be able to properly plan out a stop at an ice cream shop, shaved ice hut, or fudge store that you’d like to visit.
Other times, an area might be so busy that it’s just impossible to get into a restaurant until another hour or two, which means that it might end up being too late for dessert when you finish.
In these cases, consider flipping the script on your dessert timing and just eat dessert before your main meal.
It may have been ingrained in you as a child that dessert should never precede a meal but speaking from experience I can tell you that you will survive if you do this. And if it means making your schedule work a lot better, it will definitely be worth it.
8. Utilize elite perks
One of the best parts of having elite status with a hotel is that you can get free breakfast and also get lounge access.
This can really help save you money and make getting by very convenient.
Some hotel lounges provide you with snacks throughout the day so you can use those to just get by and hold yourself over until a later meal.
9. Cash in with hotel food and beverage credits
Another way to save money and perhaps indulge in fine dining is to find ways to utilize food and beverage credits at hotels.
We recently had a stay at a luxury resort in Phoenix where we received $500 in food and beverage credits for a one night stay which is pretty crazy.
You can get these credits by booking through certain types of luxury hotel portals like FHR.
But they also sometimes come attached to credit cards. For example, the Hilton Aspire has a $250 resort credit that can be used for charges made to your room which include dining.
A few years ago we used it to enjoy an amazing lunch at an underwater restaurant in the Maldives and it greatly cut down our bill.
When you start stacking the credit card credits with the credits offered by the properties, you can sometimes eat completely for free.
10. Use a food delivery service
When people think of using a food delivery service like Uber Eats they usually think about getting food delivered to their home.
But it’s definitely possible to use these whenever you are staying at a hotel. In fact, sometimes you can even earn extra loyalty points when you do that.
These services can also be a great way to discover new restaurants that you may have missed in your research.
11. Look for specialty cocktails and historical drinks
I don’t really drink alcohol but I will take a sip here and there of certain specialty cocktails that Brad orders, especially whenever they stand out. For example, I’ll never forget the “lobstertini” Brad ordered, complete with a pinched lemon.
And then there were the times when we ordered drinks that were invented in certain destinations like the Tequila Sunrise at the Arizona Biltmore.
Spend some time hunting down specialty cocktails at the restaurants and bars you’ll be visiting because I always think it’s fun to see what mixologists can serve up and to take a little sip of history.
12. Keep your activities in mind when choosing dishes
When choosing your dishes, don’t forget to factor in what you’ll be doing later that day or the next day.
For example, if you’re planning on being very active the next morning and going out on an excursion maybe you don’t want to tempt things with the spiciest Thai food you can find the night before.
Only you can know what your body can tolerate but this is something that some people tend to overlook whenever they are on vacation and running around nonstop.
13. Ask about reservations
When people think of making dinner reservations they often think of super upscale restaurants in urban areas where you have to be dressed to a T to get through the front door.
The thing is, there are a lot of casual restaurants that get super busy and allow you to make reservations.
This is why I always make it a habit to inquire about reservations and to also check with apps like OpenTable to see if the restaurant is on there.
You’d be surprised at how many “average Joe” restaurants allow you to book a table in advance AND how much waiting time that could save you.
14. Ask for menu recommendations
For the longest time, I always just tried to figure out what sounded the best on the menu myself.
But then I started to ask servers what they would recommend and I have found that it often helps narrow down the choices.
Every now and again you get a server who recommends “everything” on the menu which is not helpful at all but for the most part you can get some solid recommendations.
Ask them if they have off menu or secret menu items and you’ll be surprised how often they have something to offer.
15. Split up your dishes
If you have a travel companion, consider splitting your dishes.
This can be really helpful for meals like breakfast where you might want something sweet and savory such as pancakes and eggs Benedict.
A lot of times the portions served for these dishes can be pretty large and so splitting them with a partner allows you to eat a more reasonable portion and also diversify your meal.
Pro tip: Sometimes, you can even ask the restaurant to divide the dish up into separate plates so that it will be easy for you to share the meal.
16. Check Goldbelly for places you might miss
Goldbelly is great because it allows you to order local cuisine and get it shipped just about anywhere.
While the shipping can make things expensive, it’s still a pretty amazing service that I’ve used several times to enjoy food that we had while traveling.
If you find yourself in a situation where you have to choose between restaurants that you really like then consider looking up if those restaurants are on Goldbelly.
If one of them is on Goldbelly, then you can always order their food when you get back home and enjoy the other restaurant that may not be on the platform.
17. McDonald’s is not always the worst
It might pain you to think about eating at a fast food restaurant like McDonald’s when traveling but it’s not always the worst thing in the world.
For one, fast food restaurants can be one of the most convenient places to grab a bite to eat when traveling. This is often the case when you’ve still yet to get settled in to the new locale and maybe you’re dealing with a raging appetite.
But some fast food chains actually can offer unique menu items in different countries. In Tokyo, we once stopped by McDonald’s to order some intriguing green ice cream beverage that was actually really good.
So try to not write off fast food joints just because they don’t appear fashionable.
These tips will help you find some of the best foods and restaurants when traveling and hopefully help save you some money and time as well.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC.