Unless we’re going somewhere known for the hotels (like Vegas), or we’re going somewhere with big language and currency barriers (like Ukraine), we often book self-catered apartments when we travel. Not only do they work out cheaper than hotels, you also save money from being able to store food and cook instead of eating out for every meal.
As the pound is so low against the euro at the moment, this is even more important. We made the big mistake of buying food and drink at the Louvre recently, and two smallish not-very-nice sandwiches and 500ml bottles of coke cost us almost £20. When you can buy delicious authentic bread and cheese locally for a fraction of the cost even in the centre of Paris, it’s just throwing money away.
Making our own food is also a huge advantage when we’re travelling to places where the local cuisine isn’t our favourite. I’m fussy about what meat I eat, and Joe hates most vegetables and anything in sauce, so having food with us that we’re happy to eat is pretty high up our list of priorities. One particularly memorable moment is when we went husky sledding in Norway and the only food provided was reindeer stew – Joe ate the reindeer, I ate the rest!1
When we go to Paris, we always pick an apartment to stay in via Airbnb. This time was no different, so when we went shopping I decided to take some photos of some of the things we bought so you can get an idea of how we cut costs and decide what to buy for a self-catered apartment stay.
Before you book your apartment: Take a look at what facilities each apartment has, and factor those into your final decision about where you’re booking. In expensive cities where space is at a premium, like Paris, something simple like a freezer compartment in the fridge is a huge advantage, as is a dishwasher. You know what’s important to you! If you’re not sure, ask your host. That way you can do a little planning before you arrive. It’s always use to have a hob, oven, and microwave as a minimum.
When you arrive
Ask your host where the nearest/best places to buy groceries are (assuming they haven’t already included that information). If you’re arriving late afternoon or you don’t have the right currency markets and local shops are out of the question, but you can usually get basics at a small supermarket to tide you over.
We often go to supermarkets anyway, because we love looking round different countries’ supermarkets and shops and seeing what’s the same and what’s different. It’s all part of the culture. I still have no idea what Norwegian ‘Crab Nobs’ are or why the shopkeeper in Chernobyl had both a calculator and an abacus, but it’s fascinating all the same.
Check what you already have
Take a look at everything already in the apartment, from appliances to cutlery to things other people have left. This saves you buying surplus things ‘just in case’ or forgetting basics. We once ended up just buying a pack of 50 plastic knives because that was our only option, and got some weird looks (and felt bad about the waste).
Also check that things work and you know how they work so you don’t end up buying something that can only be cooked in the microwave and then find out that the microwave doesn’t actually work (or you can’t figure it out but don’t want to confess).
Self-catered apartments often say they include ‘staples’, but what those turn out to be varies dramatically depending on the owner and the culture. Check all the cupboards and storage areas for things you normally forget about because you rarely buy, e.g. salt, pepper, spices, ketchup, oil, etc., and see what condition they’re in because you may want to re-buy some things.
Personal preferences also play a part here too: we’re happy to use salt that’s been provided or left by someone else, but a half-full jar of Nutella is something we avoid. It really comes down to how much money you want to save and how much of a clean freak you are.
Make a list
Before you leave the apartment, make a list based on how long you’ll be staying and how many meals you’re planning to make yourself. Where you’ll be eating is also important: for example, we buy things we can make packed lunches with because we know we’ll be out all day.
We go shopping with two things in mind: 1) is it actually practical? 2) will we use it all, and if not, can someone else make use of it?
We try to buy things we both like (easier said than done!) that have long expiry dates or that we will use up during our stay. Versatility is also a key consideration: for example, dried pasta can be used hot or cold for simple dinners, cold pasta salads, and even oven bakes. I hate eating the same meal twice in a row, so this is really important to me.
We always opt for things that require very simple cooking: we aren’t on holiday to cook, and we’re tired at the end of a long day or eager to get out quickly in the mornings, so quick and simple works best for us. While we make most of our own meals, we still make a point of experiencing local food, including restaurants, cafes, and street food.
Disclaimer: this list is simply some ideas of what we buy and eat – I’m not a dietician We walk at least ten miles a day and our priority is exploring rather than eating like personal trainers. I wanted this blog post to offer a real insight into what we do and how we eat while travelling rather than being idealistic or unsustainable.
What to buy
With that said, here’s our list:
1. Cupboard staples if needed (salt, pepper, ketchup, oil, other spices and condiments).
2. At least one of the following: sandwich bags, foil, cling film. These are the easiest to forget but vital for packed lunches and keeping other food fresh, like bread. Sometimes you may get lucky like we did this time and find a selection of clean Tupperware in the cupboard.
3. Dried pasta: really versatile and keeps for a long time if future guests want to use it.
4. Things that go with pasta: Joe prefers meat like sausage or ham, I prefer cheese and veg. Tuna is also a good choice for cold pasta salads or hot oven bakes. A jar of pasta sauce comes in handy.
5. Snacks: Useful in the evenings, useful to take out during the day. Prepackaged is usually easier. Examples include raisins, nuts, bananas, apples, crisps, cake bars, biscuits, and dried fruit such as apricots. It depends what you can get hold of, the weather, and what catches your eye.
6. Cheese: I mentioned this alongside pasta, but it’s good for both lunch and dinner options. Grated, sliced, or simply chopped cheese is ideal for sandwiches and is a traditional delicacy in a lot of European countries – it’s a must-try in France and Italy in particular.
7. Bakery goods: Bread and pastries will cover you for breakfast and lunch. Buy fresh daily or every other day in small quantities. Not only does it taste even better, it means you’re less likely to waste any.
8. Fruit: We love strawberries for breakfast, particularly with yoghurt or pastries. Oranges, apples, and bananas are great for when you’re out and about, but don’t buy too many. These photos were taken before we bought fresh fruit and veg because we were waiting for the grocery store to open!
9. Drinks: We like a selection of soft drinks for the evening and large bottles of water that we can keep in the fridge and use to refill small bottles daily. In hot countries, fill a bottle with water or mixed cordial and freeze it if possible. It melts gradually during the day.
10. Oven baked extras: Normally we just stick to pasta, but anything easy to cook isn’t out of the question, e.g. pizza and oven chips if you have freezer space.
11. Salad: Great for sandwiches or as an alternative to sandwiches, great for snacking, great as a side for main meals. Again, just don’t buy too much. We typically get a cucumber, a few tomatoes, and onions as a minimum.
13. Yoghurt: This is better for breakfast (buy plain and add your own fruit) or to make a simple side dish (add mint and cucumber).
14: Potatoes: If you feel like cooking them, they’re good cold for salad or hot as jacket potatoes for a light meal.
Example breakfast: Yoghurt, strawberries, pastry, and a glass of orange juice.
Example packed lunch: Ham/cheese/tomato sandwich, potato chips, cake bar, piece of fruit.
Example dinner: Pasta in a herby tomato sauce with mushrooms, peppers, onions, and cheese or pancetta.
And that’s about it! Do you ever stay in self-catered apartments? What do you buy?
- It was delicious though. ↩