There are lots of travel companies out there that charge big bucks for “customized” culinary or wine tours of a specific region.
A consummate foodie who usually travels on a budget, I frequently drool over the descriptions of these tours while simultaneously starting woefully at my bank account balance. While many of these culinary tours are wonderful experiences, they are, without a doubt, hard on the budget. One day it dawned on me that, with a little planning and foresight, I could plan my own culinary trip. In this post, I give you some tips for designing your own culinary tour on a budget. Besides the obvious financial benefits of designing your own tour, you can truly customize the experience because, well, you’re the tour guide.
- Choose a destination with a rich culinary culture. This may seem like an obvious piece of advice, but it’s important that you do a bit of preliminary research on various places to determine whether or not the culinary or wine culture is rich and varied enough to base an entire trip on. Of course, places like New York, France, Italy or Napa Valley jump to mind, but there are loads of other options. For example, Spain’s Basque region is home to unique culinary traditions, and many places throughout the U.S. (such as Minneapolis) have become havens for chef-owned restaurants. So, you don’t necessarily need to stray that far from home (which can be easier on the budget).
- Determine your priorities. What do you want to experience? Are you most interested in where food/wine comes from (the agricultural aspects)? Perhaps you’d like to visit some farms or vineyards. Is restaurant dining your passion? Then you’ll most likely want to spend most of your time eating out. Is cooking your passion? You should concentrate on identifying opportunities for meeting chefs or taking a cooking class or two. Do you like to shop and prepare your own food while traveling? Then you’ll no doubt be visiting local specialty food shops and markets.
- Ask like-minded travelers to share in the adventure. Culinary travel is more fun (and more budget-friendly) when you can share the experience with a travel partner or a group. Ask some of your fellow foodies to come along with you. Some of the more obvious benefits include being able to share appetizers and a variety of dishes at restaurants (being able to try a lot of different things without breaking the bank) and having someone who can help you remember the name of that delicious wine you tried during your vineyard tour.
- Research opportunities at your location based on your foodie priorities. Now that you’ve established your priorities, the real research begins. Search for farms or vineyards that offer tastings and private tours. Scour the Internet for restaurant reviews, locations and menus. Identify chefs you’d like to meet (if possible) or cooking schools in the area. Find out what types of specialty food shops or outdoor markets are at your destination. I think it’s helpful to organize this information in an Excel file or some other document. Make note of the opening hours of restaurants and markets and contact information for all of the places you’re interested in visiting.
- Make reservations far in advance. It’s best to secure reservations for restaurants, tours and classes as far in advance as you possibly can, especially for popular destinations.
- Be ready to roll with the punches. In addition to bringing your appetite you should also bring patience and a sense of humor. As with any trip, the best laid plans don’t necessarily guarantee 100% success. However, if you look at mishaps/miscommunications as opportunities instead of disappointments, you’ll get a lot more out of the experience. If a restaurant loses your lunch reservations, just think of it as a great excuse to try some of the excellent street food the area is known for.