Find the Cheap (and Good) Restaurants By Using This Search Technique

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I spent my first two days in Antigua, Guatemala, walking the cobblestone streets, taking in the old ruins and majestic Spanish colonial architecture. Finding my way through this new-to-me-place with my boyfriend, David, was the fun part.

What wasn’t fun: discovering that this city was significantly pricier than we anticipated.

We’d been in Antigua for less than 36 hours when the reality hit. Tired and hungry from a day of exploring our new surroundings, we wandered a few blocks away from our Airbnb to a pizza restaurant on the outskirts of the city center.

Dinner was good, but kind of basic. We shared a large cheese pizza and a house salad. I enjoyed a glass of red wine. Then the check arrived. Our meal came to $40.

What?!

We scanned the bill for errors, but aside from a 10% tip that was automatically included (pretty common here), nothing else was unexpected. Back in Chicago, the equivalent meal at Pequod’s Pizza, one of my favorite sit-down Chicago pizza spots, would have cost about $30.

Over the next few days, several experiences reinforced that Antigua isn’t a cheap spot. Local tour operators quoted us upward of $120 per person for a day hike to one of the nearby volcanoes. Weekend brunch cost us about $12 each.

It’s not that these prices are alarmingly high, but the research I did when planning our stay suggested that life in Antigua would cost less than what we’re accustomed to paying in Chicago.

According to major travel websites like Lonely Planet, you can “dine well and inexpensively” right near the central area. Couple that with the favorable exchange rate — about 7.4 quetzals for $1 — and Antigua’s popularity as a backpacker destination, I figured it would be easy to stumble upon plenty of budget-friendly options.

Long-Term Travel on a Budget

A cobble stone residential street with Volcano Agua in the distance. Photo courtesy of Jaclyn Schiff.

The plan was to hang our hats in Antigua for about six weeks; slow travel is a major perk of being a digital nomad. While a big part of working from different parts of the world is to indulge my wanderlust, finances are a significant part, too.

When I became location-independent in March 2017, I saw it as an opportunity to lower my cost of living and pay off some debt. I designed the opportunity so after about a year of living without a permanent address, I’d also have saved more money.

So when food, drink, and entertainment costs in Antigua didn’t look like they’d be as cheap as I originally thought, we had to improvise to keep pace with my financial goals.

Figure Out What Things Actually Cost: Online Reviews

After the price surprises during our first few days, I paid more careful attention to online reviews before venturing out for a bite to eat or drink.

People tend to look at reviews when they are about to decide where to go or what to eat. I didn’t think of them as a tool to consult before we arrived. But the more I looked through reviews, the more I realized the answers I was seeking about cost were staring me in the face — and in a more practical, user-friendly way than other resources like cost-of-living indexes.

Had I looked through online forums like TripAdvisor, Google, and Facebook beforehand, I probably would not have had sticker shock when we first got to Antigua (and would have dug up the cheap eats sooner).  

Reviews are helpful because they’re raw and typically unedited. But they are also totally subjective, so the key is to look for patterns. Here’s an approach for how to strategically scan for price information when planning your next travel stint.  

Step 1 – Skim through the reviews for general cost trends

To get a sense of whether a lot of places are pricy, take a look at reviews in the lowest-cost and moderately priced categories. This works best for restaurants but is also applicable for tour operators, shuttle services and landmarks.

Are a lot of people commenting on price — either noting that it’s cheap or expensive? Reviewers tend to note price when it’s remarkable, so this is a good way to get a feel for whether a place is especially inexpensive or overpriced.

It’s also helpful to look at where the reviewer is from. Someone from New York City is going to have very different price standards than someone from Columbus, Ohio, for example.

The key with this exercise is not so much to focus on single reviews — there will always be outliers — but to skim through a few listings and see whether you notice patterns. Here are a few I came across during my early days in Antigua that made me realize I wasn’t alone in being caught off-guard about prices:

Yelp isn’t available in Antigua, so my go-to review website has been TripAdvisor. I also joined a few active Facebook groups, including one for expats living in Guatemala, which has proven to be an excellent forum for information. Google reviews and the review tabs on Facebook pages have been helpful to get aggregate information as well.

Step 2 – Search the reviews for cost-sensitive keywords

Once you’ve selected a restaurant or other TripAdvisor listing, you can search all the reviews on that page. You can also use keyboard shortcuts like Ctrl+F to search a word on a page.

If you’re planning a trip, I’d suggest looking through a few recommended tour operators and restaurants and doing searches using keywords such as “price,” “cost,” “cheap” and “expensive.”

For example, here are returns I got when I searched “price” within the listing for Cafe Condesa, one of the most popular moderately priced cafes in the center of town:

Price is a great search term because it’s a neutral word, so if reviewers are mostly using it to say prices are too high, that tells you something. For the same cafe (and I don’t mean to pick on this place, just using it as an illustration), a search of “cheap” vs. “expensive” is telling. When I searched the word “expensive,” I got almost twice as many results.  

The same thing works on Facebook. Groups have a search function that looks through all posts. Using that tool in the expats group, with the keywords mentioned above, I found a few comments confirming my observations and some helpful threads with recommendations for cheaper eats.  

As my time in Antigua winds down, I’m not too sure when or where my next travel stint will be. But the wanderlust is sure to kick in again at some point, and when it does, I’ll know exactly where to go to get a good idea of what things will cost.

Jaclyn Schiff is a freelance writer and digital nomad who believes the finer things in life don’t (always) need to come at a higher cost.

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