Every time I plan a trip or a vacation, I always think about what to pack, what things I may want to do, where I'll go, what directions I need to have, and while I know that I'll be dining alone, I rarely think about what my budget should be for those meals.
Budgeting your travel meals is one of the most basic keys to having a successful trip, especially if you're watching your nickels and dimes. You don't want to end up in a foodie city like San Francisco and have to eat off the dollar menu at a fast food joint (although - there are ways you can do that, too!). Be smart and plan for your best food experience.
First, one resource you can check is the Per Diem Rates for all the states by the U.S. General Services Administration. This can give you an idea of what food, lodging and other expenses would be incurred by a traveler, so start there if you know where you're going. Costs in Boston, for example, are $71 a day for food and other incurred expenses, but elsewhere in Massachusetts it could be as low as $46 a day. Using the website as a guideline can help you plan your food budget more wisely.
Second, plan for three meals, even if you're not normally a three-meal-a-day person. You never know when you will be struck by the aroma of a bagel and coffee shop and want to stop in for a bite. Think about your food budget in terms of 20% for breakfast, 30% for lunch, and 50% for dinner - and don't forget tips! The worst thing you can do is have a fabulous meal and not have budgeted tips in. Standard tips are 10% for breakfast, 15% for lunch, and 20% for dinner - and you can always tip more for great service and food. In looking at my budgets, my travel meals are generally $10.00 for breakfast, $15.00 for lunch, and $25 - $30 for dinner, but it all changes. One of the best dinners I ever had was $9.00 from a sidewalk deli I tripped into when I was in Manhattan.
Third, if you save money on one day's meals, bank it for another day. You can always refer to Rachael Ray's $40 a day on Food Network for inspiration on how to eat on the cheap without sacrificing quality.
Lastly, you can research some places to eat at websites like Yelp and OpenTable.com to get a further idea of price ranges. And when you're traveling, plan for at least one meal that is a foodie frenzy.
Being flexible and knowing your own food habits are the two best things you can account for within your travel food budget, plus knowing the area you're going to. Eat well on the road!