3 Easy Ways to Save Money on Family Meals in Asia


Skip the hotel restaurants, eat better, and have more fun!

The big Asian cities have developed a reputation for having ridiculously expensive dining, and stories like consumers paying $27,000 for a cantaloupe or charging over $100 per person for a sushi dinner don’t help that perception.

While reports like these get attention, the fact is these kinds of dining experiences are largely meant for big-business entertainment and big-government lobbying – and have nothing to do with how everyday people eat.

After all, you couldn’t get that many people to live, much less thrive, in a place where they couldn’t afford basic meals! “Eat like the locals” is great advice for learning more about a culture, but it’s also an important strategy for keeping expenses under control for a family vacation overseas.

Not only will these options save you money, be culturally enlightening, and provide entertainment, but by not having to order from a menu - and instead see what your choices are – both you and your kids will be more comfortable with your food orders. And it might even get you to try something unexpected!

Image by  LERK  via Wikimedia Commons, CC 4.0 license

Image by LERK via Wikimedia Commons, CC 4.0 license

Konbini / Convenience Stores

East Asia's convenience stores such as Lawson, 7-Eleven, and Family Mart are the traveler's best friend: open early when the streets are empty but your jet lag tells you it's breakfast time; open late when you realize you need detergent, plastic bags, or a fix of peanut butter. Without the burden of selling fuel or needing parking lots, these stores have evolved their formats to occupy seemingly every street corner in major cities, from northern Japan all the way down to Indonesia and out into western China.

Image by  amanderson2  via Wikimedia Commons, CC 2.0 license

Image by amanderson2 via Wikimedia Commons, CC 2.0 license

Their selection of basic goods is comparable to a small grocery store - including bread, milk and juice, cereal, and fruits and vegetables - and most have a broad selection of hot and cold deli foods, including familiar Western fare like sandwiches, fried chicken, and roasted meat as well as Asian favorites such as onigiri and noodle bowls. These counters are resupplied frequently through the day, so the food is quite fresh. We found surprisingly good quality options at a value price. 


If your hotel room has a mini-refrigerator at a minimum (and ideally a microwave), make the corner C-store your first stop to stock up on breakfast items: it's so much better to eat breakfast in pajamas and thoughtfully plan your day instead of having to scramble to get dressed and presentable to shuffle through a bland hotel buffet or walk down the street for McDonalds...

Image by  Hiroaki Sakuma  via Wikimedia Commons, CC 2.0 license

Image by Hiroaki Sakuma via Wikimedia Commons, CC 2.0 license

Depachika / Department Store Food Halls

Unlike what has happened in North America, in Japan and Korea the traditional department store has continued to be a vital part of everyday life in the big cities. 

Departments stores are typically sited near major subway stations to maximize commuter convenience (the rail companies developed the land, and started the stores, after all...), and so those are popular shopping sites at lunchtime and during the evening commute.

Image by  Frances Ellen  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image by Frances Ellen via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

To keep shoppers in stores longer, many locations expanded their in-house cafes and restaurants into full-sized food halls and catering showrooms - perfect for having a meal before the long train ride home, or for picking up provisions en route. The variety on display behind the counters is simply astonishing: baked goods and sweets; seafood and meats; prepared salads, sandwiches and soups; Japanese, Chinese, Korean, European, Indian, and American specialties; plus sit-down dining from casual to elegant.

Even if you aren't hungry, the spectacle of a great depachika is worth the visit alone!


Street Food, Festivals, and Farmers’ Markets / Fish Markets

While food trucks are finally becoming a frequent sight in North America, in East Asia they’ve been preparing hot, fresh food from carts, trucks, and “pop-up” tents for centuries. Seasonal festivals such as at New Year's or Mid-Autumn will see carts and tents in temples and public squares, but many cities also have regular evening street markets or hawker centers (like the famous ones in Singapore and Taiwan) where food is the main attraction. 

Photo by  Jorge Gonzalez  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license. Watch out for that durian!

Photo by Jorge Gonzalez via Flickr, CC 2.0 license. Watch out for that durian!

Major cities will also have morning fish markets (like the famous Tsukiji in Tokyo) or farmers' markets where food stalls catering to the vendors and traders will also gladly sell to tourists. As with outdoor stalls anywhere, look for the crowds to find the freshest, tastiest (and by extension most safe) choices. "Point and pay" is the universal language, as almost always prices are clearly marked.

Image by  Allan Watt  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image by Allan Watt via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Where Not to Go in China

5 Places where Americans should probably avoid Family Travel

Despite political tension between Western governments and the Communist Party administration in Beijing, once you’ve arrived in China as a traveler – and especially for families with children – you’ll find that many people you encounter are genuinely glad to see you, are kind, and eager to help. We’ve found ourselves in unexpected conversations (in English!) in parks and grocery stores with parents who want to tell us about their child studying in the U.S., or a trip they took there, or once they know where we’re from, ask about the chances this year for the Minnesota Timberwolves (they’re never good.)

So while we enthusiastically promote Americans to travel to China with their kids, we still have to acknowledge there are some areas too sensitive for Westerners to roam around, or on the edge of danger to bring children to. If you’re in-country for a week or two, and especially if you don’t have strong Mandarin skills, these are areas that would have the potential to ruin your trip.

Image by  Max-Leonhard von Schaper ; CC 2.0 license

Image by Max-Leonhard von Schaper; CC 2.0 license


Anywhere near the North Korean Border

Amazingly, during the 1990s-mid 2010s, there was a not-small tourist trade in Liaoning Province to take Westerners right up to the Yalu River border with North Korea to look across and try to make contact with people on the other side, based out of the Chinese border city of Dandong.  Oh yes, some people got arrested and thrown in North Korean prisons, forcing their governments to make deals with the regime there to get them released. And there’s still a market for Chinese tourists to look across the border

Image by  Shinsuke Ikegame ; CC 2.0 license

Image by Shinsuke Ikegame; CC 2.0 license

More recently, the Chinese government has started cracking down on these activities as Beijing is growing more uncomfortable with the belligerent government in Pyongyang, and trying to weed out Westerners on their side of the border who they think might be trying to agitate the situation.

Liaoning and Jilin Provinces are also uncomfortably close to the North Korean nuclear test site; Chinese media has started talking about health and safety risks of fallout and radiation-tainted pollution should an accident or an attack take place there. Should the North Korean regime collapse or launch an attack against the South, this border is also expected to be overwhelmed with refugees.

Image by  DvYang ; CC 2.0 license

Image by DvYang; CC 2.0 license

The “Nansha” Islands

For many years the ocean south of Hainan Island and north of Singapore has been contested, with Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and the People’s Republic all making claims on some part of it, often overlapping. From the mid-2010s, Chinese forces have occupied many shoals and reefs in the South China Sea and have converted a number into airfields and small naval bases. 

In 2016, a number of chartered airline flights were sent to these islands, and cruise ships have begun runs with tourist groups. The Chinese government has stated they want regular travelers visiting the islands (bolstering their claims and making it less likely in the future for other countries to try to take the bases by force.)

Not that it’s likely, because the PRC really doesn’t want Americans wandering around the South China Sea, taking pictures of military outposts – but if you are vacationing on tropical Hainan Island (lots of resorts and beaches there), “just say no” to any off-island overnight cruises.

Image by  bvi4092 ; CC 2.0 license

Image by bvi4092; CC 2.0 license

Image by  Dennis Jarvis  via Flickr; CC 2.0 license

Image by Dennis Jarvis via Flickr; CC 2.0 license


I’m not going to try to give you a briefing on the Tibetan situation, and I’m not going to express my personal opinion on the matter on this site. This is probably the situation that Beijing is most sensitive about, and they’ve made it clear they want no Western involvement in the issue.

To ensure that ‘undesirable social elements’ do not get introduced to the local native population, the Chinese government requires an “internal visa” for travel up to the plateau, over and above the tourist visa to China itself. The process for getting this visa is complex, and the government strictly limits how many are issued- and to which nationalities. Which means if you’re an American just wanting to travel to Lhasa with your family outside of an organized group, it isn’t happening (and probably not in an organized group either.)

Image by  Mondo79  via Flickr; CC 2.0 license

Image by Mondo79 via Flickr; CC 2.0 license

The Chinese government has been spending heavily on airports, has set up a new airline for the region, built a high-speed rail line there, and has been promoting internal tourism (Han ethnic group) to the region, so the travel infrastructure is getting put in place. Perhaps someday the only issue for Westerners' visits will be altitude sickness...

Image by  Marc van der Chijs ; CC 2.0 license

Image by Marc van der Chijs; CC 2.0 license


China’s western-most province borders the Central Asian “-stans”, including a tiny piece of Afghanistan. For the 19th and 20th centuries, this region was guarded to prevent the Russians or roving bandits from invading the Chinese heartland, but otherwise the mostly-Muslim people were left to trade with their neighbors and practice their faith. Being in the remote middle of the historic Silk Road, Xinjiang’s Uyghur residents were a mix of all the peoples who traveled and traded it for a thousand years – speaking a Turkic Arabic, sprinkled with elements of Eastern Han and even European culture: definitely a people apart from the coastal cities. Post-Revolution Chinese government policy changed this approach by sending industry, rail and highway links, and hundreds of thousands of ethnic Han settlers westward into the capital Urumqi and the other main cities. In the 1990s this area was lauded for its domestic and international tourism potential, for its unique culture as well as wildlife and unique ecosystems.

Image by  momo ; CC 2.0 license

Image by momo; CC 2.0 license

After the Middle Eastern wars of the late 20th-early 21st century, local frustration with the Han colonization, which could not be resolved through Communist Party channels, started to mix with people who had been fighting the Russians and Americans in Afghanistan and beyond – and their radical ideologies, and their weapons. Predictably, violence came. Terrorist attacks against Chinese government and industrial interests became frequent.

To try to stop the terrorism, Beijing has sent many troops into the region, restricts where Xinjiang Uyghurs can travel and what they can access on China’s local Internet, and has imposed regulations on Islamic practices. Big, explosive attacks have largely ceased, but smaller incidents have happened here and troublingly in other parts of China. While foreigners have not been targeted, places like train stations, markets, public squares, and mosques are under tight security, and your passport won’t get you privileges if a police action takes place.

Image by  Gabriel Jorby ; CC 2.0 license

Image by Gabriel Jorby; CC 2.0 license

Remote parts of Qinghai

If not for the deserts, harsh weather, near-total lack of English signage… and being the jumping-off point for both Tibet and Xinjiang and all the ethnic tensions those two areas engender, Qinghai would *still* be a heck of a long way from anywhere. Slightly less of a long way with high-speed rail links being constructed, but out past the main cities of Golmud, Xining, and Baotou, just the right kind of huge, uninhabited place where you’d put a nuclear test site.  The giant nature preserve of Qinghai Lake is on the main highway and rail line, and a legitimate (and safe) tourist destination – just don’t decide to rent off-road vehicles and try to do some exploring in this Texas-sized area.

Image by  Ken Marshall ; CC 2.0 license

Image by Ken Marshall; CC 2.0 license