This is the Travel Take, where Matador’s writers and editors make the case for their favorite travel hacks, tips, and personal tics.
You’ve been driving for six hours through Italy. The GPS is speaking Italian and you can’t figure out how to change it. You’re lost, tired, and hangry — and then you see it. A Subway right off the highway. It’s not quite the golden arches, but it’s just the oasis you need.
“Perfect,” you think, “I’ll get my classic steak and cheese on hearty Italian bread and be on my way.”
But then you remember your travel companion and how they will never let you live it down if you eat Subway in Italy.
Whenever we dare to consider deviating from the local food in a country known for its culinary tradition, we hear this friend’s voice in our head: “What’s wrong with you, dude? You can get Subway anywhere — you’re in Italy!” Yeah, point taken, but the obligation to eat the most local and traditional foods every single meal just because “you’re in Italy” can become more of a burden than a genuinely delightful experience.
While traveling is enlightening, it’s also just plain exhausting. Flight delays, rental car snafus, digestive complications, language barriers, sleepless nights thanks to your hostel-mate on the top bunk. Running into one (or all) of these complications can be draining, frustrating, and anxiety-inducing. In the throes of travel’s most maddening difficulties, we’re often seized by the urge to indulge in something familiar, and that’s okay. It’s perfectly fine to eat fast food, comfort food, American food, and pretty much anything else you want while you’re abroad.
It’s called comfort food for a reason. Whether it’s Burger King in Thailand, Subway in Italy, or pizza pretty much anywhere, food can be a much-needed grounding experience. Going somewhere you already know the menu by heart and tasting a piece of home can do wonders for your travel fatigue. That bucket of chicken from KFC won’t make the cut for your travel blog about China, but it will definitely warm your stomach, satisfy that craving, and put you in a better headspace to enjoy the rest of your trip.
Travelers have a tendency to go to extreme lengths, at great inconvenience, to cram as many memories into a vacation as possible. If it means seeing an out-of-the-way temple or spotting a rare animal in the wild, it’s probably worth it. But not every single experience on vacation needs to be a story you tell your friends later. Even domestically, if you’re traveling through coastal Maine, you’re hungry, and there’s a pizza place coming up on the right, don’t second guess yourself because it’s not seafood.
Making that quick stop at something familiar can free up time to see other things. You don’t need to spend 30 minutes looking something up, 30 minutes trying to figure out how to get there, and then 30 minutes getting back. If you arrive in Munich and you’re starving, go ahead and get that fast-food burrito next to your hotel. The bratwurst will still be there tomorrow.
In addition to convenience, you have to keep track of your budget. Traveling ain’t cheap, and food can sneakily be the most expensive part. Flights, lodging, and excursions might feel like greater expenditures, but three modestly priced meals a day for a week really adds up. Beef bourguignon in France or fresh-caught salmon in Iceland could mean spending upward of $20 on a single meal. Getting the local special for dinner every night could quickly bankrupt you. Cheap fast food means that when you do splurge on the foie gras, you won’t feel like you’re breaking the bank.
Last, but certainly not least: fast food abroad can provide a small window into another culture’s culinary traditions. There’s poutine at Canadian McDonald’s, pork and seaweed donuts at a Chinese Dunkin Donuts, and paneer pizza at Domino’s in India.
As long as you also make time to try true local cuisine on your trip, it’s perfectly fine to get fast food while traveling. Don’t be shamed out of easy comfort food.