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Dining made easy: Tips to save money on your vacation

Many restaurants serve hearty portions, so adults may want to order meals and share with the children, suggests Tim Zagat, the founder and publisher of Zagat Survey.
Many restaurants serve hearty portions, so adults may want to order meals and share with the children, suggests Tim Zagat, the founder and publisher of Zagat Survey.Polka Dot Images via The Daily Meal

Travelers looking to save money on travel can save on dining without sacrificing quality. Tim Zagat, the founder and publisher of Zagat Survey, shares with discerning diners his money-saving dining tips.

Slideshow: See 10 tips to save money

From ordering takeout and skipping the children’s menu to opting for a lunch out instead of dinner, Zagat offers insight into how to save big while on the road.

Though the number of meals eaten out and taken out in the U.S. has decreased from 52 percent pre-recession to 45 percent, the average meal cost has only increased less than 1 percent, according to Zagat’s 2012 America’s Top Restaurants Survey.

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This year’s survey covered 1,578 of the U.S.’s top restaurants in 45 markets and was voted on by more than 156,000 diners who dined out an estimated 25 million times in the past year, or roughly 3.1 times per week.

The average price of a meal in the U.S. is $35.65, which includes a soft drink, tax and tip, according to the annual survey. The most expensive city for dining is Las Vegas, at $47.53 per meal. This pales in comparison to the average price in London, which is $69.25, and Tokyo, which is $113.09, when factoring in exchange rates from September 2011.

For those with children, Zagat suggests skipping American and French formal restaurants and paying attention to what children like. Zagat suggests opting for local eateries that offer flavors and ingredients you can’t get elsewhere, like po’boys and Creole cuisine in New Orleans, crab shacks in New England, and family dining restaurants in Houston. Restaurants that serve family-style meals are also ideal dining spots, notes Zagat.

"Look for food you can’t get elsewhere," said Zagat of where to find the great deals. Try a Vietnamese restaurant in Houston or a Chinese dim sum restaurant, deli or pizza parlor in the outer boroughs of Manhattan.

Skip the kids menu
Skipping the kids' menu and not ordering separate children’s meals can help parents save money while usually providing enough food for the family to enjoy. Zagat notes that children’s portions are typically small and not always healthy. For restaurants that offer deals where children eat free, Zagat notes that if you follow the advice to share the adult portion with the child, then the child does, indeed, eat free.

Tipping tips
The tip should be based on the net pretax price, according to Zagat, who suggests tipping 15 to 16 percent, which could save diners 10 percent.

Speak up
When the server introduces the specials or makes suggestions, don’t be embarrassed to ask how much it costs.

"You should be embarrassed not to ask," said Zagat.

Ask for help
Seek out guidebooks, websites, and others for recommendations on where to eat and find the best deals. The best values for families tend to be restaurants that serve regional and comfort food.

Skip the extras
Navigating a menu is one thing; avoiding the hidden costs is another. Asking for extra items like mushrooms or cheese and adding items like side dishes can cause the bill to add up.

"Be careful of all the extras. They add up," said Zagat. That includes alcohol — alcoholic beverages can add up to $15 per glass to the bill.

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