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Savoring and Saving: Cooking on Vacation

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Savoring and Saving: Cooking on Vacation

Matt Tracy, 45, a shoe distributor based in Portland, Maine, loves to cook. On a recent multigenerational trip to Tuscany, he and other family members cooked seven out of 10 nights in a rental villa, preparing dishes like wild boar ragù for 10 people, including his children, 6 and 9.

​ “We save a tremendous amount of money cooking,” he said. “We love going out to dinner, but with two kids and other guests it’s expensive.”

​Whether catering to allergies or other dietary needs, ensuring family harmony or sticking to a budget, cooking on vacation is increasingly popular among travelers choosing short-term rental accommodations.

According to a 2023 travel trend report from the vacation rental platform Vrbo, demand for “foodie-menities” is on the rise. Sixty-five percent of users surveyed said equipment like a barbecue, air fryer and deluxe coffee machine were more important than the destination. Nearly half cook to reduce costs.

At Airbnb, “kitchen” is the third most searched amenity among rentals after pools and Wi-Fi. The rental platform made it easy to find accommodations with “chef’s kitchens” when it introduced various lodging categories in May 2022.

“The kitchen tends to be the heart and soul of vacation homes,” wrote Josh Viner, a regional operations director at the vacation rental home platform Vacasa, in an email. It is in the kitchen, he notes, that “guests gather to not only have a delicious, home-cooked meal, but also connect and relax.”

Travelers who cook do it for many reasons: as a way to explore a place when shopping locally for ingredients; saving money; a family convenience; and more.

​ “Many clients like to have the cooking option,” said Rob Stern, a travel agent based in Raleigh, N.C., who runs RobPlansYourTrip.com, singling out “families on a budget or those who have picky eaters.”

​For others, meal prep brings them closer to their destination.

“When I’m trying to experience a place one of my favorite things to do is visit a grocery store,” said Tanya Churchmuch, 53, who runs a public relations firm in New York City.

​Preparing her own food also allows her to maintain a healthy diet. Even on trips as short as three days, she takes a mini espresso maker and steel cut oats and buys fruit locally to eat at least one meal in, saving, she estimates, between $15 and $30 a couple compared to dining out.

For Ashleigh Butler, the author of the cookbook “The Small Kitchen Cook” who has spent years living out of a camper van in her native Australia as well as North America, patronizing local markets “allows you to absorb the culinary culture whilst supporting local farmers and makers.”

​For frequent travelers, staying somewhere with a kitchen feels less isolating.

“There’s nothing harder than being in a regular hotel room, especially when you’re in places indefinitely,” said Gary Durant, 49, a sports agent from Toronto who is on the road 300 days a year, in an interview from a Level Hotels & Furnished Suites location in Los Angeles.

In the kitchen, he prepares simple dishes like eggs and pasta and entertains clients with delivery meals that he can properly heat and serve. “A kitchen with amenities feels like home away from home,” he said.

Renting a place with a fancy kitchen doesn’t have to cost more. While the “chef’s kitchens” category for Chicago Airbnbs recently had plenty of fancy rentals going for $1,200 and up, there was also a good selection under $200.

For gastronauts, going to places famed for their food makes the cooking not only exciting but cheaper and simpler.

“In Italy, you’re starting off already with great quality ingredients, which makes cooking Italian food so much easier because you don’t have to do so much to the ingredients,” said Jeff Michaud, 46, a Philadelphia-based chef who runs Osteria restaurant. With his wife, Claudia, he also runs the travel company La Via Gaia, which takes small groups to Italy for cooking classes and visits to cheesemakers, truffle hunters and pasta masters.

On average, he estimates he spends about a half to a third of what he would on equivalent ingredients at home, noting a loaf of bread often costs less than a dollar. “In Italy, food is still priced affordably,” he said.

When she travels in Europe, ​Diane Morgan, 68, a food writer and culinary instructor based in Portland, Ore., searches rental listings for appliances like a grill to keep the cleaning to a minimum.

​Three stays in the southern French town of Sablet offered her the chance to patronize local markets and bakeries.​ “It was really simple eating,” she said, describing fresh salads for her lunches. “I wasn’t trying to bake cakes but just be able to utilize the local produce and especially the cheeses.”

​Sampling local food in your rental kitchen doesn’t always require cooking skills.

“My hot French insider tip for travelers with kitchens: frozen food,” wrote Gayle Keck, 62, a writer from California who recently relocated to France, in an email. She recommended the frozen-food chain Picard as a time- and money-saver (four servings of salmon tartare costs 11.70 euros, or about $12.85). It’s also a taste of how the locals cheat with classics like duck confit and quiche Lorraine. “Picard is everyone’s little guilty secret.”

Sizing up a rental’s kitchen can be a hurdle for cooks on the road, resulting in unique packing lists.

Mr. Tracy, the wild boar ragù chef, travels with Better Than Bouillon roasted chicken base, toothpicks for spearing finger food, and a chef’s knife and a paring knife, both wrapped in a towel and stowed in checked baggage.

​In the summers of 2020 and 2021, Ms. Churchmuch and her wife relocated to Iceland to work remotely. “That’s when we started taking things like knives and a microplane,” she said. “No one has a grater in their apartment.”

On a recent trip to Philadelphia, Tara Crowley, 37, a chef based in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., chose the extended-stay hotel AKA University City because its open-plan kitchen allowed her to socialize with friends and family while cooking.

“I always travel with a wine key and bring along flaky Irish salt,” Ms. Crowley wrote in an email. “The salt elevates any dish.”

Eva Sobesky, an architect based in Los Angeles, tried to make it easier for renters to navigate the kitchen at her four-bedroom vacation home in coastal Manzanita, Ore., which she rents on Vrbo. Open shelves allow guests to see where dishes and glasses are. A large central countertop island lets others gather around the cook. An induction cooktop is efficient and easy to clean.

​ “To me, the kitchen is the heart of the house,” Ms. Sobesky said.

R.V.s and rental vans challenge cooks with limited work and storage space. Ms. Butler of the vanlife cookbook embraced the size limitations, which she said encouraged her to “be creative and also more thoughtful” with her recipes, which include pan-fried pizza and steamed cake.

When Covid restrictions limited her travel, Ms. Morgan managed a van trip in remote southeast Oregon by planning out meals like lamb curry ahead of time and washing greens in advance.

​ “We had no food waste on that trip,” she said.

At home or afar, food waste is the pitfall of cooking. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that 31 percent of food produced each year nationally is wasted at the retail and consumer levels.

That figure may be higher among travelers. In preliminary results, the first phase of a study by the Environmental Protection Agency in Telluride, Colo., over high-season summer and winter time periods found that 70 percent of trash was recoverable, meaning it could have been recycled or composted.

“Sometimes I go into an apartment and the amount of food people have left is incredible,” said Bob Garner, who rents short-term vacation homes in Italy and last year launched EnviroRental, a website for property hosts to learn how to operate more sustainably. “I could live off it for a week.”

Mr. Garner advises guests to shop for half of their stay. “Buy less, don’t over-shop the first day and you’ll save money and won’t worry about food waste,” he said.

While reducing waste is an individual responsibility, the new organization Sustonica certifies short-term rentals based on sustainable practices, including waste reduction among its criteria. The requirements call for at least four recycling bins — glass, paper, plastic and organic — and supplying reusable shopping bags. Sustonica aims to have 70,000 properties vetted by year end.

Earlier this year, Diane Daniel, a short-term rental host in Indian Rocks Beach, Fla., founded the nonprofit Vacation Donations to help visitors and other property managers find ways to donate food and items like books and beach toys.

​In addition to buying less, Ms. Daniel recommends travelers ask short-term rental hosts if they have a system for donating food and other things.

​ “In my wildest dream, keeping things out of the waste bin will be part of what you expect and demand in your rentals,” she said.


Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram and sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to get expert tips on traveling smarter and inspiration for your next vacation. Dreaming up a future getaway or just armchair traveling? Check out our 52 Places to Go in 2023.



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