Why it's worth spending $400 on a meal when you travel

Would you spend $400 on a single meal? There are plenty of people who would think it absolutely insane. 

Even writing it down now, it sounds like a bad idea. You could do so much with $400. You could set aside just $10 of that wad to feed yourself and then still have $390 to play with. When you're travelling on a budget, that's a lot of money. 

That's a week's accommodation. It's a budget flight. It's about 400 Bintangs in Bali. That's not something to be sneezed at.

And yet, I've spent $400 on a meal. A couple of times. Once was at a place called Restaurant Arzak in northern Spain, a three-Michelin-starred joint that's a long-time fixture on the gourmet landscape in San Sebastian. Another time was at Etxebarri, another fancy eatery in the Spanish countryside near Bilbao. 

I haven't regretted either extravagance for a second. In fact, whenever I look back on either of those meals, I never think about how much they cost. I think about the experience of dining in those amazing restaurants, of sampling food that has been conceived and created by absolute masters.

If you really like to eat, then that's money well spent. And anyway, it's not about the money, not once that experience has been run through the filter of memory over and over again. The cost ceases to matter. It becomes all about the enjoyment.

And it's the same for so much when it comes to travel. You never think about how much that amazing souvenir cost you. You never think about the cash you blew on the year-long holiday. You never remember how much you paid to go to that concert, or that sports game, or for that fancy cocktail on a rooftop bar.

The price doesn't matter.

I was speaking to someone in the travel industry the other day who mentioned this phenomenon. It doesn't matter how much something costs, he said. People don't remember price tags. People remember amazing experiences.


Admittedly, he works in marketing, but what he says rings true. I remember going to see Lionel Messi play football in Barcelona, but I don't remember how much I paid for the tickets. I remember taking a light plane flight over Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, but again, I have no idea how much it cost.

I remember going to see Radiohead play in Berlin, and upgrading my car hire to a Mustang convertible in California, and deciding to go first class on the Trans-Mongolian, and having high tea at the Ritz in London, and doing a month-long tour through Peru and Bolivia, and buying an antique carpet in Azerbaijan. But I have no clue how much any of those things cost me.

In the long run, it doesn't matter. As long as you enjoy it, and you remember it. 

As someone who has spent most of his life as a budget-conscious backpacker, this was a difficult thing to get my head around to begin with. When you're wired to scrimp and save as much as possible, the option of spending $400 on dinner doesn't even cross your mind.

For the most part, that's reasonable. Less money spent equals more time away. But the occasional extravagances, as much as they might hurt your hip pocket at the time, are always worth it.

How you choose to do this splashing out is entirely personal. I don't go in for luxury hotels, because they don't really excite me. I don't spend much time in my room when I'm travelling. A $50-a-night hotel would mean as much to me as $500-a-night luxury.

I would never pay to fly business class. I don't buy fancy clothes or jewellery. I use public transport instead of taxis. I've never been in a limousine.

It's all a matter of preference. I always want to see the absolute best of the things l love – that's the way to guarantee a memorable experience. I love music, so I wanted to see Radiohead play live. I love football, so I wanted to see Lionel Messi play (and then Cristiano Ronaldo in Madrid, but that's another story).

And I love to eat, so I wanted to see what food tastes like when it comes out of the best kitchens in the world, when it's created by the best chefs, and when it's served in the most amazing surrounds. That, to me, is more memorable than a week's accommodation, or a budget flight. Or even 400 Bintangs in Bali.

Though the result is the same: you don't remember how much you spent.

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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