Vacation Economics vs. Real Life Economics

by Ruzielle Ganuelas

Due to the logistics of a long distance relationship, I go on vacation and travel as soon as I’m able to. Prior to this relationship, I considered vacations/travel a general waste of time because I’m a workaholic and I have lots of nervous energy. But I’ve realized that not only do mandated breaks slow my hyperactive mind and body, they also help me loosen up on my absurd food and money rules.

I think of it as vacation economics versus real life economics. In vacation economics, money is fluid and everlasting. In real life economics, spending is limited. Same rules apply for calories consumed.

In real life, I only spend $10–20 on meals out, usually something Asian-y, or maybe a burger and fry combo. I never order steak or seafood — too bougie. I recently discovered a decent Asian deli where $20 buys you a meal for a week. You get your starches, protein, and requisite stir-fried vegetables for $6 a pop in large takeout boxes. Since I work in the food biz, I get lots of free foodstuffs, so my bi-weekly groceries are minimal. I spent $30 last time at the grocery and I made enough food for a week and a half.

In the past couple of years I’ve visited Montreal three times and Savannah, Georgia once. Both are fabulous food cities in their own right, and I was in dreamland. On vacation, I’m more than willing to pay the $100 tab, including a generous tip, at the fabulous sushi restaurant with an attentive but very nervous waitress. Tips increase as I’m happy to be young and healthy and spending time with my favorite person. I ate at a Waffle House close to my hotel. A hamburger, hash browns with chili and soda was only $7. I tipped my waitress $3. Next time I was there, I had a pecan waffle and a side of bacon (coffee comes with) for $5, plus a $5 tip.

When I got back to Seattle, still deep into vacation economics, I went to Geraldine’s Counter at burgeoning Columbia City, where I paid $15 for eggs and coffee. Frankly, I preferred the no-name coffee they served at the Waffle House, and I got it for free, but I didn’t mind the obvious brunchian rip off.

Only when I’m traveling do I justify $30 on crab cakes and eating sweets every day. I have a wicked sweet tooth. It only takes one golden Oreo to start a sugar binge, so I refrain from indulging. But on vacation, there is no carb left behind. In Savannah, I was determined to check out River Street Sweets, Savannah Kitchen, and Back in the Day Bakery.

We drove to downtown Savannah and met a concierge. My person slipped him a $20 and I asked him about Savannah bakeries and he pointed that-a-way. My person who doesn’t share my sweet tooth asked about the best seafood in town, and he sold us on the powers of Maryland blue crabs; my person grew up in Washington DC and knew all about its mystique. He drew on a map and a big star marked the spot.

I was a little disappointed to see the restaurant in tourist trap square, but I was hungry, and I get hangry. So we grabbed a menu, asked for the soonest table available and ordered the crab cakes as soon as our server showed up. We received a large plate with two tall crab cakes, and quickly realized that one crab cake costs $15 a pop.

For a moment I wanted to send the dish back; this meal had better come with a glass of good Pinot for that price. $30 for two crab cakes goes against my real life economics, I have to work OT to pay for that plate. What to do? What to do?

As my person is an engineer and used to the good life, the price barely registered on his brain. He was in Savannah for work, and everything he spent fell into real life economics. But it was good, too good — I’m afraid I’ve been ruined forever. I spent the next few days ordering crab cakes (in different price points, but nowhere near $30) in every restaurant we visited, but none was good enough. There’s a reason it was so expensive, those cakes had 1 percent filler and 99 percent sweet, juicy crab. I’ve learned something important that day too: sometimes $30 for crab cakes is worth every damn dollar and you’ll forget about it because life and money goes on.

Across from the crab restaurant is Savannah Kitchen. At the front door is where they cook and sample pralines from a marble slab, and it’s hard to miss the buttery sugary smell enticing innocent bystanders. I’ve heard of pralines but never had them; turns out it’s a caramel pecan confection. Delicious, in other words. I’ve also heard about divinity from “A Chef’s Life,” and was surprised to see how plain looking they were. A small packet of creamy nougat with a chopped pecan garnish. Its simplicity is deceptive, this is candy for a real sweet freak.

As I am inclined to do in a sweet shop, I wanted to buy everything. A bag of peanut brittle for $9 on sale, divinity for gifts at almost $2 a pop, and half a pound of fresh pralines for $18 a pound. We walked over to Byrd’s Famous Cookies and bought an $8 bag of Georgia Peach cookies, a gift for a fellow night shift soldier. Sadly, I never made it to Back in the Day Bakery, but I made up for it by drinking a couple of $10 Georgia peach cocktails, more syrup than booze and oh-so-refreshing.

Last time I was in Montreal we went to O’Noir, a “dining in the dark” restaurant experience. He is a drinker and I’m not, and between the two of us, we left O’Noir $140 poorer. It’s $40 a person for a three-course meal excluding tax, tip and drinks. We fought over the tab, but in my experience, the server/cashier always takes the man’s money, as she did at O’Noir. In real life, I would have a mental breakdown watching anyone pay that much money over anything, but it’s Montreal, the closest I will get to Paris, and money doesn’t matter when you’re in love and on vacation.

Later, he told his friends about O’Noir and they said they could never afford that place. So of course we made plans to take them to O’Noir. I didn’t find out the total cost of our 5-person outing but my guesstimate is about $400. All four of them are drinkers and they had our server running trying to fill their drink orders. His friends were glowing for days afterwards, and they regaled all their friends with their fabulous experience. Vacation Me was only too happy to oblige, so happy that I picked up their $40 tab at the local dive bar.

As it is my custom, we drove around to find a (vegan) bakery in Montreal called Sophie Sucree. The owner is a 20-something former mathematician who changed careers from finance to pastry — someone I could get behind. We bought a couple of coffees and $5 cupcakes which were noticeably smaller than their American counterparts. The cupcakes were stale and too much money but we came back and ordered something else, and they were quite fabulous. Last year we went to a chocolaterie ala Chocolat, and I vaguely remember dropping $30 on overpriced chocolate. Back home, I balk at $3 Theo chocolate bars and I get a 15 percent industry discount.

One of my last meals in Savannah was an $18 elk burger. In real life, I would have never stepped into this restaurant. I read Yelp reviews and look up menus before going into a restaurant to determine how much I’m willing to spend. I don’t ever want to be that person who publicly freaks out over my bill. The elk burger was one of the worst burgers I’ve ever had. Incredibly dry, tough, and not properly seasoned. I’m sure a strong enough cheese would have given it flavor but dairy allergies. The fries were terrible too. I hate to say it, but the diet soda was the best part of the meal.

As I eat, I realize I only have marginal money feelings for my Waffle House burger (so much better, FYI) or my $18 burger — they’re just meals. Despite my exorbitant spending (and eating) on vacation, I never have any food and money regrets, even that $3 blondie I bought at Newark airport that gave me a tummy ache for days. I always remember the fun and the people, but never any anxiety over spending or calorie control. Vacation economics transforms me into this person who can fully enjoy her food and her money.

This story is part of our Travel Month series.

Ruzielle Ganuelas eats, blogs, and works in Washington State. Her dream is to finally make it to Paris.

Photo credit: Larry Hoffman

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