Sometimes You Just Need McDonald’s

McDonald's Golden Arches

I wandered aimlessly around the main square in Trabzon, checking and re-checking my guidebook map, trying desperately to get my bearings. It was 6:00 a.m. and I was fresh off an overnight bus, feeling not-so-fresh and searching for my hotel to at least drop off my bags. Suddenly, a welcome sight jumped out at me.

The Golden Arches.

Yes, on the corner of the square in this Black Sea coast town in Turkey was a McDonald’s and I was almost as happy to see those golden arches as I was to find my hotel about five minutes later.

And as soon as I had left my bags at reception, I was back at McDonald’s enjoying a breakfast of a double cheeseburger (minus the bun of course), french fries and Coca Cola Light.

McDonald's french fries and soda

People (and by people, I mean travelers-not-tourists who seem to look down on anyone who even sets foot in a McDonald’s abroad) give McDonald’s a bad rap. It seems to be taboo – like you just aren’t a good “traveler” if you hit up a McDonald’s during your journey.

Well, I say to heck with that.

Like many Americans, I grew up with McDonald’s. After coming to enjoy it as a special treat as a kid, it soon became a regular hangout as a teenager. With a McDonald’s just behind the football field from my high school, that was where we went to gossip, to flirt – heck, even to date. A lot of really important high school stuff went down at McDonald’s.

In college, I went to McDonald’s for three things: the Arch Deluxe with Bacon (their best burger ever), Teenie Beanie Babies (I once stopped at every McDonald’s from Minneapolis to Iowa City in an attempt to collect them all) and Monopoly (who doesn’t love winning free stuff?).

McDonald’s might be as quintessential American as it gets – which is probably why a lot of people tend to shun it when traveling.  They want to experience the local culture and cuisine, not hole up at McDonald’s with the local teens or other fanny-pack toting tourists. And I generally feel the same way – without a doubt, I prefer sampling the local fare over McDonald’s almost any day.

But sometimes you just need McDonald’s.

And by you, I mean I, but probably you too.

Like when you arrive in Trabzon at the crack of dawn after an overnight bus ride, are starving because you thought you could grab dinner at the station before departing and ended up eating just potato chips and a banana, and nothing else is open.

Or when you have been living with a family on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, eating nothing but boiled chicken and potatoes for dinner every night for a month.

Or when it is Christmas Day in Warsaw and nothing is open within walking distance of your hotel except for McDonald’s. Hey, a girl’s gotta have Christmas dinner.

Or when you are in Kiev for a few weeks and can’t connect to wi-fi at any other restaurant or café in the entire city besides McDonald’s.

Or when you arrive in Tbilisi at the crack of dawn after an overnight train ride spent drinking cognac with three crazy Georgian guys and, well, see Trabzon above.

Or when you are in Helsinki and learn that McDonald’s has gluten free hamburger buns there and you tell yourself you have an obligation to test one out for readers of your gluten free travel blog but really you just want a Micky D’s hamburger for the first time in 2 years.

Gluten free hamburger bun in Helsinki
Gluten free hamburger bun at McDonald's in Helsinki.

Or when you have stayed out all night drinking, dancing and listening to bad karaoke in Istanbul and you’re hungover and need to muster the energy to visit the Aya Sophia and the Blue Mosque, McDonald’s will likely be screaming your name. It’s okay to give in. Trust me, McDonald’s might be the best hangover cure on earth.

Or when you just really crave a fountain soda or a chocolate milkshake or what I firmly believe are some of the best French fries ever made.

Or, of course, when you really, really, really need to pee.

Do you ever eat at McDonald’s while traveling? (Come on, I know you do…) What’s your excuse?

44 thoughts on “Sometimes You Just Need McDonald’s”

  1. McDonald’s in Italy has cappuccino milkshakes and I enjoy one about once a month. And sometimes I’d rather grab McDonald’s on the road to have more time to sightsee. Plus, McDonald’s around the world has some really interesting things on the menu to reflect more “local” tastes. Nothing wrong with going to them around the world!

  2. McDonald’s is the ultimate comfort food. I’m teaching ESL in a small village in Thailand where there’s no Western food available period. McDonald’s is always the first thing I go for when I reach civilization. It doesn’t matter whether the food quality is great or not; for me, nothing cures homesickness like McDonald’s. Particularly hash browns – I could literally live on them.

    1. awwww, love hash browns! some McDonald I’ve been to though don’t serve breakfast food, so no hash browns. 🙁

  3. Best Big Mac I ever had was the morning after a wild night in St. Petersburg, Russia. I can still remember that wonderful, much-needed, comfortable, hangover-curing first bite…

  4. Pingback: Why eat McDonalds | Ellen in Turkey

  5. So funny! This is the third or fourth post I’ve seen about eating at McDonalds while traveling. I admit I never eat at a McDonalds in the US. I don’t think I’ve been in one for over five years. However, I will eat at one when I am traveling. I guess it is a bit of comfort food when I am on the road.

    Years ago, I ate at a McDonalds in a Parisian neighborhood. I ended up meeting a girl from Lebanon and spent the entire day with her. I went with her to the doctor, saw a move in the theater, and ate at a Lebanese restaurants – all things I never would have done on my own. To this day, we still keep in touch.

    So as much as I don’t like the food, I can’t knock my McDonalds experiences while traveling! 🙂

  6. I usually do it when I’ve just arrived in a place, still need to get used to the country, and am just too tired/fragile to attempt a local food experience. Or when I am starving, but there seems to be no local restaurant and that’s the only thing I can find. I mean, food is food. Or when I am in an airport, and every other eating place is super mega over priced!

  7. Back in 1997, my husband and I were on a small bus tour of Taiwan. There were about 20 people altogether and about 4 of us were English speakers. One day, we were dropped off in a city whose name escapes me for lunch “on your own”. This town had no signs in English. One by one, the English speakers all ended up at the MacDonalds: us, the Peace Corps volunteer, and the oboist from the Johannesburg Symphony. There was no English in the MacDonalds either, but I guess the golden arches were beacons and, for better or for worse, a Big Mac is a Big Mac.

  8. I can totally relate, however the first time that I did an RTW I was taking a 5 year break from McDonalds (I was there for one reason or another almost ever day in high school, so I decided to quit for a year—which turned into five). So for me my vice was the also ubiquitous KFC.

    It didn’t matter that the last time I had KFC in Canada I was 12 and ended up with food poisoning, it tasted like home. Only white girl in the overwhelming Chonquing train station? KFC. Stuck in Cairo for 8 days waiting for the season to change for a cheaper flight to Bulgaria? KFC. And the list goes on and on.

    (PS – I’m also a former tax lawyer, arriving via Legal Nomads).

    1. Hi Allison! Thanks for visiting and for your comment! Ah yes, KFC became my go-to when I was in Armenia recently. No McDonalds there and for a while, KFC was the only place I could find where I knew what I was ordering because I couldn’t read the menus anywhere else. I finally stopped when the girl behind the counter knew my order by heart! 🙂

  9. Not to mention it’s a great meeting point! So many times in Europe when meeting up with Couchsurfers, they say “Meet at the McDonald’s.” AND like a couple others mentioned: free wifi!

  10. After intense work in two refugee camps in Thailand I left the jungle area, arrived in a town and found comfort in a Pizza Hut. I don’t even like Pizza Hut. 🙂

    Katie, I’ve been one of your silent readers. I found you through Lexi Grant and get your blog posts by email. Just wanted to say hi and tell you I enjoy reading your blog.
    Thanks, Lindsey

  11. Yes, I ate there in Madrid after a play. It and Hardrock Cafe were the only places in which I heard English spoken, and after spending 2 weeks with only my basic knowledge of Spanish and rare if any translation from my companion, it was a relief! Plus my companion loved all things American. She was always uncertain about whether I’d like local establishments. The Big Mac I ordered there was kinda crunchy though. Fries were the same, yum!

  12. I ate McDonalds in Italy with Breakaway Backpacker. We were hung over, waiting for a train and it was just what we needed. I don’t regret it in fact I wrote about it!

    1. Haha, I remember reading about that! I swear, there is nothing like McDonald’s to cure a hangover…

  13. My vice when I was living in New Zealand was Wendy’s! There were very few of them in the country (and none in Australia!), but one down the street from my job and I would “celebrate” the 24th of every month (the day I arrived in NZ) with lunch from Wendy’s. Comfort food is great, especially after a hard day:-)

    1. I’ve only encountered one Wendy’s on my travels – in Moscow. I practically ran there to get a Frosty fix! 🙂

  14. I worked at McDonald’s in the U.S. as a teenager. Saving money from flipping burgers is how I was able to pay for my first trip to Paris in 1989. I love visiting McDonald’s in other countries, looking over the counter and watching people work, and seeing what’s the same and what’s different.

  15. For me, I will never forget one of the last nights of my tour of England finding a Pizza Hut in London. I barely eat at Pizza Hut in the U.S., but it was fantastic and such a welcome sight (and taste)!

    1. Haha, funny because after my three and a half week tour around Europe in 2001, when we returned to London, Pizza Hut was like around the corner from our hotel and that’s where we headed to!

  16. I have never been ashamed to admit that I eat at McDonalds when traveling. Not only is it a free place to use the bathroom, often a source for free wifi, a place where you know what you’re getting and don’t have to bargain, but it’s a place to overcome homesickness. As a designer, I love to see the international branding.

  17. I reckon we all do it! Some are just too ashamed to admit it! Good on you. I travelled with one friend who always used to have the mind set that it would be a total crime to get fast food in a foreign place. In fact, she went so far as to only ever eat the traditional food from that country, no matter how long we were there for or what she really wanted. Then, after a night of illness caused by some dodgy olives/calamari in Marrakech, she insisted it was the only thing she could trust and keep down. I was so pleased to see that even the stubborn ones eventually succumb! All this talk of Big Macs is making me really hungry…

  18. I know what you mean about craving something such as McDonald’s even when normally back at home you don’t crave it. Too bad Chick Fil A hasn’t gone global. I could go for one of their sandwhiches. I have had my share of bratwurst and could use some chicken. Sometimes hard to find here in Germany.

  19. Katie, I love this post! I personally don’t like McDonald’s whether I’m in the States or abroad, so I generally don’t go in unless I’m really desperate or, my one exception, for fries and a vanilla shake. But even that is rare. But I will occasionally go into Burger King or some other American junky fast food place for comfort food and familiarity when I’m on the road. The concept is the same. Even though we “should” be eating all the local food, every so often you need something familiar.

    1. Thanks Ali! Yes, there is just something about the comfort of home at times – especially when you’re traveling long term! And while we may sample the local food, it doesn’t mean we have to love it all. I probably ate at McDonald’s more in Russia than anywhere else because I just didn’t love any of the local food.

  20. Once I arrived in Edinburgh in winter at around 6am off an overnight bus – walking up Princess St there was only one thing open – McDonalds – but I was so frozen I didn’t want to eat – I wanted coffee -but their hot water was broken!

    I think that’s pretty much the only time I’ve been in McDonalds when travelling – why spend 10X the going rate for rubbish food?

    1. Well, I personally don’t think McDonald’s is rubbish – love, love, love their french fries! And before I had to go gluten free, their chicken sandwiches (especially the McChicken) were my favorites.

      Many places I have been McDonald’s or other fast food places are actually cheaper – a value meal in Kiev came out to about $4.50.

  21. Completely agree, you can’t beat the convenience of a McDonald’s when you are in a different country. Sometimes the food is questionable but it hits the spot and sets you up for a day of exploring!

    This is making me hungry….now what can I eat?!

  22. oh I don’t even pretend that I eat McDonalds as a last resort. I had a goal of eating McDonalds at least once in every country we visited. You know, cause you gotta have goals in life. I like to see what’s different on the menus around the world. And it’s not like we didn’t try the local cuisine in all the countries we visited. We generally tried to eat the national cusine if we could. Let’s say boo to travel snobbery.

    1. Thanks Jess! And you’re right on with checking out the local quirks on the menus – it’s really interesting to see what they offer in different countries. (Matt of just wrote a post about that very point).

  23. I do. Sometimes you just need to be able to eat something and know what it is! I think your stomach….well, mine anyway, copes better with something familiar after getting off those long buses, or weird periods of travel when you have not eaten much, or eaten things you cannot pronounce and have no idea what they were….
    Sometimes it’s just easy to go to Macca’s, eat….and then be ready for the adventure of somewhere new, to find somewhere to stay.
    And yes…the bathroom is usually semi-clean!

    1. Very true about knowing what you’re eating – being gluten intolerant, I need to know what I’m consuming and sometimes with the language barrier it becomes a huge challenge to try the local food so I resort to something I know I can handle.

  24. Sorry, can’t agree with you on this one. Few things in this world taste worse than what passes for food at McDonald’s. Though I can see that having fun memories might make a difference.

    My travelling vice is Starbucks, but for the opposite reason, I suppose, since there aren’t any at home.

    1. Haha, to each her own. As I mentioned elsewhere, I adore McDonald’s food, especially the french fries. 🙂

      1. I can relate to the familiarity of home. When I was at uni in the US, I once found tinned fish balls in a shop in Dallas. Even if I hardly ever eat them at home, I just had to buy it, even if it cost a king’s ransom…

        It’ll be interesting to see if you can find McDonald’s in the Central Asian countries. Maybe they even have local specialties. They used to serve McSalmon here in Norway.

  25. I got a kick out of this post. The only thing I would add is it is also great when you need a break from dealing with the language barrier. You just point at their little picture card and get what you want.

    1. Yep – very true about the language! I did exactly that when I hit the McDonald’s in Tbilisi, Georgia. Couldn’t read a single word, but I could point at the pictures and know exactly what I was getting.

  26. heck yea i hit up mcdonalds when traveling hahah! people do pretend like you’re a horrible traveler when you do it and i say screw em! i actually never ate there really in the US though. i eat there in europe because sometimes you just have too many bad meals in a row at regular places and want a place you can rely on. mcdonald’s never fails. they also have bathrooms and wifi. and they usually infuse a bit of the local taste and flavor into their menu. it’s a win/win for me.

    1. Sooo true on all points! People make out that eating the local cuisine is always gonna be good and sometimes it just isn’t – especially when there’s not a lot of variety. If you’re in one place a long time you can justget sick of it and need something familiar!

      1. eastern europe is where i often hit mcdonalds up to be honest…so i completely sympathize because youve been over there so long.

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