Eating McDonald’s Abroad… Oh the Shame!

Eating MacDonald’s Abroad… Oh the Shame!

The honest truth is that I rarely eat McDonald’s when I’m in the comfort of my home settings.  I hardly ever feel the cravings for their sawdust meat paddies and far from organic sauces, and I am definitely not a fan of stomach aches.   However, whenever I’m abroad, lost in a strange and complex world, I am drawn to the golden arches’ bright orange glow.  As I walk through the gates to this fast food Mecca I feel a sense of freedom, excitement, and guilt.

Throughout the world McDonald’s fast food huts have popped up in almost every imaginable location in the world, often providing an obstacle to perfect photographs of locations of cultural significance.  As I’ve traveled around Latin America I’ve seen it on many occasions.  In Mexico City, the road that leads up to the monumental Cathedral which houses the depiction of The Virgin de Guadalupe is blocked by a McDonald’s arch which rudely leans itself out over the street vendors selling rosaries and other catholic styled trinkets.  In the Inca Capital of Cusco it is much of the same.  When the Spanish conquered the Inca they destroyed the main plaza’s buildings and erected cathedrals and European styled buildings directly on top of the historical structures.  It could be said that when the tourists later conquered the city they did the same, erecting a McDonalds within the foundations of Spanish buildings.  As a responsible traveler I feel ashamed at every urge I feel to devour a greasy quarter pounder with cheese; but the reality is, I can’t help but do it.

Travelers from all over the world outwardly mutter curse words as they walk past the gates to fast food’s globalization scapegoat, but on the inside they are all thinking “what I would pay for a quick breakfast with real orange juice!”  I spent my first few travel years avoiding McDonald like the plague until finally, after a long overnight bus ride, I ran into a McDonald’s in the small Costa Rican mountain town of San Isidro de El General.  This time, rather than looking like a barrier to the cultural atmosphere it looked like the Holy Grail or a pot of gold at the end of the most beautiful rainbow.  Normally a fan of window seats and patios, in this case I sat down to devour my bacon and egger, ok, my three bacon and eggers and one sausage and egger, in the seat furthest away from any window worried about falling into the line of sight of a passing by tourist who may scald me and throw rotten fruit.

I kid myself that it’s not the sauce laden Big Mac’s or the crisp and salty French fries that draw me to this most embarrassing of locales, but the idea itself that pulls me in.  I’ve told people my reasons so often that I am actually starting to believe them myself.  On the road, living in hotels, we often don’t have the time to cook for ourselves.  We spend good portions of our days in restaurants, so much so that our days begin to revolve around eating, and not the destination that we are visiting.  Personally, as a traveler who spends the majority of his time in South America, the time spent in restaurants can be absurd.  I spend fifteen minutes waiting for the waiter to acknowledge me, thirty minutes with the menu waiting for him to return, an hour waiting for them to do the necessary run to the market and subsequent cooking of the food, five minutes wolfing down the food, and another twenty waiting for the bill; not to mention another fifteen minutes if you need any sort of change.  It gets to the point that you leave to eat on a full stomach in preparation of the fact that you might be hungry in a couple of hours.  With McDonald’s I walk in, order my ‘eyes are bigger than my stomach’ meal and a half and eat it with a time period of fifteen minutes maximum.

I think the truth is, however, that we often feed our problems with food.  When we have a bad day we crave a chocolate bar or anentire tub of ice cream.  When we feel home sick we fill that insecurity with double cheeseburgers and Big ‘n Tasty’s.  When we sit down in the confines of a multicoloured McDonald’s and we see the familiar faces of Ronald McDonald and The Hamburglar and we feel comfortable and safe for a few minutes.

Regardless of cause or reason, I’ve slowly begun to lose my inhibitions towards eating at McDonald’s abroad.  Why shouldn’t I be happy?  In fact, I’ve even started to seek out other fast food giants to the point that I’ve basically mapped out each and every Burger King, Subway, and KFC on the entire South American continent.  I could write a traveler’s guidebook: “South American Travel for the Fast Food Addicted.”  The reality is, however, that to this day I still never take the window seat, and with each swallow of each Big Mac I feel guilt, shame, and regret.  It seems that I am on a perpetual motive-based fast food diet and losing nearly every day.  But, I’ll be honest I’m not going to stop, and neither are you; so let us all just stop fighting our consciouses and stop worrying about what other travelers will say or think so that we can all just eat our Double Quarter Pounders with Cheese under the shade of a street side patio umbrella in peace.


Author: Brendan van Son

Author: I am a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. Over my years as a travel photographer, I have visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than I have any desire to count. If you want to improve your skills, be sure to check out my travel photography channel on Youtube . Also, check out my profile on . to learn a little bit more about me and my work.

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40 Comments

  1. Funny stuff. I eat at McD’s all too often while I’m traveling. The speed and the internet access are factors, but I have to admit it’s a level of comfort in knowing exactly what you’re going to get sometimes.

    Eating local food is important to learning about the region, but that doesn’t mean you can’t indulge in an occasional memory of childhood and that stupid clown.

    🙂

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  2. Funny — and true! We always talk about why the heck we always drive through McDonald’s with nostalgia every time we’re in the “big city” of Liberia about 40 minutes away, even though none of us ate the stuff at home. I’ve also started associating McD’s fries and soda fountain Diet Cokes with airports; I don’t know why. My guiltiest pleasure while traveling though is Hard Rock Cafe, where I hadn’t eaten since I was about 10. Chicken tenders and nachos can fix anything when on the road, I guess!

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  3. It’s true—there’s totally a comfort in knowing (more or less) what you’re going to get. It’s that kind of security we sometimes crave desperately on the road—well, that and all the grease. 😉

    My favorite overseas McDonald’s: McPostres in Colombia. Mini-McDonalds that just sell desserts. Any country where that could work is a country I wanna be!

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  4. When I first started traveling, I ate at McDonald’s from time to time, (1) to see if it tasted different from home [it did] (2) to be in a comfortable and familiar place and (3) to have some familiar food [for it was familiar, after all, even though it tasted a little different.]

    It’s been years since I’ve dined at McDonald’s abroad. I just don’t ever want to anymore. Now I only eat at my local McDonald’s!

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  5. This is spot-on!

    I used to enjoy going to a KFC in London. And I would never go to them here in the US, but sometimes I just really wanted a chicken sandwich.

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  6. and you gotta hit them up in Australia! can’t go wrong with 30cent ice creams! (at least in 2008)

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  7. I haven’t spent as much time traveling as others but the only place that drew me in after walking by it regularly for a few months was Subway. I prefer a Bob’s Burgers in Brazil or Bembos in Peru over McD’s any day.

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    • Mmm… Bembos sure is delicious!!!

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  8. Plain and simple. When i travel,more often than not,i miss home. No matter how much i enjoy the local cuisine in each countries i visit,McDonald’s reminds me of home(America-the fastfood nation).Yes,its shallow but that’s how i feel when i see a McDo restaurant abroad. (Yes,I’m coming home).

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  9. hahaha this one made me laugh ’cause its true—when outside of “home” mcdonalds can be inviting. Last time I ate mcdonalds outside of my home area was in Barcelona when I could NOT find a place to stay for the life of me (I was backpacking alone). It tasted very good. 😉

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  10. McDonald’s isn’t really my cup of tea since I don’t really eat meat and don’t eat typical “American” food, but I totally understand the pull. It just gives you that sense of the familiar that we all crave from time to time when traveling.
    I lived abroad in the late 90’s in a small town in the Czech Republic. Almost every time I went to Prague, I would go somewhere to have American food, including the Dunkin’ Donuts that’s in the historical center. 🙂

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  11. Okay I also hate McDs. I never eat it at home but I know in the next year I’ll be there. I think the reason is that you know exactly what you are going to get and it’s a familiar taste – even if it is disgusting.

    I will hold out as long as I can and pray for a Burger King, which is slightly better 🙂

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  12. Your post rings so true. I love local food, but crave the fast food I would almost never eat at home.

    I was disappointed this winter to a MacD’s in the old section of Chiang Mai. Guess what, they make a good cup of coffee at much cheaper price than the Starbucks just down the road. I was buying my coffee to go and McD’s and finding a nice spot to drink it. I’ll admit too that I ate breakfast there a couple of time during my 5 weeks in CM.

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  13. Haha.. Great article. How brave of you to admit your crimes. 🙂 I never eat MacD’s at home, vegetarianism has something to do with it. But yeah, I can see how those golden arches give a little comfort and assurance – you know exactly what will end up in your mouth. 🙂

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  14. We all need comfort food, eh 🙂 Born and grew up in Indonesia, my comfort food is not McDonald’s, but those Indonesian food (or many other South East Asian or East Asian food). Since I’ve been our of Indonesia for 7 years, I don’t feel guilty eating my comfort food, at all (they are considered ethnic food anywhere else anyway 😀 ).

    I go to McDonald’s too. If I’m traveling only for a short time, then probably I will mostly go to local restaurant/food stall to try new food as many times as I can. But in traveling long time, we have plenty of local food already anyway, why not go to McDonald’s sometimes, there are some good and practical reason to go there:
    – In expensive countries, McDonald’s meal is cheaper (if always go to local eatery, either portion is too small, or price is too high)
    – Free WiFi.
    – Open until very late or even 24 hours. Very handy if you are a late person like me or in the road trip.

    Besides, the french fries and coffee are good there.

    Oh btw, I don’t even like burger! Hardly ever buy burger there..

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  15. Great post. In the past 20-plus years, I’ve eaten at exactly one McDonald’s. It was in France. I hate fast food. Hate it, hate it, hate it. But, I have to admit, seeing those golden arches after way too many hours in a car (and one too many heavy French meals), I about cried. It felt like home (even though my home never glows golden or counts out the number of people who have visited … the restroom). And, yes, the fries were just a good (and salty) as I remember!

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  16. Great article, love the way you write. I don’t eat fast food, ever – but I can understand the need to “know” what you’re eating when abroad. Enjoy!

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  17. There should be no shame, especially if you choose it deliberately rather than out of apathy or fear. I very rarely eat there in the US, but slightly more often in foreign countries. It seems to taste a lot better in Europe than the US.
    I travel a lot by myself, and it is nice to have a fallback place to go if you are having no luck meeting people, don’t speak the local language, or dont like the local cuisine. In one winter week I spent in Denmark, I ate there several times a day as the only local place I could find was a fish place and I dislike fish more than I dislike McDs.

    There is a cultural dimension to it as well. We often think of it as a horrible place, but I notice where I live in Germany it is really a hang out for the teens. Right in the middle of town and full at lunch. You could argue that it is an unhealthy habit, but it is part of what they want to do as well.

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  18. I always make note of McDonalds whenever I’m in a new city. They usually always have a decent public bathroom and they’re always so busy you don’t feel like a jerk sneaking in just to use the facilities.

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  19. Two comments. One, I think you mean McDonalds (no Mac). Second, even though the menu is the same the food taste very different and in some cases (South Korea) the entire menu is different. Back in the day, when I was a meat eater, I can attest that beef, fries, and even Coke tasted completely different in the UK and Mexico compared to America!

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  20. Actually, eating MacDonald’s abroad has become a way of dipping my french fries deeper in the foreigner’s way of eating 😉
    The Srilankese Mc Rice & Curry is awesome and you find that only in that country – same for the Mc I don’t know what in China (delicious piece of chicken with awesome spicy sauce) – and same for the Mc Crispy Chicken in the Philippines. It has been like a goal now, I have to taste the special meal in each country I visit 😉
    Check out the Mc Rice&Curry!
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/exiledesigns/4631213705/in/set-72157624249359196/

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    • hahaha… agreed! I had a McFallafel in Eygpt… although I think it made me sick… 🙁

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  21. Great post! I just wrote an article about this on my blog, very similar angle. I know what you mean about that tinge of guilt you get when you walk in under those golden arches. We wandered around a city once, trying to find a restaurant that appealed to us, continually passing the McD’s for an hour, both thinking the same thing but not saying it. And after a while we just kind of looked at each other and said, “I guess we’re thinking the same thing.” But I’m realizing, like the first commenter said, and like I said in my blog post, that there’s no reason to feel restricted to local cuisine, especially if your travelling for an extended time. Enjoy your travels, and if that means eating something familiar every once in a while, go for it!

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  22. I had to chime in on this one- made me laugh!

    We all need our comfort foods when traveling, and if it’s a McDonalds, then go for it! My comfort food is pizza. I actually ordered Dominoes while traveling in India- in Delhi. And, though I haven’t ordered a Dominoes in the US in over a decade, it was divine- they used real tomatoes. I also had Subway in the Delhi airport and they served falafel subs! Yummy!

    Some fast food joints have to use local ingredients and appeal to local tastes, so, we can assuage our feelings of guilt from fast food indulgence with these little tid-bits.

    But, I do hit the golden arches up for espresso. Often. And feel like a schmuck when I do. But its cheap and the confused voice coming through the menu intercom is worth it. “Espresso? We sell that? Huh? And you drink it?”

    Nice article! Travel safe!

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    • Thanks Crystal… and by the way, I love Dominoes! I can’t wait to get home and order about 10 of them!

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  23. I don’t really like McDonald’s I always feel like crap when I eat there, but I can understand the need to have some kind of comfort food. I ordered from a McDonald’s in France just to see if they had a Royale with Cheese – like in Pulp Fiction.

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  24. Too funny! I’ve eaten more breakfast at McD’s abroad than I’ve ever had in the states.

    Even if you don’t eat there often, it’s just “familiar” abroad. In Egypt, I managed to go over a week eating local food, and then our guide dropped us at a pizza place after two days camping on the banks of the Nile and it was like the happiest thing ever. The next thing I knew, I found myself continuing the western food fest at a McD’s in Luxor. Those golden arches were like magnets!

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  25. I don’t eat at McDonald’s, but there are definitely days at home where I’m craving some salty fries or a really unhealthy Western Bacon Cheeseburger from Carl’s Jr. I think it’s fine in moderation and who cares what the tourists think! 🙂

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  26. I haven’t yet had the urge to try out McDonald’s or BK, etc. when abroad, but I don’t think I’ve traveled as extensively or long-term as most of you. However, I definitely can understand how a quarter-pounder might look really, really good and provide some comfort if you’ve been immersing yourself in local culture and cuisine for a long time. What I don’t get is how someone who is not a regular traveler will opt for the golden arches over local/regional food when in a place for the first time. I knew someone who did just that. He was in Paris for one day and ate at BK. But I’m sure I’m guilty of other non-cool things while traveling…..

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  27. A few years back I was snobbish about the Golden Arches….

    …but then I went round Nicosia, Cyprus, in search of a good coffee. And McD’s coffee is by far (a) the best-tasting and (b) the cheapest I found in that city.

    But yes, there’s the comfort-food value of it all. The familiarity. Knowing where stuff is. Knowing how to queue and what you’re going to end up eating. And, as Corinne says up there, the facilities are reliably clean…

    But there’s something else fascinating about them. You know the template already…so you can see all the little ways that the staff have added their own touches to the way things work. Little cultural rebellions. New ways of doing things they only do in that country. The further you get from the US, themore they creep in. And that makes McDs a really fascinating sociology experiment.

    But mainly the coffee thing. That’s my point here. Yes. 🙂

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  28. The truth is that some fast foods have better food quality and taste in many cities outside the US. Honestly, on almost all my trips I do visit a McD for three reasons… Free Wifi, free restrooms (in most cases), and cheap food. Not ashamed of admitting it! lol Really good post!

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  29. LOL! We have that same “problem” in the Canary Islands i.e. more waiting time than actual eating time once you’re seated, so I use McD’s for the same reason sometimes…..always use the drive-through, though, and do my secret eating in my apartment!

    When McD’s first opened here I used to take my kids because it was the only place with air conditioning!! Atlantic breezes mean we don’t need it as much as some places on the same latitude, but July and August it was WONDERFUL!!

    My guiltiest secret, however, is eating McD’s in Nice, France……which has to be the foodie capital of the world for me. Can’t remember the circumstances, but there was an excuse at the time!

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  30. No way. Never. I never eat it at home, either. Life is too short to eat trash.

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  31. I’ve managed to eat McDonalds in almost all of the 23 countries I’ve been to! I make it my mission to do so too! Large McNugget meal with sweet and sour sauce! I struggled to find one along the Eastern block in Europe though! I remember going through McDonalds in France once with some friends at a very late hour and pretending we were a “driving car” just to go through drive through! We may have been slightly inebriated 🙂

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  32. Great observations here! Much like almost everyone else who commented, I never eat at McDonald’s domestically but do have cravings for it while traveling. Interestingly enough, it seems like the quality of the food is better internationally as well (or could that just be all the foreign food I’ve been eating taking?).

    Though I’ve never quite been gutsy enough to try one, I’ve always enjoyed oogling at the regional specialties McDonald’s always has (like the Rice Cake burger Thailand). I only go in there with my heart set on a slice of familiarity, and sadly those regional specialties don’t fit the bill!

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  33. Ha ha ha! Love your story. I just blogged recently about how I ended up at a McDonalds in Naples. 🙂

    I feel the same and try to avoid McDonalds when abroad. However, I feel with the more time I spend away, the more I may be lured back, almost as if for a tasty reminder of home.

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  34. I go to McDonalds way too often when I travel….the free wifi is a plus and when you’re on a budget, their value menu is too tempting!

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  35. Great article!
    I only really visit McDonalds after a big night out (hello Happy Meal!) or in summer for frozen cokes, but when overseas I’m not as fussy. I’ve even found that sometimes a Maccas or KFC visit in a foreign country is actually a cultural visit in itself.
    In Hong Kong KFC chicken isn’t the crispy battered thing I find in Australia or the UK – instead it is like honey glazed chicken, glistening and sticky, ready to make you lick your fingers. And I’ve heard in parts of the Middle East you can get falaffels or kebabs instead of a burger at McDonalds! (I haven’t visited so I can’t tell.)
    I wouldn’t recommend Maccas over that street vendor on the corner, but sometimes it’s nice to have that thing that reminds us of home.

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  36. Hello, your articles here Eating McDonald’s Abroad… Oh the Shame! | Brendan’s Adventures to write well, thanks for sharing!

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