How to Save Money on Meals While on Vacation

Guest post by Jenifer from Fit 4 Miracles

We recently made the long trek from Indiana to Estes Park, Colorado, with our five children. Packing us all up and not forgetting anything was like an extreme sport, but the thought of all the fast food and snacks that might hinder our tight budget was even more challenging.

I knew that we would not be able to be perfect (it is a vacation after all), but I wanted to do the best that I could to save money and to feed my family well. So I entered the Don’t-Go-Crazy-on-Vacation challenge armed with a notebook, a pen, grocery store fliers, and my computer.

Non-Perishable Foods

I started planning about three weeks ahead of our scheduled departure and watched the sales over those few weeks. I knew that we would have a kitchen in our cabin in Colorado, so I planned out our meals for each night and gradually filled two copy paper boxes with the dried goods we needed. I also stocked what I could for breakfast, lunch, and snacks.

Fresh/Perishable Foods

Then I made a list of all the fresh or refrigerated items that we would need. I wanted to avoid any higher costs of shopping in the tourist areas so I researched the grocery stores in the surrounding towns. I decided on a Walmart (a gift card we had helped) and bought all of our fresh and refrigerated items there before heading into Estes Park.

Meals on the Road

With the cabin meals tackled, I still had to consider the meals on the road. To help avoid fast food costs we packed a picnic lunch for our first lunch. It ended up pouring rain, but a picnic in the car makes memories, right? We visited family for the first night, and they graciously fed us homemade meals there.

Our 2nd son had his 10th birthday while we were on the road, so before we left I had him pick out where he wanted to eat. He picked his favorite restaurant, Fazoli’s, so I looked it up on-line and found one on our route. I also checked out the menu and specials while I was there to help me estimate costs before we got there.

That left us with just a few fast food meals, which worked out fine, and we had mostly happy campers.

A Few More Tips:

  • Find a place with your own kitchen (Assign clean-up help!).
  • Plan meals ahead of time.
  • Stock/pack food in the weeks before you leave.
  • Watch sales and use that for your vacation stockpile.
  • Research restaurant menus and nutrition before you go.
  • Avoid tourist area grocery stores if prices are higher.
  • Pack picnic lunches for the road.
  • Have fun and don’t forget to treat yourself, too. It’s vacation!

What are your best tips for saving money on meals while on vacation?

Jen blogs at Fit 4 Miracles. She was a teacher in her “previous life,” but is now a stay-at-home mom of five children, ages 2-13. She lives in West Lafayette, IN, where her husband runs a small business. They have always had to be as frugal as possible, but believe they are rich in faith, love, and family.

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Comments

  1. says

    Plan gas stops ahead as much as possible! Gas prices can vary quite a bit from one town to the next so make sure you check-there are all kinds of phone apps and things to help with this. Just between my town and the next major town 30 minutes east gas prices can easily vary by $.10-$.23 per gallon-keeping an eye on the prices can really save you $ in the long run!

  2. Katie D. says

    I always bake a special treat for the road. Favorite cookies can be baked ahead, frozen and pulled out on the way out the door to enjoy during the trip!

  3. says

    You sound very similar to me ~ I am a homeschooling mommy of 6 kidlets, ages 1-9. My hubby, too, has his own small business; so the budget is tight, but we like to vacation like that, too. I have used VRBO with great success (especially the time we contracted a stomach virus ~ boy, did the laundry room come in handy! Would’ve hated to be in a hotel that time…). I always pack a cooler and lots of stocked-up snacks and check for restaurant deals along the route. Don’t forget to check restaurant.com.

    Right now, I would just love to be able to take a road trip/vacation! ;-) LOL

  4. Chris says

    Great post my crew went from WI to CO for a similar trip in 2006. If you end up shopping at the Safeway in Estes Park make sure you sign up for the saver card there.

    The other thing is a meal out doesn’t have to be everyone. Maybe just one parent and couple of older kids can be a way to try more expensive or unusual place without the hassel of having very young ones in a resturant.

  5. says

    We also have 5 children and stay in rentals that have a kitchen when we travel. I always ask if they have a slow cooker and if not, I pack one. I will make a few slow cooker meals ahead of time and freeze them in zipper freezer bags (flat, if possible) and throw them in a cooler. No prep, easy clean up! Our favorite is slow cooker pizza: Couple of jars of pasta sauce (or double recipe of homemade), 1 cup Parmesan cheese, one 8 oz can of tomato paste and add your favorite toppings (meat, veggies, etc). Serve on slices of french bread and top with shredded mozzarella.

    • JennieC. says

      We did freezer meals when we went to CO a few summer back. It works great as something to keep things cold in the freezer along with some blue ice and the no prep, easy clean up while on vacation was WONDERFUL!

  6. says

    Whenever possible, I try to plan my meals on the road around the Costco and Sam’s sample times. :) I get cheap gas at one or the other and then load up on samples.

    Sometimes they are right next door to each other – double samples! :)

    If I’m not full, I grab a beef hot dog and a soda for a whopping total of $1.50 (it also helps to give you an opportunity to stretch your legs as you walk from one sample booth to the next).

  7. Shannon says

    Me and my husband went to Disney World for our Honeymoon (a gift from his parents reward card points). We stretched the money from those points to get us flight, hotel and travel to and from the airport and a day at a theme park. We ended up renting a car because we like to disc golf and wanted to go to a course out there… And one the way back we went to a Publix for food. Our hotel did not have a refrigerator or kitchen so we stuck to sandwiches…We made a make-shift cooler using a recycling bin and ice from the ice machine! We had to refill it with ice 2 – 3 times a day and prevent housekeeping from entering because the first night they dumped it out, but it’s much better than spending 25 dollars on a 10 inch veggie pizza or 9 dollars on a 1/3 lb. hamburger.

  8. Jen says

    We visit WI Dells with another every year with another family. We learned pretty quickly to get a room with a kitchen in order to make almost all of our meals. This also allows us to have more room with 5 kids running around now! We make all breakfasts, lunches, and allow one night out for dinner. We are so used to traveling either with the camper or to the Dells that I don’t know what we would do without a kitchen!

  9. Kari says

    Jennifer,

    This is the next trip we are planning from Indiana to Estes Park, Colorado. My husband and I went to Colorado for our honeymoon (We loved it!!!) and want to take our kids there. If you have any secrets to share on your travel and where to stay (best deals) please let me know :)

      • JennieC. says

        We stayed there and LOVED the cabins on the Summit. They are a bit pricier, but so worth the seclusion and beauty!! Oooohhh, there is an awesome place for breakfast (well, they probably serve the other meals). It is called Molly B’s. They are open early, so we ate there on our way out of town with VERY FULL bellies from the wonderful pancakes. Our favorites were granola blueberry pancakes.

    • Selena says

      We’re headed to Estes Park this summer, too, and would be happy to hear any tips also! Thanks!

    • JennieC. says

      We did this trek 2 summers ago. We had friends in St. Louis we stayed with, and then our next stop was Russell, KS at an AmericInn (apparently is it now called Fossil Creek Hoel). We had never heard of them. They had an AWESOME free breakfast with much more than just your average fare and a pool/splash area for the kids. We woke up early and my husband did a quick workout and the kids splashed away before we ate a yummy breakfast and got back on the road. It was an affordable rate! Have fun!!

    • Sarah says

      We are going there this summer, my husband won plane tickets and we picked Colorado! Thanks for all the tips and ideas everyone!!!!

    • says

      Hi, Kari!
      We love the YMCA of the Rockies. It has lots of activities for the kids and many options in terms of accomodations. We have been there twice and stayed in the cabins. The kids loved it and we made lots of great memories. We are going back at the end of May and we can’t wait!

  10. says

    We vacation the same way!! LOVE it!! I also live just 20 minutes north of West Lafayette….. right in the middle of the big wind farm!! Great to see a post from a “local” gal!

  11. says

    For shorter trips, driving to visit family, or other places we don’t have a kitchen, I do just a few of these tips. Simply getting snacks at a grocery store for in the car or between meals saves a lot from convenience store prices. Even tourist area grocery stores are a lot cheaper than vending machines. I’m a big fan of picnic lunches on the road, they’re a great chance to get out and stretch.

  12. trisha says

    My hubby doesn’t like for me to be cooking a lot while on vacation, but with his sensitivity to MSG and the high costs of eating out I plan ahead! I like to take freezer meals in an ice chest. Sometimes I will take a toaster oven. Homemade meals in a bag (skillet lasagna) are great and with those I like to go ahead and cook the meat and freeze. We also take sandwich fixings and plenty of snacks! When we do eat out, we try to do it at lunch time, versus the evening meal since lunch is usually cheaper to eat.

  13. says

    Great suggestions! We have food intolerances (to dairy and soy), so we have to bring our own food. We always bring freezer meals packed in the cooler and make sure to stay in a VRBO or a hotel with a kitchen. It is amazing how much money this saves!

  14. Peggy Lorenz says

    Oh, no!! If I’d known you were in Estes, I would have invited you over for coffee or something…that is our home!! Darn…

  15. says

    My husband and I went on vacation in December to Pigeon Forge Tenn, and we actually bought Restaurants.com gift certificates to use. They had a special that week, so we got the gift certificate for $1, for a restaurant we’d researched and already knew we wanted to try. We *always* pack a cooler of drinks and snacks for road trips too- saved a lot of money compared to having to stop at gas stations (also saves time and lets us get there faster!).

  16. Vickie says

    My tip is to be realistic. Often buying supplies such as condiments, spices, and paper goods that you likely would already have on hand at home negates your savings. Also we have had the good intentions of cooking while on vacation only to find that once we were there I didn’t want to cook and we would end up going out. Cooking for and cleaning up after a large family is hard work and it’s not a vacation for me if I still have to do it.

  17. Leah says

    We usually pull a camper to our destinations. With 3 kids it’s the only “affordable” way to travel and see so much. One summer we were gone for 3 weeks and I pland out a meal for each night. I stocked to fridge in the camper to the brim, and I think we only had to make 1-2 stops along our trip for minimal groceries. Lunch was the hardest, because my husband hates sandwiches, but when you don’t want to pay $20-30 for a fast food lunch, you eat what is fast and easy.

  18. Quintana says

    My hubby doesn’t like me to cook while we are on vacation either. It’s my vacation too. What I do do though, is REFUSE to let my kids waste money on gas station junk. Before hand I buy a case of water and snacks/treats we all like for the road. It’s much more economical and saves time on those gas/potty stops!

  19. amy says

    We often take long road trips in the summer. For travel, we’ve started packing bread, a jar of peanut butter, a jar of honey, apples or applesauce cups, etc. While on the road we stop at rest stops (many areas have shaded picnic tables) and eat our sandwiches. The kids enjoy playing ball or climbing trees while we get everything set up and we enjoy eating together. We really don’t miss the fast food stops! :)

  20. Rachael says

    We have a routine of eating a free breakfast at the hotel, sandwiches for lunch (or peanut butter and bagels) with chips and/or fruit, and then out to dinner. It provides a nice balance of eating out and eating in and there is little cooking involved.

  21. Toni says

    We always stay at hotels that offer free breakfast.
    We research “kids eat free” and visit those restaurants for dinner.
    We do Taco Bell bean burritos and/or chicken burritos and free water for lunches, bringing our family-of-6 bill to about $11. For a “side item”, we buy a bunch of bananas and everyone has a healthy banana.
    These 3 things keep our traveling food budget down to a very manageable dollar amount without us having to do any food prep at all.

  22. Vickie says

    it’s a bit crazy, but we’ve traveled with a small crockpot!! We have a converter adapter that plugs into the lighter we can plug regular outlets into. We were able to do taco meat for different kinds of meals, as well as chicken for on bread. Sometimes having the warm meat felt more like a meal admist the cold sandwiches. Def. worth asking around to borrow someone’s convertor if going on a long road trip. (tip, my convertor can’t handle my large crock pot wattage, test it out before you leave the driveway!)

  23. says

    My method is similar, except I don’t bring dried food because I figure any savings wouldn’t be worth the weight it takes up (I’d rather spend a few extra dollars on groceries to keep my MPG low the rest of the trip, save those last few miles from the store to resort). I do look up stores and plan meals before leaving.

    We try to focus on easy meals. We go for our anniversary, so that’s usually dinner out. If we have a full day trip planned, then we’ll usually pack lunch and buy dinner out. Everything (groceries, dining, gas, etc) comes out of our vacation fund instead of their usual envelopes, so I always budget for more meals out than I plan.

    We do a lot of hiking so need snacks and a hearty breakfast. I think this year we’ll get more microwave meals because it takes too long to make bacon and eggs and get out of the room at a decent hour. Our dinners or lunches at the resort are usually skillet meals from the freezer aisle. Dump, cover, simmer, stir, eat! It costs more but it’s faster and even though I love cooking, there are way too many things to do and see outside those walls.

  24. Susan says

    We are also road travelers, with five kiddos, and it does take a lot of planning. I love the crock-pot/freezer meal ideas and will remember that for our next road trip. We try to go to non-tourist sites from our home in MN. IE, Gulf Shores, AL is gorgeous, but a few miles down the road, Fort Morgan, is equally beautiful, less expensive and less busy. Also, stayed in Mesa, AZ instead of Phoenix; Colorado Springs instead of Denver–you get the idea. It is worth the time and planning beforehand to minimize unexpected surprises and expenses. No matter what your budget or destination, make memories and “remember whens” with your family.

  25. Emily says

    great ideas….we’re leaving for a long road trip in a few weeks (Chicago to Miami!) so this is great for me to be thinking about now.

    • Katie says

      We’re heading to Chicago in June. We’ll be staying downtown and taking the L train to the tourist sights: museums and Navy pier. Do you/anyone else have any ideas for affordable places to eat around the tourist areas in Chicago? We’re getting there by taking a train that takes 12hours, so we can’t really haul a crockpot. Thanks.

      • says

        When I flew to Las Vegas last summer, I didn’t have a refrigerator so packed a larger compactable cooler (cloth material insulated inside) and then just filled it up with ice from the ice machine a few times a day.

  26. Patti says

    You can also buy an Entertainment coupon book for the place you will vacation. It usually has lots of coupons for restaurants and activities. And I know our Welcome Centers at the state line carry tons of coupons for restaurants, hotels, and activities.

    • lindsey says

      I second the coupons books at the rest stops. we have gotten up to 50% off on hotel rooms as we travel through states. the only catch with the coupons books at the rest stops is you can not use them if you have a reservation and some hotels only take a certain number of the coupons a day, so if you plan on arriving later in the day/night they may not accept the coupon. but overall we have had great luck with them!

  27. says

    We’ve had good luck staying at Homewood Suites. Not only do they have a pretty full breakfast in the morning, they have a light dinner Mon-Thurs. Plus the rooms have a small kitchen where I can make my kids smaller meals like mac n cheese. Typically we eat lunch out and the resturaunt food makes DH & I too full for much at dinner time, but the kids still want something.

  28. Elisabeth says

    Family of 9 here –
    *Always stay at a hotel that has free breakfast. After breakfast, make sure the kids all pick up an extra apple or banana to save for an evening snack. I have one child with food allergies – I bring a box of poptarts that he can eat for breakfast. (Poptarts is a treat in our house!)
    *Use the dollar menu! Because of the food allergies, the only fast food restaurant we typically stop at is Burger King (that’s the only fries he can eat). We can get the whole family fed with hamburgers and fries and water for $16.
    *Bring water bottles from home. Then refill as needed. Also, apples, ziploc bags of chips/popcorn, bagels, plastic containers of jelly beans (from the clearance aisle, of course!), all make fairly mess-free and fun snacks for in the car.
    *Bring a can opener, knife, and microwavable container. That way, if you don’t happen to be a great plan-aheader (like me), you can use the microwave in the hotel room for hot dogs, Chef Boyardee, and frozen pizzas or burritos. (Which all happen to be big treats in our family, since I cook from scratch all the time at home.) Plus, these require no cooking skills, so ANYone in the family can pitch in to prepare the meal :).
    *Most hotels don’t let a family of 9 stay in one hotel room. Since we have 7 young children, (the oldest just turned 11), that can be a problem. We have found 1 hotel that has a certain “suite” room, that will allow numerous people to stay in. So I research that hotel name in the area we are traveling to, and call the actual hotel to reserve our room. Of course, we could always find the cheapest room on priceline, expedia, etc, and then “sneak” the kids in…but, for us, it’s much better to be aboveboard in all our dealings.

      • Elisabeth says

        It’s Holiday Inn Express – their suite has 2 double/queen beds and a pull-out couch. They have told me that we can all stay in that one room. It’s a squeeze for sure, and the cheapest I’ve been able to get the room is around $100 (which is actually the same or better than if we got 2 rooms). My husband and I are in 1 bed, the 3 littler kids in the other bed, 2 bigger kids in the pull-out, 1 bigger kid in a sleeping bag, and the baby in the pack & play! Good times :)!

        • Elisabeth says

          Oh, also, not all Holiday Inn Expresses have this room – that’s why I call the actual hotel. And I’ve found you can actually get a deal from the hotel manager sometimes, as well.

          • Julie in IN says

            Thanks for sharing; we have had success with some Holiday Inn Express locations but not all. One Hampton Inn hotel allows our family of 9 to stay in their 2 queen handicap accessible room since there is room for 4 cots and a pack n play for the littlest one. Most hotels are strict on the 4 in a room rule.

            We love Homewood Suites the best! You can easily fit 9 in their 2 bedroom suite with sitting room and kitchen; their free breakfast and light dinner makes traveling affordable.

          • ClareC. says

            We’re a family of 6 and a couple of years ago I found a site called 6 Suitcase Travel. It’s a good jumping off point for larger families to help with locating hotel rooms that sleep 5, 6 or more people.

  29. Heather says

    Love Estes Park – my family always spent the month of August in an inexpensive cabin out there when I was growing up. We drove from NJ – to CO – six of us in the car (my family of four plus my grandparents) My grandparents split gas costs – we eat picnic lunches on the way out and drove forever (made it in 2 1/2 days from NJ!) We ate a lot of Sloopy Joe sandwiches and granola bars and peanut butter and crackers but oh the memories.

    My grandfather had traveled out to Estes Park back in the early 1930′s from NJ with his parents and after he and my grandmother were married his parents took them out there again with them. They also brought my Mom and Uncle with them a few times.

    The legacy – my Dad was a school teacher – single income – one car family. But we took three good vacations a year and I learned how to travel on the cheap! :-)

    Oh and yes – I was so excited to bring my family out to Estes Park a few times to make FIVE generations of my family to visit. We have a picture of every single generation at Bear Lake on “The Picture Rock”.

    We normally travel by plane for our longer summer vacations as my husband has limited vacation time and can not drive 12 to 14 hours a day in a car due to some back issues. That limits how much we can pack as you have to pay for checked bags now on most flights and they can’t weigh over 50 pounds.

    What we do is find a Trader Joes or Super Target or something like that and load up after we land – we buy a cheap cooler and some ice packs and just go from there. Picnic lunches everyday – home cooked meals when we have access to a grill or kitchen (if staying in one place the entire time we rent a house with a kitchen ……..always cheaper than a hotel…..mostly find the houses through VRBO)

  30. says

    When I know ahead of time that we are going to be traveling somewhere I always sign up for the Groupon and Living Social emails from that area. We love to research places to eat and then hope to find a deal on them through one of the daily deals sites.

    I also do the same thing with Restaurants.com. Especially if we have been somewhere before and know the restaurants it is great to be able to go out to eat on vacation and still save 50% or more doing it.

  31. erin says

    Dh and I planned a get a way last year and to try to not stop for food so much I made my own trail mix. I bought different nuts, raisins, chocolate, dry fruits, etc and combined them. Then I figured out our daily quota and rationed them out into zip bags. I also dehydrated all our meals and bagged them as well. Where we were going had all our basic cooking equipment, so all we had to do was heat them up with water. It took some meal/menu planning and a dehydrator, but it saved us a TON of money because we had each day already planned and rationed out. We did set aside certain meals for going out to eat and then budgeted it. Also planned “non-cooking” meals for travel times. http://www.backpackingchef.com/index.html is where we got our recipes for our dehyrated meals. They were amazingly good. And we always were full when we were done. This is nice because we didn’t have to worry about a cooler or keeping things on ice and it took up a lot less room, saved time grocery shopping once we got there, etc.

  32. shannon says

    One thing I have done before…
    I pack meals in small containers that can be heated. Then whenever I stop for gas, I microwave them inside the gas station. Just need to remember to take plastic ware to eat them with. It is a great alternative to ‘another’ sandwich type meal.

  33. Alaine says

    We tend to go on vacations where we’re flying somewhere and need the extra space in our suitcase, but there are still ways to save even when you don’t bring food with you. We always hit up a grocery store – and not the little mini marts that some hotels have, which are mucho expensive – and even if we don’t have a fridge in the room or a kitchen to cook with, we can still grab juice, snacks, and alcohol for much cheaper than buying everything at the hotel. I also like to get a box of granola bars or something similar for a quick breakfast. Another tip: check out restaurant.com or groupon for the area you are headed to! You can often get meals at 1/2 price or better, and most of the restaurants featured are smaller, local restaurants instead of chains. Then you get to experience the local food and save some money!

  34. Shelley C says

    We invested in a cooler that ran on AC/DC I think it is called. Plugs into the lighter when in the van, then in an outlet in the camper/hotelroom etc. Kept cheese, fruit and drinks cold. Great for camping or even shopping away from home when there is a long drive involved…our Sam’s club is four hours away, so when we headed in that direction, we brought the cooler.

  35. kathy says

    During my working years when we took our yearly vacation to the beach, a big part of my vacation was not to have to cook! We got a room with a kitchenette and ate in for breakfast, lunch and snacks and ate out at night. We had uncomplicated Madeline we made like cereal, toast, yogurt and sandwiches. Also we took advantage of the area coupon books available at the visitors center.

  36. Andrea says

    If you stop at a grocery store that has a rewards card, ask for one at the service desk, even if you’re only going to be using it for that week. The savings can really add up!

    When we are traveling, we try to stop at Target or a grocery store for pitstops. The bathrooms are usually better and the snacks are cheaper!

  37. cheryl says

    I do the same thing when we travel. I will plan all the meals and allow for about 3 meals out for a treat. I look online for any deals in the area. I pack all dry goods and since this is my vacation as well as the family I premake some of the meals ahead of time and freeze them so I dont have to cook all the time. I even make up pancakes with a cheap 1.00 box mix that I doctor up with eggs, vanilla and sweatener. Then I freeze them for quick and easy breakfasts for the kids.

  38. Mary says

    When we went to Washington DC last spring break, we knew that we would be eating out a few meals, so I signed up for restaurant deal alerts from Living Social and Groupon a few months ahead of time. We were able to hit up some great pizza places and other restaurants within walking distance of our hotel. It took some planning, but it was very worth it as we saved up to 50% or more on our final bill.

  39. ClareC. says

    We splurged on an amazing cabin for a week last summer in Pigeon Forge, TN. To afford that, we had a picnic on the way up and then brought in freezer meals to eat that week. I didn’t have to cook but we still had yummy meals. We also took a picnic lunch into the National Park one day. We did eat out lunch on the way home and hubby also treated us to a special steak grill out night but still, it saved up a lot of money on food that week.

  40. Deesselisa says

    My family of five went on two road trips on March and did all the things you listed. Two other things we usually do are consult tripadvisor.com and restaurants.com. I check trip advisor for reviews of good restaurants in the area we will be going, they will often have price advice as well as good food advice. Pick the ones I like the best and check to see if they have gift certificates on restaurant.com. Then I watch for restaurant.com to have a sale. I usually can get $25 certificates for $2-3. Or there are $10 certificates for cheaper restaurants. And you have a year to use them, so you can plan way ahead unlike Groupon. We found a great restaurant in TX just on the trip advisor, there was no certificate, but the plates were huge and filling for $6. And we had amazing huge Gyros for $5 a plate in AR. But breakfast and lunch were from our hotel room fridge as well as on the road sandwiches and snacks from the cooler.

  41. HaydenRossi says

    I always travel with snacks. One thing I’ve found is that if I am going to eat a meal at a nice restaurant, it’s often cheaper to eat there at lunch time. (i.e. I want a good seafood meal because I’m at the beach, but I don’t want to pay premium prices just because it’s dinner time).

  42. Katherine says

    We took a trip to San Antonio last year, and we purchased a few certificates from Restaurant.com based on location and reviews, as well as the certificate purchase requirements. We had a few amazing dinners for a lot less than we would have paid if we had just gone to the restaurants. It took some research up front, but it was totally worth it.

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