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5 Ways to Save Money on Food During Family Vacations

Guest post Dawn of Choosing Real

No matter where you are traveling, everyone has to eat — there is no way around that. However, with some advanced planning, you can save a lot of money on food and still have a great vacation the whole family will enjoy.

Here are 5 ways my family chooses to save money on food during family vacations:

1. Find a hotel that offers free meals.

Many chain hotels offer a free continental breakfast, or even a full complementary breakfast. My family tends to seek out hotels that provide a full complementary breakfast.

We are fans of staying at Drury Hotels. These hotels include a full breakfast plus an evening “kick back” dinner as part the hotel price. From our experience, Hampton Inns usually have a good breakfast as part of the hotel price, too.

The food offered by hotels is not exactly healthy food, but being able to save money on food for our family of four is a nice benefit.

2. Pack some of your own meals.

It is not always practical to stay at a hotel that offers free meals. Hotels that have restaurants on site generally will not offer a free breakfast option. Plus, you still have to plan for lunches and dinners.

When packing meals, it is a big help to have a hotel room with a microwave and refrigerator. If you don’t know if you will have a refrigerator, you can pack a cooler and plan the meals that must be kept cold for early in the trip.

Check ahead of time to see if the places you’re visiting allow you to bring in outside food. While you might not be able to bring a cooler into the zoo, you may be able to bring in water bottles and outside snacks and leave the cooler in the car.

I enjoy saving money by packing picnic lunches. Here are some meal options I have successfully packed for family vacations:

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches

I love Crystal’s tip to freeze PB&J sandwiches in bulk. I make a bunch of sandwiches ahead of time and think about how many days we want to eat PB&J during our trip (usually no more than 1 or 2 meals).

Ham and cheese sandwiches

I usually plan ham and cheese sandwiches for our first picnic lunch of the trip so there is no risk of the meat going bad from getting warm.

Spaghetti

If you don’t mind eating cold spaghetti (my kids sure don’t mind), this is an easy meal to put in individual, stackable containers in a cooler and eat with forks at a rest stop while traveling.

Oatmeal

If you’ll have access to a microwave, you can cook oatmeal for breakfast in the hotel room, and it is a filling start to the day. I have made family-sized oatmeal packs by mixing 2 cups quick oats, 2 tbsp brown sugar, and 1/2 tsp cinnamon in stackable containers. I also packed frozen strawberries in the cooler and bananas to slice into the oatmeal.

To cook the oatmeal, I pour an oatmeal pack into a 4-cup glass measuring cup and fill it the rest of the way with water and cook for about 3 minutes in the microwave. Then I served in individual bowls in our hotel room and stirred in strawberries and bananas. Just don’t forget to pack dishes.

Easy Sides

Individual applesauce containers travel well. Aldi often carries organic, no-sugar-added applesauce in different fruit flavors that I love to stock up on for summer. Grapes and sliced carrots in containers and served family-style also work great for picnics.

I never would have planned eating a picnic lunch in a parking lot, but looking at this picture and remembering that we did, makes me smile.

3. Pack plenty of snacks.

If packing a cooler is not your thing, at least pack your own snacks. This will keep you from making a last minute stop you don’t really need when everyone is getting hungry and cranky.

For long trips in the car, I like to pack flavored rice cakes, raisins, and graham crackers for snack options that don’t require a cooler.

For the times we are out and about walking, I like to pack individual snack packs in plastic baggies that I can fit in my purse. I’ve done this with peanuts and raisins and also walnuts, dried cranberries, and dried bananas. I love these options because the nuts give an energy boost and the dried fruit provides sweetness that feels like a treat.

4. Pack extra water.

If you and your family are staying well-hydrated, you will be less likely to feel like you have to buy extra snacks while traveling. We all travel with water bottles next to us in the car. Then we will refill our water bottles at drinking fountains when we stop at rest areas along the route.

I often look ahead of time to see if places we plan to visit will allow us to bring in our own water bottles. I like to freeze large bottles of water a couple of days before our trip and use those to keep the cooler cold.

As the bottles of ice begin to melt, we can use those to replenish our water bottles when we need to.

5. Choose restaurants with intention.

You don’t have to prepare every meal — after all, you ARE on vacation!

We tend to pack lunches and snacks, and then visit local restaurants for our evening dinners. We like to look for family restaurants ahead of time that will be near the sites we are visiting.

Chances are we will not be returning to that city for a long time. Because of this, we like to seek out restaurants in the area that are unique to the area and get great customer reviews. We don’t normally visit chain restaurants unless it is a chain we don’t have close to home.

What are some of your favorite ways to save money on food during family vacations?

Dawn is a wife and working mom of two. She blogs at Choosing Real, where she helps busy moms balance the chaos of everyday life so they can provide healthier meals and healthier homes for their families. She believes making healthy choices shouldn’t be a sacrifice.

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36 Comments

  • B says:

    We love Drury Inn and Hampton Inn, too! Sliced apples are great to snack on. I like to pack Nutter Butters as snack options. I have packed cereal and milk for a quick, easy, filling breakfast that I craved when I was pregnant.

  • sharon says:

    We bring a crock pot and electric griddle to use in the hotel. We check to make sure there will be a small refrigerator in our room beforehand. Then we purchase eggs, bacon, juice, chicken, a few potatoes and a vegetable when we arrive in the area and store it in the fridge. Then have a hot breakfast on the griddle in the morning, put the chicken, potatoes and veggies in the crock pot and go do our thing. When we come back to the room our dinner is done! The possibilities are endless with the portable electric kitchen appliances.

  • Therese says:

    Bring a hot pot. Anything you can cook in boiling water, you can cook in a hot pot. I’ve cooked vegetables, pasta, pre-cooked sausage or hot dogs, rice noodles, and many other things in a hotel room. I bring frozen foods, then put them in the hotel fridge. They thaw in the fridge and are good for a few days. Canned or frozen soup also works well.

    Hot water from the hot pot or your hotel coffee maker can be poured on instant oatmeal, packaged noodles, and cup o’soup.

    Individual serving size cartons of shelf-stable milk (almond or other) work great for cold cereal.

    Canned tuna or chicken and mayo packets can be combined easily with celery and carrots which travel well in a cooler.

    Chic peas & canned beans can be made into bean salads w/pasta and vegetables. Cucumbers and small tomatoes travel well, too.

    Just don’t forget a small knife & cutting board, dish soap, mixing bowl and the plates/bowls and utensils (disposable or plastic) for all this kitchen-less cooking.

    =)

    • Dawn says:

      Those are all such great tips! Especially making sure you don’t forget necessary dishes and utensils! Those are easy to forget 😉

  • Julie says:

    I’ve cooked oatmeal with the hot water from coffee pot many times.

  • Cheryl says:

    I have done most of the suggestions from you and your readers. I also have made pancakes, cooled and packed in Ziploc bags for breakfast. Almost all hotels anymore have a microwave and fridge so there are so many options. Even when we rent a cabin for a week, I am on vacation too and I don’t want to be stuck cooking and cleaning all the time so I bring ready made meals, like spaghetti, tacos, chilli, hot dog’s.

  • Rachel says:

    They’re a little more expensive, but we love staying at extended stay-type places (like Residence Inn or similar). There’s more room, separate sleeping spaces for kids/adults/babies (we have 4 kids under 6), and best of all, there’s a kitchen in the room. Most of those places provide free breakfast and also a free hot dinner M-Th. Between the free meals provided, and the ability to cook in your room, you could get by without eating out at all.

    • Dawn says:

      I’ve heard great things about extended stays. I don’t usually think about them because we tend to do more short 1-3 night trips. The free dinners is news to me, but that sounds like a great option!

    • Amy Peca says:

      Agree with you Rachel! Most if it all Home wood suite offers happy hour/plus dinner m-th.
      What a huge money saver this is!
      We stayed here recently after a baseball tournament! Those boys put away some SERIOUS food! Then they played basketball outside and came back in for seconds!
      Menu example that night was ckn breast, veggie burgers, rolls, salad, fruit salad, potato salad, soup and corn on the cob! What a spread!
      The boys had ckn sandwiches with ranch and I made a ckn salad. Our hotel didn’t have their liquor license but we were able to byob. My kinda night off from cooking after a hot day of baseball!

  • Esther says:

    Just wanted to mention that the best chain hotel we’ve found in the inexpensive-yet-still-safe-and-clean category is Microtel. The rooms are a little smaller than standard hotel rooms, but they usually run around $70 (depending on location). They have inside corridors and FREE continental breakfast (my kids are happy with the Froot Loops!)

  • Janet says:

    I have a menu for vacation as well I can fit enough for five nights into one cooler WE take an extra small one usually empty for picnic or snacks on any given day or packing lunch from the hotel.

    Hard boiled eggs and bacon and fruit for breakfast

    Lunch ham and cheese pretzels and apples
    Peanut butter or cheese and crackers

    Dinner Bagged salad with chicken the first night

    Spaghetti the second night

    Fried chicken and apples the third night

    We eat out once with coupon or gift card

    Steak and potato the last night with a grill at a picnic site

    If we stay longer I repeat.

  • Ja says:

    We pack a small portable grill and a cooler with easy meat to grill. Add some veggies, fruit, chips, and dessert to make a great picnic. It gives everyone some down time while waiting for the food to cook. Or some exercise for the kids if you have been traveling. It’s economical, considers family members food allergies, and you know they will like it.

  • Becky House says:

    We pack a box with a lot of different snack options including microwave popcorn..we take advantage of the free breakfast at the hotel and we have pb & j and turkey and spiced pork ( its a thing where were from) to make sandwiches from..some veggies,dip and fruit and you’ve got lunch for a couple of days..then look for the deals for dinner or do a pizza..

  • Kelly says:

    For trips where we’re in one city for longer than a day or two, we find a deal on a hotel with full kitchens in the room. When we get there, we do a quick grocery shopping trip and we’re set! It’s so much less tempting to buy expensive meals at a restaurant when you know you already have food in your hotel room! And though the room is usually a little more pricy than a normal room, you more than make up for it by not eating out.

  • Stephanie says:

    Here’s a tip for you – Hampton is part of the hilton hotels. I suggest joining the Hilton rewards club! It’s free to join, you get a special rate, and you earn points per stay. We don’t travel much, but we’ve had some unexpected trips this year. There are other hotels in the chain. I think I will have a free room one night on our next trip. As a bonus, depending on where you are – they have free snacks and drinks in the room for you (I called twice before letting the kids have any and we even loaded our bag when we left and there was no charge!). It’s a pretty legit club to join! Ps. I’m not an employee or anything of Hilton, just passing along a good find.

    • Dawn says:

      That’s a great tip!

      Along those same lines, my husband likes to book hotels through Hotels.com if the price isn’t going to be more expensive than booking through another site. I think he gets a free night after booking 10 nights through that site. I don’t know the exact details, but that could be worth looking at for people who don’t always stay with the same hotel brand.

    • Janet says:

      Stephanie your are so right about Hampton we enjoy all the perks as well. It really is the only way to travel.

  • Stephanie says:

    We are on vacation right now and we are using the envelope system. Budgeted 50.00 per meal for our family of 5. I add the difference into another envelope and we get to use that as extras!

  • Kelly H says:

    Rent a condo or house over a hotel room. We always have breakfast and lunch in the condo as well as a lot of our dinners!

    • Dawn says:

      I haven’t tried that yet, but that’s a great tip! I have been seeing more and more about people renting their homes out using Airbnb.

  • Lisa says:

    We have linner. Past lunch but not yet dinner, we still get lunch prices without the lunch rush

  • Lisa says:

    We generally book hotels with free breakfast. They’re often priced competitively and that’s one less meal to pay for. We also tend to grab a piece of fruit to go.

    We either pack sandwiches for lunch, if its feasible, or eat lunch out. It tends to be less expensive to have lunch at a restaurant.

    Of course, we pack snacks for the car and to take into attractions when possible. We also are sure to grab a case of water along with refillable water bottles.

    On our last trip, we moved from hotel to hotel so a crockpot was not an option. I packed my InstantPot and it was a huge success! I prepped as much as I could before the trip but dinner in our hotel room was SO easy. It’s definitely how I’ll cook dinner in the future.

    It’s far cheaper to stock up at a local supermarket than hit more restaurants.

    I was so very happy to have over-budgeted for our last trip. The food saved us immensely!

  • cheryl says:

    Here is another great way to save money while traveling. If a picnic is possible I bring plates and forks with us and we stop a the grocery store to buy a rotisserie or fried chicken and some side dishes in the deli like potato salad or something. makes for a great picnic in the park for a great price.

  • clare says:

    another idea we have used is to go to the grocery store/Costco and buy a cooked chicken and sides. More expensive than cooking in your room but a lot cheaper than eating in a restaurant

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