When planning our family vacations or travel for work or weekend getaways, we put some work in to find good prices on airline tickets, hotel stays, shuttles, car rentals and tickets or passes to any attractions we may see during our trip. These things require a little forethought and planning, so we invest the time and do a little research.
What can add up on these trips is food and eating out and incidental purchases, as you can get by without a plan. Not the best course of action, but you can get by.
With a little bit of extra time spent before your trip, a little bit of research and some prep work, food does not have to be a huge budget buster.
First and foremost, decide what kind of trip you are looking to have.
Will you have kids? Are you going to have extra down time to do some cooking? Are you so tired of cooking at home that you just want to eat out every meal and never wash a dish?
There are ways to save money for all of these scenarios, but knowing right out of the gate what kind of trip you are going to have helps take some of the guesswork out of your decisions.
These are our best tips and tricks for saving money while on vacation! They can be applied to road trips, airplane trips, weekend getaways, trips to the Disney parks and so much more.
Decide what is important to you
If you are heading to a destination known for the local cuisine (or crazy good snacks like Disney) and it is important to you to immerse yourself in the culture, DO IT. Plan any meals you want to eat out and then build your trip around those.
The nature of vacation is FUN and allowing yourself to try new things and enjoy what is around you. If there are a few important places you want to eat that are more expensive, go lighter on other meals or eat in to save money.
Avoid chain restaurants (unless there is something you want to try that you don’t have at home) or any restaurant that is smack in the middle of a high tourist area, these will tend to run on the pricier side and may not always be the most bang for your buck.
Ask around for local recommendations (at the grocery store, at the gas station, from your hotel concierge). Recommendations are key when eating out, to get your money’s worth AND to experience what the area has to offer.
Look for local discounts
Check with the local chamber of commerce or visitor’s center when you arrive for any restaurant coupons or discount offers at places nearby. When checking into our Las Vegas hotels, we usually get a coupon book with discounts at the buffet, casino restaurants, tickets to shows and more.
You can also check sites like Groupon or Living Social for half-price deals before you leave for your trip. If there are any local restaurants offering deals, just use Yelp or TripAdvisor to check reviews.
Book a hotel with free meals
Continental breakfasts can be a life saver! We have called ahead or checked reviews to see what kind of breakfast the hotel has, as you get a much better deal if there are a large variety of options. This is a great time to eat a nice, filling breakfast, drink a cup of coffee (or 12) and grab a few snacks for the road. If you have a large family or kids that eat like wolverines, this can be a great money saver.
We stayed at a Holiday Inn Express in Seattle before flying to Disneyland that had some fantastic pre-packaged gluten-free options! They gave us a few extra to take on the plane for our son that is gluten-intolerant.
Some hotels even offer a cocktail hour, free afternoon snacks or have fresh fruit in the lobby.
Check happy hours or kids eat free locations
Google is your friend here! Check the area you are traveling to for restaurants or cafes that offer daily specials, happy hours with inexpensive appetizers or kids eat free deals. We love to use Facebook for suggestions as well, friends and acquaintances can be a great resource for travel ideas.
You can never ever have too many snacks when on vacation, especially when traveling with kids. Even if you spend more on items you might not normally buy for daily use, you will still save over buying them inside a theme park, baseball stadium or just last minute because your kids are DYING OF HUNGER.
If you are flying somewhere without a grocery store nearby, consider ordering from Amazon Prime Pantry and having them deliver to your hotel or rental house. We did this on our last trip to Disneyland and our box was waiting for us when we arrived! Be sure to call ahead to your hotel to make sure they will hold your order for you.
Check rules and regulations before leaving
To go along with packing snacks, make sure you check any rules or restrictions before heading out. If you are going to a theme park or sports stadium where snacks for purchase are EVERYWHERE, check the website of where you are going to find out exactly what you can bring. Some places will allow you to bring in coolers and most foods, but there are always a few restrictions.
While it’s always fun to splurge on an item or two, it can also be a huge budget buster to buy all your food. By packing snacks, you will save money AND time by not having to wait in line. Especially when someone is hangry.
Pack or buy non-perishable breakfast items
When my husband and I go to Las Vegas, we often stay up late and sleep in (sort of). Instead of spending a fortune on a breakfast buffet or eating something junky right out of the gate, we sometimes bring protein bars or shakes from home. This gets food in our bellies first thing at a fraction of the cost. We also have gone to the grocery store before arriving at our hotel and grabbed fruit like bananas or apples, granola bars or instant oatmeal.
Have groceries delivered or ready for pick up
Along with Amazon Prime Pantry that will deliver non-perishables to your hotel, cabin or rental house, some grocery stores will deliver as well. Vons or Safeway both offer delivery service with free delivery for your first order! If you are going to an area with a Harris Teeter, you can have your groceries delivered or order online and have them ready for pick up when you arrive. Select Fred Meyer and Walmart locations are now offering online order and in-store pick up as well. Both stores will even load your groceries in your car for you!
Use your hotel mini-fridge!
If you are staying in a hotel, check ahead to see if a fridge is in your room or available. Even if you aren’t going to be cooking any food, you can grab items like yogurt, cheese and deli meat for sandwiches, milk for cereal, grab and go veggies, salsa or dips and so much more. Even if you eat out for every meal but snack in your room, you are going to save money.
If your hotel does not have fridges available, you can always consider grabbing a cheap foam cooler at the grocery store and filling it with ice from the hotel ice machine.
Always carry a reusable water bottle
We never go anywhere without one! Take it through airport security empty and then fill it at the water fountain when you get to your gate (lots of airports now have a bottled water station available). When we go on road trips, I will fill up my water bottle at gas stations if we are buying gas or snacks. This is so much cheaper than buying bottled water when you get thirsty.
If you don’t want to bring a nice water bottle from home, consider buying a sturdy plastic bottle of water (like Fiji or Smartwater) and reuse it over the course of your trip.
Prep meals ahead of time
If you are road tripping and can take a cooler or two, consider prepping some of your meals ahead. Prep burger patties, shredded meat for tacos or burritos, breakfast casseroles that can be just popped in the oven, muffins for breakfast.
If you are vacationing with another family, split up the work and each bring a day’s worth of meals or each bring everything you need for a full dinner or two.
Freeze foods as ice packs
With your prepped meals, instead of using ice that will melt and possibly get into your casserole dishes, freeze a gallon of milk that will act as an ice pack. When you get to your destination, use the milk for cereal!
You can also freeze Go-Gurts that can be eaten as snacks, shredded cheese in Ziploc bags and pressed flat, butter, even cookie dough balls that can be baked when you get to where you are going. We have frozen gallons of water to use as ice packs and then just use them as drinking water when we arrive (great for camping!).
Use your slow cooker
This is kind of an unconventional idea, but if you are driving somewhere and staying at a hotel without a kitchen, consider bringing your Crockpot. Bring frozen chicken in a cooler, throw in the slow cooker before you head out for the day or to the pool or beach and come back to a hearty meal. You could cook rice ahead of time, freeze and then microwave at your hotel to go with the chicken. Be sure to check with your hotel before leaving your crockpot plugged in all day.
Go big at lunch or eat two big meals per day
Instead of going out for dinner every night (unless this is your thing), try eating your big, fun meal at lunchtime. Prices are often cheaper than at dinner time and kids may be less cranky. If you go big at lunch, you could do a quick meal for dinner like sandwiches or pizza. You could also do a bigger brunch and then a late lunch, with snacks in between meals. This way you’re not buying full meals for every family member three times per day, which can really add up. Fill up on granola bars, fruit or protein bars throughout the day.
We’d love to hear your favorite tips for saving money on food while on vacation! How do you decide where to save and where to splurge?
Find a list of amazing recipes here for more meal prep ideas or learn How to Survive Disney with Toddlers if you are planning a Disney Parks vacation.
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