Looking for ways to cut your travel budget so you can take that next trip sooner? There are lots of good ways to save money on food while traveling.
You will eat whether you are at home or traveling, so you can bring your travel food budget down to nearly nothing if you eat like you would at home.
Eating local cuisine wherever we go is part of the fun of travel. A good restaurant is often worth the splurge. However, we don't need to do this for every meal on a vacation. There are many opportunities to cut costs on the less-meaningful meals so we can spend extra on the special ones – or on other travel experiences.
Here are five strategies that my family uses to save money on food while traveling.
Eat from the grocery store
Grocery stores are filled with inexpensive, healthy and convenient alternatives to restaurant meals. They are also a fun way to eat local food. Whether your lodging has a full kitchen or mini fridge, or you’re just looking for a quick meal on the go, you can often find something good at a grocery store.
We placed an $80 grocery order at the beginning of our last Disneyland trip and had it delivered to our hotel. It was enough food, drinks and snacks for about ten meals – two meals per day, for five days. We only had a mini fridge, so we kept things simple. The average Disneyland meal costs about $50 for my family of four, so we saved $400 by ordering groceries.
We intended to eat breakfast in our room, pack picnic lunches into the parks and then eat dinner in a restaurant every day. After the first day, we realized that it was easier to eat lunch at Disneyland restaurants and then eat a simple dinner in our room at the end of the day when we were worn out and ready to relax.
Related: 30+ Ways to Save Money at Disneyland
Eat breakfast at your hotel
Use the in-room refrigerator or complimentary breakfast at your lodging for quick and inexpensive breakfasts. Eating a quick, budget-friendly breakfast at your hotel will keep your breakfast costs down to what you would have spent at home and help you get to the fun part of your day faster.
We love good local food, but activities are the most important part of any vacation for my family. That’s why we are there! Getting an early start is the best way to beat the crowds and enjoy cool morning weather.
Money aside, why would we spend a precious hour of our morning in a restaurant?
Pack a picnic
Cut food costs by packing your own lunch, snacks or drinks. Most theme parks and zoos allow you to bring your own food. It’s also a good strategy for city breaks and national park trips. Check the destination’s website for its specific rules about outside food and drinks.
It was always so frustrating when I bought an overpriced kids’ meal at the zoo or theme park and my child only ate a few bites. These meals usually included a souvenir cup or container that we rarely used again.
For a fraction of the cost, I could pack food that I knew my family would eat. I could even throw in treats that made the inexpensive meal feel special. My kids could eat when they were hungry – not just at “lunch time.” Everyone was happy.
Use day packs or the storage basket of your stroller to carry your picnic. Don’t overpack, or your food will become hard to find, crushed and unappetizing. Overpacking may also slow you down at the inevitable security checkpoint.
Freeze water bottles to keep your food cold. Or fill a Ziploc bag with hotel ice, then seal it inside a second Ziploc bags to avoid leaks.
Related: 20+ Fun Staycation Ideas
Book lodging with a kitchen
Booking lodging that has a full kitchen makes it easier to eat like you would at home and save money on food. Even a mini fridge or kitchenette in a standard hotel room can save you hundreds of dollars.
Homewood Suites and Extended Stay America are two affordable hotel brands we have tried that have full kitchens in every room. Home2 by Hilton has kitchenettes. Booking a vacation home through VRBO or Airbnb is another good way to get a full kitchen and extra living space.
Eating at one restaurant meal per day is a good way to try local cuisine, take a vacation from cooking and keep your food budget down. However, you can save even more if you prepare all your own meals at your lodging.
Remember, if you can keep your vacation food budget down to the same amount as your home food budget, then your vacation food cost is ZERO! Can you travel more often or justify an upgrade to a more spacious lodging (with a kitchen) if your food doesn’t cost anything extra?
Related: Our Review of Extended Stay America
Water is the least expensive and healthiest drink you can order with a meal. Soft drinks and alcohol at restaurants, theme parks, zoos, etc. are always overpriced. Set an expectation that everyone in the family orders water with meals most of the time.
If you do this at home and when you travel, you will save hundreds of dollars in a year.
Water bottle filling stations are becoming common in national parks, airports and other places. Carrying a reusable water bottle is a good habit to get into. Just be sure it’s empty before you go through airport security and fill it on the other side.
Triple-insulated stainless-steel water bottles can be a good investment. They keep our water cold all day. I once left my insulated water bottle in the car for several hours on a scorching hot day, and the ice cubes were still clinking when I returned.
My daughter loves her trendy pink Hydro Flask, but my favorite water bottle is the EcoVessel Boulder. It has a wide mouth for filling, a small mouth for drinking and a strainer for keeping ice, fruit or tea bags inside the bottle where they belong. Customize your water bottle with vinyl stickers from your travels.
Food is part of the fun of vacation, and we love eating in good local restaurants. But when money is an issue (and isn't it always?), it pays to plan ahead and use money-saving strategies for at least some travel meals. Simple hotel breakfasts and picnic lunches save us hundreds of dollars on every trip.
Saving money on food while traveling helps us to savor those special meals even more, and feel good about what we spend on them. Sometimes those what we save on food makes the difference between taking a trip and staying home.
If basic hotel breakfasts and picnic lunches are all that's standing between me and my next trip, then I'll start packing right now.