How to Save on Food Costs When Traveling

Beef StewMy husband and I both like to travel, but we’ve never had a large disposal income, so we’ve never had a lot of money to travel.  We used to think that a vacation wasn’t a vacation unless we had eaten like the locals and indulged in all of the local foods.  The problem with this was that often we ended up spending $50 or more for a meal while on vacation, but we rarely found the meal satisfying.  In fact, eating out while on vacation got so expensive for us, especially after we had our first child, that we often had to cut our vacations short because we ran out of money.

Now we have 3 kids, and eating out for every meal while on vacation is not possible.  Instead, we’ve learned to save money on food when vacationing so we can vacation longer and see more sites. (Plus, we eat healthier than if we were eating out for every meal.)

We’ve used a number of strategies to do this.

Pick Accommodations with Free Food in Mind

Before our family had food intolerances, we used to pick our accommodations in part based on whether the hotel had a free breakfast or not.  If you’re going to stay in a hotel, why not take advantage of a free breakfast, especially if it’s a hot breakfast where the hotel serves eggs, pancakes and such.  We estimated we saved at least $10 a day, if not more, by eating the hotel’s breakfast.

Pick Accommodations with The Ability to Cook in Mind

Now that we have food intolerances, we do things a bit differently.  We always try to locate a vacation rental by owner (VRBO) over a hotel because most VRBOs have full kitchens complete with a refrigerator, freezer, stove, dishwasher and pots and pans.  Fixing simple meals is very easy in a VRBO.

If we have a vacation planned for 5 days or so, about a week before the trip, I freeze several meals.  When we leave, I pack the freezer meals in our cooler along with all the other foods we’ll need for the week.  If we have a two day drive to our destination, I find that most of the food stays frozen during that time if I don’t open the cooler.

Then, when we’re in the VRBO, I don’t have to cook.  Instead, I simply reheat the freezer meals, and we get fresh, hot food.  I also sometimes bring along simple foods like hot dogs and Polish sausages, and I simply buy a bag of frozen veggies at a nearby store for a quick meal.

If you don’t want to do all of this preparation in advance or you can’t because you’re flying, you can simply buy food when you arrive at your vacation destination.  I don’t like to do this because sometimes finding a grocery store is difficult.

The Crock Pot to the Rescue

I read one blog where the writer said she cooked food in the slow cooker, then wrapped the slow cooker tightly in towels and served the food to her daughter’s team after a soccer game played out in the cold.

I had an ah-ha moment and decided to try that for our next trip.  We headed out for our trip to Boston at 2 p.m.  I had had a simple meal of carrots, potatoes, and Polish sausage with a bit of chicken broth cooking in the slow cooker since morning.  Right before we left, I packed the slow cooker in towels and a box.

Three hours later when we stopped for dinner, we didn’t have to pay for fast food.  We just scooped up our meal from the slow cooker, which was still piping hot.  We spent less time for our dinner break than if we’d stopped at a restaurant, and we didn’t spend any more than we would have if we had eaten at home.  Then, when we were on vacation, I had the slow cooker to also use at our VRBO.

If you don’t want to stay at a VRBO, taking a slow cooker with you is a great way to eat on the cheap from your hotel room.  Buy simple ingredients at the store, throw the meal in the slow cooker, and when you return after a long day of sightseeing, your meal will be hot and ready for you.

What are your favorite strategies for saving money on food when on vacation?


How to Save on Food Costs When Traveling — 9 Comments

  1. We go on a “mid winter” mini-vacation each year (just to a place nearby with a water park) and always pick accommodations that have the ability to cook our own meals – it can save a lot on the overall cost of the trip!

  2. We love to travel and food can be a big cost for us when we go on trips. We like to stay places where we have friends or family because we can cook meals instead of going out to eat at restaurants. Unfortunately, we don’t know people every place that we travel to.

  3. Our 2014 vacation will be at a VRBO. We will eat out some, but plan to use the kitchen for most meals. In the past, we have always used the hotel continental breakfast, and have used the room’s refrigerator to keep lunch food such as meat and drinks cold. On our latest vacation in Hawaii, we did those things and bought a cheap Styrofoam cooler to keep our lunches cold while driving around the Big Island.

  4. We don’t have space for a slow cooker as we travel on a bike but I like the idea. You do save a lot of time compared to seating in a formal restaurant. Usually we just go to the supermarket, buy bread and jerkies and cheese and make a quick picnic.

  5. For people who stay at low cost motels and budget hotels the slow cooker idea is perfect!

    Another option is to take fast food out of equation. Make an effort to seek out motels and such that are not surrounded by restaurants.

    Or, if you’re up to it, try a boarding house or guest house. Even with food included they might be cheaper than the name brand hotels right off the highway.

  6. We saved a lot this year from our travel budget just by cooking ‘at home’. We had a nice kitchen there and were able to cook some of our meals, instead of paying for them. So, from our 2.2K euro budget, we were able to save 800. Which wasn’t bad at all 🙂

  7. We have stayed at rentals through VRBO (HomeAway) and loved it. So much more relaxing, especially with the extended family staying with us. Each family made dinner for one night. So enjoyable, cheaper, and healthier! Love the idea of bringing frozen meals for “fast food” at the VRBO!

    On road trips we always had a picnic with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fresh fruit, yogurts, and V-8. Peanuts and raisins for snacks. Then we’d eat out at dinner.

    Great idea with the slow cooker! We have made baked potatoes in the hotel room microwave & topped them with canned chili and cheese.

    It all helps!

  8. This post brings up a few memories of family holidays. My parents got VRBO places for us to stay in a couple of times and I remember picking up groceries around the village or town, and cooking like we would at home. It works.

    The fact is that you’d be lucky to find one properly good restaurant nearby when abroad. Depending on where you stay you might find many, you might find none. I believe it’s nicer to stay in more remote places. This is especially if you already live the big city life and don’t want to spend two weeks being a typical tourist; trying to make your way around busy cities like Paris or Rome, or wherever.

    I also feel that to really taste the local produce you have to cook it yourself, and now via the internet there are many, many recipes available for us to try. This is good for family bonding as well, when eating out is usually more stressful than is needed (finding a parking space, picking where and what to eat etc). Families can be brought together by spending a nice day at the beach or a walk, and an evening spent cooking and relaxing.

    Another tip is to stay with friends. This is not always possible, and no-one likes to take liberties and intrude on others time and space, but if you’re invited and you’re all excited to see each other then not only will you save money but the visit may prove to be delightful and refreshing.

    People have a different outlook as to what a holiday truly is. For me it is more about the family or friends you are with. Either way you’re going to spend money on things you don’t need, like novelty gifts, but so long as you can afford it it’s fine to sample the local culture. The issue with eating out is simply a money-orientated one; no one should have to pay £30+ for one sitting!

    I may try the travelling crock-pot idea one day myself, though wouldn’t it be heavy to carry around?

  9. Hotel/hostel breakfasts are often a false economy, we’ve found. Sometimes they’re good value – usually at more upmarket places – but most of the time they’re stingy and practically inedible.

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