Monday, June 11, 2012

10 Food Budget Ideas on Vacation

When planning a vacation, I often find that food is my single biggest expense.  With a family of 7, food is often more expensive than our motel or gas or even our park tickets (it can even rival the cost of plane tickets).  Trimming a couple hundred off the food budget can add an extra day into the vacation plans or pay for a special splurge.  So, without resorting to putting everyone on a crash diet the week of vacation, I have 10 tips to trim the fat out of vacation food bills.

#1--Stay at motels that offer free breakfast.  A large number of motels offer a complimentary breakfast which can range from stale donuts to hot buffets.  Checking motel websites and reviews can usually help you steer away from the stale donut motels.  Even if you choose to eat one or two breakfasts out, you still save plenty on the other days.  Alternatively, stocking your motel room can also work if you have a fridge and microwave, but I prefer the motel continental breakfast.

#2--Pack your own snacks--Not only does this make economical sense, but it is necessary with small children.  Toddlers in particular can get hungry at odd times or refuse to eat unfamiliar food (and the restaurant version of mac and cheese will probably be very unfamiliar).  I like a can or two of soda and a few sweets for my husband and I (usually for the evening when the kids are in bed). I also keep a sack of kid favorites including granola bars, fruit snacks, pretzels, apples, etc.  In the mornings, I place snacks in each child's hip pack.  Then they can eat throughout the day without a lot of hassle or expense.  These are lifesavers at amusement parks but also work well at the beach, on airplanes, during hikes, etc.  Be sure to throw in a new surprise item each day like a piece of gum, a frozen gogurt, or a ring pop.  You can also supplement meals with snacks you have packed.  For example, I usually bring a couple of bags of chips in the car and save them for when we get take-out at a deli restaurant.

#3--Use coupons--This is less hassle than you think.  Many restaurants offer coupons on the back of their receipts including Burger King and some of the stores at Disneyland.  So the first day you pay full price but a few days later, you can use your coupon.  I also like to pack a few coupons for national chains like Subway that come in my normal Sunday paper.  Gift certificates occasionally come on sale at Costco or online.  Last December, my neighborhood grocery store was offering a reward point system on gift certificates that equated to a 10% savings.  Combined with some 2-for-1 Subway coupons, my family of 7 ate lunch for under $15.  Many places offer a loyalty card with free meals and insider coupons.

#4--The Pizza Option.  I discovered this one evening when we didn't want burgers, couldn't afford a sit down restaurant, and were in a small enough town that pizza was the only other option.  We ordered two mediums (one supreme, one cheese) and some breadsticks (around $30) then took it back to our motel to eat.  Not only was it a nice break from traditional fast food, but there were leftovers.  The kind of leftovers you could eat cold the next day for lunch (trying doing that with burgers or fries).   Combined with a few snacks I already had on hand (like fresh fruit), the pizzas provided two meals for the price of one.  Huge bargain and everyone was happy, especially since this was a high quality pizza and not some $5 cardboard special.

#5--Meal Sharing--This is a major part of our vacation lifestyle.  Sometimes I buy 2 meals for my oldest 3 children to share.  Other times, I buy a two scoop ice cream cone (served in a cup) for 2 kids to share (at a fraction of the cost that 2 separate 1 scoop ice cream cones would cost).  My husband an I often split and appetizer and an entree (instead of two entrees).  At fast food restaurants, I usually only buy a couple of combo meals (large sized) which provides enough fries and drinks and then buy a few a la carte sandwiches (burgers/chicken sandwiches) and very rarely buy individual kid meals.  Not only does this save money, but I found that everyone wanted to try a bite of each other's food anyway.  So this was just taking the idea one step further.

#6--Buffets--though often thought of as expensive when compared to a fast food dinner, buffets can be extremely cost effective with a little planning.  An early buffet dinner (around 4) is often discounted to the lunch price and allows families to eat a snack lunch instead of paying for a full priced lunch knowing they will get a hearty dinner.  This works amazingly well if breakfast was hearty and a little late in the morning.  Buffets also offer unlimited drinks and allows everyone to pick their own food (so no restaurant battles, drinks are often included, and you can eat unlimited dessert).  Even when eating at a traditional dinner time, buffets are still often cheaper than sit down restaurants.  And lets face it, you can't eat fast food every meal of vacation.  For families with children, be sure to watch for buffets that offer extremely reduced prices for kids. We once ate at a buffet that was only 99 cents for kids under 12.  The price of our buffet dinner for our then family of 6--a mere $24 including tax and tip!  Vegas in particular has a sliding scale for food prices whereas Disney charges children 10 and up at the adult price.

#7--Save dessert for a snack (either mid afternoon or late evening)--nothing adds to a restaurant bill like ordering dessert.  But vacation is a time for a little indulgence and the summer heat will leave everyone wanting ice cream.  Instead of ordering pricey desserts after lunch or dinner, save them for snack time.  Not only is it more cost effective, but everyone will perk up mid-afternoon with an ice cream cone, funnel cake, or candy.

#8--Drink Water--bring water bottles and refill them at drinking fountains (especially at amusement parks). If you follow suggestion 1, you are already having juice/milk/coffee/hot chocolate at breakfast.  And if you are using suggestion 6, you are getting soda at dinner at least a few times during your vacation already.  However, non-buffet sit down restaurants often charge a premium for soda but offer water for free (including most sit down restaurants at Disney parks).  So, that is the time to order water.  Of course, most people want at least some soda and if buffets are not part of your vacation plan, you can purchase some for the motel room (using the ice bucket or fridge to keep it cold) or purchase an extra large drink to share (our family finds a 32 oz is enough for the two adults to share and another 32 oz is enough for 4 kids--not teens--to share).  At amusement parks, avoid buying a 17 oz bottle from the food carts.  They often charge the same as a 32 oz fountain drink from the fast food counters just steps away.  Some parks offer refillable mugs at a great value.  Families use to sharing a cup can particularly benefit from the savings (our family often has two cups--1 diet, 1 regular).  And though soda and vacation go together, no one needs to drink soda every day. So try to buy it when it is going to be most enjoyable and affordable.

#9--Kids Meals--Some places have extremely discounted kids meals (free or 99 cents) and they often include a drink which allows me to get cheap milk for my kids compared to ordering milk a la carte (and toddlers need milk).  We have used this technique at Chick-fil-A on Wednesday night (where kids eat free with a paying adult). They also have a play areas which is handy during road trips. My friends ate at IHOP on free kids night and found the meal cost them less than a fast food restaurant had the night before. Other restaurants will allow two of my younger kids to share a kids meal (outside of fast food, I find kid portions tend to be large at both amusement parks and sit down restaurants).  However, other places overcharge for the kids in which case we usually share 3 adults meals among the 7 of us.

#10--Splurge on Experiences not Food--We all want to eat a special meal once or twice on vacation (a tavern at Colonial Williamsburg, character dining at Disney, perhaps the Rainforest Cafe).  But how do you pay for it?  Use the other techniques to save money, like coupons, pizza, or meal sharing, for the first few days, and then plan a splurge.  Instead of plopping down at the most convenient sit down restaurant, spend that money on a dining experience that will last long after the food is digested.  I find it is difficult to feed my family at a sit down restaurant for under $75.  So instead of just picking any place that looks good for dinner, I can talk the kids (and my husband) into pizza tonight (for less than half the price) and treat them to something magical like a tepanyaki show the next night (the two nights together should equal the same as eating at two boring sit down restaurants both nights).  On a tight budget--use my other tips to save money all week, and plan only one magical meal.  Some of our most powerful vacation memories have been around food--like butter beer at Universal's Harry Potter or lunch at the American Girls store with Grandma.

Satisfy Your Tummy and Your Wallet

One of the best parts of vacation is not having to cook every meal.  But you still have to feed everyone's tummy without breaking the bank.  With a few tips and a little planning, you can satisfy both your wallet and your tummy while on vacation.


  1. Great suggestions! One of our favorite restaurants (both at home and while we're traveling) is Cracker Barrel. Their kids meals are around $4 and there is no age limit on who can order them plus lunch and dinner include a drink with the price(even for adults who order off the kids menu!) and the meal is either a meat with choice of a vegetable or an adult-sized soup bowl full of macaroni and cheese or chicken and dumplings. Plus, you can get breakfast anytime, and one of our favorite money saving tricks is to order 2 of their Country Boy Breakfasts and let everyone help themselves. For our family of 4 including 1 teen boy and 1 preteen boy, there's enough food in those two breakfasts to fill us all and actually have a ham biscuit or two left over to eat later. (Did I mention unlimited refills on biscuits and cornbread?)

    I should add that one reason they're probably my favorite restaurant is because their food is cooked from scratch and even the jellies, syrups, etc. that they bring out don't have a pile of preservatives in them.

    Another place to consider to grab a drink is Starbucks. I don't recommend the ones on the toll roads, they don't often have the same deals that the regular Starbucks do, but for $1.25 you can get a child's milk or hot chocolate (I think there are a couple other choices as well). Plus, for their other drinks, they'll usually let you order a large and put it in two small cups, saving a couple dollars.

    A trick that the manager at our local Starbucks shared with me is to get one of the Starbucks money cards and register it online. Now, use the card whenever you go to buy drinks, but ask them to ring up each drink individually. That way each child's drink that you buy will count towards giving you benefits with your card. And I've yet to find a cashier that minds ringing the drinks up separately.

    After 5 drinks, special milks (soy milk usually costs extra) and flavorings (a flavored steamer (steamed milk) is great for helping little ones fall asleep) are free. After 30 drinks, every 16th drink you buy is free.

  2. Smart ideas. Usually Starbucks is seen as more expensive, but your insider deal shows it is better than McCafe.

    Thanks for the great tips.

  3. Sometimes you can find hotels that offer free lite dinners during the weeknights, as well. The one I've tried is Homewood Suites near Disneyland in Anaheim. Monday-Thursdays they offer lite dinner for free, with things like hamburgers and such. To me, that's worth returning from the park a bit early to catch a free meal. I'm sure there's other hotels that do this - just none I've tried.