How to Eat on the Cheap on Vacation with Vacation Food Budget

With three growing kids, food is always one of the most expensive categories on our family trips. But it’s also an important part of the experience: we don’t want to miss out on local cuisine! In order to save money and eat healthier, we create a vacation food budget. We avoid unhealthy fast food, but still enjoy the cultural and eco-benefits of eating in local restaurants — without breaking the bank. Here’s how we do it.

eat cheap on vacation

Vacation Food Budget

1. Stick to one meal out per day.

It doesn’t matter which meal you eat out, but it will need to make practical sense or you won’t stick to it. If you’ll be sight-seeing all day, perhaps lunch out for a well-timed break is best. If you’ll be skiing, and returning to your condo at lunch anyway, maybe dinner out will be a treat. If you’re in a region where restaurant dining is very expensive, opt for breakfast out. Lastly, plan stops at city artisan or farmer’s markets while sight seeing, and make a meal of trying their wares. (Think Seattle’s Pike Place Market or Portland’s Saturday Market.)

2. Shop for groceries and snacks before you go, or just after you arrive.

You’ll need a quality cooler and ice packs, and plenty of organization to take food on the go. If we’re traveling by car, we always have a cooler and three reusable grocery bags: one for breakfast foods, one for lunch foods, and one for snacks. This way, we only need to carry the appropriate bag into our hotel for the night. For mid-trip restocks, it can be a fun cultural experience to shop in a local grocery store (assuming you’re outside the US… otherwise it’s just business as usual).

3. Think about longevity.

Don’t pack snacks that will melt in the car, and buy breads and cheeses that will last longest without spoiling, such as bagels instead of sliced bread and Babel cheese wrapped in wax instead of singles.

4. Take advantage of hotel room amenities.

You may think you can’t make many meals in your standard hotel room, but you can! Luckily, almost all rooms now include mini-fridges, but if yours does not, use the laundry bag hanging in the closet to store extra ice for the cooler. In-room coffee makers can double as hot water heaters for oatmeal, hot chocolate, instant lunches and noodles, and tea. While it’s nice to have a condo or house with a kitchen, it’s not crucial for eating healthy meals on vacation.

eat cheap on vacation with roadside picnics

5. Don’t forget about cutlery, bowls, and plates.

You’ll need something to pour that cereal into! While reusable bowls and spoons are best, they’re sometimes impractical. We like to use eco-friendly biodegradable plates and cutlery. Store them in the meal bag they’re needed for.

6. Issue everyone a reusable water bottle, and a selection of fun drink mixes.

Water bottles, soda, and juice can really add up when on the go, so we give each of our kids their own stainless steel water bottle, and refill it with sugar-free single serving drink mixes they don’t enjoy at home. This makes water fun, so they don’t ask for expensive drinks when at rest stops or during layovers.

7. Buy fun and ‘treat’ foods.

When shopping for our breakfasts and lunches for a trip, I try to purchase healthy but fun foods we don’t normally enjoy at home, such as artisan rolls, gourmet spreads, and kid-friendly crackers and candy. This makes eating lunch ‘in’ a treat instead of a punishment: no one will mind passing up the McDonald’s in favor of the park picnic.

8. Splurge on dessert.

No one in my family minds eating two packed meals because we often have money in the travel budget for fun desserts out. We can say yes to street-side crepes or ice cream parlor sundaes because we’ve had healthy and cheaper sandwiches for lunch.

9. Use your sack lunch or dinner as an excuse to seek out parks and local recreation areas.

We like skipping the crowds at fast food stops and finding local parks and visitors centers where we can spread out our picnics. In winter weather, we search for indoor play spaces or museums with our car’s GPS, or ask locals where the indoor fun is.

10. Make snacks portable.

It took years of snacking in the car and on airplanes before I remembered to bring five reusable plastic cups — one for each member of the family. With them, we refill everyone’s snack portions: fill the cups with pretzels, dried fruit, crackers, M&Ms, or all of the above. Bring packaged snacks like fruit leather or granola bars to put in everyone’s pocket before setting out to city tour or hit a museum.

How do you save money while eating on vacation food budget?

Photo credit: Natapics and empracht.

4 thoughts on “How to Eat on the Cheap on Vacation with Vacation Food Budget

  1. This is a great article! I like it because it’s more than just “go to local markets, make meals at home, etc” Love the tip about snacks, dessert and the reusable water bottle trick! You did a great job passing this on to others for sure!

  2. So glad you found it useful! The water bottle ‘trick’ is my favorite: my kids love adding single serving powder drink mixes now. While they’re admittedly not as healthy as pure water, they’ll suffice while on vacation!

  3. It’s natural to be a little hungry between meals, but buying snacks and drinks when you’re out and about quickly adds up. Always keep filling snacks on hand like nuts, granola bars, or dried fruit, which won’t make a mess or go bad. Backpacks or a large purse allow you to easily transport snacks or pick up inexpensive food for later while you’re sightseeing.
    Additionally, a reusable water bottle can save you a ton of money on drinks. For instance, Brita makes a bottle with a built-in filter that’s perfect for traveling. Or to get your caffeine fix, fill up a thermos with coffee at your hotel in the morning.
    If you’re driving to your destination, consider packing a cooler and a portable grill. And remember to save leftovers! Tupperware or plastic baggies allow you to efficiently store leftovers from a restaurant or hotel buffet.

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