Summertime is synonymous with travel, and when flights were cheap, that meant flying to your destination. But with airfares at an all-time high, many Americans are opting for a good old-fashioned road trip. A lot of things are appealing about road trips — they can be as leisurely or as hectic as you want. You can also linger if you like something or take off if you don’t.
On the downside, there is the expense. Gas prices still aren’t what they once were and eating out, though fun, can leave the family budget whimpering “uncle.” But the good news is: it’s possible to be cheap and still have a great trip. Shaving a little here and a little there on the cost of meals can mean having enough money for another day or two on the road, to snag some nifty souvenirs during your visit or to splurge on a special meal or attraction.
Here are nine ways to save on food when you travel by car:
- Plan ahead and pack snacks. Impulse purchases during a pit stop can pack a wallop on the budget, so stop by your local dollar store for some low-cost snacks before you leave home.
- Pack dinner from home for the first night out. When our kids were young, even if we weren’t camping, I would throw a pan of chicken thighs and legs in the oven the night before. After baking and cooling the chicken, I would refrigerate it overnight. In the morning, I would pack it in a cooler loaded with homemade ice cubes just before we hit the road. Dinner our first night out always consisted of cold baked chicken, cole slaw and potato salad I purchased at the deli at home. That was one meal for five we didn’t have to pay restaurant prices for.
- Picnic. If you’re literally on the road, rest areas offer picnic tables as well as facilities. Pack a plastic tablecloth so you’re guaranteed a clean surface to eat on, some disposable dishes (or “rough it” and use a paper towel as your plate). We find peanut butter and jelly sandwiches a quick, easy “fill-er-up” when we’re in transit.
- At your destination, plan your morning activities to end near a park or other area suitable for outdoor dining. Stop by a grocery store — or, better yet, a farmers market — for a baguette, some cheese, fruit and whatever else interests you. Pack a small, lightweight blanket to sit on or just grab a park bench.
- Scope out the local scene for school, scout or service club-sponsored pancake breakfasts, fish fries, barbeques and other meals. The food is usually cheap and can be surprisingly good. A bonus: You’re almost guaranteed to meet interesting locals.
- Buy a “travel mug” that plugs into your car’s cigarette lighter and take along tea bags or instant coffee. If instant doesn’t do it for you, REI carries a variety of portable French presses for making “real” coffee on the road. Or brew up a latte using your own homemade latte mix.
- For a budget-friendly breakfast, “cook” instant oatmeal in your travel mug or bring a box of dry cereal and pick up a small container of milk at your first stop in the morning.
- If you’re staying at a motel/hotel that offers a free breakfast, tank up so you can skip or go light on lunch.
- Consider making your mid-day meal your biggest meal of the day. At many restaurants you can eat the same item for lunch at a lesser price than you would pay for it at dinnertime.