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 are still high and eating out can leave the family budget whimpering “uncle.” But the good news is: it’s possible to have a great trip on the cheap. 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 some 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. Cut up travel friendly vegetables and store in individual servings. Nuts and seeds are good choices for backseat diners. Double down by baking cookies, rice cereal treats, or protein bars at home. Offer plenty of options to your family – the more choices you can give them, the less likely they will get bored with your snacks and ask for the more costly roadside treats.
Don’t forget to pack a water bottle for each traveler. A filtered water bottle will help you avoid taking on problems from unknown or different water sources along the way.
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 when we didn’t have to pay restaurant prices.
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) and utensils if needed. We find peanut butter and jelly sandwiches a quick, easy “fill-er-up” when we’re in transit. Make something special – yet portable – so your family can look forward to those picnic stops.
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. Often, free community newspapers at rest stops or restaurants have event notices about these types of gatherings. 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.
Go cheap on breakfast. For a budget-friendly breakfast, “cook” instant oatmeal in your travel mug. Or make overnight oats in covered containers, and add fresh berries, nuts or granola. Remember to increase the amount of liquid for overnight oats. Bring a box of your kids’ favorite dry cereal and pick up a small container of milk at your first stop in the morning. If you stay in a hotel, check to see if your rate includes a free continental breakfast. You can fill up on cereal, toast, bagels, fresh fruit, and even waffles. A filling and healthy breakfast will allow you to travel longer without hunger pangs begging you to stop at the nearest fast food place.
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. Some places offer a “blue plate special” in the early evening hours, to entice diners to come in before the dinner rush. Always ask for available discounts or promotions.
Keep boredom to a minimum. Sometimes the long drive brings on boredom – which triggers the need to nosh on crunchy stuff. Make sure you are armed with games or other busy work. Easy crafts or coloring could take away the edge.
For more summer vacation ideas: