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9 ways to take a bite out of road trip food costs

You’ve planned your road trip, mapping out a route, identifying campgrounds or affordable lodging and picking key attractions to visit. What will happen as soon as you pile into the car? Tummies will start rumbling, kids will beg for food and bathroom breaks will lead to the buying of snacks, lunch and treats. Suddenly you’re busting your budget, and it’s only the first day of your road trip.

Car vacations can be affordable, but you still have to watch your expenses. The average cost of food per day on a road trip could start at $40 per adult if you buy all meals and snacks out. For example, breakfast at McDonald’s runs about $5 per person, a Meal Deal at Subway is around $10 for a Footlong sub, and dinner at a casual restaurant might be $20 per person. Add in some snacks or ice cream along the way, or stop at higher-end eateries, and your road trip food budget is going to grow.

Shaving a little here and 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’s how you can eat cheaply on your road trip and take a bite out of vacation food costs.

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1. Plan ahead and pack snacks. 

Impulse purchases during a pit stop can pack a wallop on the budget, so if you want to travel on the cheap, stop by your local dollar store for some low-cost snacks before you leave home. Cut up travel-friendly vegetables and pack 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 instead of buying them at the supermarket or, even worse, from a roadside gas station.

Pack a variety of road trip foods for your family, perhaps more than you think is necessary. The more choices you can give them, the less likely they are to get bored with your snacks and ask for the more costly roadside treats.

Don’t forget to pack a water bottle for each traveler. When you’re thirsty, you tend to think you’re hungry as well. A filtered water bottle will also help you avoid problems from unknown or different water sources along the way.

2. Pack dinner from home for the first night out.

When our kids were young, even if we weren’t camping, I’d look for make-ahead meals to bring for dinner the first night of our trip. The night before we left, I’d bake a pan of chicken thighs and legs, then refrigerate them overnight. In the morning, I’d pack the chicken 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 with cole slaw and potato salad I purchased at the deli at home.

If you can bring a homemade dinner to eat at your campsite, cabin, or motel room, that’s one meal for which you don’t have to pay restaurant prices. Just make sure you bring plates and utensils if you’re not serving finger food. Here are some of our favorite recipes for make-ahead road trip meal ideas.

3. 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 cheap and easy “fill-er-up” when we’re in transit.

Make something special, yet portable, so your family can look forward to those picnic stops. Homemade Girl Scout cookies or granola bars are fun treats.

4. Plan morning activities to end near outdoor dining facilities. 

Picnics aren’t just for the driving portion of your trip. Do some research ahead of time to see if any of the attractions you plan to visit at your destination have outdoor dining facilities or are close to a park or picnic area. Then schedule your morning fun to end near a place to eat outside.

Stop by a grocery store for a baguette, some cheese, fruit and any other portable food you like. Pack a small, lightweight blanket to sit on or just grab a park bench. You’ll save money on your vacation food budget and get to spend more time enjoying a local attraction.

5. Scope out the local scene for community meals.

With some savvy Internet sleuthing or browsing of community newspapers at rest stops, motel lobbies or restaurants, you can identify community meal events. Think school, Scout or service club-sponsored pancake breakfasts, fish fries, barbecues and other meals. The food is usually cheap and can be surprisingly good.

A bonus: You’re almost guaranteed to meet interesting locals.

6. Make your own hot beverages.

What seemingly minor expense can really bust your road trip food budget? Coffee. That grande latte might cost more than a whole jar of instant coffee. Skip the daily Starbucks and instead buy an insulated travel mug or a heated travel mug that plugs into the lighter in your car. Take along tea bags, hot chocolate packets or instant coffee to make your own, cheaper morning beverage. (Hint: You can boil water on a camping stove at your campsite or in the coffee maker in your motel or hotel room.)

If instant doesn’t do it for you, you can find portable French presses or one-cup pour-over coffee drippers for making “real” coffee on the road. Or brew up a latte using your own homemade latte mix.

7. Go cheap on road-trip breakfast.

For a budget-friendly road-trip 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. Plus, you can use breakfast ingredients to make PB&J sandwiches or pick up extra fruit to take with you for lunch and get two meals out of your hotel rate.

8. Employ money-saving tricks at restaurants.

If you’re going to dine at a few restaurants on your road trip vacation, use smart money-saving strategies to stick to your budget. One idea is to make your daily restaurant meal lunch rather than dinner. At many restaurants you can eat the same item for lunch at a lesser price than you would pay at dinnertime. In the evening, you can picnic at your campsite or hotel room.

Some restaurants offer a “blue plate special” in the early evening hours to entice diners to come in before the dinner rush or have discounted daily specials that can save you money. Always ask for available discounts or promotions.

Don’t forget to look up and take advantage of age-specific discounts to score the cheapest road trip food. Look for kids-eat-free nights, senior discounts, or freebies for signing up for loyalty clubs or downloading apps.

9. Keep boredom to a minimum.

Sometimes the long drive gets boring, which triggers the desire to nosh on crunchy stuff. Make sure you are armed with games, movies or other distractions. Easy crafts or coloring, a round of 20 questions, even an audio book can help distract your family from their boredom hunger pangs.

For more money-saving vacation ideas:

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