It’s hard to believe it now, but the first long road trip we took after becoming a family was when my son Aidan was just two months old. I think we got through it all right, with the exception of treating a terrible case of newborn diaper rash in dirty rest stop changing tables, pulling off the side of the road to comfort my screaming baby, and trying to nurse him in a shady McDonald’s bathroom stall. In retrospect, maybe two months old is a bit young! Later travel has included projectile carseat vomit, emergency stops for Dramamine, and ridiculously expensive tickets from speeding traps in the middle of nowhere. But despite these mishaps, we've also cultivated some serious road trip and vacationing savvy. I’m proud to say that in our 8 years of parenthood, we’ve had more great family trips than I can count, and from all our time doing it, I feel like we’ve got it down to a science.
Spontaneous travel with unrestricted spending was great when I was 20 years old or when we were a young couple, but when you have a family, spontaneity is a luxury that is hard to afford! Speaking of hard to afford, we’ve been blessed to go on many memorable family vacations, but they can add up. As a mostly-one-income family, it’s critical that we budget for our vacations and stay within budget. Being frugal and making smart choices about food and eating while on vacation is one of the biggest ways you can control your spending, and doing so has enabled our family to take more trips than I would ever think possible. Here are some of my tried and true tips:
- Pack your road trip meals! If you are road-tripping, there is no reason not to do this. Think of it this way - you’ll have lots of restaurant trips and treats to look forward to at your actual destination, so don’t blow your food budget during the actual travel time. Further, it’s good to keep a cooler in your car at all times – you can fill it with ice later on to store perishable ingredients on the way home and/or during excursions.
- Commit to the “One Meal In, One Meal Out” Rule: When we vacation, we firmly stick to this rule for both our budget and our health – it simply means that you’ll only indulge in a “sit down” restaurant dining experience once a day. For instance, if we’re at the beach for a week and know we are going to try a nice seafood restaurant for dinner, we’ll be sure to bring peanut butter sandwiches to the beach for lunch that day. If we’re vacationing with the grandparents and are going to sneak out to kid-free lunch date, a quick slice of pizza is perfectly fine for dinner that night. Making sure you don’t go “out to eat” more than once a day will save you in tips, overpriced entrees, and calories. The other meals can be a picnic, a simple sandwich from a take-out place, or something you might be able to put together where you’re staying.
- Research in advance and use local coupons: Take some time when planning your vacation to look up local restaurant websites and their online reviews to get an idea of price range and proximity to attractions and your hotel. Sometimes just googling this info will bring up online coupons you can use! Visiting tourism sites for your destination should also provide advice about local dining. At your hotel, take advantage of the front desk staff’s knowledge and inquire about dining establishments and any deals they know of. They are trained to answer these questions and finding out which great restaurants have a “kids eat free” night or BOGO entrée coupons can save you big time. For more tips on dining specifically at WDW, check out fellow blogger Gin's post here.
- Take advantage of complimentary breakfasts when you can: The little continental breakfasts in the lobby of your hotel? It may not be the hottest spot in town, but if your kids can fill up on little boxes of cereal and you can grab some scrambled eggs, an apple, and a piece of toast before you head out for the day, it serves its purpose and saves you money.
- Remember the ride home when bringing snacks. Don’t forget to pack enough snacks for your return road trip home – don’t rely on buying overpriced treats on the way! We bring a large, reusable grocery shopping bag with us with almost all of our dry snacks from the pantry. Whatever we don’t eat on the way there gets saved for the ride home. When you’re buying snacks in advance of your vacation, think about the entire trip. Will your hotel have a microwave? Bring along those popcorn bags! Don’t forget not-so-perishable fruit like bananas, apples, and oranges.
- Utilize the local grocery store. This is an essential resource for frugal eating on vacation. It’s a great place to grab some bread, cold cuts, and other sandwich fixings that you can DIY instead of buying expensive premade versions elsewhere. If you are able to do any cooking while away, this is also where you’ll stock up on basic ingredients. At checkout, mention you’re out of towners and ask the cashier if he would be kind enough to run the savers club card even if you don’t have one (they usually will – we do it every time)!
- Meal plan wisely leading up to trip. Be mindful about the days leading up to your departure date with regard to perishable items. Try to taper off your highly perishable ingredients as you get closer to this date to try to ensure that you are cleaning out most of what’s in the fridge to avoid waste. For instance, don’t plan a large dinner that yields a lot of leftovers the night before! Check out more of my meal planning tips here.
- Additionally, plan for your immediate return: Lots of money can be spent on convenience food right AFTER you return home from a trip, because you have nothing in the house to eat. The way to combat this is to plan what you’ll do for your return ahead of time. For example, make and freeze a baked ziti or other casserole before your vacation so it’s there to come home to. Even making sure you have a frozen pizza to eat that first night is cheaper than take out. Also, plan something quick that doesn’t use a lot of perishables the following day in case you don’t have time to replenish your produce and dairy ASAP. Better yet? Meal plan for the week you return home the week before you leave – your menu will be waiting at home for you and then all you have to do is shop for the ingredients.
- Consider investing in a kitchenette. It might be more economical to make sure your accommodations have some sort kitchen space for you to use rather than relying on restaurants for every meal. Whether you’re renting a cabin with friends, splitting a timeshare with other family members, or booking a hotel on the beach, take advantage of the kitchen area! A mini fridge will preserve your leftovers to eat for lunch the next day, a microwave will heat up your breakfast oatmeal, and you can prep yourself tons of quick easy meals using a small oven range. Bring along a box of pasta and some jarred sauce from home, grab some salad supplies and garlic bread from the local grocery store, and you’ve got yourself a cheap yet satisfying dinner after a long day at the beach.
- Two words – CROCK POT! Packing up our crock pot for vacations where we’ve had access to a kitchen was one of the best things we’ve ever come up with! If you have kitchen/kitchenette access, setting a crock pot in the morning is a great way to eat on the cheap. We’ve done chili, a whole chicken, pastas, and soups, and it yields so much! Further, you can bring other kitchen supplies and gadgets from home when you can that might help make some quick meals. A flat skillet, cheese grater, and spatula can allow for quick quesadillas one night, for example.
- Know food rules at attractions. Some attractions have very strict “no outside food/drink” rules that you may need to follow. Other places are much more relaxed. Do your research in advance. Calling first and asking a live employee about the rules is your best bet - sometimes a place will not allow coolers but are lax when it comes to snacks and kiddie stuff. Remember that all food, drinks, and treats at parks, attractions, and museums are incredibly overpriced. It doesn’t mean you can’t treat your kids to a funnel cake or a frozen lemonade, but if you’re going to, eating a quick sandwich for lunch that you’ve packed will balance out some of that spending!
Family vacations are supposed to be fun and an escape from the everyday, and food is a big part of that. Get those giant ice cream cones while walking on the boardwalk, treat yourself to that lobster roll, savor every minute of that fancy meal al fresco watching the sunset with your spouse. We do all of these things too. Just be mindful of all of the other ways you can save here and there. All the little things add up, just like at home! Trips are about creating family memories that your children (and you!) can look back on and cherish forever. You’re going to remember the quality time together, the silly things that happen along the way, the beautiful scenery and irreplaceable bonding no matter what, so you might as well save some money along the way! Have a great trip!