Since I just returned from the beach, I thought I would share some of my past tried and true tips about saving money on food while vacationing. Believe it or not, one new trick I did this year was to bring a big tub of frozen cookie dough on the road with us. Wow, that has been a treat, and it’s embarrassing to admit that very few made it to the oven, but hey, it’s vacation.

It’s that time of the year when many start making plans for family vacations. It may be as simple as a “staycation,” or you may be fortunate enough to get a whole week away with the family.

The first step every one looks at is their budget. How much can we actually afford for this vacation, while staying with in our means, and not incurring any debt on the credit card? Once that is determined, the next step is to ask, “How can we save money on vacation?”

When I asked on my Balancing Beauty and Bedlam facebook page (you need to like me to join in the fun discussions), what people do for vacations, it was a definite mix of “a little of everything.” A few purists hold fast to eating every meal out, since it’s vacation. Some who won’t eat out at all since the budget won’t allow, and they make sure to rent a spot where there’s a least a mini fridge, but the majority of you do a bit of both.

Just like in our day to day life, the easiest and quickest way to save money on the budget is on food. Now here is where it gets touchy. It’s a vacation, and for many that means not lifting a finger in the kitchen. I can appreciate that, but I thought I would throw out some additional suggestions for saving money on vacation...strictly in the food department.

(Edited to add: Do NOT miss how I saved hundreds on food during our trip to Disney. I hope it makes you chuckle, like I’m sure our maids did.)

Ideas for eating out on vacation (or any time):

Groupon or Living Social

Groupon and Living Social are the main ways our family eats at restaurants these days. If you know your vacation destination, sign up now for Groupon’s daily deals,  or Living Social, not only your own home town, but also the city of your trip. Since they only send out one deal a day, you may have to wait to find that perfect fit. Not only will you see amazing restaurants, but also family fun events.

Buy Gift Certificates

If you’re not familiar with it, I explain it a bit in this post. My biggest recommendation with these gift certificates is to read the fine print. Groupon and Living Social are self explanatory and easy. has some amazing options anywhere in the US, but just read what you are buying.)

Stop at the Chamber of Commerce/Visitor’s Bureau

As for restaurant and activities coupon booklets. Often, there are BOGO coupons or at a minimum $2 off/per person coupons. If you are at a touristy type place, you will see coupon booklets every where, but often the Chamber will offer something a bit better.  Use twitter to reach out to the local bureau. They are incredibly helpful with suggestions.

Eat out for either breakfast or lunch.

Prices are typically 50% off the dinner prices, but portion sizes are still the same. If we decide to eat out for dinner, we attempt to make two big meals stretch. We make breakfast/brunch at the condo, and then plan on having a late lunch/early dinner. Since we are feeding such a large group, with many huge eaters, a buffet works well for our family. Prices typically go up at least $5/person after 5:00pm, so we plan head to see when the prices increase, and arrive  in time to receive the lunch pricing.

Research the “kids eat free” restaurants.

Find the days when restaurants give free meals. Typically, it’s buy one adult entree, receive two free children’s’ meals. (Post coming soon)

Tips for saving the most money on vacation with food by eating in your hotel or condo.

This is a sampling of ideas I have used in the past. Pick and choose what works best for you.

Brew my Starbucks at home.

Our trip always begins with a long drive. So I make sure to brew my Starbucks at home, fill our carafe, and then I have unlimited free refills for the entire drive.

If traveling a distance by car, prepare for food and beverages in the car.

A cooler is a must. Pack snacks, trail mix, fruit, veggies, drinks (bring empty cups for filling up with ice at gas stations or you will charged), easy self serve meals – burritos, sandwiches (sandwich meat, bread, cheese, condiments), even some left over fried chicken from the night before works well (eat at a rest area). This keeps everyone from buying junky food at every stop.

Freeze one gallon of milk and use it as your ice pack.

This allows us to have cereal for breakfast our first vacation day, and I don’t have to stress about getting right to the store.

Pack as much as you can to avoid impulse and convenience shopping.

Are there foods that say “vacation” to your children? For mine, it’s packs of Beef Jerkey, Ice Cream, Nutty bars and Swiss Cake Rolls, so we buy them. Yes, this junk food speaks love to them, and so we splurge. It’s vacation and sometimes those special food purchases make the $4 shakes on the beach not as much of a draw.

This year my husband told me to stop packing so much food. He did not want our van full of all food from home, so I stopped at one cooler and the tote pictured above (along with a few miscellaneous bags.) I tried to think through those items that I get for free with couponing. (You know those items that would actually make me hyperventilate if I had to purchase them full price?) I brought those.

I bring all our cereal, condiments, cream cheese, sour cream, salad dressing and some snack items I had just stocked up on from a big Couponing week. Then it wasn’t so hard to fill in the pieces once we got to the beach. I admit, I was going to bring bags of french fries that I got on sale and my husband looked at me like, “Seriously? There’s a Walmart a mile from our condo.” He’s right, an extra quarter will not kill me.

I think grocery shopping beforehand vs. once you reach your destination is a matter of personal preference, and depends on the ages of your children.  It’s your vacation, you do what will bring less stress. 🙂

Bring a Crockpot

Even if you are in a hotel room, you can have the most expensive meal of the day covered – dinner. BBQ Chicken in the crockpot is so simple, roast, soup, so many choices.

Plan meals ahead

With a little forethought, pre-planning makes sure you have packed those little things that add up at the store (which you hate buying again). For instance, condiments and spices you can bring from home when you plan ahead. Make sure you leave a day every 3rd day for leftovers. We have had too many vacation weeks come to a close where great food was left in our fridge, and we couldn’t bring it home. And you know how I feel about food waste. Make a casserole for the first night you arrive.

This is a no stress option. Grab something already made from your home freezer, and throw it in the cooler. Just pop it out of the cooler when you arrive and stick it in the oven.

Buy prepackaged/pre-made foods for the week.

If you are used to making all your food at home from scratch, then buying some prepared foods at the grocer will seem like a total treat, yet is still much more cost effective than eating out. Pans of lasagne, pre-made burritos etc are all easy, quick choices and heat up quickly in a hotel microwaves. Check out the grocer’s deli department for salad bars, sub sandwiches and take advantage of their “homemade” items such as meatloaf, chicken, roasts etc. Again, this is more expensive than making it at your hotel or condo, but much cheaper than eating out. A great option to still feel like you are on a vacation from the kitchen. Since we always rent something with at least a mini kitchen, it’s just not wise for our family to do otherwise, but a reader gave some great ideas for her trip when they stayed flew on a plane and stayed in a hotel. Two things we have never done as a family.

Melissa shared,

“My husband and I took an 8 day trip to Washington DC and spent only $200 in food and things for the kids…everything. We brought as much as we could with us in our suit case. We brought instant oatmeal for every morning, and used the coffee pot for hot water and the cups in the hotel. When we got there we went to a grocery store, and bought a small peanut butter and Jelly and a small cooler to get ice from the ice machine to keep everything good that needed to be cold. We also brought all we could as snacks and treats and such from home and put our lunches together in the hotel before leaving for the day. We then would eat out for dinner, but we went to Subway and other cheaper places for dinner, except for a couple nights. It was so neat to be able to make that trip because I learned that traveling doesn’t have to be expensive if you plan ahead and have a plan.”

So, as an expert on saving money on vacation (especially on food), I know I have missed some things. I will probably remember to add them in a few days, but why don’t you fill in the gaps for me.

How do you save money on vacations with the food budget? Any more tips for eating on a trip? (Don’t miss the comment, they are so helpful.)