Saving Money on Food for a Road Trip

So far this summer, my family has spent 60 hours in the car together on two different road trips.  And we still like each other!  But that’s another post.

Today, I want to talk about how to save money on food for a road trip or vacation.  This is a subject I’ve talked about before.  It’s important to me, because it’s part of what has enabled us to afford trips together.

Most important is to make a plan and make your lists.

I make lists for: 

  • Lunches
  • Dinners I’m planning to cook (yes, I cook on vacation and it’s not hard)
  • Snacks for the car
  • Breakfasts
  • Grocery lists for shopping before we leave home
  • Grocery lists for after we get to our destination

That’s a lot of lists, but they work hard to keep us from eating out too often.  They also keep me from having to re-think the plan numerous times, freeing up limited mind space for enjoying the trip.

Pack the food wisely.

  • Be sure you (or an older child) can get to snacks and drinks in the car.
  • Use plenty of ice in the cooler.  Cars get hot, especially when it’s 107 degrees driving through Kansas.
  • Use name brand Ziploc bags in the cooler.  I found the generic versions were not water tight.  You don’t want soggy sandwiches.
  • If you’re traveling with a quart of milk or juice, look for lids that screw on rather than snap on.

Breakfast ideas:

Go for things that are easy to hold in your hand and quick to fix.

  • Bagels and cream cheese
  • Peanut butter sandwiches
  • Fruit
  • Granola bars
  • Yogurt – don’t forget some spoons
  • Starbucks Double Shots – essential if you like a big cup of coffee in the morning, but don’t have to want to stop too soon for a bathroom break.  {ahem}

Lunch ideas:

I try to pack our first-day-on-the-road lunch, but we get fast food on the second day of driving.

  • Sandwiches – make them the day before you travel and label with each person’s name. Pack in Ziploc bags
  • Use tortillas to make wraps instead of bread. These seem to hold up a bit better than regular sandwiches.
  • Carrots and grapes travel well and can be eaten in the car for snacks too.
  • Packets of drink mix for bottled water are easy to pack.  This gives variety, but you only have to pack the bottled water.

Dinner ideas:

This is where you can see real savings.  Depending on your situation, it can even be nicer than eating out.

We like to rent houses instead of staying in hotels once we’re at our destination.  We’ve rented places in Colorado Springs, Orlando, Gatlinburg and Gulf Shores.  For our family of 6, it’s been cheaper per night than hotels.  Check out to find a rental.

That said, I’ve also “cooked” in hotel rooms.  It’s not as good or as easy as cooking in a house, but it can work.  Use a hot pot (do college kids still use these?) to heat canned soups.  Use the coffee maker for hot water for ramen noodles.

For cooking in a kitchen:

  • Keep it simple. Make recipes you’ve cooked before or you know to be easy.
  • Make your list of dinners and stick to it.
  • Depending on your situation, you can make meals ahead and freeze them using dry ice to keep them frozen while you travel.

We do like to eat out a few times on vacation.  Check the internet for cheap meals in your travel area.  When we traveled to Colorado Springs, I looked at Carrie’s awesome list of Cheap Things to Eat.  She recommended an ice cream place called Rizuto’s that has huge kiddie cones for $1.  Wow, she wasn’t kidding. They were huge and delicious.  We went 3 times.  Dear Risutto’s, we miss you!

In 16 total days of vacation/road trip this summer, we ate out 9 times.  Not bad.

A few  other lessons learned from so many hours in the car:

  • Dramamine and sea bands. Buy them. Use them.
  • Dry erase markers work on car windows. Give the kids a paper towel to “erase”.
  • Audio books are a nice change from radio and movies. We all enjoyed Hank the Cow Dog on this trip.
  • The AAA Triptik app for iphone is wonderful! We found hotels easily using this and got good deals too.

What are your road trip and vacation tips?


  1. These are great tips! 60 hours in the car? WOW! Where did ya go? =D Its just shows that you know what your saying LOL

    I have a hop going on right now called “Flash-Back-Friday” and you link up an old post. Its so much fun–like looking in a scrapbook. I would love for you to link up a post!

    Happy Friday!
    Cookin’ for my Captain FBF

  2. These are awesome tips!! 🙂 I wish I had read this post a month ago before our Galveston trip – We could have saved a boatload of money!

  3. you didn’t like the 107 through kansas? lol It has been that way for 34 days straight!

    • Oh my goodness! That is too long for that much heat. Unreal. I did love driving through Kansas. Everyone says it’s boring, but we thought it was fascinating. Also loved the signs that say “1 Kansas farmer feeds 124 people plus you”. I figure 1 Kansas farm wife can cook for 124 people plus you too 🙂 Great state!

  4. Anonymous says:

    We eat out on vacation very little!!!!! Add a picnic table to any food- and any park… instant fun for kids.

  5. Great post. We have a 10-11 hour car tripm planned for October and I will definitely be using some of these tips. We prefer to stay in a condo or house as well. I love being able to eat most of our meals in rather than constantly going to restaurants. Definitely saves some money.

  6. Amanda H. says:

    Awesome tips! I just came to check your site for some easy “on the road” recipes and was thrilled with this post! I figured I needed to make some lists along with a simple menu plan. We will be camping from Washington state to Wisconsin over a 10 day span. I am fortunate in the fact that I will have a fridge and extra storage in our camper, but I won’t be able to cook meals ahead of time as my kids and I are flying to meet my husband for the trip. Thanks again!

  7. We’re experts at the road trip. (In fact, we just got home from a two-week trip driving from Texas to Orlando to NYC and then back home to Texas.)

    We try to frequent hotels/motels which provide complimentary breakfast buffet. That takes one meal off the list. If the hotel’s breakfast is a hot meal with eggs and all, we may make this our biggest meal of the day. Most of these hotels are fine with you taking a piece of whole fruit from your breakfast, and we use this for a snack later in the day. Granted, we’re empty-nesters and taking one apple or pear to share isn’t as much of an impact to the hotel as if a family were to take one piece of fruit apiece.

    A picnic lunch is fun, even for adults. On one trip from San Diego to Texas via Crater Lake, we ate at roadside picnic tables every day. Basic lunch was PB sandwiches and some fresh fruit, but occasionally we’d stop at a grocery store and pick up a ready-to-serve sandwich, a salad, or even sushi. By stopping at the grocery no more than an hour before we were ready to eat lunch, we didn’t even have to have ice in a cooler.

    Rather than buying bottles of water, we use refillable bottles — and those individual drink mix packettes work well.

    • Elsi, now that is a lot of miles! We like hotels that offer breakfast too. I was surprised to find a couple hotels on our last trip that offered a light dinner as part of the room rate.

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