Parenting: Traveling With Kids - Cheap Eats

David Murphy says kids will appreciate a nice vacation meal every now and then, but food can also be a category for cost cutting.
August 6, 2010 8:12:53 AM PDT
While airfare, hotels, and admissions to attractions rank among the most expensive items on any vacation agenda, food can also add-up.

In fact, it's among the most difficult things to budget in advance, because it's hard to know exactly where you're going to be eating. The good news is that food can also be a great starting point in the effort to trim a trip's cost.

When booking hotels, pay attention to those that offer a free continental breakfast. As mentioned in my earlier blog on hotels, most located outside city centers or around a major city's beltway offer these freebies, and some include a hot option, like a do-it-yourself Belgium Waffle, or a microwavable breakfast sandwich. All include bagels, toast, fruit and yogurt, along with juice and perhaps, some Danish. Breakfast cereal is pretty common, too. If you can talk your kids into this, you've just taken care of one-third of your regular meals and your expense is zero.

Light Lunch

For lunch, especially when I'm on the road with kids, I find that it's less expensive to eat from a cooler in the car than at a restaurant. If we're driving from home, we bring along a mid-sized cooler that fits easily between the seats and is big enough to stow a half-dozen drinks or juice boxes, along with some yogurt and fresh fruit. If it's a fly-and-drive vacation, we buy a small Styrofoam cooler at a grocery store and immediately stock it. We also include a grocery bag with some healthy snacks. Cheese sticks, pretzels, popcorn and raisins work well in the car. I usually include a bit of candy like Twizzlers or Raisinettes, too. But I would caution against relying too heavily on sweets, since kids do not respond well to a sugar rush in the close confines of an automobile. At times, you're going to want a sit-down lunch, and there are plenty of cheap options. But don't always settle for the burger. Think about mixing-in a pizza place (where you can get a salad), or perhaps a sub shop.

For dinner, pay attention to billboards. Many family restaurants offer a "kids eat free" deal on certain nights of the week and they often advertise. You may also notice a chain offering the same deal in different locations. A GPS or hotel internet search for other similar restaurants along your route could pocket you the same deal when you're ready for dinner. I recently stayed in Zanesville, Ohio, along I-70, and noticed two places with freebie kid's dinners, one of them a "Steak n' Shake" diner, the other a local non-chain family restaurant with a packed parking lot (suggesting that it was probably a decent spot).

Destination Dining

If you're headed to a destination vacation where you plan on spending most or all of your time in one hotel, look around for one with either an all-inclusive meal plan, or a cheap kid's meal option. You may also want to consider a club level room where complimentary food is provided. The extra cost of the room may be justified if enough free food and drink can be had during your stay. These club dining areas are usually good for breakfast, some midday snacks and hot evening appetizers which can double as dinner once or twice. There is also often a desert cart and free wine and beer. This obviously works better for larger families who will save the cost of more meals by going the club level route.

Finally, I wouldn't budget the food expense of your trip solely on the cheapest options. Sometimes, these aren't convenient. And eventually, the family is liable to revolt if you don't have at least one or two nicer meals out. But your food dollars will go farther with a little preparation and awareness as to what deals and cost-saving strategies are out there, and how to make them work for you.

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