11 Ways to Avoid Overspending on Food During Your Next Vacay

A family go out to eat while on vacation.
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You scour the internet for the best deals on flights and lodging when planning a trip. So don’t throw all your financial cares to the wind once you’re on vacation — particularly when it comes to putting food in your mouth.

It can be easy to overspend on food when you’re away from home. You’ve got to eat, and food just seems to be more expensive when you’re traveling. But with some advanced planning and creative thinking, there are ways to lower your food costs on vacation.

11 Tips to Save Money on Food While Traveling

1. Pack Snacks

Bring snacks from home so you don’t have to buy overpriced airport fare or get stuck paying convenience store prices for munchies on a road trip. Trail mix, granola, crackers and apples are all good for traveling.

Pro Tip

If you’re visiting attractions like theme parks or the zoo, check their rules about outside food. For example, Disney World guests can bring snacks and food that doesn’t require heating.

2. Bring a Water Bottle

No one wants to pay $5 for a 16 oz. bottle of water. But tourist spots capitalize on you not having other options to quench your thirst, and airports won’t allow a bottle with more than 3.4 ounces of liquid to pass through security.

Take an empty water bottle with you and fill it up at a water fountain, a fast-food joint or straight from the tap. You may even come across filtered water fill-up stations.

3. Go Grocery Shopping

If you’re staying somewhere that has access to a kitchen, go grocery shopping and cook instead of eating out for every meal. Or if you’re driving to your destination, bring non-perishable groceries from home or pack up a cooler with ice for things that have to stay cold.

Even if you don’t have a full kitchen, there’s a lot you can do with a mini fridge and microwave. Cereal, oatmeal, muffins, fruit and yogurt make for easy breakfast options. You can whip up sandwiches for lunch for a fraction of the cost of having one made at a deli. Don’t forget to stock up on snacks.

4. Choose Lunch Over Dinner

If you’re dying to sample the food at a high-profile restaurant, go for lunch when the prices are often cheaper. Once you’ve had your nice meal of the day, choose a cheaper option for dinner, such as a quick-service restaurant or sandwiches at your hotel room.

5. Find Discounts

Sites like Groupon and LivingSocial offer deals on dining — in addition to discounts on entertainment, shopping and more. Travel brochures or restaurant guides in your hotel lobby or visitors center may include coupons for eating out, too. You can buy discounted restaurant gift cards on sites like Restaurant.com or Raise.com.

Pro Tip

Several chain restaurants like Applebee’s and Ruby Tuesday will give you free food or a percentage off your bill by signing up as a new member of their eClub or rewards program.

If you’re on vacation to celebrate your birthday, take advantage of birthday freebies and discounts.

6. Use Free Apps to Help You Save on Gas and Food

Dining out and gas may be your biggest expense on any good road trip.

But a free app called Upside can help you earn real cash back every time you dine or fill your tank — to the tune of $340 per year for frequent users.

The Upside app uses a map feature to show you local gas stations where you can beat the pump price by as much as 25 cents per gallon. Regular users earn an average of $106 per year on gas alone.

On top of that, Upside can help you earn an additional $234 each year with cashback offers at thousands of restaurants and grocery stores, making your everyday expenses even more manageable.

Just download the Upside app and create a free account, then browse the map to find participating locations. Claim an offer, pay normally with the physical card that’s also linked to your Upside account and follow any additional steps in the app

Upside will keep track of all your cash-back earnings. You can cash out any time via your bank or PayPal account, or exchange them for a gift card for brands like Starbucks and Amazon. You’ll get your money in two days or less.

Join the millions of people who earn more than $300 annually just for buying what they need. Download the Upside app to get started — it’s completely free, and gets you cash back at more than 50,000 businesses.

7. Order Appetizers as a Meal

Appetizers generally cost less than a full meal but can be just as filling. Check the menu prices. You may find you can order a side dish or house salad along with your appetizer and still spend less than you would on an entree.

8. Order Water

When dining out, choose water instead of soda, alcohol or other pricy drinks to cut the cost of your dining bill. Filling up on water before and during your meal can make you less likely to order a pricy dessert. Or you might be too full to finish your meal and wind up with leftovers to eat later. Besides, it’s easy to get dehydrated while traveling, especially if you’re doing lots of outdoor activities. Use mealtime as an opportunity to hydrate.

9. Take Advantage of Happy Hour Specials

Plan your dining to fall within happy hour to save money on food and drinks. Some establishments offer happy hour early in the evening while others gear their specials to late-night patrons. Others have deals only on certain days of the week. Check individual restaurants for details.

10. Research Dining Options in Advance

While planning your trip, check out the restaurants, bars and other eateries near where you’ll stay and the places you’ll visit. Look at menu prices to see if the offerings fall within your budget. Sites like Yelp can help you filter out spots that are too expensive and steer you to the best spots in unfamiliar cities.

Pro Tip

If you’re traveling with kids, look for restaurants with a kids-eat-free deal.

11. Embrace Free Food and Drinks

Enjoy the free cookies, coffee and continental breakfast at your hotel. Drink all the free samples on winery or brewery tours. If old friends or relatives live near your travel destination, take them up on their offer to come over for dinner. Free food is the best for budget travelers.

Nicole Dow is a former senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.