Road Trip Food for the Budget-Minded

Keeping costs down on road trip food is surprisingly easy if you give it a little thought and it can go a long way towards planning cheap road trips that stay under budget. Or, you can spend the money you save by not eating out on nicer accommodations if you wish! If you plan your meals carefully, you can eat as inexpensively as you would at home.

Here's how we save money on road trip food:

Pack a cooler, a dry food bag or box, and some picnic essentials (plates, napkins, paper towels, flatware, bowls,…) We use one cooler for drinks and ice and another for food (with good ziplocks bags to keep the ice from soaking into the food). You'll want to at least double-bag your ziplocks or, better yet, find bags that seal really well. Reusable ice bags are great… but only if you have a freezer each night to re-freeze the bags. The money you spend on buying ice will more than make up for the savings from not eating out every meal. And most hotels have easy-to-access ice machines so we generally just fill up our coolers each morning before we head to our next destination.

Over the years, as we've gotten more environmentally-conscious, we've shifted away from using paper plates and plastic bowls and flatware to using reusables that we just wash in the hotel sink. Keeping your food items to low-maintenance and easy-to-clean works best. Someone once gave us a gift of a picnic basket in a backpack that worked out GREAT for our last big extended road trip. It had plates, flatware, a sharp knife and cutting board, and even wine glasses and a corkscrew. I must admit that I stuck a few paper plates in the backpack just in case I was really exhausted one night and didn't feel up to washing dishes.

If you have time, it's great to buy at least the dry food ahead of time at your own grocery store where you know you can find your favorites. Stick to nonperishable food as much as possible but don't limit yourself to ONLY dry foods. Having a few special condiments, milk, and other usual foods will help you all feel less deprived and wishing you could eat out more.

Here are some of our favorite road trip foods:


  • Cereal and Milk
  • Breakfast or protein bars
  • Bagels and peanut butter (or cream cheese if you can deal with keeping it cold)
  • Nuts (like cinnamon almonds – great way to get a protein fix early in the day)
Lunch or Dinner:
  • Cheese and crackers
  • Lunch meats
  • Sandwiches (peanut butter and jelly or lunch meats and cheese with mustard)
  • Olive Oil, pepper, and a great loaf of bread (our favorite!)
  • Trail mix and/or nuts
  • Wine (an essential!)
  • Dark chocolate (you have to keep it dry in the cold cooler, but it's OH so worth it!!)

It's easy nowadays to find decent groceries almost anywhere (even gas stations tend to have staples like milk and you can pack your own favorite cereals and such from home).

And buying drinks at gas stations along your way can really add up too. Buy in bulk and use your cooler for juice boxes, sodas, and water bottles. Or bring each person in your family their own reusable water bottle and fill it up each morning at the hotel. If you (or your kids) are picky about water tastes (we are!), you can bring flavor packets to sprinkle into the water. Just make sure to clean the bottles out each night or you'll have some really nasty bottles in a few days!

Another option for budget meals on a road trip is to look for hotels that offer free breakfasts. Some are even quite extensive (look for "hot" rather than continental breakfast). If you intend to eat out for breakfast, rather than packing your own, then make sure to factor in free breakfasts when comparing hotel prices.

And yet another option for budget road trip food is to stay someplace with a full kitchen: a house, condo, apartment, RV, camper,… While this might seem counter-intuitive when you're on a tight budget, it's often cheaper overall to pay a little more for accommodations that make it easy for you to cook and eat meals in. And laundry is often an added bonus!

Our favorite method for budget travel is to do a home swap or home exchange and stay in someone else' home while they stay in ours. It's not as scary as it might sound. You make sure to get to know each other a bit (via e-mails or phone calls) and lay down some ground rules and expectations before you start. We've had some wonderful experiences with home exchanges. Besides saving money on accommodations, food, laundry, and entertainment (frequently, the home will have DVDs, WII, kids' toys, or even a pool!), the host family often shares insider tips on what to see and do in their area, coupons, maps, and other helpful tidbits.

Our Favorite Food Tip for Road Trips:

It's great fun to eat out in new cities, especially places that feel really foreign like Quebec City (one of our favorite North American destinations!) So, if you love eating out, do it at lunchtime! It's usually MUCH cheaper than eating out at dinnertime (ask to see the menu before you enter to make sure there's separate pricing), it allows you to spend the day wherever you're touring without heading back to the hotel, there are fewer crowds and lines at lunch time (especially in the nicer restaurants), and it allows you to really relax at dinnertime in the hotel (by the pool or hotel room TV) after a long day of siteseeing. It's also healthier for your body to eat your largest meal earlier in the day!

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