If you’ve been considering taking road trips with the kids, now might be a great time to put it into gear.
In April 2016, American drivers had saved nearly $12 billion on gas during the first months of the year compared to what they spent on fuel during the same time period in 2015, according to a recent AAA survey.
Furthermore, drivers are expected to pay the lowest gas prices in 12 years while traveling in summer, noted AAA.
As a result, 55 percent of Americans say they are more likely to take road trips this year. In fact, road trips are the most popular type of vacation for families planning to travel, followed by national parks and theme parks.
Without the need to worry about high prices at the pump, you can focus your savings radar on another key travel factor: food.
Food costs can fluctuate greatly, depending on when you stop to get a bite to eat, where you dine and what you pack before heading out.
1. Map it out.
As you make lodging arrangements, keep in mind how your accommodations will impact your food expense.
Before reserving a hotel room, ask about breakfast. If breakfast is included, check to see what type of meal it is, such as a hot breakfast or continental style. A full breakfast could fill your family up for hours, but if you’re only offered fruit and muffins, you may want a mid-morning snack – or a larger, earlier lunch.
In addition, check if a fridge, microwave, or kitchenette is provided with your room. A couple of pots and a sink can make it easy to cook a few simple meals during your stay.
TripAdvisor.com lets you search for hotels that include free breakfast, and if you book through airbnb you can search for an apartment or place with kitchen access.
If you’re camping or taking an RV, think about how many meals you’ll want to prepare on your own.
2. Shop before you go.
Once you have an idea of how many meals you can make along the way, think of a basic menu. When my family of five goes camping, we take along enough fresh food for the first two days of the road trip. We also take one or two non-perishable meals — such as canned beans or meat — to keep as a backup dish.
While groceries are often available near campsites, bringing some food helps us avoid paying higher prices near popular spots, such as national parks, for every single meal.
For a list of recipe options at a campsite, check out KOA.com orReserveAmerica.
And if you’ll be traveling by RV, try GoRVing.com and RVUSA.com for easy meal ideas.
If your hotel room has a kitchenette, you might bring along a bag of chopped onions, peppers and mushrooms to cook with eggs for a quick omelet, or bread, butter, cheese and deli meat to make hot sandwiches.
In addition to purchasing what you can ahead of time for simple meals, stock up on water, drinks, and non-perishable snacks. I buy nuts, dried fruit, and chips in bulk, as they are cheaper than purchasing individually wrapped snacks. I then bring along small Ziploc bags to divide up the contents among family members while on the road.
3. Research restaurants.
Check the areas your family will be in to find the best options for times you’ll want to dine out.
Start by scouring websites such as Restaurant.com, MyKidsEatFree.com andKidsMealDeals.com.
To learn of menu options, visit AllMenus.com.
Also consider an app, such as Kids Eat Free – Restaurant Finder, to help you score good deals.
Eateries near universities often offer deals as well. Use Campus Special to help snag dinner for a few dollars.
Places that cater to local crowds usually have great prices too. A site likeRoadFood.com or app such as LocalEats will help you find specialties in the area.
4. Opt for fresh.
For a lunch selection that’s packed with fruits and vegetables, consider heading to a farmer’s market. To find one that’s along your route and open when you’ll be in the area, check LocalHarvest or the National Farmers Market Directory.
These local gatherings often provide solid prices for a wide selection of goods. As you stroll through, the kids will be able to stretch their legs, learn about the produce grown in the region, and try new foods.
Many markets offer free samples or ready-made lunch options. You could also put together your own picnic with fresh cheese, a loaf of bread, and fruit.
The high nutrition content will not only fill up everyone quickly. It will also help stave off travel-related colds and illnesses.
5. Track costs.
After you’ve thought about what to buy ahead of time, and where to stop along the way, you’ll likely have an idea of how much you want to spend on food during road trips.
To make sure your total food expenses stay within budget, consider setting an amount to spend each day on food.
Say your family of four will be staying at a place that includes a full breakfast. You plan to have picnic lunches almost every day and eat dinner at a restaurant each night. After researching how much to expect to pay at eateries in the area, you might come up with an estimate of $100 for food each day. The exact amount will depend on what part of the country you’ll be visiting, and where you want to eat most meals.
To keep it simple, consider tracking costs in a small notebook. At the end of the day, tally up what you spent on snacks and meals. And if you’d rather use an app, try Trail Wallet or iTravel Budget.
6. Keep balance in mind.
While it’s wise to plan ahead and set a budget, remaining flexible will ensure your family fully enjoys the trip.
To make the most of your stay, you might opt to spend more some days – or even splurge – and then have less expensive meals other days. Perhaps you choose to have dinner in a well-known upscale restaurant one night, and then have a picnic supper the next.
With this strategy you’ll be able to have a memorable time, avoid feeling deprived, and still spend wisely on food during the road trip.