Road trips are part of life in my family. About twice a year, we drive six hours to visit my parents. Every summer, we drive several hours to camp at state parks or attend family reunions. We’re planning our biggest road trip yet this summer. We’ll be driving from suburban St. Louis to North Carolina and Virginia. Our family lives primarily on one income, so we’re always looking to save money. When we pack road trip meals we take some of the bite out of our travel budget.
In the early years of our marriage, my husband and I viewed travel as an excuse to eat out because we rarely eat out otherwise. Any opportunity to eat at a restaurant is a treat. We often stopped at fast food places, and we sometimes splurged at pricier sit-down restaurants.
Over the years, I’ve read several blogs and frugal living columns that suggested packing lunches to save money while traveling. My husband and I weren’t willing to give up our indulgence, though. We thought eating at restaurants helped break up the monotony of long drives, and we were allowed to spend money while we traveled, right?
As we added first one daughter, then a second daughter, to our family, we gradually spent more money eating out while traveling. Two years ago when our summer was packed with more travel than usual – including a funeral, an extra family gathering, and an extra camping trip – we reevaluated our spending for meals on the road. We decided to try packing our lunches in a large cooler and eating at rest stops alongside the interstates.
We soon realized that packing our own food could be a good experience.
Here’s what we discovered when we started to pack road trip meals in advance:
1. We got out of the fast food hamburger rut.
At most roadside fast food restaurants, the usual fare includes hamburgers and chicken sandwiches, fries, soda, and a stream of plastic kids’ meal toys to clutter our car and house. With a little creativity, we can pack road trip meals with our own food and have more variety. We eat a lot of sandwiches, but we can also pack wraps, salads, chips and salsa, Triscuit crackers with homemade tuna salad, hard-boiled eggs, homemade baked goods, fresh fruit and veggies, cheese, and more. The side item possibilities are endless.
2. We eat healthier.
Our picnic meals when we pack road trip meals frequently include sandwiches (lunchmeat, egg or chicken salad, and peanut butter and jelly or peanut butter and honey), salad with small containers of dressing, Pringles potato chips, fresh fruit, veggies and dip, and homemade cookies. We drink water in reusable bottles. Even with cookies and Pringles, we’re better off than if we had eaten greasy burgers and fries with soda.
3. Rest stops are nice, peaceful places to take a break from the road.
They have open, grassy spaces for kids to run, and often playgrounds. Adults can relax in the great outdoors away from fast food play places that echo with children’s shrieks. Most rest stops have large maps in the foyer near the restrooms to chart your journey. Some also have interesting local paraphernalia on display, so you can learn about historic Route 66, for example. Rest stops also see a steady, high-volume flow of travelers – mostly families and couples – throughout the day (and we mostly travel during daylight hours), so they are public places in which we feel safe.
4. We save money!
We easily spend $20 to $30 on fast food for a family of four. Packed lunches are around one quarter of the cost of fast food restaurants, give or take a few dollars, depending on what we’re eating. Even if you’re hesitant to forgo the convenience of purchased, ready-to-eat meals, you’ll save money by picking up pre-packaged individual sandwiches, salads, Lunchables, or other deli items from Subway or the grocery store the day before (or morning of) your trip and packing them in the cooler. My husband and I like to split a foot-long sandwich from Subway and pack it in the cooler with $1 Lunchables for the kids, and we share a can of grocery-store Pringles and some fruit. It’s still less money to pack road trips meals using pre-packaged items than many restaurants.
5. We are not alone.
A lot of other traveling families picnic like us. On a nice summer day, the picnic tables at rest stops are mostly full of other people who pack road trip meals. Many people have their dogs with them, much to my daughters’ delight.
On a related note, I’ve noticed amusement parks are another place where many families pack food and tailgate. We were given season passes to Six Flags St. Louis last summer as a gift, and we joined a significant number of guests who got their hands stamped before exiting the park gates to eat in the parking lot. We pulled our cooler and a blanket from the back of our car and relaxed in the grassy medians in the parking lot. When we were ready to head back into the park, we simply showed our stamped hands. Given the inflated prices for amusement park food, we may have saved several hundred dollars during our half-dozen or so visits to the park last summer. We also visited Kings Island in Ohio two summers ago and picnicked with other people in the parking lot there, although we didn’t see any convenient grassy medians to sit on, so we simply let our kids sit in the back of our vehicle with the hatch open.
6. We can even “picnic” during the colder months.
We brought our lunches along when we drove to visit my parents during Christmas break. We ate in our car at a rest stop, and I packed lunchmeat sandwiches and apples because they aren’t too messy. I let the girls unbuckle so they could move around a bit, and we enjoyed chatting, eating, and watching people come and go outside our car. There were families climbing in and out of vehicles and walking to the restrooms, couples strolling along the sidewalks to stretch their legs, and many people walking dogs of all types. My daughters were even entertained watching a man drive around on a golf cart and empty trash cans. After we ate, we let the girls run in the brisk outdoors for a few minutes before using the restrooms and hitting the road again.
Now that we’ve seen how much money we save and how much fun picnicking can be when we pack road trip meals, we are rarely tempted to eat out while traveling. Maybe you aren’t ready to go hardcore and eat in your car during the winter, but give packed lunches a try this summer and you may begin a new family tradition … and have a little more cash in your wallet.
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Tags: how to save money while traveling