Save Money on Road Trip Food While Still Eating Well
If you’re looking to save money on road trip food expenses, you don’t have to limit yourself to choking down three square meals of pre-made PB and J sandwiches every day. Sure, that may be the cheapest way to travel, but part of the joy of the road trip experience comes from picnicking with your travel companions over fun food and experiencing the local flavors of the towns you pass through.
Don’t expect this to be a guide to the most bare-bones, shoestring way to dine — these are just some suggestions to help you find the right blend of convenience, fun, and affordability for your adventure.
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Shop grocery stores
Grocery stores can be a road tripper’s friend — as long you know what you’re looking for. Generally speaking, you don’t want to purchase anything that needs to be cooked, so skip the raw meat unless you have a way to grill it. However, you’ll usually find yourself getting the most mileage out of canned goods, the bakery department, and the deli. Canned olives and a jar of pickles can really elevate a simple sandwich picnic, and canned soups are ideal to heat and eat when you just want a mindless, microwavable meal in your hotel room. The produce section, with things like apples, bananas, and pre-washed bags of baby carrots, can also provide plenty of health-conscious treats.
Even ready-made deli foods, like chicken tenders, potato wedges, and pasta salads, may be considerably cheaper than their fast-food equivalents. A rotisserie chicken is another relatively affordable option that can fill up a family. And don’t knock those items that have been reduced for quick sale — you’re going to eat them pretty much immediately, so it’s not like they’ll spoil before you can get to them. A clearance-priced small cake, fruit pie, or six-pack of donuts can be just the finishing touch that your road-trip picnic needs.
Things to bring along
It’s a classic tip, but it’s worth mentioning — you can pack your first few road trip meals at home. Sandwiches and wraps are good picks, since they’re easy to eat without a plate or utensils.
If you plan on skipping the fast-food joints, which will supply you with dipping sauces and salad dressings, consider bringing along some of your favorite condiments. You don’t want to settle into your scenic picnic just to realize you’re located 200 miles away from the nearest bottle of sriracha or ketchup.
But don’t limit your packing to edible goods. Pack a few things to make your on-the-go, budget-friendly dining experience a little more convenient. It helps to bring along a pack of paper plates and bowls, since a lot of affordable eating tricks involve buying a large portion and distributing it among your adventure buddies. Some reusable travel silverware can make dining less messy, or you can grab a pack of disposable utensils. A roll of paper towels and a pack of baby wipes can make it easier to clean up hands and faces after a meal, especially if you’re traveling with kids in tow.
On top of that, consider bringing a sheathed kitchen knife or plastic cake server to help cut individual portions of things like pie and cake. It also doesn’t hurt to bring along a can or bottle opener for your trip.
Soda, tea, lemonade, and other beverages
When you buy beverages at a vending machine, gas station, convenience store, or truck stop, you’ll be paying a premium. The most affordable alternative is to nab a 12-pack of your favorite soda at a grocery store and stick the cans in the cooler with some ice. You can also bring along single-serve packs of powdered drink mix to add to personal water bottles.
And if you don’t mind stopping to dole out drinks, consider mixing or purchasing gallon-size versions of lemonade, sweet tea, or fruit punch to bring along in your cooler. These can be served in travel cups or your passengers’ personal water bottles.
But if you’re pressed into buying a beverage at a gas station, consider a fountain drink instead of a bottled beverage — you may be able to get more for your money. Just be sure to check the price of each option, since costs may vary by location.
When it comes to affordable snacking, a little bit of planning goes a long way. Have a favorite road trip treat that you can’t resist? Instead of buying multiple small packs along your route, buy in bulk. If you have a membership to a membership-based retailer like Costco or Sam’s Club, now’s the time to splurge on that bucket of pretzels so big you could fit a cat into it.
If you don’t have a membership to one of those retailers — or just don’t want to lock yourself into eating a huge quantity of one snack — check the sale ads for your local grocery stores. You can check out stores like Aldi for a decent variety of reasonably priced salty, crunchy snacks, without chasing sales around town.
Also, if you don’t want to purchase sweets by the pound, consider dropping by a store like Dollar Tree for affordable gummies and hard candies. You may be able to find a bag of Sour Patch Kids or Haribo Gold Bears for $1 instead of paying double at a highway truck stop for a bag of the same size.
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Don’t miss out on local flavor
Even if you’re trying to keep your dining costs down, you can still enjoy some local hotspots at your various stops. Apps like Restaurant.com and Groupon offer dining specials that can help you save big. For instance, you may be able to purchase as $20 voucher for just $10 through these apps. Just be sure to narrow your search to the town you’re currently in, or plan on heading to. It’s also a good idea to check to make sure that the business will still be open on the day you plan to arrive, because some small-town establishments might be closed on Sundays, for instance.
For more road trip tips, check out our other adventure-planning articles.
Kimiko Kidd is a native Daytonian. She graduated from Wright State University with degrees in environmental science and sociology. She loves her trusty old Honda Civic, but dreams of owning a 1974 Ford Falcon XB with a custom paint job and a vintage Kawasaki Z1000. In her free time, Kimiko can be found watercolor-painting, baking muffins, collecting rocks, playing old-school Nintendo games, writing her novel, sewing stuffed animals, and cosplaying as her favorite Mad Max characters. See more articles by Kimiko.