You just got to Disney World. What are you going to do now?
Many of us grab our kids’ hands and race to the rides. Or, if you’re Melissa d’Arabian, who visited the parks last year with her husband and four kids, you grab the coupons you packed and race to the grocery store.
“I had planned out easy meals to make,” says d’Arabian, season five winner of “The Next Food Network Star” and host of the network’s “Ten Dollar Dinners with Melissa d’Arabian.”
Her money-saving vacation strategy had several parts. Aside from basing her family in a condo where she could prepare at least some of their food - “I never leave a place where I have access to inexpensive food without feeding everyone,” she says - her vacation groceries yielded meals denser in calories than what she’d ordinarily serve back home.
“At home I try to get the most water-filled ingredients possible [like] fresh vegetables,” she says, but when traveling, food needs to be dense, portable, and high on long-term energy, and it’s easy enough to hydrate inexpensively with water throughout the day.
High on d’Arabian’s list of vacation snacks is trail mix she mixes herself, almond butter “dense with protein and calories,” and her favorite go-to snack, whole-grain, high-protein pasta with fiber and flax seeds rich in beneficial Omega 3 fatty acids.
She notes that while whole-grain pasta is often twice the price of white-flour pasta, “you’re getting a lot of value” on the nutrition side as well as a snack that fills you up. As for when to deploy the snacks, that also differs from her home game.
“The whole trick to [your family] enjoying the vacation is making sure that you’re in preventative mode all the time, d’Arabian says,” which may mean that prior to heading out to a restaurant “you step outside your normal mode of ‘no snacks an hour before dinner.’” Bending your usual rules not only helps to avoid public meltdowns, but it can be a lot cheaper than the alternative. “It’s not a money-saving strategy to order everything [on the menu] and see if something hits,” she says.
Your away game for getting more value for your dining dollar doesn’t end there.
Pick lodging that will ease your food budget.
Booking a condo or any lodging with a microwave and fridge is more economical than ever. “People who bought vacation homes thinking they were going to make a buck [renting them] are hurting,” observes Pauline Frommer, creator of the Pauline Frommer guidebooks, adding that condo owners offering deep rental discounts might be willing to bargain further because they’re not making their mortgages.
In addition to condos and other vacation rentals, all-suite hotels might yield the facilities you need to save money on food, says Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, co-founder and editor-in-chief of family travel site WeJustGotBack.com. “Fixing just one meal a day in your vacation digs can save you hundreds of dollars over the course of your getaway,” she says.
Staying where kids eat free is another way to go, Kelleher adds. “This kind of ‘soft’ deal is often promoted in a low-key way. Be sure to check out the hotel’s special offers Web page, and ask about family deals when you reserve your room.”
Frommer advises that if your hotel is in a business district, avoid picking up groceries nearby “because places that are next to the hotel know that they have their clientele trapped” and inflate their prices. You’ll save easily, she says, by driving a few minutes to a residential area and food shopping there.
Have lunch for breakfast, dinner for lunch, and breakfast for dinner.
While at Disney, d’Arabian stretched her food dollar by serving her family lunch at breakfast time. “I would cook up pasta or [some other] copious hot lunch dish for breakfast before we went to the theme parks,” she recalls. “My kids thought it was kind of funny and fun and the hot meal triggered them to eat more,” and as a result she spent less on food during the day. And while nutrition is a factor, density is still key. “I don’t really give my kids canned ravioli [at home], but on vacation, you bet,” adding that even the canned stuff “is probably healthier than what you’re going to find at a theme park for lunch.”
“If you can't resist the urge to ‘splurge’ on a noted nice restaurant, go there for a lunch, not dinner,” advises Jamie Jensen, author of “Road Trip USA.” It's often a more relaxed, less ostentatious time of day to enjoy a meal, and is usually half the price - plus you'll be less tempted to drink a bottle of wine.”
Beyond eating a big breakfast, Jensen says try “breakfast three meals a day. It’s always the best value on the menu, and can be pretty healthy so long as you go easy on the hash browns.”
Avoid common restaurant traps.
Restaurant discount coupons might shave a few bucks off your check, but Frommer says that in general “restaurants that put out coupons are terrible, on top of being “in the middle to upper price range.”
Further, Frommer says, bear in mind that these days, many hotels as well as restaurants are hiring marketers to post positive reviews online in the guise of ordinary reader feedback, so it’s “important to look at good newspaper and local reviews by people who are paid to be impartial.”
Another restaurant trap: beverages. Mandating that kids and adults limit themselves to water will take at least fifteen dollars off your bill. “That one habit has saved us a lot of money,” d’Arabian says.
Get off the highway.
Frommer urges road trippers to get off the big highways to discover the clam shacks, barbecue places, and other affordable and good eateries you might otherwise miss. Jensen concurs that avoiding the interstate and freeway fast food chains is both advisable and easy.
“Just follow the ‘business route’ frontage roads toward the old downtown area of almost any town,” he says, “and this is where you'll find the most popular, longstanding locally run cafes, diners, and restaurants. These local places don't have the advertising and franchise fees to add to their expenses, so prices can be as low as or lower than the chains. And the meals will stay with you - in a good way.”
Don’t let hunger empty your wallet.
Among the worst situations you can create as a budget traveler, d’Arabian says, is letting yourself or your family get so hungry that you don’t care what you eat or how much it costs. And perhaps most offensive to her, the snack does little to alleviate your hunger.
“What a bummer to eat calories that you don’t even enjoy,” she says. “That just puts me a in a bad space when I’m spending money and my kids are crabby anyway.”
And while she’s often teased about it, she is never without a protein bar or two in her purse, a habit that she says “has saved me more money as a mom and as an adult than any other travel strategy.”