Are You Failing to Budget for This Vital Element of Your Vacation?

by Jessica Sommerfield · 11 comments

Financially prepping for summer vacation includes budgeting for hotels, flights, gas, and activities. Of course, it also includes an allowance for fun spending on souvenirs and memorabilia.

What you might be forgetting is a vital, undetermined expense of your vacation: food.

Food expenses are one of the most over-looked and under-budgeted aspects of vacation planning. It’s easy to take meals for granted, because at home, you’ve already budgeted for groceries and the occasional take out.

But when you’re away from home, you’re dependent on prepared foods at grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants, and hotels. You might have already accounted for eating out at a few special places during your trip, but what about the rest of your meals? You’ll be spending more than you would at home, so it’s an important expense to prepare for — instead of just “winging it.”

Take the time to calculate your food budget. 

Just checking the prices of restaurants and food venues around the place you’ll be vacationing will give you a better idea of your potential spending. Do a rough calculation, estimating high to account for differences or last-minute changes in plans. Budget for this amount, and if you come under it, you’ll have more spending money for other things.

Though awareness is half the battle, there are also many ways to reduce your vacation budget for food.

How to Budget for Food on Vacation

When You Want to Avoid Eating Out

  • Take advantage of free or included food: If you’re paying for a service already, it only makes sense to take advantage of every aspect of it. Try to stay at hotels that serve continental breakfast, then eat your fill before you leave every morning. Hotel restaurants and room service are notoriously overpriced, so ignore the convenience and opt for cheaper choices. If your flight includes a meal, eat it. It may not be your favorite food — but it’s a meal and you’ve already paid for it!
  • Take food with you: This one is obvious, but not always practical. Whenever possible, pack snacks, drinks, and protein bars so you can avoid paying for overpriced venue or amusement park food. Enjoying a picnic lunch can become another part of your adventure. If your hotel has a fridge, shop at a grocery store and use it to provide at least one easy meal a day. Having a fridge also means that dinner leftovers can become tomorrow’s lunch.

My husband and I took advantage of both of these tips on our last vacation, and we ended up only eating out for one meal each day. It was a tremendous savings for us — not to mention that we felt extremely smart and frugal.

When You Eat Out

  • Look for coupons and deals online: For those times when you can’t (or just don’t want to) avoid eating out, look up sites and apps that offer coupons and deals for restaurants in the area you’ll be visiting. A few good ones are, Living Social, and Groupon.
  •  Share meals and opt for cheaper menu items: Portion sizes at restaurants are usually excessive, so consider sharing a meal with your travel partner. You can also eat a dinner of just appetizers or soup and salad. Drink tap water instead of expensive fountain drinks, coffee, or alcohol.
  • Bring your gift cards from home: Vacation is a great time to use up the Christmas and birthday gift cards you probably won’t use otherwise.

Do you try to save money on meals while vacationing? Or do you prefer to splurge on restaurants?

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Marcia says:

    We definitely plan for our food. Our next vacation is four days/ nights. We have breakfast included in the first two nights. We added breakfast to the second two nights (different hotel).

    Our first hotel has a fridge/micro in the room, so I am taking a meal from home to eat the first two nights (lunch will be out).

    Sometimes we stay at a place with a kitchen, and we cook or buy from the grocery store, like a roasted chicken and steam-in-bag veggies. Some hotels, like extended-stays, actually offer a happy hour with heavy snack foods or sandwiches that can count as a meal.

    Generally I aim to only eat out for one meal a day. But if I’m in a new place, I try to make it a good one. Now I travel with two kids, so there’s nothing fancy on the menu. I’m happy if I can get Chipotle instead of McDonald’s.

    • David @ says:

      It’s always good to plan Marcia. As you know, you can save so much if you are careful with food spend that sometimes the family can go on two vacations instead of one.

      But I happen to prefer McDonald’s, so go Mickey Ds! 🙂

  • Lee says:

    In your vacation budget, consider that ur family will not be eating at home, when u’re gone on vacation (I know – it’s so obvious!) For ex., if ur family spends $100 per week at home, u can plan to use that 100. on food/week during your trip. However, if u’re like us, we tend to spend more on food while on vacation than while at home. Say u’re going to be gone for 2 weeks & expect to spend 175/week while on your trip:
    Income for ur trip food = 200 not spent on food at home.
    Cost of food on trip = 175/week x 2 = 350.
    350 – 200 = 150 extra u’ll need for trip food.

    • David @ says:

      Thanks for pointing this out Lee. It sounds obviously but then I sometimes don’t factor in the fact that I need to buy groceries and eat out when I’m not on vacation anyway. I guess at least I end up being conservative so there’s more left to save at the end of the day, but I definitely need to remember to subtract the home expenses next time!

  • David @ says:

    Food costs can be a killer, but another good way to save is to have a big lunch / small dinner instead of the other way around because dinner prices are always higher. Also, the fun is the different types of food you get to try, so don’t just opt for the expensive stuff. You can often find hole in the walls in a vacation destination that have food to die for.

    Just be open minded and you likely save!

  • Marie @ My Personal Finance Journey says:

    The last time when we had our vacation, we looked for a restaurant that offered some promos. 🙂 But honestly, it’s really hard to save money on your meals especially that you want to try their cuisine.

    • David @ says:

      Promos is a great idea Marie. Have you tried logging onto Groupon and seeing what’s available before a trip? It’s actually a really good way to get some mega deals!

  • Kate @ Money Propeller says:

    When we travel, I’m looking forward to try different kind of foods. But also we set a budget for it, we don’t want to spend too much.

    • David @ says:

      Setting a budget is key Kate. Once you know how much you can spend, then you don’t’ have to worry about it because you already know you can afford the yummy food 🙂

  • Alex @ Credit Card Xpo says:

    To me, one of the most exciting parts about traveling is trying different local food. I have to agree that budgeting for food is tough especially I enjoy good food!

    • David @ says:

      It is tough! I think part of the fun of traveling is trying different kinds of cuisine so that should be factored into the overall costs.

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