Jasmin: Miles and points have made it possible for my family to travel for free or really cheap. We’ve paid a fraction of the cost for dozens of flights, hotel stays, and car rentals in the US and overseas.
One of the biggest travel expenses is food. Especially if you’re on the road with 3 hungry kids! So saving money on dining when we travel is a big priority.
Using the right credit card to earn rewards for dining out or eating at locations that participate in airline and hotel dining programs takes away some of the sting. And if you have cash back or flexible points cards, you can redeem rewards to off-set the cost of meals. But I never like spending more than I have to to keep everyone’s bellies full!
I’ll share 4 of my favorite tricks for saving money on food when traveling!
If You Fail to Plan, You Plan to Fail
Like Daraius, we’re huge foodies (well, except for my incredibly picky son who describes himself as “a vegetarian who doesn’t eat vegetables”). So when we plan a trip, figuring out where, what, and when we’ll eat is a big deal. But sticking to a budget is important to me.
Planning ahead gives us wiggle room to splurge on dining here and there, and the inevitable delicious distractions in our travels. Like treating ourselves to an impromptu ice cream or stopping in for snacks and drinks at a local joint after an afternoon of touring around.
In my experience, you’ll end up spending a LOT more on food if you don’t strategize. It can be as simple as packing snacks in the crevices of your carry-on or purse. Or swinging by the local supermarket on the way to the hotel for basic supplies and a case of water bottles.
Researching hotels with perks like free breakfast or club lounges, choosing areas with options for cheap dining, and finding discounts are all key to my money-saving strategy. Often times we get meals for free!
1. Shave ~1/3 (or More!) Off Your Meal Budget by Picking the Right Hotel
When I’m planning a family trip, I usually start my hotel search with Hotel Hustle. It’s great because it shows you both the cash and points price, and if the hotel has award nights available on your travel dates.
To save money on food, I’ll usually consider options in this order:
- Hotels that offer club lounge access (free meals and drinks!) and / or complimentary breakfast for having the level of elite status I hold
- Hotels that include kitchens or kitchenettes in their standard rooms (especially if they also offer free breakfast or other perks like evening appetizers and drinks)
- Hotels that give free breakfast to all guests regardless of elite status
1. Club Lounge Access or Free Breakfast for Elites
Lounge access is the most valuable, because you’ll generally enjoy a hearty (sometimes fancy!) free breakfast, along with snacks and drinks throughout the day. And you’ll often get a complimentary evening spread which is substantial enough for dinner. That’s a massive cost savings for a family of four!
I’ve got status with a bunch of hotels, but the 2 that get me executive lounge access are:
- Hyatt Explorist – This comes with 4 club lounge access awards each year, which also includes free breakfast. I was downgraded from Globalist to Explorist when I didn’t requalify last year.
- Marriott Gold – I originally got this by matching from Starwood Gold status, which comes with any American Express Platinum card, like The Platinum Card® from American Express or The Business Platinum® Card from American Express OPEN. But I requalified this year based on stays.
If you’re a Hilton Gold member, you’ll get free breakfast at most Hilton brands. It’s easy to get complimentary Hilton Gold status from credit cards like the AMEX Platinum cards, or the brand new AMEX Hilton Honors Ascend card (formerly AMEX Hilton Honors Surpass).
Starwood Platinum elite status also gets you free breakfast and club lounge access, although there isn’t a card that offers this as a direct perk.
Even if you only have low or mid-level status, it’s worth asking for an upgrade to a club level room or suite at check-in at any chain hotel. The worst they can say is no!
If you’re booking a paid stay, compare the cost of a standard room to the price of an upgraded club room. Sometimes the rates for club rooms aren’t that much more expensive. And if you’ll save more on food, it’s totally worth it.
2. Hotels That Offer Kitchens or Kitchenettes in Standard Rooms
The last thing I want to do on vacation is cook. But I’m
cheap thrifty, so if there’s an option to book a room with cooking facilities, I’ll take it. Even if it’s just to prepare easy meals like waffles and toast for breakfast, or heat a frozen pizza for dinner. The savings add up, especially over long stays!
For example, we had an excellent experience at the Holiday Inn Club Vacations at Orange Lake Resort in Orlando. And prepared most of our meals in the unit!
I used the annual free night from my Chase IHG card to stay with extended family in a fully equipped 2-bedroom villa that slept 8 people. It normally costs 35,000 IHG points per night.
There are lots of brands where kitchens or kitchenettes come with standard rooms, and even free breakfast. Here’s a post with a list of brands to look for.
Many of these are extended-stay hotels geared to business travelers. So you’ll sometimes find they offer evening socials with complimentary snacks and adult beverages during the week. In my experience, the “snacks” often include substantial hot food, like burgers, hot dogs, tacos, pasta, salads, and more. So they’re definitely kid-friendly!
3. Free Breakfast for All!
There are plenty of brands that offer free breakfast, regardless of elite status. You’ll usually find a buffet-style continental breakfast, including breads, pastries, cereal, yogurt, oatmeal, and fruit. And often a couple of hot options like eggs and sausage.
Hyatt House locations offer made-to-order omelets!
Sometimes the quality isn’t the greatest, but we’ve had decent experiences with many chains. And when you’re traveling with kids who are happy with a bowl of Cheerios or peanut butter toast, it’s a big savings compared to paying for a meal out.
We’ll usually grab a couple of bananas or apples to take back to the room for snacks later. And some hotels include free coffee, tea, and hot chocolate all day in the lobby.
2. Plan Around “Kids Eat Free” Restaurants
Link: My Kids Eat Free
Google is the key to finding spots with “kids eat free” deals. Even better if you can find locations near your hotel (we do this close to home, too). There are also sites like My Kids Eat Free which let you search by city and day of the week.
I’ll also search for “Kids eat free <name of city>” when I’m planning a trip to find chain and local restaurants with deals on kids meals. You can also look here and here for a list of national chains that offer free or discounted children’s meals on certain days.
Sometimes you’re limited to only 1 or 2 free meals per adult meal. Either way, it’s a nice savings. And if you can stack with other promotions, like AMEX Offers or discounted restaurant gift cards from wholesale clubs or online, you can save even more.
My favorite restaurant savings trick involves having an AARP membership (anyone of any age can join for $16 per year, and you don’t have to be retired). With an AARP card, you get discounts at a number of chain restaurants in the US, including Denny’s (15% off).
Denny’s locations in the US usually offer “kids eat free” on Tuesday nights (and sometimes another day – for example, our local Denny’s also runs it on Saturday). Combined with the 15% AARP discount, the 4 of us are usually able to have a filling dinner for less than $20!
3. Check Groupon, Restaurant.com, and Other Deal Sites
Groupon is a terrific way to save money on food (and activities!) in the US and abroad. You won’t usually find big-name or chain restaurant discounts, but we’ve had good luck trying out ethnic and local spots.
It’s even better when you stack Groupon discounts with their sales. For example, they’ll sometimes offer 25% off local deals or other promotions. And you can navigate to Groupon through a shopping portal to double-dip!
We’ve had less luck with Restaurant.com, and sometimes the participating restaurants look a little sketchy. But it’s worth a peek to see if you can find a deal wherever you’re going (US only). Because you can also stack these deals by going through a shopping portal like CashBack Monitor first.
Note: Be careful with deal sites, because some offers are restricted to certain days of the week or times. And I’ll always check Yelp or TripAdvisor before pulling the trigger on a deal, to make sure the restaurant is well-reviewed and kid-friendly.
4. Find Cash Back Deals, Happy Hours, and Dining Discounts With Yelp
Link: Yelp Mobile App
Yelp is super useful for finding restaurants and reviews in a specific location, both in the US and abroad. I love that you can filter results by rating, area, type of cuisine, price range, and kid-friendliness. And they have a mobile app that’s great when you’re out and about looking for a last-minute meal.
They’ve also introduced Yelp Cash Back, which gets you up to 10% back when you link a credit card and use it to pay at a participating restaurant. I haven’t tried it out yet, but let me know if you have!
Other handy features are the “happy hour” and “offering a deal” filters.
Happy hour often includes discounted food and appetizers, not just drinks! We’ve gotten away with sharing a few cheap appetizers as a family when we find a good happy hour spot!
And restaurants that list “offering a deal” have a Groupon-style discount when you purchase a voucher through Yelp ahead of time. For example, you can pay $10 for a voucher worth $20.
Saving money on food when you’re traveling with kids is easy if you plan ahead. Your best bet is to start by booking hotels that offer free breakfast or club lounge access, or locations that include a kitchen or kitchenette for easy meal preparation.
Beyond that, you can usually find discounts or “kids eat free” deals at chain restaurants. Or consider stacking shopping portal bonuses with dining vouchers from deal sites like Groupon or Restaurant.com.
Always check reviews on Yelp before you commit to a deal. It’s also helpful for finding cash back and discount vouchers, or locating kid-friendly spots with happy hour (cheap appetizers and drinks!) promotions.
What strategies do you use to save money on food when you’re traveling with family? I’d love to hear your tricks and tips in the comments!
Come back each Wednesday for a new installment in our Family Travel series!