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My wife and I have six children, so as you can imagine, we try to like to stick to a budget. For vacations, we use miles and points to travel on the cheap as much as possible. In the five or so years that we’ve been doing that, we’ve truly been able to travel more (and to more exotic places) than ever before.

Miles and points are what we use for flights and hotels, but there are a lot of other expenses involved in traveling with a larger crew. We’ve talked before about finding cheap and free activities for families and how to avoid bag fees on a family trip. Today we’re looking at ways to feed a large family on vacation as my family’s growing appetite never ceases to amaze me.

Make a Plan

Step 1 to feeding a large family on vacation (without going broke) is to make a plan to keep your food costs under control. I know that you’re on vacation, so you may not want to be super prescriptive about sticking to a plan and schedule. Just understand that if you choose not to plan, you’re likely to end up spending more on food for your vacation when tummies get to rumbling. And, if that is your choice, that’s fine. No judging here, but then this may not be the article for you.

Keep the dining plan as simple or complex as you want, and treat it as more of a guideline than a rule. In other words, don’t let the food plan start to stress you out. If everyone is begging for ice cream at an amazing and nearby ice cream shop, you may need to break down and splurge on the treats instead of sticking to your planned snack of peanut butter crackers for that afternoon.

family eating ice cream
Photo by Image Source / Getty Images

Your plan will likely include things like bringing food with you on the trip or buying supplies to enjoy at least one meal a day as a self-made picnic, in your hotel room, etc. Fortunately, many of the best hotel chains for families make preparing meals in the room a realistic goal. House rentals are another solid way to ensure you have a place to cook and store food.

Your food plan may also cover pre-planning to identify budget- and family-friendly restaurants in the area where you’re traveling. This is especially true when your travels take you to pricier locations. Maybe you’ll check Groupon and see if you can find some deals for special restaurants. And, the plan may even include a stock answer for when your kids beg for some overpriced snack from an attraction you’re visiting. The plan can contain whatever you want; you just have to devise it before leaving for your trip.

Stock Up on Supplies When You Get There

With the prevalence of grocery stores, wholesale clubs and even grocery delivery services, it’s easier than ever to cut back on food costs while on vacation. If it’s convenient, make a grocery store run between the airport and hotel check-in. Families visiting Maui, Orlando and other destinations often head to Costco. It’s a great spot to pick up milk, juice, cereal, bread and lunchmeat and then you’ll save on breakfast and lunch at the very least. (Costco is also a fantastic place to buy souvenirs at a discount price.) Amazon Prime Now can make all of this even easier, especially if your hotel will accept deliveries for you.

Image by Parinda Yatha / EyeEm / Getty Images
Image by Parinda Yatha / EyeEm / Getty Images

For US supermarket visits, be sure to use a credit card that maximizes spending in this category like the American Express® Gold Card (4x points at US supermarkets, up to $25,000 per year; then 1x). Also, if you do hit Costco, remember to use a Visa card, especially one like the Chase Freedom when its quarterly 5x bonus includes wholesale clubs (up to $1,500 per quarter).

Bring Food from Home

Depending on where you’re going and how you’re getting there, you may even be able to bring food with you. With a family of eight, we often find ourselves driving our minivan on trips, which allows us some flexibility to take food from home with us.

On our first ever family trip to Disney World, we knew that eating in the parks would run us well over $100 per meal. Because the trip was part of an organized tour, we didn’t have a choice on our hotel room, so it didn’t have a kitchen. Still, after doing a bit of research, we found some delicious rice cooker recipes and ended up cooking several of our meals in our hotel room.

Photo by Dan Miller

Even if you’re flying, if you’ve read our previous posts about how to pack for a large family vacation, you may find yourself with extra room in your suitcases. And, if you’re flying on an airline with a liberal bag policy (hello, Southwest!), you may still be able to pack a few snacks or other non-perishables.

Again, lugging around boxes of food and cooking in a hotel room may sound like the most awful misery ever, and that’s OK. Pick and choose whatever makes sense for you and your family. Remember, this is your vacation, and you can choose to spend your money (and time) however is most important to you.

Take Advantage of Airport and Hotel Lounges

If you’re a frequent traveler, you may have elite status that will give you (and your guests) access to hotel or airport lounges. Many credit cards also offer access to airport lounges, most commonly through a membership in Priority Pass, which gives access to thousands of airport lounges and even airport restaurants throughout the world. Plenty of credit cards include Priority Pass membership as a perk, including the Chase Sapphire Reserve and The Platinum Card® from American Express.

If you’re a foodie, you may not want to travel halfway around the world only to eat uninspiring food in an airport or hotel lounge. But, again, choose when and where it might make sense to leverage perks and save cash. The expansion of the Priority Pass perks into legitimate airport restaurants is fantastic for families, especially for those with more than one Priority Pass Membership at the ready.

Free meals for Priority Pass members at Landry
Free meals for Priority Pass members at Landry’s at IAH in Houston

If you don’t have access to a hotel lounge, don’t forget that plenty of hotels offer a free breakfast perk. Check out TPG‘s list of best hotel chains for families to find many that help you start (or end) the day with free food.

Budget for Food Experiences

A theme of some of our earlier tips has been different ways to save money on food while traveling, with some requiring more work than others. But — another element of thoughtfully feeding a family on vacation is planning for the worth-it food experiences. If you have avoided blowing money on meals when it wasn’t necessary, you might be able to repurpose those funds for the food experiences that really are worth it. Maybe that is enjoying a meal at one of the best restaurants at Disney World or indulging in the best pizza in the country or something entirely different.

Dining in Chef MickeyÕs at DisneyÕs Contemporary Resort serves up a magical experience for Walt Disney World Resort guests. As the monorail whizzes past, Chef Mickey joins other Disney characters as they greet guests, sign autographs and periodically lead diners in song and dance. The lively, all-you-care-to-eat buffet is offered for breakfast and dinner daily. Disney
Dining in Chef Mickey’s at Disney’s Contemporary Resort. (Photo by Matt Stroshane / Walt Disney World)

Bottom Line

To make the most of the unavoidable dining out expenses, pack a credit card that gives you the most points or cash back for those charges. Some top options are the American Express® Gold Card at 4 points per dollar in US restaurants, Chase Sapphire Reserve at 3 points per dollar on dining, the Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card at 4% back on dining or the Uber Visa Card at 4% cash back on dining (including UberEats) and with no annual fee.

And, one more note: Don’t sweat the small stuff. If there’s a small unexpected cost here or there, let it go. A few years ago, my wife and I were in Old Dubai, and I made her walk around for like 30 or 40 minutes trying to find a restaurant that was “cheap enough” for me. She was very understanding and, of course, we ended up — after all that walking — at the very first restaurant we saw. Lesson learned.

Now it’s your turn. What are your best tips to save money on food while traveling?

Featured image by Francis Hammond / Getty Images

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