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10 Tips for Eating Cheap (or Free!) When Traveling with Kids
By Catherine | | 2 Comments

Nothing bites into a family travel budget like restaurant dining three times a day. Having to shell out for breakfast, lunch and dinner, let alone snacks and the occasional ice cream treat, can grow into a major mindless expense. But a growing family has got to eat, and sharing memorable mealtimes are part of the fun of traveling together. Of course, staying in a place with a kitchen is the most economical way to go, but we all deserve a vacation from cooking and cleaning too.

Here are 10 tips to help you feed your family frugally on holiday.

1. Take advantage of Kids Eat Free deals
Who said there were no free lunches – or dinners, for that matter? Plenty of chain restaurants around Canada and the US tap into the family market by offering a free kid’s meal with each adult entrée, often including a drink and dessert to boot. This can save a bundle for those with children under 10 or 12 (age stipulations vary). Check out MyKidsEatFree or CouponDivas for details (read the fine print – there may be date and time restrictions). If you’re heading to Orlando, consider purchasing a $20 Kids Eat Free card, which can be used at over 80 area restaurants and pays for itself after one or two meals.

2. Clip coupons
In this struggling economy it’s cool to be thrifty – coupon clipping is in again! If your family is traveling in North America you’ll find a lot of savings on restaurants, attractions and shopping in the Entertainment Book series – it costs under $25 but can save you much more. Join Restaurant.com and get discounted gift certificates for a wide range of US eateries. When in Canada, try Menu Palace for lots of restaurant discounts of the percentage off, two for one and free appetizer/drink/dessert variety. The internet is full of money-saving coupons for travelers so do a little surfing before you hit the road (just Google your destination and “restaurant coupons”). Once you’ve arrived, peruse the local newspaper, freebie tourist magazines and the back of your grocery store receipt for restaurant coupons and special offers. Just don’t get hooked in to buying more food than you want or need to get a deal.

3. Splurge at lunch
Make the most of your mid-day meal and go light on breakfast and dinner. Most restaurants offer decent lunch specials that are a better value than the dinner menu. As a bonus, kids are more alert and (in theory) better behaved at noon than later on in the day, making for a more pleasant restaurant experience for all.

4. Doggie bag it
Restaurant portions are enormous these days and, despite what Mom may have told you, you don’t always have to clean your over-stuffed plate. If you have access to a fridge where you’re staying, plan to take your restaurant leftovers with you for a later meal. Granted, some food items keep better than others (think sandwiches, pizza, pasta) but select wisely and you can eat two meals for the price of one. Having a microwave at your disposal opens up the possibilities even further.

5. Stay at hotels with free breakfasts
Mom was right on this one – breakfast is the most important meal of the day and all the better if it’s free. The bed and breakfast concept has always been big in Europe, and now quite a few family friendly hotel/motel chains in North America include breakfast in their room charge (Holiday Inn Express, Residence Inn, La Quinta, Hampton Inn etc.). More than stale coffee and a donut in the lobby, some of these offer a full buffet of eggs, bacon, pancakes, yogurt and fruit that can really fill the family up without emptying your pockets. Play your cards right, and you could be set for snacks and lunch as well. I’m not suggesting you stuff your handbag with extra edibles, but you can probably grab a bagel, banana and pat of peanut butter and the kids have a makeshift meal for later.

6. Pack a picnic
Who doesn’t like a picnic? Find a nearby park, play ground, beach or just spread a blanket on the hotel room floor and make it fun – the cost savings are just a bonus. Local supermarkets have great ready-made food these days. With their salad bars, roast chickens, deli counters, bakeries and fresh produce, it’s easy to throw together a no-fuss picnic for a fraction of the cost of a restaurant outing.

7. Drink water
This is good tip for both your budget and health. Drink water at mealtimes rather than sugary juice or nutritionally void soft drinks and the savings will really add up in time. At $2.50 to $5.00 a pop, you and the kids could be needlessly slurping down hundreds of dollars over the course of a trip. Unless your destination is a place with questionable water quality, let the tap quench your thirst.

8. Skip dessert
I sound like a real scrooge here, but the markup on restaurant desserts is ridiculous. If the kids must have something sweet to cap off a meal, keep some fresh/dried fruit or granola bars on hand. Once in a while you can splurge on something yummy for the table to share – a bite or two is usually enough to satisfy that sweet tooth.

9. Order take-out
I’m not advocating fast food here. Despite a trend towards healthier options at some of the big chains these days, most fast food is a poor choice of fuel for you or your kids – and you need to keep your energy and moods up when you’re traveling. However, many other restaurants will let you order food for take-out, which saves 15-20% on tipping right off the top.

10. Eat ethnic
Take a holiday from familiar restaurant chains and explore some delicious food from around the world. Authentic Mexican restaurants have lots of good value kid-friendly options, not to mention free bowls of chips and salsa. Hit Chinatown for cheap eats – Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and other Asian food is often inexpensive and kid pleasing (noodles, spring rolls, rice, pho, boba). Most Japanese restaurants have great bento box specials (especially at lunch) and free nibbles like edamame are often offered. My kids can make a cheap meal out of side dishes of miso soup, rice and a skewer of yakitori. Spanish tapas is great for families – small plates of appetizer-sized tasters to share. Go around happy hour and you might score some free samples.

Think out of the box and get away from the usual chicken fingers and fries fare. Expanding your culinary horizons is part of the fun of family travel.

November 4th, 2009
judy says:

Love the article! A fellow home swapper myself and this is excellent post on families who are unfamiliar with home swapping. Love to keep up with you on twitter!

November 4th, 2009
Catherine says:

Thanks! I was a big skeptic before I tried house swapping myself, but now it has opened up the world to me and my family.


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