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On the road? 13 ways to eat cheaply

Stretch your travel dollars with these frugal tactics.

By Donna_Freedman Oct 5, 2012 12:13PM
Logo: Noodles (Comstock/SuperStock)My recent move to Anchorage meant driving for three and a half days. I stopped at restaurants only twice: a McDonald's somewhere in Canada and Fast Eddy's in Tok, Alaska.

My goal was to keep moving -- I had more than 2,500 miles to cover and winter was peeking over my shoulder. A cooler ($7.99, Goodwill) full of perishables and a bag of more durable grub (good bread, apples, nuts, chocolate) meant quick hotel-room breakfasts and meal stops that lasted 10 or 15 minutes.

Not everyone wants to do meal prep while traveling. But there's more than one way to keep down the cost of road food.

1. Visit a supermarket. If your hotel or hostel has a microwave you can heat up frozen dinners or precooked food from the deli department. Or bring back a rotisserie chicken, some bread, a bottle of salad dressing and vegetables you can eat raw (carrot, cauliflower, radishes, et al.) to feed two to four people for less than the cost of one restaurant entrée.

2. Breakfast for lunch.
Some restaurants offer breakfast all day. Two eggs, potatoes and toast are cheap but also filling. Add meat if you must.

3. Lunch = main meal.
Breakfast not enough for you? Order the meat loaf plate or manicotti special. Sure, it's a little more generous at 6 p.m. -- but it's noticeably cheaper at noon. For dinner just have a sandwich from your grocery-store makings.

4. Hit happy hour.
Download one of those apps that search for the best happy hour deals, i.e., the ones with supercheap (or free) appetizers.

5. Use a daytime app, too.
Generalists like BiteHunter and Foodspotting will help you find food wherever you roam. You can sort by category, meal specials and other filters.

More frugal tactics

6. Buy the Entertainment Book.
Go to www.entertainment.com and scope out the edition for the city/region you're visiting. If the coupons look good, buy the book -- but go through a cash-back shopping site like ExtrabuxMrRebates or FatWallet.com for rebates of up to 30%, depending on the time of year.
7. Split your supper.
Heaven knows some restaurants overload the plates. Share one big meal, drink water instead of soda or beer, and don't gripe if you're assessed a "shared plate" fee.

8. Take your punch cards.
Chain sub shops, bakeries and burrito joints operate just about everywhere. Some are so-so, others quite nice. Fill up your customer loyalty card faster by volunteering to pick up co-workers' lunch orders in the weeks before your trip. On the subject of loyalty . . .

9. Be a fan.
Facebook and Twitter are a great way to find freebies and other offers from national chains.

10. Go to the club.
The warehouse club, that is. If you see a Costco or Sam's Club, stop in for the kosher hot dog and drink ($1.50) or a pizza to share with your traveling companions. You don't actually have to be a member; I'm not. I simply walk in, smile and say, "I'm just picking up a pizza." They always wave me in.

Saving serious money

11. Buy a voucher.
Groupon, Living Social and other sites sell some very nice deals; read the fine print to be aware of any exclusions. You can buy these deals through some cash-back sites for additional savings. But before you do . . .

12. Look for vouchers on the secondary market.
Sometimes the discounts are incredibly good -- as in, $40 worth of tapas for $1.71. (See "The cure for a Groupon goof.")

13. Bring your own food.
This bears repeating. A cooler is a natural for car trips. Instead of buying deli sandwiches, buy deli makings. Also buy things like a small jar of pickles, containers of cream cheese and whipped butter, milk for your morning coffee or cornflakes, good bread, bagels, crackers, cereal or instant oatmeal, apples, dried fruit, nuts and M&Ms and you're set. You might not want to eat all your meals that way, but even one or two a day from the cooler saves some bucks.

Readers:
How do you conserve meal money on the road?

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3Comments
Oct 6, 2012 10:59AM
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I traveled 2500 miles every month and found an electric kettle that plugs in your cigarette lighter .  I pack my own water and with this kettle I can have tea, instant coffee or even hot water to drink on the road.  It cost $19 and in one trip it paid for itself. I travel with a small cooler that is great to hold fruit, sandwiches and snack bars.  
Oct 31, 2012 11:48PM
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I drive the Alaska highway regularly and this year got a small crockpot and a 450 watt inverter that plugs into the cigarette lighter/power port.  I made baggies of chopped veggies and meat for the cooler.  In the morning, fill the crockpot, plug it in in the morning and by dinner time you will have a great hot meal.
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.

ABOUT DONNA FREEDMAN

Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.

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