You've been on the road for a long while. The kids were excited when you left, but that 5:00 AM departure time caught up with them pretty quickly and they went back to sleep. You have less than a quarter tank of gas left and have needed to pee for about 20 minutes, so you decide to go ahead and make the first stop.
"May as well get some caffeine in me," you say and your spouse asks for a soda too and maybe a candy bar. The kids' eyes pop open at the word "candy" and they all start begging for treats too. What was just going to be a quick stop for a fill up and restroom break has turned into a shopping spree that not only takes longer, but also depletes your trip fund. What's worse, you were planning on stopping for lunch in just a bit, so this is a completely unnecessary expense. Yellowstone is still a day and a half of driving away, and you just took a small chunk out of the money needed for food, gas, fees, souvenirs, tours, bike rentals, etc. And in no time at all you take out a much bigger chunk when you hit up a drive-thru for burgers. There will be at least four more meals and who knows how many pit stops before you get to your destination. You did a good job figuring out how much you would spend on gas, but these food costs are starting to loom ominously. Dinner was going to be a real restaurant, not fast food, so everyone could get out of the car for a bit. But that will be even more expensive, plus the tip! All of a sudden, you’re nervous that this trip will cost a lot more than was originally planned. You start to think about which credit card you’ll have to use for gas on the way home and decide that next year you’ll all just go to Aunt Lucy’s condo again because it’s closer.
So what is the solution? Your family has to eat. And you have to get out and stretch your legs once in a while. Even the most avid road tripper gets antsy after hours and hours of sitting behind the wheel. Well, here are few tips to keep costs down and make sure everyone still gets fed.
Avoid gas station snack-fests - I get it. The kids are bored. You’ve been staring at the same countryside for hours. A soda and a bag of chips or chocolate bar jazzes things up for a moment. But it’s really not worth it. Because then you feel (and your kids expect) that every single time you stop to get gas or go to the bathroom, it’s time for a treat. This is not only throwing money away, but it wastes time while everyone wanders around picking out snacks.
Stick a cooler in your trunk and bring your own drinks with you. Keep a couple of bags of chips and some fruit and other goodies in the front seat and pass it around every once in a while. Don’t let the kids just munch the entire drive because that defeats the purpose of it being a boredom-fighting novelty, (not to mention being pretty unhealthy.) With gas station stops, you want to get in, fill up, hit the bathroom, grab a drink from the trunk, and jet. Save the longer stops for actual meals.
Don’t eat drive thru for every meal - For one thing, your journey is going to be pretty miserable if you keep chowing down on greasy food and then sitting still in a car for hours. And if you get those super-sized sodas every time, you will have a lot more bathroom breaks. Also, it’s really expensive. I don’t care what kind of combo meal deals they have, once you order for everyone in your car, it adds up. Now multiply it times breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Now multiply that times how many days you’re on the road. By the time you get to your destination where your vacation really begins, you’re already out a lot of money. Plus, you’re going to feel gross and not too excited about a lot of outdoor activity.
I realize the temptation of eating in the car to make better time, believe me. I sometimes focus too much on how many hours we will have at our destination and I catch myself rushing everyone to eat at warp speed so we can get going. But if you don’t break up the drive with breaks, you’ll all be irritable and crazy by the time you finally get to where you’re going.
Bring your own food and stop at rest stops for meals. Yes, it’s work. Yes, it makes the car even more cramped. Yes, it takes up time that you could be covering miles on the road. However, you will save a ton of money, eat healthier, and give everyone a chance to get out and run around. For my family of four, it’s right around thirty dollars when we hit a fast food burger joint. With that money, we can get milk, cereal, protein bars, sandwich stuff, fruit, chips, and other food to last for several meals. I know a rest stop along the interstate is not very ideal once the sun goes down, so either eat dinner early, or just go ahead get some fast food. Besides, sometimes you really need something easy and different. I’m not saying avoid restaurants the entire time you’re on the road. Just be aware of your spending and try to do your own food as much as possible.
Rest stops usually have picnic tables and bathrooms and plenty of room to spread out. It gives your family a chance to get out of the car for about half an hour, and to be honest, it gives you all a chance to get out of each other’s personal space. Let the kids run and play and burn some of that pent-up energy. Like I said, don’t give yourself some kind of unrealistic deadline. It won’t be that rewarding to get to your destination an hour or two early if everyone is too drained and unhappy with each other to enjoy it.
How to pack your food - First off, only buy food that you need for the drive itself. Wait until you get to your destination or almost to your destination to stock up on all the things you’ll need for meals at your campsite. Obviously, some things, like a bottle of ketchup or a box of plastic cutlery should last the entire vacation, but don’t leave your house with three loaves of bread stashed all over the car. Figure out how many meals you’ll need on the road and buy accordingly.
We always take one decent-sized cooler and a small tote box with a lid for all our other food plus plates, napkins, etc. Store them both in a place where they are easily accessible. You don’t want to unpack your entire trunk every time you stop to eat. Don’t forget to keep a few snacks up front.
tips and tricks:
Freeze a gallon jug of water (or two) and put it in your cooler. It makes the ice last a lot longer.
Put stuff like sandwich meat and fruit in ziplock bags so they don’t get waterlogged in the cooler.
Keep your bread in a tin with a lid. Keeps it from getting stale and/or smushed.
Consolidate to save space and time. Mix your peanut butter and jelly and put it in one jar before you leave. Don’t take the entire box of plastic cutlery, take a little more than enough for the meals that need it.
Keep hand sanitizer and some wet wipes in your glove compartment.
Before your trip, research where to find good food at your destination. Anyone who travels will tell you that one of the best parts of a trip is eating local food. Lots of parks have lodges and restaurants. Look for the best places to eat in nearby towns. Go ahead and pick a meal or two that you are going to eat out and budget for it. Set that money aside, specifically, for going out to eat. Then, whenever you’re tempted by junk at a gas station, or you’re about to pull in for a quick meal at some chain you’ve been to a million times, compare it to the food that’s waiting for you if you can resist dipping into that fund.
It might seem intimidating to do your own meals while you’re driving hundreds of miles. It’s definitely more work and takes some extra planning, but it’s worth it. It’s healthier for your body, your attitude, and your wallet.
If you have any other tips or advice, please feel free to comment or email me.
I’ll make a post about planning and cooking meals at your campsite soon.