Saturday, June 27, 2015

Updated: Taking a Budget Road Trip, Part 3: Food and Drink

Salt Flats Cafe, Salt Flats, Texas

On June 23, 2011, I published Taking a Budget Road Trip, Part 3: Food and Drink. This was from my Take a Road Trip series.

Below is the updated version: 

Restaurants will eat up your budget. If you and your travel companion are a couple and you use the same piggy bank -- double ouch.

Diner, Lafayette, Louisiana.

To save restaurant expenditures

  1. Don't order a beverage with your meal. Drink water instead. By “water,” I mean tap water in a glass, not a bottled water.
  2. Eat only one meal per day at a restaurant. Eat other meals picnic-style out of your cooler or from a grocery store deli.
  3.  When you eat at a restaurant, do it for breakfast or lunch, as these meals are usually less expensive than dinner.
  4. In a restaurant with a buffet, look at the buffet offerings, check the buffet price, and then compare that price with menu prices. Ordering a meal from the menu is sometimes more economical, both dollar- and calorie-wise.  
  5. If you're traveling with someone else, consider splitting a restaurant meal, especially if it's dinner.

Hood's Restaurant, Bois D'Arc, Missouri.

To save money on beverages

  • Many convenience stores discount your coffee if you bring your own cup, so remember to bring your travel mug from home.
  • Ditto for fountain drinks – recycle a beverage cup from a past visit to a c-store; the brand doesn’t matter.
  • Pack your coffee maker and favorite coffee, and brew it in your room each morning. Put extra coffee for the road into a thermos you've also brought.
  • If you're a soda drinker, pack a 12-can or 24-can box at the start of your trip.
  • Bring your own mixed-drink ingredients and alcohol from home and create your personal happy hour in your nightly abode.

Lucille's Roadhouse, Weatherford, Oklahoma

To save money on food (other than restaurants)

1.                  Don't overstock on the quantity of food for the road. There are grocery stores and other food vendors everywhere. Besides, food brought from home gets less appetizing as the days wear on, and you may end up pitching some of it or forcing yourself to consume stuff you don’t really want.
2.                  Don't overstock on “special” foods when packing for the road. The idea of a road trip is to sample new things - so it’s more economical (and more fun) to spend finite trip dollars at a special restaurant, food truck, or roadside stand on the road.
3.                  Many grocery stores have good deli sections and even in-store restaurants - substitute a visit to these instead of a traditional restaurant. 

Fast Eddie's, Alton, Illinois

Healthy eating on a road trip

"Healthy eating" and "road trip" --> oxymoron?

Road trips and junk food tend to go together.

To offset the worst damage, here are some tips:

1.                  Avoid bringing "car food" such as chips, nuts, and candy. Instead, pack crunchy carrots, crisp celery, sweet grapes, and salty pretzels.
2.                  To manage costs and reduce over-indulgence, maintain some of your eating routines. For example, if your usual breakfast back home is oatmeal, bring along oatmeal packets that are easy to prepare in a motel room. (Run water through the coffee machine and mix up the oatmeal in a motel cup.)  
3.                  YMMV, but my experience with some regional foods is that the reality is vastly underwhelming and costs more in money and calories than I wished I’d spent. A Navajo taco is a good example. Poutine is another. On the other hand, regional dishes such as green chile stew or menudo – you’ll respect yourself in the morning for having sampled them. (Cracklins should fall into the Navajo taco and poutine category, but you know, we need some sin in our lives, and besides, you can get a teeny bag of said sin to mitigate the remorse.)
On fast food chains

Sure, go ahead and sneer at fast food chains, but before your face freezes that way, know this > in some towns, your only choice is between fast food or the home-style diner with food that's all fried, all the time. A reliably tasty, economical, and relatively healthful fast food place is Subway. You do lose the budget benefit when you add a soft drink and a bag of chips, not to mention a cookie. So buy the sandwich and augment that with a cold drink you've got in your cooler, plus one of the crunchy sides you've got in the car (e.g. carrots, celery, pretzels).

Chope's, La Mesa, New Mexico

Relying on restaurant reviews -- OK in moderation

The myriad restaurant review sites on the web are a wonderful resource for road trippers. But sometimes we get sucked into an over-dependence on restaurant reviews -- we rely too heavily on others' explorations instead of taking a chance on an as-yet unreviewed place.

Popular restaurant guides are:

A common road-trip pitfall is the search for the Holy Grail of certain foods (e.g. the Best Chiles Rellenos, the Best Green Chile Cheeseburger, the Best BBQ). I’m probably spitting in the wind here, because we all need to learn from our own experiences, but after years of Holy Grail thinking, I learned relative tastiness is largely a crap shoot, no matter how much advance research I conduct for the Best of ….. These days, I focus less on research and more on serendipity, and most importantly, I manage my expectations. The quality results are about the same as before (i.e. crap shoot), but there are no dashed expectations to mar my road trip.

Hot Tamale Heaven, Greenville, Mississippi
So is there any fun left? 

Sure! Notwithstanding the caveats above, part of the coolness of a road trip is trying new foods.

One strategy is to have a road trip theme, where you seek the variations of a particular food item that a region is famous for, such as boudin or BBQ or tamales. My mother is always on the lookout for ribs and the crab cakes wherever she goes. Others seek out microbrews or pie or pork rinds.

In the context of a budget road trip, choose indulgences that are affordable to you.

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