Family vacation doesn't have to break the bank

The Savings Game

When my husband and I were honeymooners backpacking around Asia, we started a tradition that continues to this day: the snack bag. A little drawstring, waterproof sack carried nuts, dried fruits, crackers and any exotic nibble we came across along the way.

It was amusing to reach into that pack in Goa and pull out some cashews from Delhi and a piece of tamarind candy from all the way back in Bangkok.

Now that we have kids, our vacations are a little less ambitious, but we still never leave home, near or far, without some snacks. And you also can incorporate these and other tips to save money on one of the biggest vacation costs: food and drink.

Vacation and travel spending this summer is expected to hop up 5.1 percent from last year, to a global worldwide figure of nearly $100 billion.

Spending on vacation for the average American household varies widely, from those who take short domestic trips to international travelers. Older Americans, near retirement, spend more.

It might surprise you that on the average domestic vacation you will spend more on food than on lodging, but it’s true, according to the website Value Penguin. Even on vacations abroad, food spending comes close to lodging costs. It is the biggest category after transportation, averaging $40 or more a day.

However, with a little forethought, you can easily cut that back while still enjoying exotic, traditional or indulgent fare to make your trip memorable. Here are some tips.

Choose your lodging wisely: A room with a kitchenette, or at least a refrigerator and microwave, can save you from eating out every meal. My kids can go for a while on the hearty full breakfast included in the price at many chain hotels, and we always grab an apple and some peanut butter for later.

On longer trips, we go for a rental apartment with a full kitchen. When staying with friends and family, we shop, cook for our hosts and clean up afterward.

Always pack healthy snacks: On our last beach vacation, we packed a full picnic to eat on the train. A good insulated bag or a cooler is a must if you’re going to go beyond granola bars. Crunchy vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, nuts and fresh and dried fruit kept us from needing to stop for fast food when on the road. And don’t forget reusable water bottles for each member of the family.

Visit local markets and sample street food: In many international destinations, food shopping is as good as sightseeing. The night markets of Asia, the bustling food halls of Europe, souks, bazaars and others around the world are places to get fresh, in-season produce and sample local delicacies while taking in the real culture of a place, and spending as much or as little as you like.

Some U.S. destinations have similar options too, such as the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Market Square in San Antonio and Pike Place Market in Seattle.

Eat out at lunch: Just because you’re saving money doesn’t mean you can’t dine out. Planning your main meal for lunch is a great way to enjoy the local cuisine without paying full price. If the meal is large enough, it can sustain you through the day and night. If you have a fridge in your room, you can store your leftovers and have them for dinner.

Eat where the locals eat: Get away from tourist destinations if you don’t want to pay steep prices. Take a cab a mile or two from the Vegas Strip or Times Square. Student neighborhoods are usually a good bet for cheap eats. Ask for recommendations or check out sites like Yelp and Chowhound.

If there’s a must-see location, like a river, lake or ocean, it’s a fair bet that the restaurants with the best views will also have high prices and mediocre food. Skip the meal — you’re full from lunch, right? — and savor the view over a drink instead.

Anya Kamenetz’ most recent book is “The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing, but You Don’t Have to Be.” She welcomes your questions at

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