Save Money on Food When Staying in a Hotel

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I recently returned from a five-day hotel stay while attending a conference in Orlando, Florida.  In my line of work, I usually attend a few conferences each year, and the vast majority of those conferences are paid for by the conference organizer.  Meals and travel costs are typically covered, so significant planning on my part is unnecessary.

When we travel as a family, more often than not we stay in our motorhome.  As a result, I had an eye-opening hotel stay in Orlando, since it was all on my dime.  While this was an above-average hotel, it wasn’t The Four Seasons and food prices were shocking.  (Of course, I’m sure its location – just across the bridge from a Disney property – had nothing to do with it!)

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that I now have some tips for saving money the NEXT time I find myself in this situation.

Bring an empty water bottle 

I already do this now for ALL travel, since the price for a bottle of water at the airport is obscene.  If you don’t have a favored personal water bottle, it’s worth the investment and better for the environment.  Otherwise, buy a regular bottle of water sometime before your trip and keep the bottle.  Remember you won’t be able to bring a full bottle through airport security if you’re flying, so you’ll have to drink it all or dump it before hitting the security line.

It is becoming much more prevalent to see water bottle filling stations at airports, typically located by the water fountains.  It is easy-peasy to refill your bottle there, so you can stay hydrated while in the airport and on the plane.  When I arrived at the hotel, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the hotel provided water bottle filling stations in the conference center.  I hope this is a trend that spreads!

If filling stations are not available, you will have to be more creative.  Depending on where you are traveling, tap water is usually perfectly fine to refill your bottle.  But tap water also varies by location.  When I was recently in Wyoming, I found the water there to be excellent straight out of the tap.  Florida?  Not so much.  I dislike the taste and odor of Florida tap water, so I don’t drink it.

Take advantage of hotel loyalty perks

If you’re a frequent traveler, it’s advantageous to participate in hotel loyalty programs.   Upon check in, I was presented with two bottles of water, as well as coupons for two free cups of coffee and two water bottles each day of my stay.  Since I’m not a coffee drinker, I shared the coffee coupons with a new acquaintance who hadn’t received them.  But I took advantage of the free water each day, since it was a hike from my room to the conference center water bottle filler.

Pack protein bars and other snack food 

I did not do this, but I wish I had!  The protein bars I prefer were on sale at the hotel’s marketplace for about $4 each.  That is crazy!  All the snack food was ridiculously priced.  In the end, I only bought one protein bar to supplement one of my meals.  Because I try to practice minimalist suitcase packing, I packed tea bags but no other snacks.  The flights were short, I do not typically indulge in snacks, and so it didn’t occur to me to pack them.  Lesson learned.

Take advantage of free breakfasts

If the hotel you choose offers a free breakfast, take advantage of this perk!  My hotel in Orlando was not one of them, sadly.  One morning I ordered a room service breakfast, which was $20, but enormous.  Since my room had a refrigerator in it, I was able to keep the creamer (for my tea), fruit, and bread items for the next day’s breakfast.

It’s instructive to comparison shop if you are choosing between hotels and one provides a free breakfast.  Determine how much you think you would normally spend on breakfast and add that to the room rate before making your choice.  It is also legitimate to factor in the convenience of having breakfast readily available and prepared for you, versus having to dine out at a restaurant.

Call ahead to find out what your room offers

Online listings of amenities are not always comprehensive.  So, if you are trying to manage your spending, call the hotel directly and inquire whether your room has a refrigerator and microwave.  Armed with this knowledge, you can organize your meal plan of attack.

I failed to call ahead and inquire about room amenities, so I did not know my room would have a refrigerator.  If I had, I would have stopped at a grocery store on the way to pick up a few items.  In-room microwaves are also a bonus, particularly if you’ve got leftovers you want to warm up.

In the past, I have requested a microwave and/or refrigerator when I booked my hotel room.   Sometimes the hotel will provide them as a courtesy, and other times, there is a cost for it.  I found when we were traveling with Rowan when she was really little that it frequently saved us money to pay the small rental fee for one or both items, since we then were able to save on buying food for her at restaurants.

Plan your meals

I adore big breakfasts – eggs, potatoes, bacon, and all the fixings.  Since I almost never prepare a breakfast like that at home, one of my indulgences in travel is to enjoy a “big breakfast.”  On this trip, if I had indulged every day (which I did not), that would have been $20 daily, based on my room service experience.   If I had indulged in a “regular” meal three times a day, I would have spent a minimum of $60 each day, not counting tips and a glass of wine with dinner.  Even though I could afford it, I would be incredibly cranky to spend that much per day on food.  And then there’s the fact I don’t eat three large meals per day at home, so why would I do that while away?

Once I realized how outrageously expensive meals were going to be at the hotel, I made a plan.  One strategy was stretching my room service breakfast into two meals, with leftovers for the next morning.  Other days, I either had a “regular” lunch or dinner, and then a lighter snack-like meal.  As a result, I managed closer to an average of $10 per meal, not counting tips and wine.

Lessons learned

If I had to do this exact trip over again knowing what I know now, here’s what I would have done.  On the water issue, I did everything right – I didn’t spend a dime on buying drinking water.  I would have stopped by a grocery store for a bottle of wine (and I would have packed a corkscrew!), breakfast foods, protein bars, fruit, and creamer.  I could have also bought sandwich and salad items and saved even more.

When we take family trips by car, we pack strategically and hit a grocery store to stock up before reaching the hotel or condo.  Flying by plane is a bit more challenging.  But this trip taught me I can definitely be thriftier if I’m on the ball in the planning stages.

This time, once I arrived at the hotel, I just couldn’t bring myself to order up another ride to hit a grocery store.  That would, of course, cost money, and once the conference was in full swing, I was busy with classes from 8:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. each day.  But next time …

What tips do you have about hotel travel?  Share your thoughts below.  Or if you want some like-minded friends, join the free SimpleMoney Community on Facebook to share your stories!


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