8 Easy Ways to Score Free Travel Food
Finding ways to eat conveniently and affordably on the road can be a challenge. This is particularly an issue if you’re not including highway driving on your trip, as you’ll likely find your access to grocery stores limited. Once you run out of healthy road trip snacks, you might think you’re on your own. Not so. Use these eight savvy strategies for scoring free travel food, and save your pennies for other travel expenses. (See also: 5 Perfectly Respectable Ways to Get a Free Meal)
1. Complimentary Hotel Food
For starters, many mid-range hotels offer extensive free breakfast buffets. Oatmeal, scrambled eggs, cereal, and multiple juice selections are just some of the typical options. For those attempting vegan travel, the peanut butter packets and English muffins paired with fruit and tea are enough to fuel you for several hours, and vegetarians have even more choices. Meat eaters aren’t left out in the cold mind you, as these breakfast bars usually include things like ham slices and sausage patties which are easily tucked in with some eggs to form a decent on-the-fly bagel sandwich.
Breakfast buffets aren’t the only free hotel food options, though. A number of hotel chains also offer evening buffets of snacks and light meals, making lunch and snacks your only additional meal expenses. For example, when we stayed at the Drury Inn in Nashville during a cross-country trip with the dogs, the complimentary evening noshables included a selection of appetizers and mini meals that trumped any happy hour I’ve ever seen. Which brings me to my next tip...
2. Happy Hours With Free Food
Provided you were already planning on going out for a drink anyway, plan to execute your cocktail excursion at whatever establishment has the best happy hour offering. Many bars offer high-end sushi, stuffed mushroom caps, and more as complimentary snacks when you stop by for a drink. While you’ll want to tip your waitstaff and be sure to order at least one cocktail, this can be a fantastically frugal way to go, especially if there are other snacks available at your hotel when you return.
3. Airline Meal Vouchers for the Airport
Many airlines offer free meal vouchers when your flight has been missed or delayed due a mishap on their end. You just need to make your way to their main help desk to request one. For particularly long delays, I’ve been issued up to three meal vouchers. They can be used anywhere in the airport, including for nuts, seeds, and dried fruit at the sundries shop if you arrive after all the restaurants are closed. If your delay is overnight and they also comp you a room, then combining these free meal vouchers with the hotel food option suggested above can help you reduce meal costs for up to a few days.
For example, there have been times when I’ve been able to grab an earlier flight than expected and made a point of purchasing healthy packaged snacks instead of restaurant food, since I wouldn’t be there long enough to consume the additional meals. Having those bags of trail mix and a few pieces of fruit in my day pack provided greater food flexibility on the next travel leg.
4. Airline Lounge Snacks (and Drinks!)
While these are usually for first and business class travelers, those with high levels of frequent flyer miles are often allowed to access these lounges as well. For those without a set miles program, there are Priority Pass lounges which can be accessed for a moderate fee and provide the same sorts of snacks, magazines, free Wi-Fi, complimentary bar beverages, and more. Who doesn’t love free alcohol to go with their snacks?
5. Hotel Hospitality Bars
When we fly home to visit family in Maine, we usually stay overnight at the Hampton Inn in South Portland before embracing the day-long drive to the other end of the state. In addition to coffee and a wide selection of teas, they often include a basket of cookies and an urn of soup. Not a full-blown snack selection to be sure, but enough to take the edge off while you are unpacking and searching out a place to have dinner.
6. Visitor's Bureau Tourist Coupons
The tourist information offices hand out loads of maps and tourist brochures, and they frequently have coupons for free and discounted food items. Often, it’s just a free ice cream or beverage. While those provide a nice treat in the middle of your tourist itinerary, there is occasionally the option to enjoy a complete meal. During a recent walking tour my husband and I took on a photography outing to Tampa’s Ybor City, we noticed coupons for a free entrée at the nearby Ikea. I guess it’s a win-win for them, since most people who stop by for a light meal will likely also take the time to shop. The point is though, an entire entrée was offered for free, and whether or not you purchase anything in the store afterward is completely up to you.
7. Airplane Food
If you flight is long enough, your meal is often included. This is particularly true on international flights. The other good thing about airline food that many people do not know is that if you contact the airline ahead of time, you can order a selection customized to your needs with regards to religious restrictions (halal or kosher), preference (vegan or low fat), or food sensitivities. This makes traveling with food allergies or gluten issues much easier.
8. Free Food Samples at Stores and Markets
While I’m sure a fair number of broke college students have grabbed a spring break lunch by cruising Costco, that’s not what I’m suggesting here. Rather than go out of your way for free food samples, consider experiencing the ones that are already built in to your travel itinerary. Strolling through tourist areas with snack shops, gourmet food stores, and weekly outdoor markets can provide you with the opportunity to sample some items for free before deciding if you want to dish out the dough. When we lived in Italy, this is how we discovered what would become our favorite gelato shop in Sirmione and a phenomenal honey and hazelnut spread that we purchased several jars of at a waterfront farmers market during a weekend getaway to Slovenia’s Lake Bled.
As you can see, searching out free travel food doesn’t have to mean scrimping on style or nutrition. There are a number of ways to keep your meal budget under control while you travel.
What are your favorite ways to enjoy great travel food on a budget?