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Creative ways to eat on the road for less

By Salina Khan,USA TODAY

With companies tightening meal budgets, frugal travelers are finding creative ways to get more for their money.

Here are some examples:

parrow.gif (64 bytes)Stay in hotels where meals are included in the room rate: Check into hotels that offer complimentary continental breakfasts, suggests Marilyn McHugh of Parsippany, N.J.

Pick up extra bagels and fruit on your way out, adds Jon Melia of Torrington, Conn. That way you'll save breakfast and lunch money.

Depending on where you stay, dinner could be on the hotel as well. Tom Powell of Knoxville, Tenn., says he stays at Red Lion hotels and fills up on the free food - popcorn, nachos or hot dogs - served during happy hour.

parrow.gif (64 bytes)Cook your own dishes: Some travelers on longer trips check into hotel rooms with kitchens, such as at Residence Inns and Embassy Suites.

"Tuna at Wal-Mart is 65 cents a can and the bread is 50 cents a loaf," says Glyn Thorman of Osceola, Wis. "Skip the canned 25 cents Wal-Mart soda and buy the liter bottle for pennies an ounce."

parrow.gif (64 bytes)Reheat leftovers: Powell orders large pizzas so he can eat for two days while on the road. "You can reheat the pizza - or even cans of soup - on the hood of your running car," he suggests.

The hotel ice bucket can become a small temporary fridge, according to Thorman. "Put the ice on top of your sealed food - cold goes down," he suggests in an e-mail to USA TODAY. "Wrap the entire bucket container in numerous towels provided. Guaranteed to keep cold overnight!"

parrow.gif (64 bytes)Go far out: Avoid eating at airport lounges and hotel restaurants. Their prices are usually steep. Ask residents for recommendations in the suburbs. Out-of-the way local restaurants are sometimes cheaper and tastier, Melia says.

parrow.gif (64 bytes)Look for corporate rates: Find out whether your company has deals with local restaurants. Some restaurants shave 10% to 25% off the meal cost, says Heather Gravelle, a consultant for American Express. Also, some frequent-guest programs offer discounts at their hotels' restaurants.

parrow.gif (64 bytes)Look for restaurants on the Internet, in travel guidebooks or in reviews in local papers: Ask the hotel concierge for recommendations within your price range.

parrow.gif (64 bytes)Grab food at gas stations: Eating under SBA Inc.'s $30-a-day per diem isn't always a piece of cake for Powell. He manages by slipping the cost of snacks into his gas tab.

parrow.gif (64 bytes)Shop at malls: Stop by their food courts just before closing time to get big discounts. "I've gotten plenty at half price," Thorman says.

parrow.gif (64 bytes)Miscellaneous suggestions: Stop by churches for $5 dinners. Drink iced tea instead of alcoholic beverages. Make oatmeal or instant soup using hotel rooms' hot-water systems for coffee. Don't pass up airline snacks if you're not hungry - stash them in your carry-on bag for later.



By Salina Khan, USA TODAY

More business travelers are watching what they eat on the road - and calorie counting isn't the only reason.

Many companies are enforcing stricter rules on meal expenses. About 57% of companies surveyed by American Express have guidelines or spending limits on meal expenses in 1998, up from 50% in 1994.

Eat-for-less: Restaurants ranked by Zagat's "very good to excellent" for food, service and décor. Runzeimer's average prices below include entrée, drink and tip.
Atlanta:Yin Yang Music Café, eclectic /international, 64 Third St., 404-607-0682, $17
Chicago Frontera Grill, Mexican/Tex-Mex, 445 N. Clark St., 312-661-1434, $29
Dallas/Fort Worth:
Angeluna, American, 215 E. Fourth St., Fort Worth, 817-334-0080, $29
Los Angeles: Engine Co. No. 28, American/ traditional, 644 S. Figueroa St. , 213-624-6996, $27
New York: Chiam, Chinese, 160 E. 48th St. 212-371-2323, $39
Orlando: Harvey's Bistro, New American, 390 N. Orange Ave., 407-246-6560, $23
San Francisco: Osako Grill, Japanese, 1217 Sutter St., 415-440-8838, $28
Washington:    Bombay Club, Indian, 815 Connecticut Ave. N.W. , 202-659-3727, $36

"Overspending on dining and entertainment is a chronic area of abuse," says consulting firm Runzheimer International, in a recent report on travel management.

Companies are moving away from just advising employees to spend reasonably because "that's loose language that leaves a lot up for interpretation," says Heather Gravelle of American Express Consulting Services Group in New York. The infamous three-martini lunches have been going out of favor, partially because the federal government in 1994 curtailed a tax break for businesses by slashing the amount of business meals they could deduct to 50% from 80%.

Travelers find their dining options restricted by these policies:

parrow.gif (64 bytes)Spending caps: A manufacturer based in Rhode Island will begin strict limits Nov. 1 on how much employees can spend on breakfast, lunch or dinner. It declined to be identified because employees have not been told yet. In addition, all meals must be charged on the corporate credit card to monitor overall expenses and increase discounts.

Meal guidelines have been informal at the company until now. If an employee spent too much, the company sent out a memo saying that restaurant was off-limits.

But some say the limits are not always practical, especially with meal costs going up. Runzheimer says business travelers will pay 3.5% more for food in 1999 than last year.

Tom Powell of SBA in Knoxville, Tenn., can spend $30 daily on meals, regardless of the location. He says he almost turned into a McDonald's after spotting its window ad for 88-cent Quarter Pounders while in Pittsburgh two weeks ago.

"You have to compromise your tastes and eating style," Powell says.

Some can't and end up spending the difference out of their pockets. "I've resigned myself to the fact that I'm losing money," says Jon Melia of Singulus Technologies in Torrington, Conn. "I can't dwell on it a lot or it would ruin the trip."

parrow.gif (64 bytes)Per diems: Some companies are giving daily meal allowances akin to the government's per diem policy. The day's stipend corresponds to the city's average dining cost (    Rolfe Shellenberger of Runzheimer says inquiries from companies considering per diems are up.

But Gravelle says per diems are not a good idea. Some people scrimp on food costs and pocket the rest of the money. Companies should require itemized register receipts - not hand-written tabs - for costs of $15 and up, she says.

 parrow.gif (64 bytes)Employer-recommended restaurants: The National Business Travel Association says some companies are limiting meal expenses by steering their employees to certain diners.

One company lists average restaurant rates for its top 20 business destinations on its intranet page. Another recommends local restaurants in its newsletter, each month highlighting a city where it has offices.

"There's a certain balance between reasonable cost-cutting and looking like a tightwad," says Burke Stinson, an AT&T spokesman.

He says the company has had a $35-a-day limit on meals for several years but is considering more cost-cutting measures. Managers are periodically reminded to review expense reports carefully.

AT&T also is exploring restaurant discounts.

Electronic expense reports are making it easier to catch travelers with gourmet appetites.

"Do it two or three times and your job may be in jeopardy," says Harold Seligman of Management Alternatives, a travel expense management company in Tallevast, Fla.



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