As someone who travels frequently by air, I know the perils of the airport — and nothing frustrates me more than having to drop $2 for a banana or $4 for a bag of chips due to inflated prices at the airport. The demand, of course, is there — lots of travelers are willing to spend the money. But not this budget-savvy KCL!

Even when I travel, I do what I can to minimize my expenses. And I have found it is possible to do this with food and drink costs in an airport.

So even with a long layover, delayed flight, or other unexpected travel "hiccup," I use these techniques for staying satisfied but financially sensible.

1. Explore the power of the powder

Because liquids (over 3 oz.) cannot be carried through airport security, most passengers mistakenly think they must purchase drinks if they get thirsty at their gates. But skip the overpriced vendor beverages and travel with powder for your own drinks. With the popularity of single-serve packets of energy drinks, sweetened water enhancers, and vitamin-packed granules, it can be easy to fill a bottle and shake your own . . . or even ask for a cup of water from a vendor at the airport (which are usually available at no charge). Even hot drinks can be mixed. I buy Starbucks Via and just ask for a travel cup with hot water from the barista—and I've never been charged for one!

2. Carry a crushable bottle

A reusable travel bottle that flattens (like this option for adults or this option for kids) will take up little space in a carry-on and will pay for itself after just a few uses. In an airport, fill up at a water fountain and quickly be on your way. Or, once on your flight, ask a flight attendant to pour water into your bottle to keep handy while airborne (with no risk of spilling). In a pinch, cool water in a bottle like this can also pull double-duty as temperature relief (think forehead or back of your neck) on a warm flight.

3. Use gift cards

Gift cards I acquire throughout the year come with me to the airport. I carry one credit card I use for actual travel costs (cabs, fees, etc.) but use my gift cards for food and drink within the airport so I don't risk losing my credit card or having my information swiped. I use cards given to me as gifts throughout the year or ones I acquire through rebates and promotions (like the $10 Starbucks card from LivingSocial I bought in March for $5, or the McDonald’s card I bought promotionally during the holiday season to get a free coupon calendar). This "free" money takes less out of my pocket when I travel.

4. Save and redeem receipt offers

Many restaurants and fast food franchises offer a free item for online survey completion at the bottom of receipts. I place a few of these in my wallet to use at the airport to score a free cookie at Subway, a doughnut at Dunkin' Donuts, or a third entrée at Panda Express (all actual offers I've redeemed!). Since airport food costs are often higher than a company's store outside the airport, there's greater value in receipt redemption here. Note: some airport franchise locations may have unique policies, so always ask kindly if coupons are accepted before you place your order.

5. Pack your own

You can bring your own food into an airport, so save a bit of room in your carry-on tote or the top of your purse for some crackers and string cheese, a hummus-filled tortilla, or small sandwich. Not your style?  Choose a fun snack you know will quell your craving for pricey, unhealthy impulse buys. My favorite are Kind bars and Stinger Waffles (which I stock up on using REI's every day 20% off snack discount). You can always buy nutritious snacks like these cheaper outside the airport than in, so you'll have more money in your travel budget to spend on other things.

6. Wait until you get on the plane

Some airlines still offer complimentary snacks.  I love hearing Delta's cheery flight attendants ask me, "Peanuts, pretzels, or cookies?" to which I usually answer "Two cookies!" (Yes, they oblige!). Jet Blue offers unlimited free snacks from their attractive basket which gets paraded up and down the aisle (Popcorners Popcorn chips? Yes. Yes!). So even if I can save a few bucks by waiting a short time for a snack, I do. Those few bucks saved per flight can really add up for someone on a heavy travel schedule.

7. Use an airline credit card

If you do carry one credit card with you when you travel — and you happen to have an airline's credit card — you may be able to use it for savings. A Citibank AAdvantage card yields an automatic statement credit of 25 percent cash back on in-flight food and beverage purchases on American Airlines. Executive Platinum members even get a complimentary snack and a standard alcoholic beverage for free just by showing their card to a flight attendant. Check an airline website of the company you plan to fly to learn of any credit card promotions like this with an existing card you may have.

When traveling, you don't have to be at the mercy of inflated airport food and drink prices.  With a bit of preparation and a commitment to financial sensibility, you can spend less at the airport, saving more for your destination.


For more great ideas on saving on food at the airport, check out Aiport Eating on a Budget.

How to Save on Food When You Fly