We all know the importance of being prepared, and packing food and snacks when you will be traveling or away from home for a long time. Being prepared is one of my top ten frugal rules.
A bag of trail mix or a granola bar can save the day when you’re so hungry you can’t think straight but there aren’t many (or any) food options. This becomes even more true if you add children into the mix, who are not very good at waiting or ignoring hunger.
The most logical decision is to have snacks available. The Simple Dollar recommends planning ahead, packing food in coolers, and having less perishable things like boxes of granola bars always readily available. These tips are helpful whether in a car on a roadtrip or on a flight across the world.
But sometimes, even the best laid plans can go awry. There is construction that delays your route by hours, a big storm wreaks havoc, or your plane gets delayed/rerouted/cancelled. This is what happened to hubs and I when trying to get home from a family wedding in Maine last weekend.
Intense fog had rolled in, making it hard to see anything. Planes were unable to land, and circled Logan International for hours, trying to land before they ran out of fuel. In the end, over 400 flights were delayed or cancelled.
So now we were stuck in Boston, with no car or hotel or people to stay with. The airline rescheduled us to a flight the following day, but gave nothing at all for a hotel voucher or food. The only amenity we were given was the customer service rep telling us “we have cots in baggage claim, if you want one”.
Yes I’d like to sleep on a fold out cot, in an open room in a large airport, with all my bags out in the open, along with 500 other angry strangers. Sounds relaxing.
Unfortunately, by then it was late, nearing ten pm, and we just wanted to sleep. We were already exhausted from a long wedding weekend with little rest, and had reached the point of decision fatigue. The result was a pretty big hit to our finances.
What is Decision Fatigue?
Decision fatigue is that feeling when you have become so overwhelmed with making choices, whether multiple at once or over the course of a day, that when faced with another decision you are too exhausted mentally to think through something logically and instead choose anything, just to have the issue decided and to be able to stop thinking about it.
Your brain can only handle so many details at once, and we have a finite amount of decision making powers every day. This is why people like Mark Zuckerberg choose to have a limited wardrobe, or eat the same thing for breakfast and lunch every day. eliminating daily small decisions leaves more mental energy for bigger choices and creative thinking.
According to a 2011 study in PNAS, decision fatigue affects even the most logical of professions: judges. Judges are supposed to be the bringers of justice, carefully weighing facts and making the best decisions for the people, doling out punishments to fit the crimes. But the study showed that the decisions became harsher the longer it had been since the judges’ last meal! They serve harsher sentences when hungry.
If the smartest legal minds in the world fall prey to decision fatigue, don’t you think you would too? Well, that didn’t stop me from making some poor financial choices, that I knew at the time weren’t the best, and yet, we chose to make that compromise for immediate peace of mind and comfort.
That one flight cancellation likely cost us at least one full flight.
We paid for a night in a hotel in Boston (which you can imagine is not cheap), 2 rides, to the hotel and back the next day, unplanned-for food for dinner that night and lunch on Monday (the hotel had free breakfast, which was great, but also was solely carbs), not to mention us both missing a day of work and having to use precious vacation hours to make up for it.
But all told, it could have been much worse.
What Can You Do?
So if your travel plans are wrecked, what can you do? Should you just pull out the credit card, and start buying all the food, coffee, shoes, and entertainment to get your mind off the stress? Just buy a whole new wardrobe once you get to your destination?
Of course not!
There are several things you can do, both in planning your trip ahead of time, and as the <insert travel disaster> is unfolding. It is unlikely you will finish the day with zero financial damage, but you can limit it to a few bruises rather than going 6 rounds with an angry tiger.
Make Important decisions first
We all have limited resources mentally. Especially at the end of a day, at the end of an already long trip. There are another dozen choices to make, so make it as easy on yourself as possible. Make the important decisions first, like whether to stop at a hotel halfway or drive straight through the night, or whether to try to get another flight out the same day versus renting a car and just driving.
These choices will depend on your situation, and also your own personal values. If you are in a great place financially and don’t care about the cost, you just want a fancy hotel to sleep, then go for it. If you are on a tight budget with almost no wiggle room, perhaps the free cot is worth it, and more appealing than an airport chair. What to wear to bed, when you can get to the grocery store, or what to do when you get home can wait.
This goes for food as well as strategic packing of toiletries and clothing. Thank goodness we had packed layers, not knowing what the weather would hold. I ALWAYS pack a minimum of 2 extra pair of underwear than nights planned for the trip. Because you just never know, and they don’t take up much space. We still had clean clothes to wear, and didn’t have to incur the extra expense of going to a laundromat or dry cleaners while traveling.
See my list of snacks recipes for ideas, or the internet also has literally infinity ideas. Choose items which can be kept at room temperature, or ideally a range of temperatures. Granola bars are perfect, trail mix, dried fruits, nuts, chips/popcorn, whole fruits like apples or bananas… you get the idea.
Pack something for the travel to your destination, some for the travel home, plus a little something extra. We were able to eat the trail mix anytime hunger pangs hit, and thus stave off extra, expensive, food purchases in the airport. (Note: TSA does search food now, in the name of “efficiency”… so it may behoove you to pack things in see-through containers like Ziplocks so they aren’t touching your almonds and raisins, and take them out when going through screening.)
Use what you have
We did take advantage of the tiny breakfast buffet at the hotel. They offered small yogurts, orange juice and cranberry juice, coffee, bagels and toast and English muffins. We each had some juice and yogurt, and 2 cups of coffee. We split an English muffin, and took a bagel on the road as an extra travel snack.
If you have free food available to you, take advantage of it, even if it is not something you would normally eat. I try not to have too carb-heavy breakfasts, but a bagel that was free is better than $8 at Starbucks. By the third day you may get tired of trail mix or granola bars, but you can eat like a king once you’re safely home.
Have some miles or points banked
For those of you familiar with travel hacking, I’m sure I don’t need to expand on this. But if you’ve never heard of this, it is where you use credit card or chain rewards programs to earn free things. Cash back rewards, rental cars, hotel stays, and flights are all possible if you know the rules of the game.
Even if you don’t have the time or energy to invest hardcore into travel hacking, you can still sign up for a credit card with good rewards, or a hotel chain at which you frequently stay. That way, if you unexpectedly have to overnight in Omaha, you can put the $100 cash back towards the Red Roof Inn, or use your free stay at a Hilton, and take some of the sting out of the purchase.
Roll with it
As a kind lady I was next to at the airport for a few hours said, “Anything can be rescheduled, as long as you’re not dead”.
She had a great outlook. Several people were panicking about missing work, meetings, classes, etc. There are of course some things which are more important and cannot be rescheduled, like births and birthdays, graduations and wedding and ceremonies. But generally speaking, as long as you are alive, it will be ok.
No one likes delays, but try to remember it is likely either something out of everyone’s control, and / or it is for your own safety. I wouldn’t want a plane full of people to land blind, and potentially hit the watch tower or miss the runway. If there is a mechanical malfunction, do you really want to trust your life to that plane or car? Better to be patient and wait until the problem can be resolved than take that chance.
Deep breaths, and remember this too shall pass. And it will pass much easier if you have a handful of popcorn and a good book.