Ten Ways to Stretch Your Family’s Vacation Dollars (Disney or otherwise)

EJ with Oswald at DCA (Love having photopass on my AP)

When I arrived to pick up our eldest daughter after work the other day she was busily chatting with a group of her coworkers, hands waving, she was obviously describing something or giving directions. As it turns out, she was doing a little of each. Her coworkers were both planning Disneyland vacations and were asking her advice on the “best things to do on your child’s first visit that won’t break the bank.”

She was laughing as she got into the car, it seems one of the girls had suggested she should write a book of advice if only to be shared around the office, so everyone could benefit from her tips and tricks. Having made her first visit to Walt Disney World at eight-months-old and Disneyland when she was three, this girl has grown up with Disney and doesn’t really think about others not knowing the things she does about their parks. Her two younger sisters are the same.
And her travel advice isn’t restricted to Disney vacations. Because we usually drive to the parks, there are a lot of things to see and do along the way. I can remember her excitement when I would bring home a stack of auto club books (a great source of free maps & guidebooks for members.) Even at 10-years-old she would take her highlighter and a stack of post-its and start marking out our route and noting spots to visit along the way, always careful to note the AAA discounts and any free admissions. We’ve always encouraged our girls to be involved in our travel plans and do the same with our grandson now. Driving days go a lot more smoothly when they help set the schedule.
So, back to her coworker’s suggestion that VJ pen a book; for now, we’ll stick to sharing her top ten suggestions on my blog.
1. Plan early, research, and don’t be afraid to change things around if you find a better deal.
I can’t tell you how many times we have made travel plans to visit a certain place, booked hotels, and drafted itineraries just to have one of our girls see an offer on TV or the internet or read about a special event in a magazine. Staying flexible has allowed us to find some great deals and visit spots we hadn’t thought of, making memories that will last us a lifetime.
2. Visit like a local

We make sure to tune our car radio to a local station plus pick up the local newspapers to find area specials. Often these special deals or coupons can be used by anyone, (even locals-only ones sometimes) and you can save a bundle or at least get more for your travel dollar.

For example, Denny’s restaurants are currently offering buy-one-adult-get-one-kids-admission free discount coupons for the Aquarium of the Pacific.

We love getting travel guides in the mail

3. Sign up for newsletters, promotions, local tourism guides to help with planning

We set up a separate email for these. That way your regular inbox doesn’t get overloaded plus you have all of the offers in one place. Many of the travel brochures will offer 2 for 1 admission coupons, particularly during off or shoulder season.

4. Take advantage of membership discounts

This can be AAA or AARP discounts, D23 Gold member discounts, or even memberships/annual passes from your local zoo, museum, or science center. We use our local science center annual passes to get reciprocal admission to science centers all around the U.S. and Canada.

5. Join loyalty programs

I know, everyone says to do this but it is so true. Being able to travel “on points” is a huge budget helper. There are ways to increase your benefits from these programs as well. We always watch for contests and bonuses to earn extra points. Plus we watch for the best redemption offers. For instance, Marriott Rewards gives you the fifth night free on redemption stays so we try to book in five-night blocks and rarely use points for a single night stay during our road trips. They also have points saver nights at some of the properties during certain dates that are good to watch for.

Cookies and milk for the littles is a nice touch at some hotels

6. Pick up glow-in-the-dark toys at the dollar store

This one might sound funny but we’ve saved a ton over the years by shopping at the dollar store near our hotel for little trinkets that the kids would normally ask for at the parks. A bag filled with glow-in-the-dark bracelets, necklaces, and “magic wands” will cost you under $20 (about the same as one purchased from the carts that populate the streets as you wait for a night-time parade!) You can usually pick up some inexpensive souvenir pencils etc. while you are there as well. These are fun surprises for your littles that can be kept in your bag and doled out through your visit.

7. Pack a lunch (or at least snacks)

Purchasing meals at theme parks and other tourist spots can add up. I read somewhere that the average adult spends $35-$50 a day on beverages alone! This is a huge amount when you multiply it by two adults and then add in the littles. We make sure to pack pb&j sandwiches that can be handed out while waiting in a ride queue (it fills tummies and keeps them occupied.) Nuts, cheese & crackers, and fresh fruit work well for snacks too. One of our favorite freebies at Disney Parks is the ice water they serve at quick serve restaurants. We carry flavor packets for the littles (or anyone else who isn’t a fan of plain water) and have icy lemonade or fruit punch in our water bottles all day.

Having fun at Mickey’s backyard barbecue

On most trips, we book long-term stay properties that have a kitchen so we can make our own meals. This helps with the food sensitivities of some of our family members and saves money too. (It may sound odd but I like to pack a crockpot, it’s so nice to get back at the end of the day to a delicious supper all ready for you, we love the pot roast kits from Sam’s Club for this, seasoning, roast, and vegetables all ready to pop in the slow cooker in the morning before you head out.) Many hotel chains offer free breakfast these days and a few have evening receptions as well. Several of the Residence Inns we’ve stayed at have meals on Monday and Tuesday evenings. Well worth checking out.

Even though we do like to be careful with our food dollars, we do enjoy character meals and other dining at Disney Parks. We do try to stick to breakfast or lunch options where possible since the portions tend to be more manageable and they cost less for the same experience. Breakfast with Minnie at the Plaza Inn in Disneyland is one of our favorites with a variety of choices sure to keep everyone in the family happy.

8. Consider annual passes

Although the initial outlay of cash is more than you would spend on a 3- or 4-day pass, an annual pass can save you dollars in the long run. If you plan to visit twice in a 12-month period, an AP may be the way to go. Last year I used mine twice at Disneyland and twice at Walt Disney World (Premier Passport) for a total of about 60 days. Add into this the parking, photopass, and food and merchandise discounts and it was a great value. We look at all of our options including specials, auto club discounts, and APs when we plan each visit (and if you already have an AP the next trip is so much easier to pay for!)

Working on his junior ranger badge in the French Quarter
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park
We also purchase National Parks annual passes in both the U.S. and Canada (2017 was free here to celebrate our 150th birthday.) These allow us entry into national parks and historic sites in both countries for 12 months. We make sure to take advantage of any free programs they have as well. The Junior Rangers program at many of the U.S. parks is terrific. The booklets teach your littles all about the history and geography of the park and local region. They receive a small badge upon completion.We even work them into our homeschooling activities.

9. “Free” Souvenirs

Our grandson loves collecting little “free” souvenirs during our visits to Disney parks. Not only is he bringing home little treats from his trip, he also creates memories through his interaction with cast members. One of his favorites is collecting transportation cards at Walt Disney World. You can usually get these cards from any cast member working on buses, ferries, or monorails. Simply approach them and ask if they have any of the cards. Politeness counts, be sure not to interrupt while they are busy with passengers and they will normally spend some time checking to see if they have a card that you don’t already have. There are also different scavenger hunt type activities in the parks plus a ranger type program at Animal Kingdom.

Wow, a rare trading card!

10. Costco, Groupon, City Go Cards, CityPass

There are a number of ways you can double-up on discounts. For instance, Costco often sells City Go Cards, CityPasses, and theme park admission tickets at a discount. Groupon does this as well. Depending on the length of your stay at one location and your interests, these passes can be a terrific value. We have used them in Atlanta and San Francisco and both saved money and visited attractions we hadn’t considered. There are also passes for regions such as Southern California that include some theme park admissions along with smaller attractions. It’s well worth doing a little online research as part of your planning.

So there you have it, a few of the ways we manage our travel dollars. No secret formula, we just try to do our homework and be open to different options that allow us to visit more places without breaking the bank.

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