Trip Planning 101: Budgeting for Your Trip to Walt Disney World

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Let’s face it, a trip to Walt Disney World can be an expensive undertaking. The good news is that there are plenty ways to conserve funds and still have a magical vacation. I’m going to walk you through the process of creating a budget for your trip, and suggest some areas of potential savings. What you should know right off the bat is that planning an accurate and economical trip budget is going to involve some math, some research, and possibly some hard decisions. As a first step, download the TouringPlans Budget Planning Worksheet.

You’ll see that there are seven main areas in which you’ll spend money on your vacation:

  • Transportation
  • Lodging
  • Theme Park Tickets
  • Food
  • Activities
  • Souvenirs
  • Miscellaneous

Let’s go through these one by one to see where you can find information on obvious costs and hidden costs, as well as where you can find information on ways to save money.

TRANSPORTATION

The main options here are flying vs. driving. In some cases, the choice will be clear; if you’re coming from Tampa then you’re driving, if you’re coming from the UK then chances are you’re going to fly (or get very wet :)). However, for most of the rest of us, the decision may not be so easy.

Your ultimate choice must be based on real numbers – not only the cost of plane tickets vs. gas, but also factoring in all related expenses. For example, if you’re flying, you’ll need to get on the phone or search the airline website for hidden fees such as baggage or onboard snack charges (yep, AirTran recently charged me for crackers). Fliers should also consider the cost of parking or taking a taxi to the airport, tipping for baggage handlers, and other related expenses. Even if you are using frequent flier miles, many of these ancillary charges will apply. You may also want to consider the opportunity cost of using frequent flier miles. Would using your miles for this trip impede your ability to take a more expensive trip later on?

Drivers must consider not only the cost of gas, but also meals on the road, wear and tear on the car, and possibly more on-the-road entertainment. Longer drives may even include a night in a hotel along the way depending on the length of the drive and the number of drivers in your party. For a good rough estimate of gas cost on your trip, try consulting AAA’s Fuel Cost Calculator.

Additionally, your fly/drive decision will impact transportation charges once you’re in Orlando. For example, if you’re flying and staying at a Disney resort hotel, you have the option to use Disney’s free Magical Express bus service to get you to your hotel. If you’re flying and staying off-site, you’ll need to pay for a car service or rent a car to get to your hotel. If you’re driving and staying off-site, you will need to pay for parking at the theme parks (unless you are a Walt Disney World Annual Passholder) and possibly also at your hotel. If you need to work while on vacation, or just want to upload your digital photos at night, budget for in-room internet charges if your resort does not include them (usually around $10/day when there’s a charge). Be sure to factor all of these stealth charges into your budget.

When looking at the cost of flying, there are now dozens of online tools and apps that can help you locate the most cost effective flight. Popular choices include Kayak, Google Flight (new), Trip Advisor, Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity. These tools make it easy to experiment with your flights to find the best deal. Try playing with departure dates or number of connections. Sometimes a Saturday night stay or a brief stopover can save you hundreds of dollars.

If you decide to fly to Orlando, many of the sites above also offer discounted rental car opportunities. When renting a car, be sure to check your personal auto insurance policy and your credit card benefits. These often make the purchase of insurance on a rental car redundant. Declining insurance on the rental can also provide big savings.

LODGING

As a starting point, log on to disneyworld.com and get a price for your preferred hotel during your travel dates. This will tell you the standard “rack rate” for the room. A little sleuthing can often uncover discounted prices on the exact same room. Twice this year I have saved about $20 per night at the Pop Century simply by booking through Expedia rather than through Disney directly. I had no loss of Disney benefits, I still got Magical Express service, Extra Magic Hours, and the like, I just paid less for them.

If you’re looking for room discounts, try asking a travel agent or using one of the online services listed in the transportation section. Additional discounts might be available for Disney annual pass holders or AAA members. You may even want to tinker with the timing of your reservation as a cost variable.

Another rule-of-thumb is that if cost is your primary concern, then staying at an off-site hotel can be a big money saver. While this often the case, be aware that some off-site hotels tack on additional fees not represented in the room rate. For example, the non-Disney-owned Swan and Dolphin hotels add resort fees and charge guests to park at the hotel. These add-ons can add up fast. Before you settle on an off-site stay, pick up the phone and ask what additional fees you might expect.

THEME PARK TICKETS

The best place to start for park ticket pricing is the TouringPlans.com Ticket Calculator. The Ticket Calculator makes it easy play around with variables and see the real price differences between several choices. For example, a few clicks will show you that once you’re visiting for several days, the price of adding another park day has minimal impact on your admission ticket price.

While you’re figuring out how much park tickets will cost, don’t forget to consider the price of the popular evening parties at the Magic Kingdom if you’ll be traveling during the fall or winter. You’ll also want to consider the price of admission to other nearby attractions if you’ll be venturing off campus to see the Wizarding World at Universal Studios.

FOOD

Planning your food budget takes some serious number crunching. Some Disney guests swear by the Disney Dining Plan (available to guests staying at the Walt Disney World resort hotels), but by no means does the Dining Plan make sense for everyone. To see if the plan is right for you, take a few minutes to look at the detailed menus and pricing for Disney restaurants available at DisneyWorld.com or AllEars.net. Ask yourself some questions and map out a few days of sample eating for your family. Will we eat full breakfast or will a muffin and coffee do? Will we eat dessert with lunch and/or dinner? Can our children share a meal? Do we eat appetizers? … and so on. By really pricing out several days of eating, you can extrapolate your actual food budget needs.

Don’t forget to factor in the cost of snacks you bring from home or buy at a local grocery, as well as the price of tips and alcoholic beverages, which are not included on the Dining Plan. Be aware that many Disney restaurants tack on a surcharge during peak seasons such as the winter holidays.

On the cost savings side, many restaurants offer discounts to Disney Vacation Club members, Disney annual pass holders, Disney Visa holders, and other affiliations. I ALWAYS ask my server what discounts are available.

One cost savings measure might not be all it’s cracked up to be. I’m talking about “Free Dining,” a promotion that Disney has run each of the last several autumns. I’m going to leave it up to the extremely capable Tom Bricker, who explains the pros and cons of free dining HERE.

ACTIVITIES

While there is certainly plenty to do at Walt Disney World with just your theme park tickets, there are also many ways to enhance your experience with activities and entertainment. And, no surprise, many of these items cost money. For example, strolling through Downtown Disney is free. But then your child sees the oh-so-enticing-and-not-so-free Characters in Flight balloon and begs for a ride. For my family of five with older children, that 10-minute ride is $90 proposition.

Of course the best way to economize on these activity extras is to simply say “no,” but you may want to indulge a bit with that balloon ride, a visit to the spa, or a round of golf. Pricing for these items is readily available online or with a call to 407-W-DISNEY. Factor them into your budget if you’re planning to partake.

SOUVENIRS

The purchase of souvenirs is another area where saying “no” is your biggest budgeting tool. However, as I discussed in a previous post, coming home with absolutely no souvenirs is unrealistic. Use the advice in the post found HERE, to help create realistic souvenir expectations for your family.

While you’ll likely not get away without souvenirs for your kids, you can often skip souvenirs for friends at home. Does your dog walker really want a Mickey sweatshirt? Do you absolutely have to bring a mug back for your child’s teacher? You may be able to easily trim these items from your budget.

MISCELLANEOUS

This is where everything else settles: stroller rentals, PhotoPass purchases, shipping fees, kennels, and so on. Not all of them will apply to all guests. As with nearly everything else in your budget, it pays to shop around for these miscellaneous items. For example, there are several ways to save money over renting a stroller from the Disney parks. You can save money on airline baggage fees by doing some laundry while on vacation, but then you’ll need to factor the cost of washing into you budget. Again, play around with numbers to see what works for you.

So what’s your budgeting process? Where have you found ways to cut corners? What do you spend money on that I forgot to include? Let us know in the comments below.

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Posted on October 17, 2011

7 Responses to “Trip Planning 101: Budgeting for Your Trip to Walt Disney World”

  • Two Words: Dollar Store. For our trip last year we purchased a long list of things at the dollar store over a few month period: ponchos, toiletries, travel size bottles, Disney stickers, Mickey bracelets (the rubber LIVESTRONG type), Disney Pez dispensers, luggage straps, “magic” washcloths with Disney characters, Phineas and Ferb fun dips, Mickey notebook for autographs…. I could keep going. It’s amazing how a sheet of stickers will appease a child while on a bus or in line. The ONLY souvenir purchased at the World was a personalized Christmas ornament. Last year after Christmas I bought a personalized Agent P zip up hoodie for around $15 for my son and a personalized Mickey Mouse zip up hoodie for myself for around $20 from disneystore.com clearance section. Tipping was something I did not adequately plan for though. Tip the valet at airport, then the sky cap, then the Magical Express driver who put the stroller under the bus, then the person that brought the bags to the room, mousekeeping (a few days we left the Do Not Disturb sign out all day, but it is so nice to come back to the beds made and fresh towels!), person who checked our bags at hotel, Magical Express driver again, valet again. I was traveling alone with my son and nearly everyone we encountered went out of their way to accommodate us, so I was happy to tip, just spent more than I expected.
    Our next trip is over 100 days out, but now I have the need to go the dollar store on my lunch break tomorrow!

    • by coolest_tiger on February 29, 2012, at 4:29 am EDT

      Hi, I was just wondering if you would be able to give a general breakdown of tip values? We’re from the UK where it’s not quite so usual to tip coach drivers or baggage handlers etc. Is it $1 per suitcase? For table service meals, would it be a tip per person or a percentage of the total cost of the meal? What about buffets? Thank you for your help!

  • Some other budgeting tips. Consider using reward plans for flights as a means of lowering cost, or if driving, using those points for hotels along the way. It was even possible to use Air Miles for Disneyland tickets for one of our trips. It is important to do some calculating, though, we found that the points when a long way for some items, but for others (e.g. car rental), the deal wasn’t worth it especially with other discounts available.

  • Don’t Forget:
    When driving your car can break down. We had a $1000 brake repair on our truck (that towed the 12000 lb fifth wheel camper to fort wilderness – so not the most typical cost or use situation)…

    Had we known that we would incur this expense, we probably would have chosen to fly and stay in a disney hotel rather than drive the big old heavy camper down and stay in fort wilderness which was in itself and exercise on trying to save money but still be in a great disney location.

    If you plan to drive to compare flying vs. driving, then just be sure to factor in the costs of the risk of breakdown. (But to be fair, there are risks with air travel too like rental car breakdown, plane delays, lost luggage, stolen stuff, unexpected hotel costs etc…)

    And factor the costs of leaving behind a ton of useful stuff (flying scenario) vs. lugging all that stuff along into the hotel room but having little luxuries like a case of water, stools or stadium seats, pool inflatables, or child care items like your pack n play, pop-a-tot, or travel cot. There are costs when you leave stuff at home: stroller rental, other baby care rentals, more expensive food purchases, clothing purchases of stuff you didn’t bring…

    PS I did use the car care center at the TTC (operated by goodyear) and while it was a little expensive compared to the most aggressively comparison shopped car repair place, it was very capable and reasonable. They don’t really rake you over the coals like some would believe. It’s actually REALLY convenient and helpful. Tire prices are competitive and we even qualified for 12 months same as cash goodyear card to absorb some of the sting of the unexpected repair at the same time as a larger vacation expense.

    And the best part was that because of the timing of the breakdown, it really didn’t affect us at all.

    Unlike the time we got a flat tire on I-75 in GA and had to spend 3 to 4 hours delay between the time changing the tire, and the time at a wal mart getting a new tire (for our pop up camper that time). That was an issue.

    • I’m sorry you ran into car trouble on your vacation. You are correct that in any travel situation you need to anticipate the possibility of problems along the way. One would hope that before you embark on vacation travel, you would have a financial buffer at home to cover any type of unexpected major expense.

      I’m not sure this would have helped in your situation, but as a vacationer you may want to consider the purchase of travel insurance. This summer my family took an Adventures by Disney trip in Europe. Our flight home was delayed by several days because of Hurricaine Irene. We incurred significant expense in hotel rooms, rental cars, land food. However, because we had travel insurance, we were reimbursed for almost all of this.

      It’s great to hear that you had a positive experience with the car care center at WDW. I’ll definitely keep that in mind in case I encounter problems in the future.

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