Cheap Flights and Orlando Sanford Airport

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Visiting any of the Disney Parks is an expensive proposition. TouringPlans.com has a tool to find least-expensive park tickets, and travel agents can watch for discounted lodging. However, as gas prices rise, transportation becomes an increasingly larger portion of our vacation budgets.

To mitigate this, on a recent trip I altered my normal Walt Disney World routine by flying into Orlando Sanford International Airport (SFB) on the low-cost Allegiant Air. The airfare was great–less than half of what competitors were charging for flights to Orlando International Airport (MCO). This cheap flight, however, came with more than a few caveats.

Orlando Sanford International Airport (SFB)

Orlando Sanford International Airport (SFB) is on the opposite side of downtown Orlando from Walt Disney World. Its dominant commercial carrier is Allegiant Air. Beyond that, the airport mostly serves charter flights from the United Kingdom and Brazil.

For travel to Orlando tourist destinations, SFB is not especially convenient. If you use I-4 and avoid tolls, it is 45 miles from Epcot and requires driving through the heart of downtown Orlando and its traffic. Or you can take FL-417 and pay tolls each way while driving around 50 miles. Even with no traffic, this will take about an hour, and a cab would cost more than $125 each way without tip or tolls. In contrast, Orlando International Airport (MCO) is about 22 miles from Epcot, requires just $2-3 in tolls, and is a $60 cab ride. Or, if you are staying at a Disney Resort Hotel, Disney’s Magical Express service provides slow-but-complimentary bus transportation to and from MCO (but not SFB).

Despite its inconvenient location to Disney World, SFB’s small size allows you to spend less time in the airport. For example, it took me about 5 minutes to walk quickly from my gate to the rental car counter, where I found no line. As a result, I was in my rental car less than 15 minutes after deplaning. And the security lines were not bad–unlike those at MCO, which often have posted wait times!

There also are reasonably priced gas stations, restaurants, and stores off East Lake Mary Boulevard a few miles west of SFB’s entrance. This contrasts with MCO, where the main roads from Disney World are limited access toll roads that deposit you directly into the airport.

Allegiant Air

Although its base fares are good, Allegiant has fees for nearly everything. Before purchasing a ticket, it is important that you understand the airline’s nuances.

  • Allegiant uses many small airports. These airports may not be convenient to your home or destination, requiring you to a rent a car and/or drive further. So make sure you know which airports are involved in your flight.
  • All flights are non-stop; there are no connecting flights.
  • Not all flights operate every day.
  • Base fares do not include seat assignments (although they can be purchased).
  • When buying tickets via the Internet, purchasing at the lowest fare requires clicking “No Thanks” on hotel and car offers, as well as avoiding optional fee-based extras like assigned seating, priority boarding, and checking a bag. Watch where you click.
  • Checked baggage fees are high, especially if you wait until check-in to pay for your bag. Bag fees are also flight-specific.
  • The allowed carry-on size is smaller than on other airlines, and dimensions are rigorously enforced. The parties before and after me in line were both forced to check bags that they were able to carry-on with other airlines.
  • No snacks or drinks are included with your fare, but you can purchase them on-board.
  • Purchasing seats via Internet or phone incurs a fee. Only in-airport purchases avoid this “convenience fee.”
  • Seats do not recline, and there are no seat pockets in which to store junk.
  • Boarding takes place in strictly enforced groups. First those with assigned seats and priority boarding. Then those with only assigned seats. Then those with kids under 7. Then others based on order of check-in. Since there is open seating, people swarm around the gate until their groups are called. There are no organized “stalls” like with Southwest.

How It Worked

Allegiant Air serves my closest home airport: Newport News, Virginia (PHF). I paid $97.08 after taxes and fees for a round-trip ticket about 6 weeks prior to departure. I declined all extras, so I carried on my bags (which I would have done on any flight) and had no assigned seat. At that time the cheapest non-stop round-trip ticket to MCO was about $235. And from casual observation, I’ve deduced that a “good” fare from any local airport to Orlando is around $180. Thus $97.08 was a smoking deal.

For this trip, I stayed at an off-property vacation home and required a rental car. Cars at SFB were slightly more expensive than at the intensely competitive MCO, but I found an acceptable rate of around $30 per day. And since I was traveling to and from the airport outside of rush hour, I was happy to drive the toll-free route through downtown Orlando.

All-in-all, this was a money saver for me. I could have saved about an hour of driving time and a couple gallons of fuel had I flown into MCO and rented a car there, but I also gained time because of SFB’s simpler, less crowded facilities.

I had to wait in line to check-in (Internet check-in is not an option unless you pay for an assigned seat), but the lines moved fine, and the flights were on-time and pleasant. They also were not crowded: even with open seating, I was next to an empty seat on both flights. And all Allegiant workers I encountered were friendly, even when they broke bad news to customers that their oversized carry-on bags would have to be checked for $35.

In summary, using SFB and Allegiant might make sense when:

  • You’re going to rent a car no matter what.
  • Allegiant’s prices (including all fees) are so low that you save enough money to easily pay for a rental car, fuel, tolls, and parking.
  • Allegiant is the only airline to offer a non-stop flight from your local airport.

Have you flown into Orlando Sanford or on Allegiant Air? Is Allegiant’s low-cost experience too jarring for most travelers?

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Posted on March 8, 2012

25 Responses to “Cheap Flights and Orlando Sanford Airport”

  • I’ve flown Allegiant into Sanford twice and both times it was a good experience. My only issue with Sanford is their limited schedule. Flying from South Bend to Sanford, the flight gets into Sanford at 2pm, and the only departure is 7am. you waste 1-1/2 days, plus you have to pay for a rental car. For a long 7 day trip the time lost isn’t that big of a deal, but for a short weekend, you lose so much time with Allegiant.

    • by David Davies on March 8, 2012, at 4:46 pm EST

      You’re right that it’s important to pay attention to flight times and days–they might not match your preferences. That’s not just limited to Allegiant and Sanford, though: cheapest flights are often at times when people least want to travel.

      Also, taking a flight with late night arrival or early morning departure might mean that you’ll stay in a hotel more nights than you’d prefer, so you need to take that into account when determining whether a “cheap” flight is truly worth any extra lodging costs.

  • Thanks so much for the information. We often have great “deals” to SFB from our local airport, but I have always been skeptical to try them. Perhaps sometime in the future when we know we’re going to rent a car we’ll give it a try.

  • When we fly to Orlando, we only fly Allegiant. There are a lot of drawbacks, but you cannot beat the price. If we know we want to fly, we usually have to find our flights before we can even book our Disney stay, because the flight schedule is so strange. We have opted to drive the last 3 times we’ve gone to Disney, just because the flight schedules wouldn’t sync with our travel dates. The last time we did fly Allegiant we had a bad experience when we got home. We had carried on all of our bags (I bought a rolling backpack for each person in our family so we wouldn’t have to check bags on any airline.) On the way to Orlando we were allowed to check them for free because the flight was full and they were trying to minimize congestion in the aisles. On the way back we had to carry everything on, and since we didn’t pay for seating assignments, we were the last to board. This meant full overhead bins when we got on board (it seems everyone is avoiding checked bag fees these days!) Well, my husband’s bag was moved without his knowledge before our flight took off. When we landed, it was nowhere to be found. There was one particular flight attendant who was very rude to my husband, insisting to him that she had checked “every nook and cranny” of the plane and the bag was just gone. She didn’t offer apologies or anything, just acted like it was our fault for not checking the bag. We were halfway down the terminal when a passenger from the next flight ran up to my husband and told him the flight attendant found his bag. The rude attendant was standing there at the gate with another attendant when my husband went back to get his bag. The 2nd attendant handed my husband his luggage and said that it had been found with the crew’s luggage. The rude attendant, standing RIGHT THERE, offered no apologies, just a glare. That was the last time we flew Allegiant. It left a really sour taste in our mouths.

  • I had flown Allegiant many times from South Bend, IN to Sanford. Also, keep in mind I found that I was able to, most times, rent a car CHEAPER from Sanford than I was from MCO.

    I also flew from Fort Wayne, IN to Sanford, as the days and times were different from the South Bend flights. The long term parking at both South Bend and Fort Wayne were comparable.

    I’m now in Indy, so I now have to shop my flights a lot more in order to find great deals… and any of them that are great, are usually non-direct flights…

    • Grand Rapids MI and Gary IN also offer flights on Allegiant into Sanford….check their days and times. Maybe another option.

  • by K in Philly on March 8, 2012, at 10:01 pm EST

    Seats that don’t recline is a plus in my opinion … so annoying when the person in front of you leans back into your already limited space!

  • Is this the first blog post in the site’s history, to feature a photo of your knees?

    • by David Davies on March 9, 2012, at 12:08 pm EST

      I normally charge much more for my knee glamour shots.

      Seriously, though, I had like 6 inches of space between my knees and the seat, so I couldn’t resist. And no one was reclining back to take that away!

  • Thanks so much for this article. It’s one I’ve been waiting to see for awhile. My wife and I flew Allegiant out Fort Wayne in January 2010. Everything went well, both ways. We had a brief delay on the outbound leg due to snow, but still made it to Sanford in plenty of time.

    Rather than renting a car, my wife and I hired a towncar to drive us. We found one that cost us $100 each way, including tip. A week (or more) car rental costs more, unless you do two one way rentals, which can be complicated. It was nice to have someone else do the driving, so that we can stretch out in the backseat and watch the Orlando sights roll by.

    Incidentally, if you plan to fly Allegiant and live close to the airport, I can’t stress the advice to buy the tickets there. You end up saving $30 per ticket that way, far more than what you’d spend on gas to get to the airport in most instances.

    • by David Davies on March 9, 2012, at 12:32 pm EST

      The “convenience fee” for purchasing via Internet is $10 per person per segment. Tack on an ADDITIONAL $14.99 if you want to buy over the phone. If the airport isn’t too far and/or you’re buying multiple tickets, I agree that it can make sense to visit and buy. For me, I wasn’t interested in making a special 50 mile round-trip and paying for parking to save $20. Plus, Allegiant only operates during the first half of the day, and only on certain days of the week at my airport (they actually bring in laptops to use at the check-in desks–no permanent computers), so I’d need to be careful about when I went there. If you do this, make sure you know the hours.

      I also like the towncar idea. $100 each way after tip isn’t awful, and you could easily make up that $200 round-trip cost if you have a family of 4 and save $50 per ticket on airfare versus flying into MCO with Magical Express. Plus, towncars should be more comfortable than a bus, and they often include a free grocery stop if you want one.

      I will add that Orlando car rental prices can be all over the place. I know people who have rented for less than $10/day (after all taxes), and I’ve done searches where nothing cheaper than $60/day (after all taxes) was available.

      Thanks for the ideas!

  • We always fly Allegiant out of Bangor to SFB. Love it! We drive 6 hours down from New Brunswick, Canada which makes for a long day when we finally land in Sanford at 9:30pm but it saves us over $1000.00 compared to flying out of our local airport. We love the direct flight, especially now that we have our daughter. She was 6 mths old her first time and the crew were very kind to us, helping figure out how to get the car seat buckled in, etc… We usually rent our car online in advance and get a reasonably good deal. We love the Sanford airport and the drive is not too bad at 10pm. We usually go for 10 days and stay off-site the first few nights and so we avoid the feeling of missing ‘Disney time’. Thanks for a great article!

  • Well, I live in Illinois and am a Disney Vacation Club member. Therefore, we HAVE to go down there at least once a year (woe is me)
    :-)

    We also have season park hopper passes, so that means we have to go down twice a year to get our money’s worth. We have flown into Sanford and Orlando International and have rented a car at Sanford and also took a taxi from Sanford to our resort hotel. After experiencing both places, I would never go back via Sanford no matter how much money I save for the following reasons:

    1) When you stay in a Disney Resort and fly into Orlando International airport, you can take advantage of the Disney Magical Express to get free transportation to your resort from the airport.

    2) If you fly into Orlando International airport, you can get Disney luggage tags mailed to you before the trip and Disney will check your luggage at Orlando International and take your luggage to your room free of charge. So, if we check our luggage at O’Hare, we don’t see it until we walk into our room at the resort later in the day. Disney has never lost our luggage.

    3) When you check out of your resort at the end of your trip, you can check your luggage at the resort and get your airline boarding pass at the resort, bypassing long lines at the ticket counters at the airport. When you take the Disney Magical Express back to the airport, you aren’t hauling your luggage with you and you don’t have to worry about it until you get back to O’Hare and watch for it on the luggage carousel for the returning flight. We also fly down out of Milwaukee’s International airport to Orlando International and get the same benefits.

    You can’t get these benefits flying into/out of Sanford.

  • I am trying to find the CHEAPEST way to get from Orlando Sanford to Disney World. It seems that public buses don’t operate from the airport anymore. Are there terminals near by? What is a low cost and trusting town car option? I would appreciate any advice. Thanks.

    • We live in Illinois and make at least 2 trips down to Disney World every year. We are just old retired Disneyheads. We used to fly into sanford because flights were usually cheaper, but it is a real hassle to get from the airport to any resort around WDW. We have rented a car for the week and we have taken a reserved shuttle van ($150) and that adds considerable cost to the cheaper tickets. It is something like an hour & a half drive to WDW from sanford too. It is such a hassle we gave up and fly into Orlando Int’l airport now. If you are staying in a Disney resort, Disney provides a free bus ride from the airport to your resort. In fact, if you are staying at a Disney resort, they will send you luggage tags about 2 weeks before your trip and you put these on your checked luggage and Disney will pick up your luggage at the airport and deliver it right to your room. You check it at your departing airport and you don’t see it until you arrive in your resort room. This is a free service. Disney makes it so convenient if you arrive at Orlando Int’l airport. So, we just watch for the lowest fares to Orlando Int’l from either O’Hare or Milwaukee and use the Disney express. The less hassle in the end is worth a few extra bucks if that is what it takes.

      A list of shuttle buses, vans, taxis from sanford can be found here:

      http://www.orlandosanfordairport.com/taxi_limo_shuttle.asp

    • by David Davies on March 12, 2012, at 9:15 pm EST

      The Orlando area’s Lynx bus system (http://www.golynx.com) runs near Sanford Airport, so you could take a cab to somewhere on the route (like the Lynx Superstop near Lake Mary Blvd and Orlando Dr in Sanford) and then take a series of buses from there. That would be cheap, but I think it’s a horrible idea unless you REALLY enjoy navigating and riding public transit. Plus, the bus schedules may not even work out with your flights.

      Sanford Airport can work out well for some travelers, but you may not be one of them. It depends on your total costs and your travel preferences.

  • When you have a family of fearful fliers, you can’t beat Allegiant’s non-stop flights (we’re in Des Moines, IA). Anything to avoid the additional harrowing take offs and landings!!

  • Wow such a helpful post! My fam is flying from Salisbury, MD to Sanford next week for the first time. We flew into MCO for our honeymoon and it was great, but the only airlines that fly to MCO are 3 hours from our house, whereas this airport is only a half hour from home, which alone is amazing and worth the extra hour of driving. Combine that with the fact that my hubby and I are driving down and picking them up from the airport, and I can’t see how this wouldn’t be the best option. The extra facts about the flight are SO helpful though- my parents are bringing my 2 year old daughter so it’s nice to know the pros and cons they will be facing. Thanks again!

  • My husband and I just flew Allegiant to Disney from Roanoke, VA. I would definitely do it again, even though there are limited days and times to choose from. The non-stop service saved us many hours of travel time. We had no problem with carry on bags. I had measured them before we left and my husband’s was definitely questionable. We were not challenged by the Allegiant staff on its size, and I didn’t see anyone at all questioned, even though some bags were bigger than ours. Our return flight home did have reclining seats and seat back pockets. The ease of getting of the plane in Orlando and walking straight to the car rental oounter with no wait was wonderful. We were out of the airport in no time, and the drive to Disney didn’t take that long. Had we flown into MCO, we might not have chosen to rent a car, but since we had to with getting into Sanford, we found it really convenient to have the car in Disney. We had several dinner reservations at other hotels, and found it much easier to drive than to take Disney’s transportation. Again, the VERY BEST thing about Allegiant, is the non-stop flight. Had we flown any other way, we would never have been able to see almost all of Animal Kingdom on the same day that we left home.

  • Thanks for the info on the no-tilt seats. I flew Spirit with no-tilt seats and it was horrible. I will never fly Spirit again. I now won’t fly Allegiant either…

    • keep in mind that some of Allegiant’s seats do tilt. Plus, ours was a pretty short, non-stop flight. I was not uncomfortable at all, but if I had been, I could have endured it for such a short flight, and to save a ton of money.

  • by Rachel Harris on April 18, 2012, at 3:16 pm EST

    My parents just flew Allegiant in March. They said the seats did tilt and it was very comfortable- and that was coming from my 6’3, 300 lb dad, so that says a lot! One bit of very unfortunate news that I heard about allegiant though, is that they are going to start charging a $35 per bag fee, REGARDLESS of whether you carry it on with you or you check it. Apparently they weren’t making enough money because no one was checking their bags…=/ If this actually does happen, it will seriously undermines the value in my opinion.

    • by David Davies on April 18, 2012, at 4:12 pm EST

      You are correct. As of April 4, 2012, Allegiant started charging for carry-on bags that don’t fit under the seat in front of you. The fees are between $10 and $35, depending on the particular flight and when you choose to pay the fee.

      Allegiant’s fee information (also linked in the blog post) can be found at: http://www.allegiantair.com/aaFeesForOurServices.php

  • This is my third year of flying out of Sanford via Allegiant airlines to visit my daughter and family for Thanksgiving in Knoxville, TN. I live near I-95 in Jacksonville, FL yet I always fly out of Sanford since I am retired. My wife does the same thing to see her brother in Spartanburg/Greenville, SC. I know many of the above comments refer to the many charges Allegiant has in their rules, but all-in-all, you cannot beat their airfares and especially their non-stop flights. It takes me about 2 hours to drive to Sanford but I only have four red lights and I am there. No layovers in major hubs like Atlanta and Charlotte plus no taxing wait on the runways. They load and take off without waiting anywhere on the runway. My wife loves the instant take off when the plane makes its final turn, it takes off and before you know it you are landing. Great Allegiant crew, TSA check in is a breeze and the planes are up to date as any many major airline. We are retired and used to travel in our $200,000 motorhome until diesel went so high. I know the luggage charges are a major complaint but they do allow you to take a small back pack and/or computer case that fits under the seat in front of you. So, to beat their system, I don’t take my computer (daughter has a laptop there), I pack my computer case with clothes and essentials, wear my heavy Jaguar jacket and wear cargo pants with deep pockets. You can’t believe how much stuff you can fit in those pants and it travels free! The only complaint that I have is that on some holidays, the economy lots fill up and they make you go to the higher priced parking garage that is $5.00 more a day than the shuttled open-air lots but it is great if it’s raining. Anyway you look at it, the airline ticket makes up more than enough savings. I have never paid more than $200 for round trip ticket to Knoxville, in fact, I have paid as little as $75 round trip when it is not a holiday. My wife always has paid around $100 round trip to Spartanbur/Greenville, SC. You would use more gas driving to these places than paying for the cheap Allegiant tickets. My whole family, 12 grandchildren and their parents are starting to use Allegiant this way from all over the country. Even Rockford/Chicago, IL for $222 round trip and Allentown, PA (Phila. area) to Sanford for only $200. These flights are not available everyday but most would wait for these savings. So, pay $600 plus to Southwest and other carriers so you can let your bags fly free! I could buy alot of commercials on TV charging these prices. Hopefully, “Baby Boomer” like like ourselves will help continue Allegiant to do a great job in keeping their ticket prices low. FYI, in my previous business, I used to fly well over 80,000 miles a year all over the world. I could have really saved alot if Allegiant was around back then!