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.
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?