Tuesday, July 22, 2014

10 Tips for Saving Money on a Disney World Vacation

Earlier this month, I wrote about how to save money on a Disney Cruise.

Now it's time to talk about how to save money on a Disney World parks vacation!

Just like a Disney Cruise, if you pull up the Disney World website and start to price a vacation package that includes hotel, park tickets and food, you might get discouraged at the high price. A week in early December (which is off-season) for my family of 5 starts at over $4000 for the least expensive option! And that doesn't include airfare.

But there are many ways to reduce the price of a Disney World vacation, so consider some of these strategies:

1.  Stay off-site

Staying in a non-Disney hotel is one of the biggest ways to save money. I realize this is not a popular option with some people, but hear me out.

You can stay in a really nice off-site hotel for $100/night or less. Some have free transportation to the parks. There are many time-shares and condos for rent in the area that run $120-$150 a night for a 2-bedroom condo. Think of all the space you will have, and how you can save money if you can prepare some meals in your hotel room.

In 2010, we stayed 8 nights at the Wyndham Bonnet Creek time-share property. It is actually ON Disney property but is a non-Disney resort. It is located right next to Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort, and we could see that from our resort. We shared a 4-bedroom condo with my extended family, and our portion of the room was less than $100 a night. We ate breakfast and dinner in our room because we had a full kitchen.

Wyndham Bonnet Creek Resort

Awesome pools

To get the best deals on off-site properties, try sites like Last Minute Travel or Priceline. For time-shares, it's almost always cheaper to rent points from an owner than to book directly on the resort's website. Check for point rentals on Ebay or with companies like Vacation Strategy and Vacation Upgrades. Read about current hot deals on off-sites properties on travel forums like the DIS.

Keep in mind that if you stay off-site, you may need to add in the cost of a rental car and theme park parking to your budget. 

2.  Go during the off-season

Most hotels and Disney resorts are cheaper during off-season times. For example, a standard room at Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort varies from $182/night to $284/night, depending on the time of year. Some Disney restaurants also have an up-charge during peak seasons, like summer and Christmas.

Riding in the front of the monorail with the driver, back when it was still allowed

3.  Book a value or moderate resort

If you really want to stay at an on-site Disney resort, pick a value or moderate resort instead of a deluxe resort. The difference in price can be huge!

For example, on a random day in Dec 2014, the rates are as follows:

$130/night Pop Century (value resort)
$201/night Caribbean Beach (moderate resort)
$566/night Grand Floridian (deluxe resort)

Value and moderate resorts still come with all the benefits of staying on-site (Magical Express bus from airport, buses to theme parks, Extra Magic hours, etc.) Most moderate resorts have hot tubs, water slides and zero-entry pools.

Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort

4.  Use a travel agent

I said it for a Disney Cruise, and I'll say it again for the parks. Use a travel agent! One that lives and breathes Disney. Here is why:

If you book a Disney resort or vacation package online 6 months in advance, you may think you booked early and got the best price. However, Disney frequently offers discounts and promotions as you get closer to your vacation date. If a discount for your same room comes along, Disney does not automatically apply the new lower rate. A good travel agent will look out for promotions that can apply to your reservation, and automatically adjust your reservation to get the discount.

Examples of discounts include a percentage off your hotel room or a free dining package.

In 2012 when we stayed at the Caribbean Beach for 3 nights before our cruise, our travel agent was able to adjust our price down twice before our vacation!

Breakfast at Chef Mickey's

5.  Reduce your park ticket cost

Park tickets are super expensive! There are not many ways to get a discount on the tickets.

For a slight discount, subscribe to the MouseSavers.com newsletter, which gives a discount at Undercover Tourist. I have done this before, and it's legit. It is not a huge discount, I think it only saved me about the amount of tax on each ticket.

Skip the park-hopper tickets. That saves $60 per ticket. Especially if you have young kids, I think visiting one park a day is enough.

Also, consider going to the parks for fewer days and taking breaks throughout your vacation where you enjoy the pool and other free stuff at your hotel. Your feet will thank you.

The best seat on Main Street U.S.A.

6.  Bring your own food

Eating at Disney World is expensive. Many hotels now have small refrigerators. Consider bringing some food with you from home for breakfast (Nutri-grain bars, granola bars, etc.) The parks allow you to bring in food and drink. Fill a water bottle in the morning and refill it throughout the day in the parks.

If you are not renting a car, you can get groceries delivered to your resort through Garden Grocer or WeGoShop. I used Garden Grocer on a past trip, and we definitely saved money by having those groceries delivered and eating breakfast (and a few dinners) in our room.

Eating at our hotel

7.  Reduce souvenir costs

If you are trying to stick to a budget, the really annoying thing about the Disney parks is that every ride dumps you out into a gift shop. So be prepared!

Add Disney gift cards to your family's birthday and Christmas wish lists. Buy Disney souvenirs at home before you go (from Target, the Dollar Store, etc.) and bring them with you to surprise your kids.

Talk to your kids about a souvenir budget before you go into the parks. Trust me, the merchandise is hard to resist!

Figments from EPCOT

8.  Go with a group

If you have the chance to go to Disney World as part of a convention or group, you can get a drastically reduced rate at the resorts and a discount on park tickets. In fact, if you have a group that requires 10 or more rooms, you qualify for a Disney group rate.

So maybe it's time to organize a family reunion!

I took my 2 sons to Disney World last summer for a big reunion, and we stayed at Wilderness Lodge on a big discount (around 40% off).

Disney's Wilderness Lodge

9.  Eliminate or reduce transportation costs

A Disney World vacation is much cheaper if you don't have to buy airline tickets to get there. If you can't drive in a reasonable amount of time, considering opening a credit card for your favorite airline that goes to Orlando. For my family of 5, Southwest Airlines provides the most flights and flexibility for miles and points travel.

Be flexible with the days you fly. Many times, flights out of Orlando back home are more expensive on Sundays, when everyone is trying to fly back. Search your airline's calendar to find the days with the lowest fares. Many airlines have reduced prices for mid-week travel.

Fun times on the plane

10. Use credit card rewards

Just like with a cruise, you can collect rewards on your credit cards to help reduce the cost of your vacation. Open a Disney Chase credit card and collect dollars to use all around Disney World. Or, open a Barclay Arrival card to offset your hotel expenses. Use any hotel points you have accumulated to stay off-site on your drive to Orlando or for your first night.

What are your top money saving strategies for Disney World???

Thursday, July 17, 2014

5 Reasons Why I Love Southwest Airlines

Last year, I applied for 2 Southwest credit cards. Each card awarded a 50,000 mile bonus after spending $2000 within 3 months. Chase advertises these 50,000 bonus cards as "2 free round-trip tickets" cards, as you can easily get 2 tickets for 50,000 miles (or less). However, I think that Chase and Southwest are totally understating the value of these credit cards. I made the minimum spending on each Southwest credit card and charged our monthly expenses for a year (and paid off the balance very month) and ended up with over 120,000 Southwest Rapid Reward miles. And thus began my love affair with Southwest Airlines.

My family has gotten so much value out of those miles. Here are 5 reasons why I love Southwest Airlines.

1. Companion Pass

Because I earned over 110,000 qualifying miles in one calendar year, Southwest awarded me a companion pass in June 2013 that expires at the end of 2014. I chose my husband as my companion, so he flies for free with me whenever I fly on Southwest. I can fly using cash or miles, and he can still fly with me for free. What a deal!

Before my companion pass expires, my husband will have traveled with me for free on 3 round-trip vacations (twice to Florida and once to New York). His tickets for these trips would have cost us around $700 cash.







2. Low Mileage Rewards

Southwest does not have a standard mileage reward chart like most other airlines. The miles required to redeem for free travel depend on the price of the ticket and the type of fare. The Wanna Get Away fares are the cheapest seats and stretch your Rapid Rewards the farthest. While most domestic airlines (like American, Delta and United) charge 12,500 miles for a one-way ticket within the U.S. (or 25,000 miles round-trip), you can get many Southwest flights for much fewer miles.

For example, I just booked a flight on Southwest from Dallas to Denver for 4819 Rapid Reward miles. The same flight would have cost 12,500 miles or more on most other domestic airlines.

Our upcoming anniversary trip to New York City cost approximately 18,000 Rapid Reward miles round-trip, and that is the cost for my husband and me combined! This trip would have been 50,000 miles or more on American Airlines for 2 round-trip tickets.

My 120,000 Southwest miles have provided us free tickets for 2 different round-trip vacations to Florida (for my entire family of 5!), an anniversary trip to New York City, and a ticket to Colorado for my parents' 50th anniversary. I still have enough miles left over for a one-way ticket to visit a friend in January. Crazy! The tickets to Florida (2 trips) for my family of 5 would have cost 250,000 miles on American or United. In total, we got over $2500 in free tickets from these miles.
Riding to the baggage claim at our favorite airport (Orlando)

3. No Change Fees

Southwest doesn't charge any fees for changing your flight, whether you bought your flight with cash or miles. Most other airlines charge $200 if you have to change or cancel your flight. Southwest also lets you get credit or miles back if your flight goes down in price. You can use the credit toward another flight within a year.

This free change policy has really come in handy for us over the past year. On our first trip to Florida on Southwest miles, I saw that our flights had gone down in points since I originally booked them. I was able to re-book us on miles at the lower price, and the miles I saved were instantly redeposited back into my account.

On our next Florida trip, I changed our return flight twice because we kept changing our minds when we wanted to return. Each time I changed our flight, the price was cheaper and I got points refunded.

Southwest at Dallas Love Field airport

4. No baggage fees

Southwest has no baggage fees for the first 2 bags per person. This is huge, no matter if you are flying on a cash ticket or a miles ticket. We usually bring 3 suitcases for our family of 5, so this saves us about $150 per trip in baggage fees.

Free! All of them.

5. One-way flights

Most airlines allow you to book one-way flights, but on some major airlines the cost is sometimes almost as much as a round-trip ticket. Southwest has reasonable one-way flights and does not require round-trip tickets on cash or points.  I didn't fully appreciate this until I tried to book tickets on Delta Skymiles, which allowed one-way tickets but they cost the same as round-trip tickets!

Inexpensive one-way flights are also convenient if you are running low on miles and you need to book one way with miles and the way back with cash.
One-way to Denver International Airport

I know that Southwest is not the most glamorous airline, and it does not have assigned seating or fancy food. But it is such a good value on miles and points to get from point A to point B. Because of these 120,000 Southwest miles, the cost of flights was taken out of the equation for our vacation budget and we can afford to travel more.

Southwest--do you love it as much as I do?

PS--Southwest is not currently offering the 50,000 bonus cards, but it is likely to offer them again before the end of the year.

PPS--I do not work for Southwest. :)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Vacation Anticipation

We are 80-something days away from our big Disney Fantasy cruise vacation. My youngest keeps asking every day if we are going "tomorrow". My 6-year-old wants to know the exact number of days. We just gotta get through the rest of the summer and our trip will be almost here!

To keep our kids' interest levels and excitement levels in check for our trips, we always do some pre-trip activities. The anticipation of each trip is half the fun! For previous cruise vacations, we have constructed paper cruise ships and practiced snorkeling. 

For this upcoming trip, we did another search at the library for any new books or videos we could check out before our cruise. We had already checked out some books that taught us ship terminology (like port vs. starboard, aft vs. forward, etc.) My oldest son found two chapter books about mysteries on cruise ships.

We also found a video at the library about cruise ship ports that covered our two island destinations, St. Thomas and St. Maarten. The video gave a brief history of each island and covered some of the things you could do there on port excursions. The kids got really excited when they saw all there is to do!

We watch a few YouTube videos each week that show people's vacations on The Fantasy. The kids also like watching our YouTube videos of our previous cruises. This week, Disney Cruise Line released a new promotional video that describes some of the extra activities on board in September and October for Halloween on the High Seas (which was tested last year in a limited way and is being expanded this year):

The video gave me the idea to rent The Nightmare Before Christmas, since I don't think my kids have seen that.

I've been chatting with other adults on our cruise on a private Facebook page. It has been great sharing ideas about port adventures and asking/answering questions about the cruise.

I've been accumulating graphics to make into magnets to stick on our stateroom door:

I'm also busy trying to figure out what we will hand out as gifts for the Fish Extender Exchange, as well as brainstorming on costumes for the costume party and pirate night.

When we get a little closer, we will make and put up the countdown chain.

We're in the home stretch now!

Do you do any fun or educational activities in preparation for a vacation?

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

10 Tips to Save Money on a Disney Cruise

This has to be the single question that I am asked most often: How do you save money on a Disney Cruise?

Because if you pull up the Disney Cruise Line website, and randomly price a cruise for next summer, if you are like me you will have an absolute heart attack upon seeing the price. And then you might write off ever going on a Disney Cruise because of the hideous price tag.

Without a doubt, the price of a Disney Cruise is higher than most other cruise lines. But there ARE some ways to reduce the price significantly and make it (somewhat) affordable.

I've mentioned these methods in previous posts and trip reports, but I think they are worth repeating.

1.  Cruise when school is IN session

Yes, I'll say it. Pull your kids out of school during the school year for a cheaper Disney Cruise. The price of a cruise can be cut almost in half just by cruising during September, October, parts of November, January or February. And it's the same cruise--same entertainment, same food, etc.--but at a much cheaper price than during the summer or other school breaks.

I live in Texas, which supposedly has some of the strictest school attendance laws, and my kids have been able to make up school work while we are on vacation. I take them out for a week once a year. Call your school's principle and discuss the school's policy for make-up work from an unexcused absence. Notify your child's teacher well in advance.

Try to pick a week that has fewer school days due to a teacher work-day or other federal holiday, like Columbus Day or Martin Luther King, Jr. day. 

The time of year you cruise can save you thousands of dollars. This is the single biggest thing you can do to save money on a Disney Cruise.

2.  Book a cruise when DCL first releases the new schedule

Usually, the cheapest fare on a Disney Cruise is available when DCL first releases its new schedule for a subsequent year. DCL has a tiered pricing structure, so when a certain number of cabins are sold at lower prices, the price goes up. Also, lower-category cabins (inside staterooms) tend to sell out more quickly than higher-category cabins (verandah staterooms), so if you wait to book you may be stuck paying for a fancier cabin than you need or want.

When we went on our first Disney Cruise in 2012, we booked very close to when the new schedules were released (booked in November 2010 for a June 2012 cruise). As time ticked closer to our cruise, we noticed the price on the website went up. About 6 months before our cruise, the price was TRIPLE the price we paid for it a year prior.

3.  Book an inside or porthole cabin

Inside cabins and porthole cabins are less expensive than verandah cabins. On a short cruise especially, you won't be in your room that much. Save some money and book a lower category room. The inside rooms on the Dream and Fantasy have virtual portholes with real-time views. On the Wonder and the Magic, you can turn your TV to a station that shows a view from the bridge of the ship.

If you are traveling with a larger party, always check the price of two inside cabins versus a verandah cabin, as sometimes two inside cabins are cheaper.

4.  Use a travel agent

You might be thinking, who needs a travel agent to book a Disney Cruise since I can book it myself online?

Find a travel agent that lives and breathes Disney Cruise Line. A good agent notifies you when DCL is about to release new schedules and destinations, which saves you money by booking early. Many travel agents offer you an on-board credit for booking through them, at no extra cost to you. You can use your on-board credit to pay for tips, souvenirs, drinks or excursions.

If you are new to DCL, a good travel agent helps explain the check-in process and provides other information to make your vacation run smoothly.

I use Tracy at Travel on a Dream.

5.  Book at the last minute

So didn't I just say in point #2 to book as early as possible? Usually, that is the case. But sometimes, DCL offers special rates approximately 30-60 days before sailings. Some of the rates are for military or Florida residents, but others are open to everyone. DCL sometimes offers restricted rates (IGT, OGT and VGT) that are below the current market price, but you cannot pick out your stateroom and you must pay the non-refundable fare upfront. During the off-season, I have seen some of these restricted fares with slightly lower rates than opening-day prices. If you live close to the port and are very flexible with your travel plans, these last-minute rates can be advantageous.

6. Book your next cruise on board

If you book your next Disney Cruise while you are on board, DCL gives you 10% off the current cruise fare, as well as an on-board credit you can combine with your travel agent's on-board credit. For example, if you book another 4-night cruise while you are on-board your first cruise, you get 10% off the rate and a $100 DCL on-board credit. Booking a 7-night cruise gives you a $200 credit from DCL as well as the 10% off and a reduced deposit.

Disney used to allow travelers to book a cruise on-board and keep moving it out to a future date, but unfortunately that is no longer the case. You must sail on your next cruise within 18 months, or you forfeit the on-board booking benefits.

7.  Skip a port

Before our first Disney Cruise, if someone would have told me to skip getting off at a port and just enjoy the ship, I would have thought that person was crazy. But now, after having sailed on 3 cruises, I totally get why that not only saves money, but it makes sense.

On our first cruise, we found we did not have enough time to enjoy all the amenities on the ship. We didn't swim enough and didn't have enough time to participate in many of the other activities. So on our last cruise, we stayed on the ship during the Nassau port stop. We had already visited that port before and had a great time, and we could have easily found another port adventure to try. But instead, we treated the day like another day at sea. It was a glorious day! The pools were not as crowded and we had more time to relax and enjoy the ship. Plus, since we never got off the ship, we saved money on a shore excursion and food on the island.

8.  Bring your own alcohol

Disney is one of the few cruise lines that has a generous alcohol policy that allows you to bring your own alcohol on board. Stop at a store before you board and stock up!

9.  Eliminate or reduce transportation costs

In addition to the cruise rate you see online, you must factor in the travel costs to get to the port. For my family of 5, airfare easily adds $1000 or more to the price of our vacation.

Consider accumulating airline miles for free flights. My switch to the Southwest credit card provided enough miles for my family of 5 to fly to Orlando for two cruises. 

Price out the difference between flying vs. driving, and don't forget about the train on the east coast.

Also, DCL may sail out of a port that is closer to your home that requires less transportation costs. Last year, DCL sailed out of Galveston, which is only a 6-hour drive from our house. DCL is returning to Galveston in 2015.

10.  Use credit card rewards

Many credit cards offer cash-back or other travel rewards you can apply to the price of your cruise. Disney has a credit card from Chase that offers a sign-up bonus (sometimes $200) and cash you can spend on a Disney Cruise.

The Barclay Arrival Mastercard is another great credit card for travelers. It has a $400 sign-up bonus after spending $3000 in 3 months, and gives you 2 points per every dollar spent. If you and your spouse/partner both get this card and charge your normal monthly expenses on it (and pay it off every month), you could easily have over $1000 to apply to your next cruise.

Without a doubt, a Disney Cruise is expensive. Don't write it off as a future vacation until you've tried some of these cost-saving methods.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Hiking in North Texas Part 3: Arbor Hills

Since yesterday was overcast and not too hot in the morning, my family decided to go hiking again to build up our endurance for hiking on a vacation we have planned for early next year. We really want to try Cedar Ridge Preserve, but since we had already been in the car with the kids for 12 hours this week we were not looking forward to another 2 hours in the car. So we decided to hike the paved trails at Arbor Hills Nature Preserve in Plano. (Even though I really don't consider walking paved trails hiking, more like recreational walking).

The parking lot was quite full, and I was surprised to see there was a new parking lot expansion since the last time I was there.

We got out of our car, and my husband took one of my kids to the restroom before we got started. While they were in there, I looked at the park map in front of us. And I was surprised to see the Arbor Hills now has a whole series of un-paved nature trails! I guess it really had been years since I've walked around there. I still remember the observation tower and new paved loop under construction. The online maps still do not show these additional trails, so it was a very pleasant surprise. So we decided to take the Outer Loop trail.

We had to walk on the paved trail for a little while until we got to the turn-off for the Outer Loop trail. The first mile or so was very shaded.

We came across a few benches on the trail:

Best buddies...

...but we had to separate them only minutes later.

The trail went close to a fence and apartment building in the back, and eventually opened up into this meadow. This area had no shade and we became real hot and sweaty.

We saw the observation tower eventually, and decided to alter our path to check out the view.

This was the view:

We then walked the paved path for a while again:

And took another detour on the Old Pond path.

Finally, we made it back to the parking area, with the playground we promised the kids could play at after our hike.

We were all hot and exhausted by this time. We had walked about 2 1/2 miles. My daughter crashed on the sofa after we got home. I think we are going to put our hikes on hold until the fall when the weather is a little cooler.
Arbor Hills Pros:
*  Close to our house
*  Plenty of parking
*  Free!
*  Playground and picnic facilities
*  Paved and unpaved trails
*  No bikes allowed on unpaved trails, there is a separate mountain bike trail

Arbor Hills Cons:
*  Crowded on a Saturday morning
*  The unpaved trails were not labeled nearly as well as at Oak Point. There were a lot of smaller trails that broke off from the main trails that were not labeled, and we had a hard time knowing which way to go.

We will keep Arbor Hills on our hiking rotation for the fall. Have you been there lately?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Texas Road Trip: Victoria

If you know me or read this blog, you may think we only do Disney vacations. But my kids have seen a fair amount of other places, and we try to explore different parts of Texas every year.

Since we have family in Victoria, Texas, we make the 6- to 7-hour road trip there several times each year. My kids love going there!

On our most recent trip there this week, we took the kids to the Children's Discovery Museum. This place is not open during holidays, so we can only go there if we visit over Spring Break or summer. But the kids can keep busy here for hours!

The museum has a costume and puppet selection with a stage where the kids can put on a show.

It also has a giant Lite-Brite.

And a large arts and crafts station, as well as a pretend veterinary hospital, shopping market, playground, milking cow and other Texas-themed stuff.

On this trip, we also visited some places that showcase Texas history. My husband and father-in-law went to the Museum of the Coastal Bend. And all of us made the 30-minute trip to Goliad to see the Presidio La Bahia, a Spanish fort and battle ground built in 1749. I was surprised at how large it is.

I was afraid my kids might find this place boring, but since they could touch the cannons and climb on parts of the fort, they found it interesting.

The visitors' center showed a 15-minute video explaining some of the history of the fort. We also saw a list of the names of men who died in battle here, and found the name of a relative.

Across the road from Presidio La Bahia is Goliad State Park, which has the Mission Espiritu Santu. We did not visit this since it was closed for renovations.

We did visit the famous Fannin Battleground a few miles away.

There was a small museum inside that explained the major events that took place in the area that led to Texas independence. Since I am not a native Texan, I never learned these details in school.

This monument stands where bodies from the battle were found.

On this trip, we also drove 30 minutes to the coast and spent the day at Lighthouse Beach in Port Lavaca.

This beach is a campground and RV park, but it only cost us a total of $3 for a day-pass for our car.

If you have been to beaches in Texas, you probably realize that they do not compare to beaches in Florida or the Caribbean. Texas is not known for its nice beaches. But my kids don't care! They had a blast in the water and on the sand. Since it was cloudy, the water was murkier than usual--we couldn't see ANYTHING in there!
This beach is very shallow for a long ways out.

There is a long boardwalk and bird sanctuary.

And the beach also has a splash park and two playgrounds. Bonus!

When we visit Victoria in December, we always drive 30 minutes to the nearby town of Cuero to see the fabulous Christmas in Cuero light display in the park.

Have you visited Victoria?