Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Planning a great Disneyland trip on a budget: the travel

Do you ever feel like you're sitting on a really great secret, unknown to most?  Did you know that there's a secret bathroom at Disneyland?  I do, I've been and I'm not telling.

The words/phrase Disneyland vacation and budget are not often used in the same sentence.  But it can be done.  I'm about to reveal in one short blog (okay this may take several pages, not really short) what it took my family several years to cobble together -- less expensive travel, landing budget-wise accommodations, saving on park tickets, and cheap to moderate priced meals.

Before we make any serious plans, we decide on a budget, based on how long till our intended trip and how much we can realistically save each month.  We typically start thinking about a trip about 1 year in advance.  That gives us about 12 months to save.  The trip then becomes a line item in our budget, putting away a specific amount each and every month.  It does need to be a realistic amount.

Now that you have a dollar figure in mind for the whole trip, how do you want to travel to Anaheim?  Your mode of travel should be the first thing you decide on.  If you're going to fly, you'll want to snag a good airfare as your first priority.  If by car, you should get an idea of what it'll cost, so that can go into your trip budget.   There are few really great deals on airfare, but many choices for budget accommodations.  Your Disney tickets will be expensive either way.  We'll get to ways to save some on those.  And meals can be done either with extravagance or cheap and cheerful.  So, how to get there.

By car--
We live in the Seattle area. It's about a 24 hour drive in total. We do it in 2 days, stopping in Red Bluff or Redding each way, for an overnight in a cheap motel. We find the motel online. Days Inn in Red Bluff is a favorite because it's near the on/off ramp to I-5, as well as a gas station, plus a free, but limited breakfast to get us started early the next morning. We bring a couple of sleeping bags if our internet booking doesn't have enough beds for all 5 of us. As we pull off I-5 and into Red Bluff we get gas for the next day and pull through a drive-thru for a taco dinner in the room.  Once we're checked in to the room, we want to be all set for the next day's drive to get up and out early.

Even with the high price of gas and an overnight in a motel both ways, we can do the drive for $500 or less, a bargain when inexpensive airfares are unavailable. To figure your cost to drive, google travel calculator to get a mileage estimate from your house to Anaheim, then multiply by your gas cost per gallon, inflating by about 10% (gas along rural stretches of highway will likely cost you more; where else will you go for gas? they've got you, so you pay more).  Our gas here in western Washington is close in price to California's, but in Utah, Arizona and Nevada, gas is often cheaper--so if that's where you're coming from, fill-er-up before you leave.  Now to add to your gas cost -- will you break the drive up into 2 or more days, or drive straight?  If you'll stop for a night's rest at a motel, go online and do a brief search for motels along the way.  I say brief search, cuz you're just getting an estimate of your travel costs at this point.

There are some advantages and disadvantages to driving vs. flying. We'll get to that in a bit.

Now compare the cost to drive with the cheapest airfares you can find.  The time of year that you're planning this trip for will determine just how good a deal you will find.  The best airfares we've found are the weeks following the Christmas/New Year's holidays, up until mid February.  But there are also good deals spotted throughout Spring (avoid holiday periods and you should find them) and after school starts again in the fall.  Most people have just finished up their traveling for a while right after Christmas, the end of spring break, and the end of the summer break.  They're not looking to travel again so soon.

The days of the week that you fly will also either give you a break or break the bank on your airfare. Fly on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday morning, or Saturday for the best fares.

Years ago I read that airlines begin adding in the budget seats for each flight about 4 months in advance of the flight.  I have found this to be roughly true.  They sell only a handful of seats at their rock bottom price.  So I check the airfares right away to get an idea of what the cheap seats are currently going for, then as we get near to the 4 month mark, I check daily.  Sometimes these seats are listed as Hot Deals, sometimes Best Deals.  Sign up with several airlines sites to be notified of special fares.  When Southwest has a deal going, for example, the seats sell out fast.  It pays to be the one in the know.  I have also heard that airlines post these new fares midweek.  So checking Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, early in the day, could pay off.

Another good place to "hear" about deals are the many Disney-related message boards.  My favorite is mousepad@mouseplanet.com.  The online community there is very generous with sharing tips on available deals.  When an airline has a fare deal, it hits the news board quickly.  Mousepad is also a great resource for getting reviews on local hotels and motels.

Choosing which airport can save you money, too.  The closest airport is SNA, or also known as the John Wayne Airport.  It's about a 25 minute cab ride from there to Disneyland.  But it is sometimes the most expensive to fly in and out of.  Not too much farther is the LGB or the Long Beach Municipal airport.  Both Alaska and Jet Blue fly in/out of LGB.  It's about a 30-35 minute cab ride to Disney, and often much cheaper than SNA.  If you don't mind the longer drive to/from the airport, there's LAX.  You can rent a car or take a shuttle.  It'll take about 1 to 1 1/2 hours depending on traffic and if the shuttle has other stops to make.  But with LAX you'll have more available flights and often cheaper too.  There are also Burbank and Ontario airports.  I believe that they are roughly the same distance or a bit more than LAX.  I've never flown into either.  But you can find reviews from people who have by searching a site like Mousepad.

If flying is your priority, then book your seats as soon as you find that super low price.  Now with your travel set, you have a definite date for your trip and you can begin to plan your accommodations, meals and fun.

Flying vs. driving.
There are advantages/disadvantages to both.

Flying--Disadvantages--It's more expensive the more people you have in your group.  Once you get there, you still need some sort of wheels to get to the hotel and around town.  You can only take a limited amount of stuff with you for free.  Some airlines still allow a checked bag or two for free, but many now charge.  Because of the ban on bringing liquids on board, you can no longer pack liquid-y type foods in your carry-ons.  Years ago, before the ban, we packed an entire duffel full of groceries.  We had peanut butter, a carton of soy milk, a couple of six-packs of soda, lunch meat and hot dogs that we'd kept in our freezer until our departure (so they were still cold upon arriving at the motel), along with some dry groceries.  This meant that we didn't need to make a run to a grocery store once we got there, but were well-stocked for our trip.  Of course, you need a room with a fridge for much of this.  You'll need to add in the cost of transportation to/from the airport (will you take a shuttle, drive your own car and park, take public transportation?) and to/from the Disney area.

Flying--Advantages--Time, time is money for many of us.  Sometimes, time is good grades in school for our kids.  We don't want to miss more work than necessary and we don't want our kids to miss more school than they can easily make-up.  And time spent on a long car ride leaves our family a bit tired for those first couple of days.  So for us, the big advantage is saving time.  Also, if you can score a great deal on airfare, or if there are only a couple of you traveling, then flying may actually be the cheaper route.  If your car is not in great shape, that's a consideration too.  (However, I knew a family years ago that would rent a car just for trips, so they could drive and have a decent running car for the trip.)

Driving--Disadvantages--Time, it takes longer to drive, depending on where you live.  Fatigue from the long drive is definitely a disA.  I once read an account of a family who had driven.  They pulled up to their motel in their mini-van, opened the side door and empty chip bags, a donut box and soda cups spilled out along with their disheveled kids.  They looked over to their right to see a smartly dressed family, with their matching luggage, step merrily out of the airport shuttle and skip on into the motel lobby to check in.  We've been on both sides.  Fatigue may be a factor to consider.  Cost, it may actually cost you more to drive.  It costs nearly the same for a car with just the driver to go a long distance as it does to pack the car full of people.  So if it's just you or just you and one other, it may be cheaper to fly.  Also, you may have miles you could use on airfare, making a flight cheap or almost free.  Also, there is one more cost to factor in when driving (or if you rent a car while there).  Many of the hotels/motels charge for parking, anywhere from $8 to $15 a night.  So, if you have a car with you, add on that extra bit per night to your nightly rate.

Driving--Advantages--Money, if you have the time to spare and your car is in good running order and you're taking the whole family, you will save money by driving.  You'll save $$ just getting there.  You won't have to pay to park your car at the airport.  You won't have to pay for a taxi or shuttle to get to the Disney area, and you'll have a car to make a run to the store to stock up on lunch and snack stuff.  You'll be able to haul a bunch of stuff with you.  If you find a great deal on snack items and soda pop at your home stores, then you can pack that stuff up with you.  You can load the trunk with enough clothing to get through your entire stay, and therefore not need to do a load or two of laundry while on vacation.  You can pack a sleeping bag and air mattress, if some family members don't like to share beds.  If you have very small children, you can pack all the stuff that makes life easier, like the pack and play and the full-sized stroller (you can rent a stroller in Disney parks, but that adds to the cost of your trip).  And a big advantage, your trip can be about more than just the one destination.  You can make stops along the way to see the sights between your hometown and Disneyland.

All that said, if it's within our budget, we prefer to fly.  I just try to get the best possible deal on airfare, and we make concessions in our budget on other areas, like the hotel.  Where to stay, that's for next time.

*note*if driving, see this post Quick calculating your road trip gas cost from May 3, for info on estimating gas costs, as well as which towns and stations for cheapest gas along the way

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