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How we did our California Vacation on a Budget (across the country)

Flight

In June of this year planning commenced on a 6 day fall vacation.  We had initially planned to fly from Louisville, KY to Orlando, FL, but Southwest had a special sale for flights into San Diego for the same price.  Since we had never been to California we decided that a California Vacation would be the best choice for us.  I purchased the plane tickets using points earned from signing up for Southwest Airlines.  I booked a flight for daughter and me, which cost about 36,000 points total.  At the time of booking I had only earned 105,000 Southwest points and had not yet earned my “Companion Pass“.  Once I earned the additional 5,000 points to reach 110,000 I earned my companion pass and simply clicked on my flight to “Add a Companion”.  At this point my wife was added to the itinerary.  Total out of pocket for our cross country flight was $15 round trip.

Car Rental

I knew we would need a car to get around California.  I wanted to rent a vehicle that would be big enough to accommodate our car seats and luggage.  With these options in mind we decided to get an SUV, although my wife was really pushing for a convertible.  I searched online coupon codes and used CarRentalSavers.com .  I found this website to be the best because it included the best coupon codes.  I looked at many different sites and found this one to be at least $30 cheaper for the week. Other sites may have been comparable or even cheaper if we had a normal rental, but ours was one way.  This meant we picked up the car in San Diego and dropped off our car in Santa Ana as we flew out of John Wayne Airport.  The car included unlimited miles and was a very nice car.  We had no trouble at Alamo and even used the kiosk when picking up the car, which allowed us to forgo getting hassled about all of the extra insurance and other upsells.

Lodging

IMG_6042First Hotel 

Obviously we needed to find a place to stay each night of the trip.  Since we were staying 3 days in San Diego, 1 day in Anaheim, 1 day in LA and 1 night near our departing airport a condo or house were out of the question.  Finding an area in San Diego for our home base was not a problem at all.  We stayed near La Jolla and Torrey Pines as it provided better prices, access to La Jolla and was only a 20 minuted drive back to San DIego Zoo.  We knew we needed a hotel close to Disneyland in Anaheim so that was not much of a problem either.  Our day in LA proved to be a bit more difficult because the city is so big and traffic is not great to drive through.  I ended up booking a place that was vouched for by my cousin.  It was near Burbank, supposedly close to Universal Studios, but actually ended up closer to North Hollywood.  The last night we stayed in Huntington Beach which was a quick 15 minute drive back to the airport.

IMG_6696View from Country Inn Room

We stayed at a Country Inn and Suites in San Diego which I highly recommend.  It was in a beautiful location with a nice view of the mountains out our window every morning.  They also had an excellent breakfast which really worked well to save us money on food as one meal was included in the price of our stay.  Most travel blogs emphasize staying in really expensive hotels.  One of my problems with sites such as Priceline is that their rating system puts no value on free breakfast.  I strongly disagree with this valuation because if we were to go out for breakfast and get eggs, waffles, sausage, juice, yogurt and milk it would end up costing us at least $20.  Sure we could go to a fast food place and the 4 of us could eat for less, but it would be far less substantial.  We ate breakfast in our hotel 5 out of 6 days.  The last day we had to be at the airport before breakfast was served.  We ended up buying breakfast at Carl’s Jr. and it cost $9 and that was just for my wife and daughter.  My daughter was complaining that she was hungry 2 hours later.

In Anaheim, our hotel was literally across the street from Disneyland.  Probably 5 blocks if we walked, but since our Disneyland tickets included parking we just drove to the lot.  This ended up being a great idea since by 11:00 PM Pacific Time both kids were passed out.  Which would have made the extra 5 blocks perilous.  I booked our room through getaroom.com which advertised a rate $20 less than booking through the hotel itself.  Unfortunately they add taxes and unnamed fees which put the total at only $2 less than booking directly with the hotel.  I did book through TopCashBack.com which earned me 10% cashback on the stay, which was pretty nice.  The hotel was the Best Western Plus Stovall Inn, which had very nice updated rooms, but they also charged $10 for parking.  The breakfast there was acceptable, but there were so many people that the staff couldn’t really keep up even with the large dining area.

Best Western Stovall's INN Pool Area

Our 5th night was spent in a Comfort Inn near Universal Studios.  The area was in North Hollywood, which is a bit grittier than we would like.  My daughter looked out the window of our room and asked, “Why would they build a hotel here with this terrible view?”  The view out the window was a local mechanic shop, so we did have an excellent view of oil changes.  This room was also recently updated and seemed clean.  It’s not exactly a hotel I would rave about, but for the price and a place to sleep it was okay.  The breakfast area was very nice and clean.  They had cheese omelets, juice, sausage and typical hotel breakfast items.

Our 6th night took us back south to another Comfort Inn in Huntington Beach about 10 miles from the airport.  It was updated, nice and looked (and smelled) very clean on arrival.  The area is also very nice just a few miles from the ocean.

Activities

Many of the activities that we did on the trip were very low cost or even free.  Walking along La Jolla in San Diego was not only free, but it was among our favorite parts of the trip.  The seals on the beach were amazing to see and the views were breathtaking.

IMG_6124

The San Diego Zoo is how Disney would do a zoo.  I know, you are thinking, Disney basically did a zoo, it’s called Animal Kingdom.  Having been to both the San Diego Zoo and Animal Kingdom I believe San Diego Zoo is superior.  That being said, I’m sure that Animal Kingdom will be pretty great in their 97th year as well.  There was something to see every step of the zoo.  Whether it was an animal exhibit or just the assortment of botanicals.  If you enjoy zoos it is definitely worth seeing.

We also visited Torrey Pines State Reserve which offers a beach and beautiful overlooks.  We paid $15 for parking and that was it.  The only problem is for some reason the restrooms and water were all turned off.  This is problematic when you play in the ashy sands of the Pacific and need to get back into your car.

 

We decided to go to Disneyland on Tuesday for “Mickey’s Halloween Party”, it’s a special event that is ticketed separately from the rest of the park.  Disneyland closed on Tuesday at 6PM and Mickey’s Halloween Party took place from 6-11, but you could enter at 3.  We arrived at the park at 3 and enjoyed it immensely.  Instead of the normal price of admission Mickey’s Halloween Party only costs $59 per person.  They only sell a certain amount of tickets, you can trick or treat throughout the park and most attractions are still open.  There were characters out in full force even when we were leaving.  More things for guests to do means that any one line will be shorter.

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In LA we went to the Getty Center, which is fantastic.  It’s a billion dollar art museum that opened in 1997.  The museum was free which I did not know going into it.  Parking is $15, but that is definitely a bargain price even if you were going by yourself.  It’s not exactly the most entertaining for small children as it is not a hands on science museum.  If my wife and I had gone alone we could have spent nearly the entire day touring the massive collections, but with our kids a few hours was ample.  Just seeing the building itself was worth it to me.

We went to Hollywood to check out the sights and typical tourist type things.  We paid $7 to park at the Hollywood and Highlands Center.  It is a very ornate shopping center built around its view of “The Hollywood Sign”.  My daughter wanted to see Hollywood, hoping she would be discovered.  She looked at the sign for about 30 seconds and said, “cooool” then was ready to see the next thing.  We followed the Hollywood walk of fame.  Saw that TCL Chinese Theater and had fun comparing our hands to the stars.  My daughter was a bit disappointed because she wanted to have her footprints and handprints immortalized in the cement, but alas that will have to wait.  I guess seeing Hollywood is worth the $7 parking charge, but otherwise the experience was ruined by the vendors, celebrity impersonators and people in cheap costumes hoping to hustle tourists out of money.

Huntington Beach was a nice way to end our trip watching the sunset over the Pacific Ocean.  They charged $15 for parking, but only $13.50 if you used a credit card.  Since I was going to use a card anyway this worked out perfectly.  The beach was huge over 100 yard from the parking lot to the ocean.  We were also basically alone on the beach which was nice for pictures.

Food

One way we save money on a trip is to minimize our food costs. When we arrived in California we were expected to be absolutely blown away by the prices for food.  I fully expected that if I went into a Subway asking for a $5 footlong they would oblige me with, “Okay sir, that’s one $5 footlong, that will be $28.75.”  This was not even close to reality.  The first night we went to a nice Mexican restaurant that was having huge frozen Margaritas, 5 flavors to choose from for $3 each.  We ordered a margarita, beef nachos, pepsi, and 10 tacos and paid $19 plus a $6 tip.  $25 is cheaper than we eat at the Mexican restaurants in Kentucky.

We try to eat breakfast in our hotel which saves an immense amount of money.  If we had stayed in a condo or rented a house we would have tried to prepare meals at home which would provide huge savings.  Ultimately though, my wife and I value food in much the same way.  I fell like food only gets so good.  Meaning that a $100 meal is not 4 times better than a $25 meal.  We have gone out to very expensive restaurants, but usually feel that they could not live up to expectations.  We might splurge for a meal or two on vacation, but for the most part we try to keep our spending in line with what we spend on food normally.

Total Spent

Flight (3 paid tickets and 1 lap child)                               $30

SUV Rental                                                                      $287

Gas                                                                                  $86.37

Travel Total                                                                  $403.37                                 AVG. $67.23 per day

Food Total                                                                    $166.40                                 AVG. $27.73 per day

San Diego Zoo (2 adults, drink, child free October)     $116.30

Disneyland (3 tickets)                                                   $177

Getty Center                                                                  $15

Torrey Pines                                                                  $15

Hollywood                                                                       $7

Huntington Beach                                                          $13.50

Total Activities                                                             $343.80             AVG.  $57.30 per day

Country Inn & Suites (3 nights)                                      $236.40          The best hotel we stayed in, great staff, great pool, great breakfast.  (78.80 per night using discount, normally $105 +tax)

Best Western Stovall’s Inn (1 night)                              $133.43           Paid for the area near Disney.  Nice Rooms, Awesome pool and topiary area, Adequate Breakfast.  ($10 parking, worst value)

Comfort Inn Universal Area                                            $110.88           Nice room, good breakfast, terrible parking lot, not a very nice area

Comfort Inn Huntington Beach                                       $61.94            Great room, very clean, did not eat breakfast (left too early).  Best value.

Total Lodging                                                                $542.65              AVG.  $90.44 per day

Total Miscellaneous                                                     $66                     AVG.  $11 per day

Trip Total                                                                        $1,522.22          AVG.  $253.70 per day

We could have done the trip for cheaper, but we would have sacrificed some things.  We could have gotten a smaller car and saved a hundred dollars or so.  Driving less miles or having a fuel efficient vehicle could have saved gas.  We could have saved more money by only buying tickets at the zoo ($88), but I am not going to avoid spending at the cost of fun.  We had also budgeted to go to Sea World, but we were enjoying San Diego too much to sacrifice a day doing that.  All around there’s not too much I would change.  Although the Best Western and Comfort Inn were both pricier than I would like and neither was as good as the Country Inn and Suites or the Comfort Inn in Huntington Beach, both about half the price of the Best Western.

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Walt Disney World on a Budget – Dining – Part 4

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We have taken care of the major expenses involved in planning a trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.  We have paid for transportation, theme park tickets and Lodging.  If we plan carefully, those will be our major expenses, but regardless we will still need to put food in our bellies.

In many ways the food portion of the budget does not need to even be accounted for in the same way.  Whether you are sitting at home or visiting the most magical place on Earth you will need to eat.  In fact, I would argue that a family could eat just as inexpensively in Orlando as they could in their hometown.  Every budget is different and everyone shares different values.  Some people think that since they are on vacation they should be spending hundreds of dollars per meal.  Other families think that since they outlayed all of the money for the trip that they do not have another dime to spare.  I feel like there is probably a happy medium to be found.  As a family you just need to set up how you value your time.

Dining Plan

If you are staying on site anyway, be on the lookout for free dining plan option.  This rolls the prices together and really allows a family to make every meal an event.  Unfortunately the dining plan is only included in the price a couple times per year.  Purchased separately I do not find the Dining Plan to be an exceptional value.  Probably because I would not normally eat every meal at a Disney Dining establishment.  Therefore the real savings to me would be much less.  I would rather eat inexpensive meals the majority of the trip and splurge on a couple occasions.

Food in the Parks

The most important thing that everyone should be aware of is that you are allowed to bring in your own food and drinks into the parks!  You could even pack some cans of soda and get a free cup of ice at any concession stand throughout the park.  It’s pretty easy to make a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, toss in some granola bars and be on your way.  We bought a big thermal bag at Sam’s Club prior to our trip.  In the morning we would wake up, put some frozen water bottles in the cooler with our snacks and be on our way.  It’s hard to beat the low cost of packing your own lunch.

Having said that, there are times when a splurge is quite nice.  We were able to go to Cinderella’s Royal Table when we visited and thought it was amazing!  Next time we go back we will probably do that again or visit Belle and eat there.

When we went to Hollywood Studios we stopped at Pizza Planet for an afternoon snack.  One great tip is to order a kid’s meal with pepperoni pizza instead of cheese.  This is not even on the menu, but when they substitute the pepperoni for cheese they also give an adult size pizza.  The kid’s meal includes a drink and a cookie yet costs less than the adult pepperoni pizza.  It’s definitely a win.

Bring Your Own Food

Walt Disney World allows you to bring in outside food and beverages.  We bought a fashionable cooler bag and froze bottles of water.  We then packed in extra snacks and Cokes.  You can get a cup of ice at any concession stand and then have an ice cold beverage.

Conclusion

I believe that absent a great deal for the dining plan the best method is to pick and choose meal options.  Eat breakfast in the hotel for free, pack a lunch, pick up some fast food and a few nights do something special.

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Walt Disney World on a Budget – Saving Money (Tickets) (Part 3)

Save Money at Walt Disney World

Save Money at Walt Disney World

 

Finding a place to stay and determining the best method of travel is only the beginning of the expense for a trip to Walt Disney World.  If you were just wanting to drive to Orlando, Florida and stay in a hotel the total outlay for such a trip would be quite low.  Unlike other Florida vacations, where your family relaxes carelessly (and cheaply) on the beach, you will find no beaches in Orlando.  This is where careful planning might pay off.

The last time I took a trip to Walt Disney World was in 2011.  We had actually thought about visiting Walt Disney World and Universal Studios.  I actually love Universal Studios and find it to be very fun.  However, due to the pricing structures of bothe Walt Disney World and Universal Studios the economics of visiting both parks is difficult to make work.  Both companies charge more for a single day ticket than they do for a multi-day ticket (on a per day basis). From a business perspective it’s a fantastic choice, but for a family wanting to enjoy both parks it can work be difficult to accomodate.  A 1 day ticket to WDW is $95 per adult and $88 per child 3-9.  A 7 day ticket, by comparison is $302 and $282, which breaks down to $43 and $40 per day.  Let’s imagine that on day 8 you wanted to go to Universal Studios for this extra day you would pay about $90 per adult and $85 per child.  Alternatively, you could spend your 8th day at a Disney Park again for an extra 10 bucks per person.  This really complicates the vacation math and in my case made us stay with Walt Disney World for the duration of our 6 day trip.

Ticket Inflation

When you are trying to vacation on a budget, the last thing you want to hear is for someone to recommend you buy in advance of your journey.  In 2011 2 adult tickets for 6 days were $242 each for my wife and me.  This same ticket in 2013 would cost me $296 through Disney.  This is a 18% increase in 2 years!  So one surefire way to save money on your tickets is to buy them early!  When’s the best time to plant a tree?  20 years ago.  When’s the best time to buy a ticket to Walt Disney World?  20 years ago.  If you cannot swing buying them years early definitely buy them before the yearly price increases.

Cheapest Tickets

When purchasing tickets outright the best company that I found was Undercover Tourist.  In 2011 their price was better after tax than Walt Disney World tickets were priced at before tax.  Remember that Undercover Tourist shows total price you pay while the Walt Disney World website just throws the tax in at the end.

Ticket Discounts

Although I purchased my tickets from Undercover Tourist in 2011 I do not know if they are truly the best choice today if you are willing to take a little extra time.  I used the ticket comparison calculator for 2 adults and 2 children on a 6 day ticket the total from Undercover Tourist would be $1,103 while the price through Disneyworld.com is $1,145.  Certainly Undercover Tourist is $42 cheaper which makes them 3.67% cheaper.  If you just want to buy tickets quickly, this is a good bet.

However, if you time your purchase right you can save more than this by paying with a gift card.  Sign up for an American Express Blue Cash Preferred (special offer through card match tool)which gives a $250 sign-up bonus 6% cashback at grocery stores and 0% interest for 15 months ($75 annual fee).  Let’s assume you only get this card for your Disney trip and that’s it.  At my local Kroger they offer an incentive of 2x fuel reward points on any gift card purchase.  During certain times of year they offer 4x fuel reward points on any gift card purchase.  What does that mean?  Every 100 points earned is good for 10 cents off per gallon.  I went to Kroger when they offered 4x fuel reward points and used my American Express card to buy gift cards to pay for Walt Disney World.  The price is $1,145 which will earn me $68.70 cashback and 4,580 fuel reward points.  The rule for gas points is you can redeem up to 1,000 points for $1.00 off 35 gallons of gas.  Purchasing tickets with this method would earn $68.70 (6% cashback) +$250 (sign up bonus) – $75 (annual fee) + $157.50 (gas savings) = $401.20 in total savings on a family of four.  That works out to 35% off which is better than the 3% off offered by Undercover Tourist.  Plus, the 0% interest means you can pay your card off slowly like a nice savings account.  If you really want to amp up the savings take all of your gas with you on the trip and you will be filling up on $1 off gas!  I would not condone, recommend or try this trick myself, you would be saving cash on gas.

Ticket Choices

I have read other advice in the past and have heard many people suggest that people buy Park Hopper,  No-Expiration and other more expensive tickets.  I found the incremental cost to purchase these tickets were not cost effective.  This just goes to show that there are no right answers if two people will recommend opposite things.  As adamant as I am to not get the Park Hopper option, other people suggest it’s “a must”.  I believe Disney is expensive enough and there is enough to do without worrying about such an option.  For instance, if you go to Magic Kingdom, you can leave in the middle of the day and go back to Magic Kingdom.  With a little extra planning you can easily get by without the Park Hopper.

Park Options

Just as opinions vary on what upgrade options should be added to your ticket there are many strong opinions on which parks to see.  I find Epcot to be quite boring when compared to the excitement of Magic Kingdom.  I believe that Animal Kingdom has promise, but currently there’s not enough to do in the park.  That being said, I have had people come up to me and say “Animal Kingdom is so great!” or “I could spend the whole week at Epcot”.  I think that spending a week in Orlando and wasting every day at Epcot would be a punishment.

When my family went we had 6 days.  We went to Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios twice and Epcot and Animal Kingdom once each.  I used touringplans.com and undercovertourist.com to plan my trip.  I actually made a spreadsheet and evaluated each day based on expected crowd levels.  I also looked at the calendar to be certain that we were in attendance during “must see” events.  We went to Hollywood Studios on at least one day when Fantasmic was showing.  Without good preparation we could have easily just gone to the park and not known what we missed.

 

 

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Going to Walt Disney World on a Budget (Part 1)

Walt Disney World

 

In February of 2011 my wife and I started discussing taking a trip to Walt Disney World.  This trip would be the third trip for me and the first for my wife and daughter. Our goal was to have a quality vacation while going to Disney World on a budget.  A trip to Disney World will never be cheap, but there are ways to incorporate more value into the proposition.   Initially our interest was sparked by low priced fares to Orlando, but eventually we decided that we had better options.  The biggest part of saving money is taking the time and energy to slow down before making financial decisions.  Spending $350 to fly 3 people to Disney World seems like the obvious best choice.  Then we needed to evaluate all other expenses that exist based on the flight.  In order to get the discounted pricing we had to fly into Orlando’s Sanford Airport which is located further form Disney World, thus requiring transportation.  If we flew we would need to either take a shuttle or rent a car in order to move around the world.

Ultimately, we chose to extend our existing June road trip to Panama City Beach.  In total, this would be an 1,800 mile round trip, compared to 1,200 miles to simply drive to Panama City Beach.  We decided that the extra 600 miles driving would be the more affordable option.  We stopped on the way down and visited my cousin which really worked out well.  With this option we drove our own car, packed everything we needed and spent a little more than $100 in gas.

The most important part of the transportation aspect is figuring out how much each decision is costing you on your trip.  Even if the cost of flying and driving was exactly the same there are other factors that must be considered when making a decision.  Bags may cost extra on some airlines, but as long as your automobile is big enough you can pack whatever you want.  No need to rent a car or rely on shuttles.  One warning about relying on shuttles if you are staying off property at Disney World be sure to check the shuttle schedule.  We had considered taking a shuttle to the Disney Parks every day, but it turns out that the shuttles only run at about 4 am and noon.  So you either need to be the kind of person that arrives at the park super early or super late.  I love to get to the park before it opens, but during our time there I did not find it necessary to arrive too early.

Although we loved driving and found it very convenient for us  especially when we arrived we are still evaluating our options.  Just to drive from our house to Walt Disney World is 1,700 miles round trip.  If we get 17 miles per gallon in the SUV, that works out to 100 gallons of gas or between $350 and $400.  The most interesting way that I am considering for our next Disney trip is to fly Southwest.  They offer flights for about $220 per ticket, which is $660 for the 3 tickets we would need.    Another way to do this is by using Southwest Rapid Rewards for 13,600 points per ticket, which is 40,800 points for the 3 tickets we would need.  Unfortunately for me I have not flown in years, my wife and daughter have never flown.  How would such a limited traveler even consider using frequent flyer miles?  This is where using a credit card bonus comes in handy.  I signed up for a Southwest Airlines card from Chase with a Bonus of 50,000 points!  This means by simply applying for a card my family will be able to take a trip to Walt Disney World.  Sounds like a pretty great trade.

Even if we fly for free we will need to make arrangements.  We will need to rent a car making sure to use a shopping portal and searching for any promo codes.  An inexpensive car can be found for the week and cost less than driving to Orlando.  Another great method is if you stay at a Disney Hotel you get free transportation from the airport.  This includes picking up your bags and delivering them to your room for you!

In Part 2 of Disney on a Budget I will evaluate how we decided on our lodging in 2011 and the ways in which we might change our methods going forward.  Should we stay at the park or out of the world?  Should I buy the dining plan option?

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