How to do “Disney on a Dime” is a pretty popular topic. Posts covering Walt Disney World vacations on a shoe-string budget are great if you don’t mind eating Ramen Noodles on vacation and sleeping with one eye open as you question just how safe your $35/night motel really is. Okay, perhaps that’s a bit of hyperbole, but you get the idea. Traveling as cheaply as possible is great, but who says that you can’t do a Deluxe-level Walt Disney World vacation without breaking the bank? While we do things “on a dime” when it’s necessary, we also like to have nicer vacations, and when we do, we certainly still try to get the best deals possible. After all, the savings from one trip can help fund the next.
In this post we’ll cover how to do a Deluxe-level Walt Disney World trip in as frugal of a manner as possible, but without cutting the corners. With our tips, you should be able to save $2,825 (give or take, depending upon your personal circumstances and preferences).
Let’s start out with a few assumptions. First, this traveling party consists of 2 adults and 2 kids, ages 10 and 12. Even though we don’t have 2 kids (unless you count our cat and dog, which we do…but not for the purposes of this article), we have heard feedback that our other budget articles aren’t realistic for most Disney guests because they aren’t childless twenty-somethings like us. The average family has 2.5 kids; our first act of savings is to leave that half-child behind at home. He probably doesn’t need a vacation anyway. Our second assumption is that the family chef doesn’t want to cook on vacation. Our third assumption is that you’re not foolish enough to pay rack rate in the first place; this article isn’t merely a pointless exercise in taking advantage of discounts anyone is offered when they visit DisneyWorld.com. Our last assumption is that “Deluxe-level vacation” means Deluxe or Deluxe-Villa hotel accommodations and some nice dining here and there, not daily trips to the spa or an hourly VIP tour guide. (Sorry, Manhattan moms! )
As our control, here’s the package we would have booked with Disney: a 6-night, 7-day trip arriving September 22 and departing September 28. We’re staying on a 30% off room discount at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge with a Savanna View room (our fake kids LOVE animals!), 7-day Park Hopper tickets, and the standard Disney Dining Plan. The total cost of this package was quoted to me as $5,222.76 (before applicable taxes/fees). We’re flying out of Indianapolis, and since we want the most vacation time possible, we’re only taking morning flights on the way there and evening flights on the way out. Using ITA Software, we could do these flights at a low roundtrip cost of $288 per person on United. That’s the only transportation cost as we’ll be using Disney transportation the rest of the way. (Our idea of pampering ourselves is not pulling one another’s hair out as we get lost in traffic or backed up trying to park. YMMV.) Souvenir spending is the last thing and is the most difficult to calculate. I’m guessing an average family spends about $100 per person on souvenirs. All of these expenses make the total cost of this vacation $6,774.76.
With that in mind, let’s see how we can save.
Our first area of savings is going to be a big one. We spent $1,152 on airfare from Indianapolis to Orlando flying United at our ideal times. Instead, we’re going to fly Southwest at those same ideal morning and night times. Normally, if we were paying out of pocket, this would spike the airfare cost to $1,490.80. Of course, we’re not looking to spend more on the trip, so we’re not going to pay out of pocket.
Instead, we’re going to open two Southwest Chase credit cards, one personal card and one business card (something as pedestrian as selling on eBay qualifies you for a business card). I probably lost a decent number of you right there, as I know many people have this intense hatred for credit cards. I’m not going down the road of debating whether credit cards are an evil device created to line the pockets of wealthy financial institutions or are great tools that enable you to receive benefits for the money you spend everyday, anyway. All I will say is that since I’ve held my first credit card, I have received tens of thousands of dollars in rewards, and I have never paid a single cent in interest…all without making any Faustian Bargains!
If you refuse to open the cards, fine. I’ll calculate savings at the end with and without the card. If you do open the cards, we highly recommend you will be rewarded with a total of 100,000 miles as a sign-on bonus. Alone, that’s enough to book the airfare, which would cost 81,600 points, plus $30 in security fees.
That’s one option, but what we highly recommend is that you earn another 10,000 points before booking the travel. This is because 110,000 points makes you eligible for a Southwest Companion Pass, which means that whenever the primary traveler flies, their designated companion flies free. Sarah and I have a Southwest Companion Pass, and it makes traveling (especially for the two of us) much more economical. The only problem is that it makes weekend getaways way too tempting, so we fly a decent amount…but that’s not exactly a bad “problem” to have! If you’ve already flown Southwest this year, you may already have enough points. If not, at 1 point for every dollar spent, you’ll need to put $10,000 on the card to earn the pass.
One important thing to note is that the Companion Pass is good for the full calendar year after the year you earn it. That means a Companion Pass earned in December 2013 expires December 31, 2014, but a Companion Pass earned in January 2014 expires December 31, 2015. Plan accordingly.
Either way, you’re only spending $30 on airfare if you open those cards. It’s just a question of how many points you use (and thus have leftover for your next adventure).
So far, $1,122 saved.
At $2,413 for a Savanna View room at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, we got a pretty good deal there. Thanks to the 30% off discount, that works out to just over $400/night for a Deluxe room with one of the most spectacular views any Walt Disney World room offers.
However, as we’ve mentioned before on the blog, renting Disney Vacation Club points is the cheapest way to stay in a Deluxe-level hotel room at Walt Disney World. Off-site, there are even cheaper options, but we want to stay on-site since this is a nice trip, and for the sake of convenience and the Disney on-site perks. We will thus book the room through one of the reputable Disney Vacation Club points rental sites, like DVC Rental Store or David’s Vacation Rentals. For our stay in a Savanna View room, we’ll need 86 points. At a cost of $14 per point, our total for this room will be $1,204. Another option here would be a private person-to-person rental for even more savings, but we’d be wary of this. Go this route if you’re a trusting person and want to save even more, though…
It’s worth noting that at this point, you could add on the Disney Dining Plan for its normal price if you really wanted (in which case you’d simply remove our “Dining Savings” from the total amount of savings to calculate your total savings).
Another $1,209 saved.
If booked through Disney, the tickets would cost $1,565.25 (remember to add tax to Disney’s tickets when pricing this out yourself). We cover a number of ways to save money on tickets in this article. Before we got Annual Passes*, our top choice was always Undercover Tourist, a Disney-authorized ticket seller. This trip doesn’t call for the 10-day “No Expiration” hack we always liked to use, so instead we’ll just go for their 7-day Park Hoppers.
Via Undercover Tourist, those same 7-day tickets would cost $1,427.00 shipped.
Another $138.25 saved.
*Another option here depending upon how much you anticipate spending on table service dining would be for one person to purchase an Annual Pass to make you eligible for the Tables in Wonderland card. This is unlikely to be economical for a trip of this duration, but it might be smart to do the math. If you plan on taking a return trip within the next 365 days, it is likely best for everyone to purchase Annual Passes.
For regular readers of the blog, it should come as no surprise that we’re going to skip the Disney Dining Plan, which would be an added cost since we opted for the room discount. We feel that the Disney Dining Plan “forces” most guests to eat more than they’d normally want, and also “forces” you to have an eye on which menu items are the most expensive if you intend to save money on it. (The popularity of our articles concerning maximizing savings on the Disney Dining Plan are proof of this!) Since savings is our principle concern here, arguments of convenience on or off the Disney Dining Plan are moot.
The cost of the standard Disney Dining Plan for the trip will be $1,334.16, or about $55 per person daily. This is for 6 nights worth of credits; we’ll be eating for parts of 7 days thanks to the early arrival and late departure, but the first and last day combined should only amount to a full day worth of meals, so the 6 nights will be fine.
In all scenarios, everyone is ordering off of the adult menu. Without doing crazy amounts of math here, let’s set the average price of a complete counter service meal at $14 per person. It will be slightly more or less than this depending upon what’s ordered (Expensive entree? Soda? Dessert? All three?), but I think it’s a safe assumption that over the course of a 7-day trip, $14 per person will be about average without trying to save money or trying to spend extra money.
Let’s also set the average price of a complete table service meal at $42 per person after tax but before gratuity (you’re paying that out of pocket on or off the Disney Dining Plan). Depending upon the restaurant and what’s ordered, this could be way low or way high, but we think it’s a good average. We’ll peg snacks at $4 each.
Since this is a “nice” trip, we want to do some table service meals. However, we don’t want to essentially be “restaurant hopping” or perpetually full, so we’re not going to go with the 6 table service meals Disney would have us doing. In our experience, that’s just too much dining and not enough park time. Instead, we’ll compromise and do 4, and fill in the other 2 slots with counter service meals. To keep the comparison simple (and again, since we don’t always want to be full), we’ll do snacks for breakfast.
This means we’ll be paying for 32 counter service meals, 16 table service meals, and 6 snacks out of pocket. The total hypothetical cost for all of this is $1,144. Again, this is very rough math due to extreme fluctuations in menu prices. You could conceivably pay as little as $800 or as much as $1,600. We think $1,144 is the sweet spot for most normal families of 4 who don’t split meals or fixate on menu prices and instead order what they want.
Based on this, another $190.16 saved.
Here’s another spot where you could see big, or not so big, savings. It all depends upon your normal souvenir habits, but we’ll peg the norm at $100 per person, making the normal total $400. Our advice is to not buy any souvenirs. Your memories are the best souvenirs of all, and preserving those is where you should allocate all of your souvenir budget. This doesn’t make this any less of a “Deluxe” vacation–it makes it a sensible one.
For this reason, we are going to allocate $175 towards souvenirs. That’s roughly the cost of PhotoPass+ and a photobook from Shutterfly after one of their almost-perpetual sales. Now, we don’t actually recommend that everyone buy PhotoPass+, but that’s the rationale for the allocation. We far prefer handing off our cameras to the PhotoPass photographers and having them take photos of us for free. We do recommend PhotoPass+ to some people, though.
If you don’t purchase PhotoPass+ or you just can’t fathom not buying your kids anything on vacation, we recommend reallocating that budget to buying Disney pins for trading in advance on Amazon for significant savings or buying clearance merchandise from DisneyStore.com and giving those things to them while you’re there. Whatever you do, try to avoid paying the asinine merchandise prices Disney charges in its on property stores. It took us a while to learn this lesson, and now we only buy souvenirs for special events and anniversaries, or when traveling to a new place.
In an ideal world, you’re spending only the cost of a photobook from Shutterfly (about $25) on souvenirs. Your mileage may vary on this one based on actual preferences, but if you’re spending an upwards of $500 of souvenirs during a 7-day trip to Walt Disney World, you’re doing something wrong.
Here we saved at least $225.
As you’ll recall, the total cost of our normal, “take the discount Disney hands you” vacation was $6,774.76. That number is a bit rough and probably is a little low because it doesn’t include all taxes and fees, but it’s close enough, so we’ll go with it.
Now, it’s time to add up the cost of the same Deluxe trip, with our money-saving hacks applied:
Airfare: $0 (or $1,152 without the free airfare via credit cards)
Grand Total: $3,950 (or $5,102 without the free airfare)
This is a savings of at least $1,500 on the conservative end and as much as $2,825! In fact, you could save even more if you follow some of our more “extreme” advice, but the more of that you follow, the more you get away from this being a “Deluxe” Walt Disney World vacation. While this is still an expensive trip (more than twice what we normally spend!), you’re saving more this way than you ever would by taking advantage of one of Disney’s offers (even the popular “Free Dining”). In the end, the point is that you can be frugal and still take a great Walt Disney World vacation…and those savings will just help make that next vacation happen a little sooner!
For Walt Disney World trip planning tips and comprehensive advice, make sure to read our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide and related articles.
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What do you think of our plan? Would your family save more money with this, or would it be impossible for you to follow? Do you have other “hacks” for saving money while still taking a “Deluxe” Walt Disney World vacation? Share your thoughts in the comments!