Airfare can be the most expensive part of a Walt Disney World vacation. In this post, we offer money-saving tips for finding cheap flights to Orlando, along with what you need to know about flying to Walt Disney World. We have a lot of experience in this regard, having flown dozens of flights to Florida in the last few years, and spending a lot of effort ‘hacking’ airfare wherever we go in order to save money.
Finding the ‘best’ flights to Walt Disney World has become more and more difficult in the last several years. Not only do you have rising airfare costs, but also airlines engaged in a race to the bottom, trying to find new revenue streams that amount to nickel and dime customers as they charge extra for everything from checked bags to in-flight refreshments. (Coming in 2020: pay-to-use toilets on Frontier! 😉 )
When planning flights for your Walt Disney World vacation, the first thing you need to figure out is which airport to fly into: Orlando International Airport (MCO) or Orlando Sanford International (SFB). One ‘flight hack’ we’ve seen others share is to check Sanford for cheaper flights. To us, this is a complete and utter waste of time…
If you’re into misery, perhaps a flight on Allegiant will be your thing. If so, keep in mind that Disney’s Magical Express does not service Sanford, so you’re on your own in finding transportation from the airport to Walt Disney World. Additionally, since it’s a smaller airport, you’re more likely to find higher rental car costs at SFB than you would at MCO.
Our advice? Forget Sanford even exists. Instead, looking exclusively at Orlando International Airport (MCO) when doing your planning. For practical purposes, that’s the only airport in Orlando that matters. Located about 20 miles from Walt Disney World, MCO’s design features a central terminal with 4 satellite buildings that are serviced via a tram, which is like a precursor to the Walt Disney World monorail when you arrive.
Relative to other airports of its size and popularity, arrivals at MCO are pretty smooth. It’s easy to get from your gate to baggage claim to the Disney’s Magical Express area, which is located on Side B of the main terminal on the first floor. There are signs all over the place, so you cannot miss it. (If you want to know more, read our Disney’s Magical Express Info & Tips post.)
Alternatively, you might want to rent a car rather than use Disney’s Magical Express. This is especially true if you’re visiting other destinations outside of Walt Disney World. Check out our Tips for Renting a Car at Walt Disney World post for pros & cons, money-saving tips, and more info on rental cars at Orlando International Airport.
When you return to MCO after your Walt Disney World vacation, it’s a totally different story. Of all airports we’ve visited in the world, Orlando International is consistently the worst when it comes to the departing guest experience.
This is a confluence of several factors: TSA at the airport is understaffed, uneven daily flight distribution, airline checked baggage fees, and the fact that this is only the second flight many families have ever flown (the first being the one to Walt Disney World). Consequently, lines for security can be long and move slowly.
For this reason, you want to allow yourself ample time when arriving to MCO for a flight, unless you have TSA Pre-check or Global Entry. We normally get to an airport an hour and a half before our flight. With MCO, ~2 hours (slightly more if you need to check bags) is the safer route to go.
Alright, now that you know a bit about MCO, it’s time to look into the flight-booking process, and how you can save money on airfare. The starting point we always recommend is ITA Software by Google. Basically, this is like a more robust and cleaner version of Kayak and other airfare search engines, run by Google. For our international trips, we routinely use its more complex features (that’s how we do our 3 Disney Destinations on 1 Airfare “trick”), but for a simple trip to Walt Disney World, all you need is ITA’s basic functionality.
If your dates are flexible, we’d highly recommend using the +/- days feature on ITA, or using the calendar view. When you do that, also enter a range of stay for your trip (e.g., 7-9 days if you’re thinking of a 8-day vacation) as you never know how airfare prices might vary. It could end up being cheaper for you to take an 8-day vacation instead of a 7-day one (even factoring in the hotel and meal cost) if airfare prices fluctuate enough.
Note that you cannot book flights with ITA Software, it’s strictly a research tool. Once you find the best/cheapest flight for your party, you either book directly with the airline–which is what we usually do–or via another third party site. Our favorite for booking is Expedia. Their “Best Price Guarantee” is nice to have, but in practice it almost never ends up saving any money.
Another tip for finding cheaper flights if you’re still in the preliminary stages of planning is to fly on weekdays. Flights Monday through Thursday are almost always cheaper than weekend flights.
As for how far in advance to book a flight, the sweet spot is between three months and six weeks in advance. Beyond this range, there’s no specific date (“exactly 74 days before a flight at 3:47 p.m.”) that is best for booking; we’ve seen the myth perpetuated on Pinterest and other ‘viral’ websites that Tuesday afternoons X weeks in advance are best.
Waiting so long to book flights might seem scary to some hardcore planners who want to book everything the moment booking windows open, but if you book flights too early, you’re likely going to overpay.
Airline seats are perishable inventory (meaning that if a flight departs with empty seats, it’s worthless), and as airlines begin to more actively manage their inventory, they will begin pricing tickets more aggressively to incentivize flight bookings so flights have as few unsold seats as possible.
The flipside to this is that if early bookings are higher than expected, prices will go up. This is the risk you take when it comes to booking flights. With that said, it’s a risk we always take, as experience has demonstrated to us that we are better off risking an increase and waiting, because prices will usually go down–not up. The only time when booking early makes sense is around major travel holidays, like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.
If you have some flexibility as to travel dates or your trip is far in the future, you should also use fare alerts on Airfarewatchdog.com. You can set some parameters for the alerts here (although not as many as I’d like) and receive email updates when flight prices drop.
Just a word of warning: this can be dangerous (for your wallet). Our home airport is Los Angeles International (LAX) and our travel dates are normally flexible. Flying out of the world’s busiest airport and being able to travel whenever is a recipe for being able to book some insanely low prices. Even if you don’t have these two things working in your favor, you’ll find yourself receiving deal alerts for airfare that’s “too good to pass up.”
This leads to long weekend trips, which leads to buying an Annual Pass, which leads to starting your own Disney blog because you find yourself visiting the place so often. Not that this is what happened with us or anything. In any case, don’t say you haven’t been warned! 😉
If you want totally free airfare, there are a couple of ways to accomplish that. The easiest, quickest way to free airfare is credit card sign-up bonuses. We cover our favorite options in this regard in our Best Credit Cards for Disney Travelpost. Over the last several years, we’ve leveraged sign-up bonuses with Southwest, United, Delta, and Chase credit cards to secure ~20 free flights. In the case of Southwest, we were able to earn a companion pass for over a year thanks to their credit card from Chase!
Along the way, we have not paid a single cent in interest (we always pay the credit cards off in full before the balance is due) and have earned a variety of other perks. Suffice to say, credit cards can be excellent tools you can leverage for free flights (or hotel stays, cashback, etc.) We know many people are credit card averse, so this option isn’t for everyone.
Your other option is to remain loyal to one airline and earn frequent flier miles with them. If you fly infrequently (fewer than 4 times per year), we don’t recommend worrying about this. You should still open frequent flier accounts with each airline you fly (because who knows what the future holds!), but predicating flight decisions on airline loyalty does not make sense unless you fly regularly.
Instead, look for the best flight prices, most favorable flight times, or the airlines you like flying the most. We strongly would recommend favoring direct flights, particularly if you’re traveling in the winter or another time when weather could be an issue. Even if you don’t live in a snowy state does not mean your flights couldn’t be impacted, as outbound flights canceled or delayed at other airports has a ripple effect. The fewer legs of your flight that could be canceled, the better.
As for particular airlines, the one we recommend most often is Southwest. You’ll find a lot of travel blogs that are not nearly as favorable towards Southwest, and this is because the airline has a negative reputation among travel snobs for past practices (like its infamous “cattle call”).
However, with legacy carriers (like Delta, American, and United) engaged in a race to the bottom, Southwest has maintained its edge by offering superior customer service and family-friendly features. Of course, there’s also the “Bags Fly Free” moniker that they use, but this is really just one of many reasons to fly Southwest.
Even though its our favorite domestic carrier, we rarely fly Southwest ourselves these days. (When we lived in Indianapolis, we almost always used them for the IND-MCO route.) There’s a direct Delta red-eye route from LAX to MCO that is almost always the cheapest option for us, and I prefer redeye flights to get more bang for our travel buck.
Another reason we tend to fly Delta now is because they fly international routes to Europe and Asia, meaning we can earn miles on flights to Orlando that can be redeemed for non-US destinations. Delta is also one of the best options at LAX (they’re currently investing $1.9 billion into the airport), so our reason for choosing them are pretty specific to us. Chances are, these factors are not going to apply to you.
By and large, we’d recommend choosing Southwest if its price is competitive with other airlines (be sure to factor in baggage fees when doing the math!). There are a few airlines we would flat out recommend avoiding at all costs, most notably Spirit and Frontier. It doesn’t matter if the airfare is half the price as the closest competitor: do not fly Spirit or Frontier. (It won’t end up being half the cost in the end, anyway; they aggressively nickel and dime you.)
That about covers it in terms of the basics of choosing the best flights to Walt Disney World, and finding the cheapest prices on those flights. As with all travel hacks, not everything here is a hard-and-fast rule, but if you follow the general advice here, you should be able to save on one of the most expensive aspects of your Walt Disney World vacation!
Do you have any additional tips & tricks for scoring deals on airfare to Walt Disney World? Do you have a favorite airline? Any specific airline you dislike? Thoughts on the different airfare search engines or booking sites? What about sites (like Airfarewatchdog) to follow for hot deals on flights? Any questions about what we covered? Hearing from you is half the fun, so please share in the comments below!