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How Much Will We Spend?
If you're traveling to Orlando, be prepared to spend and spend—and spend some more. Even if you get great deals on transportation and hotel, your credit-card balance will increase and cash will evaporate in the hot Orlando sun.
First there are the usual vacation costs: pet boarding, airfare, trip insurance, ground transportation, lodging, and food. Then there are the vacation costs that you tend to take for granted but that add up: gratuities, souvenirs, and sundries (such as more sunscreen, bottled water, new batteries).
In Orlando you have to add another whole layer to the cost of a trip, starting with, of course, theme-park tickets. Although prices for these vary greatly depending on the park, the plan, and the ages of those in your group, you can peg admission at roughly $80 per day per person. For a family of four visiting three parks, that's more than $950.
What's more, costs for food and other items inside the parks are generally higher than elsewhere. For instance, a snack of churros and sodas can set a family of four back almost $25. To all this, you have to add extras such as character meals, babysitting, cover charges, show tickets, greens fees, and spa treatments.
At this point you might begin to panic. Don't. Take your trip planning and budgeting step by step, and you'll soon find that there are lots of ways to make an Orlando vacation financially accessible.
We can't stress enough the importance of creating a formal budget for a trip to Orlando and carrying it with you—so you'll be more likely to stick to it. If you do this for all your vacations, great. You're a step ahead. If you don't do this, have we got a plan for you!
Three-Step Budgeting Plan
Step 1: Create Your Dream Itinerary. First, go back through this chapter and answer the first four trip-planning questions. Your answers will enable you to create a wish list of theme parks and other sights and activities to enjoy (be sure to dream big). Slot these into a day-by-day itinerary to determine how long your dream trip should be and possibly even when to go. Having an itinerary can also help you figure out where to stay and eat.
Step 2: Create Your Dream Budget. Use your dream itinerary—and the decisions made because of it—to create your dream budget. In addition to calculating costs for parks tickets, other entertainments and activities, hotel, transportation, and food, be sure to include estimated daily totals for things like tips, souvenirs, and sundries. Also include kennel costs, trip insurance, and babysitting fees if applicable.
Most of us lowball costs. To offset this, add in another 2% to 5% of the total budget. The percentage you use should depend on how well you generally police spending.
When you calculate the total cost of your trip, remember that at this point you're still dreaming big. Take a deep breath and move on to Step 3.
Step 3: Create Your Real Budget (and Itinerary). Okay. So your dream-vacation budget has, most likely, an astronomical total. Now it's time to bring everything back down to earth. This might mean spending more time researching discounts, lower rates, or package deals. It might also mean reassessing your priorities.
Perhaps you'll book a cheaper hotel so you can spend more days at Disney. Or maybe you'll splurge on lodging and take in fewer parks. You might move your trip up or back a month to get a lower airfare or plan a shorter trip to lower costs overall. Regardless, by making some adjustments you'll soon have a more realistic trip—in terms of both your budget and, no doubt, your itinerary.
Tipping in Orlando
Whether they carry bags, deliver food, or clean rooms, hospitality workers rely on tips to help them earn a living. Although you'll ultimately base tips on how involved the service is and how well it's performed, here are some guidelines:
In transit, tip airport skycaps and shuttle drivers $1 to $2 per bag and taxi drivers 15% to 20% of the fare. At hotels go with $1 to $2 per bag for bellhops, $1 or $2 per night per guest for housekeeping, $5 to $20 for special concierge service, and $1 to $2 for parking valets or doormen who hail cabs.
Tip the caddies 15% of the greens fee, and spa therapists and waitstaff in full-service restaurants 15% to 20% of the total bill. Tip bartenders and cocktail waitresses 10% to 15% of the total check.
Shop around. Seem obvious? Not necessarily so. Did you know, for instance, that Internet prices aren't always the lowest? Travel agents may still be able to get you better deals, simply because it's their business to know their way around the reservations thicket. And online prices can be dramatically different from site to site—room costs alone can vary by as much as 200%. What's more, not all chains or carriers are represented on all sites. This is especially true of the smaller or discount airlines. You might also find the cheapest fare or best promotional room rate on an airline or hotel-chain website. Note also that you can sometimes get a better price if you call a hotel's local toll-free number (if available) rather than a central reservations number.
Use aggregator sites to compare prices. Websites like Kayak.com, Mobissimo.com, Sidestep.com, and Travelgrove.com gather the best prices for airfares, hotels, and rental cars from many places. Most aggregators compare the major online travel agent-booking engine sites such as Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz. They also look at some car-rental and airline websites. Some aggregators also compare such things as trip insurance or vacation packages.
Booking directly with Disney rarely yields the lowest price. For everything but parks tickets and dining plans (whose prices are fixed), you'll get better deals with major online booking sites.
Investigate credit-card privileges. Even if your credit card doesn't give you frequent-flier miles for purchases, you may still be eligible for discounts on travel products or services. Visit the company's website to check on hotel deals or promotions. Disney also has its own Visa rewards card. Not only can you use the card for certain on-property discounts, but you can also earn the so-called Disney Dollars on your regular purchases, which you can later spend on a Disney vacation.
Have the best deals find you. On Expedia, Travelocity, and other sites you can sign up to receive emails the moment a fare to Orlando meets your price requirements. TravelZoo.com and FareCompare.com send emails alerting you to great deals on packages and airfares, respectively.
Consider what organizations you belong to. Are you a member of the American Dental Association or the American Bar Association? Are you U.S. military personnel? Even if you do nothing more than carry your membership card and pay yearly dues, you can take advantage of low rates that many organizations and unions negotiate with hotels and car-rental companies.
Look into group discounts. Depending on its size, your brood may qualify for rates normally offered to schools and corporations. Talk to group-sales professionals, and ask about discounts on flights as well as hotels (for multiroom blocks), theme parks, and shows.
On the Theme Parks
Buy park tickets when you book your trip. This not only enables you to avoid any price increases that happen before you arrive, but also lets you take advantage of online discounts that parks like Universal and SeaWorld offer. For Discovery Cove, you must book well in advance, as attendance is limited to 1,000 people a day.
Save money with a multiday park pass. Theme-park admission can be pricey, but multiday packages are always available, and these often include additional benefits, such as early entry to the park.
Skip the theme parks on days you arrive and depart. It's not worth spending money for just a couple of hours in the parks. Instead, use those days to lounge around your hotel pool or to visit Downtown Disney, Disney's BoardWalk, or Universal CityWalk.
Don't sweat the wee ones. Babies and tots under 3 get into the parks for free—one less cost to worry about.
Watch out for the term "from" when pricing hotels. That baseline figure, although an effective come-on, might apply to an undesirable hotel. The minimally acceptable, midlevel options could be quite a hike up.
Always ask about packages and special rates. High-end hotel chains catering to business travelers are often busy only on weekdays; to fill rooms they often drop rates dramatically on weekends. And most hotels have special package deals or corporate rates.
Ask about incidental costs. Seemingly petty details such as surcharges on local phone calls, local occupancy taxes, early check-in fees, resort fees, energy surcharges, Internet fees, and parking can really add up. Some hotels tack on hidden gratuities, too.
Stay at an all-suites hotel with in-room kitchens. Making some of your own meals will reduce your costs—as will bringing all of your own essentials.
Stock up at a supermarket on the way to the hotel. That's especially advisable if you're staying put for a while. You'll get better prices than at hotel shops.
Plan to have lunch at that fancy restaurant. Menus at lunch often vary only slightly from those at dinner, but prices at lunch can be much lower.
Keep tabs on prices. To determine when to buy tickets, check out FareCompare.com, which has historical and current airfares, and Bing.com/travel, which uses Farecast technology to predict fare changes based on historical data. Unlike many other sites, AirfareWatchDog.com includes rates for budget airlines in its research.
Pick your days and times wisely. Look for departures on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday, typically the cheapest days to travel. Flights on these days are often less crowded as well. Also check on prices for departures at different times of day.
Investigate flights to secondary airports. Flights to Daytona's airport, 45 minutes from Orlando, or to Sanford-Orlando, only 30 minutes away, may be cheaper and have better availability, especially during high season. Area car-rental rates might also be lower.
Fly on a holiday. Just as the most expensive fares tend to be on the days or weekends at either side of a holiday, some of the least expensive are on the holiday itself, especially Christmas and Thanksgiving. Just be sure that the airfare cost savings isn't completely eaten up by hotel, car-rental, and other costs made more expensive by the holiday.
Ask about child and senior fares. In this age of troubled airlines, it's rare to find discounts of any kind. But it never hurts to ask.
On Car Travel
Calculate the cost of a drive to Orlando. Input your route and the make and model of your car on AAA's fuel-cost calculator (www.fuelcostcalculator.com) and voilà! (The figures assume there are no traffic jams.) Gas prices are updated regularly. Use it to budget for a road trip and to compare that to the cost of flying.
Find the cheapest gas. Gas prices are greatly influenced by state gas taxes. A website operated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (www.fueleconomy.gov) gives national and regional average prices. Also helpful are sites like Gas Buddy (www.gasbuddy.com) and Gas Price Watch (www.gaspricewatch.com), which use consumer tips to rank prices in a particular area.
Decide whether you'll really need a rental car. If you're staying on Disney or Universal property, you most likely will not. If you'll be traveling, price out those trips by cab, then see if it pays to have a rental car. Don't forget the costs of gas and parking in your estimate.
Check out weekly rates and packages. Even if you want to rent for only five or six days, ask for the weekly rate; it may very well be cheaper than the daily rate for that period of time. Adding a car rental onto your air-hotel vacation package may be cheaper than renting a car separately.
Don't forget the locals. Price local companies as well as the majors. Avoiding the chains and renting through local agencies can save you big bucks, particularly in touristy areas like Florida, where competition is stiff. The potential downsides include limited counter office hours, infrequent shuttle service, limited car selection, and no guaranteed roadside assistance.
Ask about fees and surcharges. Most agencies impose a surcharge on drivers under age 25 (some won't rent to drivers under 25; for others the cutoff age is 21). Airports often add surcharges, which you can sometimes avoid by renting from an agency whose office is just off airport property. Don't assume that bringing the car back early will save you bucks. If you return your car before the minimum number of days (often five) specified in a weeklong contract, the weekly rate could revert to a much higher daily rate.
Check prices on different-size cars. Most of us assume that renting a compact car is less expensive than a standard-size model. But smaller cars are more popular with renters, so prices may be lower for the larger models. Check the fees. You may be pleasantly surprised.
Get smart about fuel. Pass on the option of paying the rental agency for a tank of gas rather than refueling the car yourself before you return it. In some cases the per-gallon rate is much higher than you'd pay at a gas station. Even if the per-gallon rate is lower, you'll be charged for an entire tank of gas whether you use it all or not (it's hard to work it so you can coast in on empty upon return). Plan to fill up the tank yourself, at a station away from the drop-off point, to get better prices. Check the average price of fuel as you drive around, and avoid filling up near the airport, as those stations are often the most expensive.
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