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Planning your theme park vacation: Step 4 - Bookmark reservation websites

By Robert Niles
Published: December 2, 2008 at 11:05 PM
Before you start clicking around the Web to price your dream family vacation, you will want to put together a well-organized list of sites to help you price and book your trip.

This week, I've put together that list for you, with links to websites where you can check airfares, hotel rates and theme park ticket prices. These include all major U.S. airlines, hotel and theme park chains, as well as direct links to airlines (such as Southwest) and hotels (such as Disney World's) that don't show up on the big industry-wide search sites.

Airfare


If you are thinking about flying the family to your destination, airfare will be a major expense for you, one that is highly sensitive to which days you travel. So it makes sense to start here, searching for the best airfare.

  • Orbitz - This is the big, industry-wide search engine that covers (almost) all major U.S. airlines, with a couple of exceptions:
  • Southwest - This is the biggest airline missing from Orbitz, so you will want to search it in addition to Orbitz for trips to the cities you are considering for your vacation.
  • JetBlue - If you are traveling from the New York City area, you probably know about JetBlue. But if you are and haven't checked out this airline yet, do. You often can find good deals down to Orlando, and the live TV at every seat while in the air is a sweet perk.

    If you want to get a sense for whether airfares will be going up or down between your home airport and your dream destination, visit:

  • FareCast, which checks airfares from several major websites against historical data to estimate whether airfares will go up, down or remain steady. It will recommend whether you buy now, or wait, based on that information.

    Hotels


    When searching for hotels and theme park tickets, don't zone in on the search form when you click to a website. Look for graphics trumpeting deals.

    If you are considering staying at an on-site hotel at either the Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando resorts, you'll want to check prices and availability directly on their websites:

  • Walt Disney World
  • Universal Orlando

    Disney's hotels rarely show up on industry-wide hotel search forms and Universal often offers perks on its website that are not available through other sites.

    Speaking of perks, you migt just want to go ahead and click directly to each resort's special deals pages:

  • Walt Disney World's 'Special Offers' page, currently featuring "Buy 4 Days, Get 3 Free" for most nights between Jan. 4 and June 27, 2009.
  • Universal Orlando's 'Deals' page, currently featuring five nights for the price of three, if you book by January 31, 2009.

    We have a special section on Theme Park Insider devotes to reader ratings and reviews of hotels in and around major theme parks:

  • Theme Park Insider's Theme Park Hotels page - On some individual hotel review pages, you can price room rates and book hotel reservations. (Note: Theme Park Insider does get a commission on rooms booked through those pages.)

    If you are looking to search for a wider variety of hotels, including all major chains, you should search the major hotel search engines:

  • Expedia
  • TravelNow (same database as Hotels.com)

    Many people book discounted hotel rooms using services such as Priceline.com, where you can bid for hotel rooms, not knowing the exact hotel where you would stay. For theme park trips, I've found Priceline and such services less useful, since proximity to the park is so important to me. Again, if you don't mind staying what might be a bit of a drive away from the park, go ahead and give Priceline a try. But visit BiddingForTravel first to learn effective strategies for bidding for hotel rooms on Priceline, if you've never done that before.

    Theme Park Tickets


    Always, always, always buy your theme park tickets online before you visit the parks. You'll not only have the time at home to ensure that you are getting the best deal, you will save yourself valuable time when you arrive at the park, since you can skip the ticket booths and head straight for the turnstiles.

    If you decide to book a hotel at Disney World or Universal Orlando through those parks' websites, do still check their ticket prices first through these pages. I have found cases where those resorts' hotel booking page did not offer me the best deal I could get on tickets from their ticket-only pages. You can book the room only on the hotel reservation page, and the tickets on the tickets page, if that gets you a better deal.

    Major chains and multi-park resorts:

  • Walt Disney World
  • Disneyland
  • Universal Studios
  • Busch Gardens/SeaWorld
  • Six Flags

    Other individual parks:

  • Cedar Point
  • Dollywood
  • Hersheypark
  • Kings Island
  • Knott's Berry Farm
  • Legoland California

    Don't forget to look at annual passes. Six Flags and Cedar Fair [Cedar Point, Knott's, Kings Island, etc.] annual passes are good at all parks in those chains. Some Busch Gardens/SeaWorld passes are good a multiple parks in that chain, as well. If you are planning to spend more than a single day at a particular park or chain, an annual pass might offer you a better price per day than buying individual tickets. In most cases, you do not need to live nearby a park to buy its annual pass.

    Discounters


    Yeah, I know that some people score cheap theme park tickets, even hotel nights, by sitting through timeshare sales pitches. But I like my readers, so I'm not going to recommend that you endure that. If you are up for it, fine. But there are other sources that sell discounted tickets to theme parks:
  • AAA - The Auto Club offers discounted tickets and hotel deals to its members. Showing your AAA membership card can get your discounts on food and merchandise in some theme parks, too. Check the AAA's website for details.
  • Recreation Connection provides discount tickets to many major employers, schools and credit unions. Your HR office might have more information, or you can search the Recreation Connection website to see if you are eligible to buy tickets through them.

    Remember, theme parks have gotten more aggressive about offering deals through their own websites, so don't assume that discounters offer the lowest prices.

    Finally, once you've got some numbers from these websites, remember to plug them into our spreadsheet to estimate the cost of each trip you are considering.

    If you have a specific question about family vacation planning, and how to get the most for your budget, please e-mail Theme Park Insider editor Robert Niles via themeparkinsider - at - gmail.com or this form. He will select questions to answer in a future column.

    Readers' Opinions

    From Anthony Murphy on December 3, 2008 at 8:58 AM
    Excellent Websites Robert!

    A couple of things that I would add: If you want the good deals out of Chicago (like Jetblue for NY) its Airtran from Midway Airport. Did it once, not too luxurious, but cheap cheap cheap!


    Also, and I do not think that this can be stressed enough,BE CAREFUL WHO YOU BUY TICKETS FROM! Esepcially for Disney and Universal, there are many stands outside the Disney Grounds offering ultra cheap tickets. Do not buy them! The tickets might be unauthorized and Disney will not accept them! If you want cheaper tickets, pretty much looking through AAA is your best and sometimes only best bet. Outside of Disney, I do believe the Flex ticket for the other Major Theme Parks are still around. The game with Disney is to decide how many days you plan on going and then buy said tickets. Disney reduces the price per day if you buy more.

    From Robert Niles on December 3, 2008 at 9:38 AM
    AirTran's fares are found through Orbitz, so you don't need to bookmark an extra site for them. But, you're right, they offer some nice deals. I'm flying AirTran to Orlando this weekend, in fact.

    Many, if not most, of those booths and fronts you see for "discount" tickets require you to sit through timeshare presentations, IME, so my thoughts on them apply.

    From Deidre Dennis on December 3, 2008 at 10:51 AM
    Our trip is still a long way's out (June), but airline tickets are so high right now. The last time we flew Seattle to Orlando, it was only $279 including all taxes and fees through cheaptickets.com. Now they're hovering around $455 and up. I look every day to see what's out there, but I'm wondering, with our trip so far out, if I need to just wait until after the new year to see what happens. I wonder, if because it's such a long distance, if that's why they're so high right now. It's hard to find a good deal out of Seattle.

    Went to DC this past June, roundtrip from Seattle on Airtran (hated it) and the tickets were still pretty spendy. Again, I wonder if it has anything to do with the distance?

    I've been leery to use priceline.com because it appears you have to pay for your ticket without knowing who you're flying through, how many layovers, and what time. Too many unknowns for me.

    From James Rao on December 3, 2008 at 7:48 PM
    Lost of great info here, Robert! Thanks for putting it all together in one spot.

    Another avenue to pursue if you want to book an ALL Disney trip is one of the authorized Disney planners like Small World Vacations. They do an excellent job of getting you the best out of Disney for your buck. There is no extra charge for their assistance, but you should make sure you are serious about a vacation (and do some of your own research) before using their service.

    On a side note: rumors are circulating (www.touringplans.com) that some bargain basement, room-only discounts will be offered at WDW this week. Keep an eye out for them....

    From Marc Ricketts on December 8, 2008 at 3:32 PM
    We bought our Disneyland tickets for a Thanksgiving trip from www.getawaytoday.com. Although there was a slight discount, even after a $10 service charge, the primary motivation is that TWO Magic Mornings are included instead of one. This wouldn't matter if you're in a Disney hotel of course, and we did have to pick them up at a ticket booth.

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