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Think about value, not just cost, when planning your theme park vacation

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Published: August 31, 2010 at 9:19 AM

The real question you ought to be asking as you plan your family's next vacation isn't "Can I afford this?" - it's "Am I getting value from this?"

U.S. moneyFocusing on value instead of cost sharpens your thinking about spending. Too often, people get caught up looking for discounts instead of thinking about what they're getting for their money. It's not really a discount if what you get isn't worth even the cheaper price, now is it?

So let's keep a few questions in mind as you start thinking about your next theme park vacation:

  1. Is the experience unique? Is this something you can do anywhere, anytime, or is it something that's available only one place on Earth?
  2. Does this vacation engage your passion? Does the idea of visiting this destination get you excited? Or does it leave you feeling a bit more "ho-hum"?
  3. Will this visit help you forge a connection with others? Will it give you the opportunity to spend more time and do more things with your family or friends?
  4. Will you get something lasting from this trip? This can be tangible, such as unique souvenirs or photos, or intangible, such as lasting memories of something truly special.
  5. What's my time investment? Think about the ratio of the time you'll spend doing what you want to do at your destination versus the amount of time you'll spend getting there, coming back and waiting around while you are there. Don't forget that the time you spend arranging the trip is part of your time investment, too!

Now comes the tricky part: You've got to balance those options with the money you have available. In business schools, instructors often present a simple challenge to students, to get them thinking about cost trade-offs. They give you three options:

  • Good
  • Fast
  • Cheap
And tell you to pick two. Because you can't have all three.

Well, you could have a unique experience that fully engages your passions, brings you together with all your friends and loved ones, leaves you with lasting tangible reminders of the trip and wastes none of your time along the way - the trip's even planned for you!

But you're going to pay - a lot - for that vacation!

We've talked before about making a budget for your vacation: Ultimately, the best way to do that is to start thinking about value in everything that you buy. Do you need that cup of take-out coffee? Do you need that pre-prepared meal? What are you getting from that night at the movies?

Balance the value of those smaller expenditures throughout the year versus the value that you want to get from your family vacation. Thinking this way can help you justify spending less on things that really don't deliver you that much value, so you can have that money available for things which do.

Then, after a few weeks of saving, when you have an idea how much you'll have available for a vacation, you can start balancing your goals. For example, if you're willing to invest more time in your vacation planning, you'll be able to find better deals on more unique opportunities than you would if you decided to hit the road with no advance planning. (And some folks find planning the vacation a fun part of the experience, too!) The farther you're willing to travel, the more likely you might be to find a unique experience, but maybe that prevents you from bringing along as many friends or family members.

It's always a trade-off. But focus on the value you get from each of those options, and weigh what's more important to you.

I've met a few wealthy people in my life, and had wondered how they approached spending money: Did they just buy whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted it, with no advance planning? After all, they didn't need to budget their money. What I found was that the wealthy people I know spend even more time thinking about this stuff. But they don't think about the amount of money they're spending. They think about the value that they're getting for that money. Ultimately, that's how rich people stay rich: By never wasting money on anything that doesn't bring them value.

That's a great lesson for the rest of us, too: Plan your vacation like a rich person would: Focus on value instead of simply looking for the cheapest discount, and you'll end up with a vacation that you both can afford and will enjoy.

Please share some of your value-building vacation-planning tricks and tips, in the comments:

Readers' Opinions

From duncan henny on August 31, 2010 at 11:24 AM
great article i have just started to plan my next trip to orlando as i was meant to go next week as a honeymoon but had to cancel i managed to cut about £500 pounds off the cost of it by choosing a different hotel i was wanting to stay at the doubletree universal but i got a cheaper deal if i stay at the four points by sheraton in international drive has anyone stayed at this hotel before is it ok or should i try and save the extra money?
From Joshua Counsil on August 31, 2010 at 11:42 AM
"And some folks find planning the vacation a fun part of the experience, too!"

Here, here. I love planning a vacation. Getting a deal is not only a matter of savings. It's a matter of pride.

On that note, I don't simply go for the cheap. I am all about value. If, for example, I visit Disney World, I like to stay in a Disney Vacation Club resort. I book my vacation using an online points trading system, bargain with the owner, get a huge discount on a nice room, and eat my breakfasts and lunches in the room so that I can splurge on a nice dinner. By doing this, I stay close to the action, my accommodations are nice, and I can enjoy a high quality meal every day.

I tend to follow these tips to save money here and there so that I don't feel guilty buying an expensive meal or staying at a nice resort:

  • Bring a backpack with lunches, water bottles, raincoats, and sunscreen
  • Buy a travel guide in advance - that $20 book saves us hundreds, even thousands, in the long run
  • Avoid eating snacks or meals in the parks unless it's a highly recommended table service restaurant
  • Avoid the ticket adds-on, such as water park access
  • Avoid buying souvenirs, even for friends or family back home - who wants a t-shirt or glass from a destination they weren't able to see, anyway?
From Derek Potter on August 31, 2010 at 1:59 PM
To me, much of the planning of a vacation involves bringing enough money to do the things you want to do, not the things you will save money on. A vacation should be as worry and hassle free as possible, and there are fewer ways to add to worry and hassle like a money shortage, or not being able to enjoy yourself the way you want to. Instead of totally focusing on cutting vacation costs, I say raise enough money to do what you want...within reason of course.

People in general seem to have a fixation on money when it comes to the price of something. I think it's one of the things that has gotten us in trouble as a country and as Americans. It's something that I call the "wal-mart effect". People have been trained to ignore quality, and to think that the lowest priced item is the best one. They've also been trained to ignore the other aspects of the price of something. Price isn't just a monetary thing, it's your time, the resources you used to get there to buy it, your comfort, convenience, and happiness. It's about how long the item will last, when you will have to replace it, and whether or not you get any service if or when it malfunctions. It's not just about the money you are paying for it now, but also about the long term. Buy a cheap pair of shoes...chances are you'll have to buy 3 pairs to one nicer and marginally more expensive pair. Check into a cheap hotel...chances are the service will be horrible, the beds will be uncomfortable, and God only knows what else could go wrong. Buy McDonald's chicken nuggets...I'll just stop right there.

When it comes to theme parks, value is in the eye of the beholder. Personally, I think that Disney offers some of the least value for your dollar in the industry. When compared with the attraction lineups of many amusement parks, there aren't really that many rides, unless you pay to visit all the Disney parks. With Disney, the lines are long and everything costs a kidney. However the quality of the attractions, food, and hotels make it a little easier for people to pay out for them. Sea World is the same way....70+ bucks for a ticket to a few good marine shows, a few good rides, and a decent restaurant or two. Personally, I don't see the value in most of the Orlando parks, which is why I don't visit them a ton. Are they worth experiencing at least once...absolutely, but there is little in me that wants to pay that much to go again the next year. I would much rather pay $40 for a ticket to Cedar Point or some other good amusement park, and ride to my hearts content, or if I'm after the value..a season pass.

That's just me though. My advice to people on vacation. Look for deals because they are out there. All it takes is a little internet research. Remember though that the purpose of a vacation is to have a good time, so don't underbudget. Don't be stupid with your money, but remember that life is too short. You work too hard, and you probably get only one (or less) of these a year. Regardless of whether you have to save for a year or a week, bring enough money to make memories and have fun...whatever your taste may be. That's what vacation is for.

From 174.96.121.143 on August 31, 2010 at 2:06 PM
Good post. I always think about value and not cost, but unfortunately some of the parks themselves are worried more about cost and money and not the value of their customers. Take the Cedar Fair parks, for example. If you buy a 2011 season pass right now, they won't let you into the parks (except for a single one-day admission) until 2011. It appears all that they are looking at is getting more money from you and won't add any value to those season passes. Since parks are open on limited schedules now through the end of the year, you would think they would let you come the rest of the year and spend additional money on food, drinks, and souvenirs. It just doesn't make any sense to me why they don't want to encourage new visitors.
From Bobby Miller on August 31, 2010 at 7:35 PM
Almost all my life, I have always gone with "Good" no matter what it was. "Cheap" is what you get from China now a days and not to far back, it had made in Japan stamped on it and you knew it was junk. "Fast" is what your suppose to get from a fast food place and in my day, they were called fast women lol. But I always look for quality when I buy something. My brother would say " If it's worth buying, then it's worth saving money to buy it" and I agree with him. You can still buy a good product and get a bad one, but the merchant would exchange it.

Right now, after much planning, Zachary and I will be headed back to Disney for the last time next year. I wanted to make it special, so I have done alot of research to get the best bang for a buck as the Chevy guys say about the Carmaro. I think I have done a "good" job and hopefully Zachary will remember this one as one of the best he has ever taken with his pap-pap.

Bobby, formally known as Bob & Robert!!!!!!!

From 199.123.115.142 on September 3, 2010 at 11:45 AM
"...unfortunately some of the parks themselves are worried more about cost and money and not the value of their customers."

I don't think I'd be patronizing any of those parks.

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