How do you save (or earn) the money for a vacation?

Edited: February 3, 2014, 9:22 PM

Your Theme Park Insider editor here, asking for some tips from you, the TPI community.

We've covered some basic tips for saving money and finding value on a theme park vacation. But you've got to have money to save money. And that's a trap that keeps many families from taking the vacations that they want.

So what are some of the things that you do to stretch your income, or add to it, so that you have the extra money to set aside for the vacation your family wants? We're looking for tips on relatively easy ways to earn extra cash, simple spending cuts that add up, and realistic ways to save on an average family's income.

Money for travel
Where do you get the money to put away for travel?

I'd like to start another vacation planning series that focuses on the financial planning element of getting ready for travel, and I'm looking for whatever stories, experience, and well-tested personal advice you might be able to offer to your fellow readers on this topic - to get us started.

Thanks in advance,

Replies (7)

January 24, 2014, 3:58 PM

One thing my wife and I are both doing is saving a certain amount of money each week. Week 1, we both put back $1 each, week 2 $2 each, and so on. Doing this will add up, enough to pay for our next 2 trips to WDW.

Edited: January 25, 2014, 7:52 AM

On vacation I want to stay in a nice, on-site hotel, do everything we all want to do, eat well, and purchase whatever souvenirs we want. This means that for the rest of the year I am cheap so that when we do go on vacation we can go all out. We save money by not overbuying stuff--we get what we need and that's all. The whole thing requires you to prioritize your wants and needs. Do I need a giant house with a giant price tag? No, I'd rather be able to have a nice vacation each year. Do I need a fancy car to show off to everyone? No, I'd rather send my son to a Catholic elementary school.

January 27, 2014, 9:01 AM

I think this is a 2-fold question.

The first is how do you come up with the money for a vacation. I've always believed in the importance of taking at least 1 week-long vacation every year (I used to be able to do 2, but now it's down to one big one in the fall and a smaller one in the spring/summer), so knowing that you're going to do it, that money should start building up right after you come back from the previous vacation. Whether you set aside a separate account or merely keep track of additional money that you're putting in your savings account specifically for your vacation, that saving should start immediately. Ways to save that money can come from cutting unnecessary spending from your budget (nights out, fancy dinners, gifts, Starbucks, etc...), while other sources may come from your annual raise (if you get one), gifts, or a financial windfall. The important thing is that if you know you're going to spend money 12 months from now, it's easier to start now than it is 10 months from now.

The other way to save money is by making tough choices about your vacation. You should ALWAYS have a budget, and even if you feel a Disney vacation is a once-in-a-lifetime type trip, you should still set boundaries and a limit to your spending. I'm not going to tell people how they should spend their money, but I know I try to keep my 3-person 7-10 day Orlando trips in the $2k-$4k range. However, we tend to go every year or 2, so splurging is not as important for us. Now, there may be different considerations based on what you want to do or how long you want to stay, but you should definitely set a top number, and do whatever it takes to keep from exceeding it, and that includes food, souveniers, and park admissions (in addition to the travel and lodging). You can save money before you even book by actively searching deals. If you're flying, use Kayak and other fare aggregators to understand how much your airfare will cost along with the trends in pricing. In most cases, you will want to book airfare between 30-90 days prior, but some routes have high variability that result in super cheap fares closer to your departure (if you're willing to take that chance). Also, don't be afraid to call the airline if you pay for tickets and see the price drop 2 days later. While many won't give you that difference, some will, while others may offer you a free bag or other cost deferral.

When it comes to lodging, look around, and be willing to shop for the best deal. Make sure you're considering everything about a hotel. For instance, while Disney hotels don't provide breakfast, like many off-site hotels do, they do give you free parking at all of the parks along with Magic Hours and the new benefit of booking Fastpass+ reservations ahead of your arrival in the parks. Some people like having a hot breakfast, so that room at the Holiday Inn Express could be worth as much as $30 or more to a family of 4 over staying at a Disney hotel. However, if your family doesn't mind cereal, yogurt, or fruit for breakfast purchased at a local grocery store and stored in your room fridge (not all Disney rooms have a fridge though, so check first), than losing that free breakfast may not be that big of a deal when considering the perks of an on-site room.

You should always compare off-site to on-site, and make sure you understand all of the pros and cons of the different hotels. Understand that most off-site hotels that advertise a free shuttle service to the park that you will be held hostage to the times of that shuttle, or be forced to take a cab. Off-site hotel shuttles are notorious for taking guests to the park at or slightly after rope drop, and picking them up shortly after the last fireworks show of the day, which may be an hour or more before the park actually closes. Personally, I don't even consider an off-site hotel shuttle a perk in most cases, and assume that I'll be paying $14/day to park my car at the parks. Also, don't be afraid to stay in multiple hotels during your visit. If you want to get the perks of a Disney hotel while visiting their parks, that's great, but those perks are worthless at Sea World, Legoland, and Universal. Sometimes it's nice to stay in one spot for an entire vacation, but you can get significant savings in money and/or perks by changing rooms throughout your vacation. Also, note that some hotels (especially on-site) charge significantly more for rooms on weekends than weekdays. You may be able to save quite a bit of money by staying at an on-site hotel Sunday through Thursday, but then switching to an off-site hotel on the weekend. Also, don't be afraid to search around for vacation rentals and/or local homes that natives rent to tourists. Those vacation homes can save families a lot of money if you need multiple rooms or are traveling with multiple families.

Just like airfares, don't stop checking the rates after you book. While it's rare to see hotel rates drop as your vacation approaches, many chains will offer specials, and the Disney hotels will typically offer free dining or other discounts when booking certain rooms during certain time periods. If you book before a discount or promotion is announced, don't be afraid to call and ask for the discount to be applied to your reservation, or be willing to cancel your existing reservations and rebook using the promotion. Most hotels do not charge for cancellation, and while you pay a deposit from a Disney hotel, it's pretty easy to call and have them chenge your reservation to apply the promotion.

When it comes to spending money in the parks, set yourself a daily budget for food, gifts and admission, and stick to it. Always have an extra stack of money available for those can't miss experiences or gifts. Don't think that you can splurge on something today in the hopes of saving money tomorrow.

January 27, 2014, 11:58 AM

I'm working on a concept that I'm called (at the moment) "value-based spending." The idea is that you should try to get maximum value back for every dollar that you spend.

Obviously, that starts with buying stuff you most like and most need, and avoiding spending on stuff that doesn't provide you any value in return. The number-one thing that most people spend on that provides little value in return is interest and bank fees.

So if you can save in advance and pay cash for stuff, instead of borrowing money by charging it, you avoid paying those low-value interest expenses.

Now, sometimes credit-card and loan interest does provide value. For an extreme, lazy example, it's better to charge an emergency room visit than not go when you have a medical emergency. But if you get out of the habit of using credit on a daily (or even monthly basis) you can leave it for true emergencies when interest can buy you avoidance of something truly dire. (And not getting to visit Disney World this year is not something truly dire.)

But we can take the idea of "value-based spending" further. Ideally, you'd want to spend your money in ways that provide not just immediate returns via a valuable product or service, but ongoing indirect returns, as well. This is why it might be better to spend your money with a locally-owned business that keeps its money in the community than a big chain that distributes its money elsewhere. It's why you could be better off spending your money with owner-operated business, owned by someone who spends her or his money with you in return, than patronizing some corporate-owned business that delivers its profits to far-off shareholders.

Obviously, there are trade-offs galore here. You won't find many world-class family-owned theme parks that keep their money in the local community (Holiday World?). But whatever you can do to support and promote the economy that supports you in return helps you.

One way to pursue this goal is to look for opportunities to trade value with people in your community, to help you conserve cash for the stuff you can't get via trade (such as theme park vacations). We've traded violin lessons for math tutoring with friends. The more that you can change your earning and spending patterns in everyday life, the more cash you can raise and put away to pay for other things, such as more frequent travel.

I've gotten some nice feedback from people regarding the little financial planning section I included in our Orlando guidebook, and I'd like to develop that advice into something a bit more substantial (another book? a regular feature on the site?) So I'd love to hear more stories about how people have found ways to make travel a routinely affordable part of their lives. Thanks.

January 28, 2014, 2:38 PM

I have a jar in my bedroom that I empty all of my change into every night and then 3 or 4 times a year my youngest son and I roll it and take it to the bank. You would be amazed at how quickly just the change from your pocket adds up, quicker in Canada with the 1 and 2 dollar coins. We usually deposit $350 to $400 dollars each time we roll the coins. We also have an online account that is dedicated to vacations so if my wife or I have over time that gets transferred from the main account to the vacation account along with the coins. Towards the end of each year I will maxed out the payroll amounts taken from my paycheck for the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and Employment Insurance (EI) and so those amounts will get transferred. Income tax refunds or any unexpected windfall is split between vacations and home renovations as needed.

We try to stay in condos as they allow for each of our children to have their own room and my wife and I have ours. We will stock the fridge from the closest grocer with breakfast snack items, this allows us to eat before going to the parks, taking granola bars or such allows for lunch to be pushed later in the day and so the boys don't really want a big dinner as well and so a snack back at the condo has worked well.

January 30, 2014, 10:11 AM

Russell - Starbucks is Not and I repeat Not something I will cut back on… This is Not an unnecessary product….. Not… Hahahaha – I only spend $2 a day here since I use a reusable cup. And I do not get some nonfat half calf double backslash mocha cappuccino with whip at 180 degrees.

I guess it all depends on your Budget and income. You have to have an idea when you want to visit because this will affectively change the Budget needed.

I wrote a few article’s on this site for ways to save monies on vacations. Here is a summary.
Re-check Car rentals every once in a while – they do go down sometimes and you can rebook at a lower cost.
Re-check Hotel reservations also – These will sometimes come down in price especially if you have a free cancelation policy.
Take the Airline Bump if asked from you last Vacation. Get the Voucher and use it this year’s vacation. But make sure you know and understand the rules on this Voucher.

I like to play the local state Scratch tickets. Whenever I win anything over $20 – I put the money in an envelope for vacation purposes. Actually any win can easily be put away for vacations.

I also take money out of my wife’s purse and put it in an envelope, she never notices either.

February 2, 2014, 6:58 AM

In the past, I had a job that kept me on the road for 4-5 months out of the year, so I always had adequate hotel reward points to cover the cost of my lodging at either a Marriott or Hilton property whenever I would go on a personal trip. I would also drive to several of my job sites and get reimbursed for the mileage, so that added up to cover the cost of the food and tickets while on vacation. Once in a while, I would take my family with me on my business trips if I was going to a nice location and the job wasn't too long. We managed to have some nice trips to Washington DC and NYC while combining business and pleasure.

Since I'm in a new position that doesn't keep me on the road as much and I don't have the hotel rewards points for the free stay, my wife and I are going to try something new this year. Hilton Grand Vacations has been trying to get us to purchase one of their low cost vacation packages to Orlando, so this year we decided to pay the nominal fee for a 4-day, 3-night package and sit in one of their 2-hour sales presentations for their timeshare resorts. We may regret this, but I love to watch a good sales pitch, and I've always been curious how they go about marketing the timeshares. Hopefully this won't be like the South Park episode at the ski resort, but I'll let you all know later how this turns out.

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