Planning your theme park vacation: Step 1 - save, don't borrow, the money

November 6, 2008, 11:44 AM · This week, and every Thursday until next spring, we'll be talking on about how to plan for your family's 2009 vacation. My goal with this series is to help you find the best possible vacation for your family at the lowest possible price.

Many folks equate "theme park vacation" with "week in Orlando." While we certainly will find ways for many of you to get that great, affordable vacation to Central Florida, I'll also show you other options from around the country (and, in a few cases, the world). A family weekend at Legoland and the beach in Carlsbad, Calif. The couple days at Dollywood while camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A mid-year history trip to Williamsburg, Virginia, with a day at Busch Gardens, too.

But before we get to any potential itineraries, we have an important issue to address first: money. Like I said, the goal here is to plan a vacation for the lowest possible price. To do that, you need to start right now.


The easiest way to save 10-20 percent, or even more, on your family vacation is to pay for it with your own money. Don't borrow it from the bank by charging it to a credit card. (Or, worse, doing something truly foolish like paying for it with a home equity loan.) If you put your vacation expenses on a credit card and leave them there for a year, you'll end up paying not just the cost of the vacation, but 10-20 percent more for the interest charges on that balance, too.

Pay off your vacation when you take it, and you save that extra expense. And, if you squirrel away your money into an interest-paying account during the year, you can consider the interest you earn an extra discount on the cost of your theme park vacation. (There's an engaging video at that using the example of buying a car to show how people who pay cash end up way ahead in the long run over folks who borrow. Also, it's okay to put your vacation expenses on a credit card if you pay it off every month. Charging to, then paying off, a low- or no-annual-fee rewards card also can help you cover the cost of a vacation by earning you free airfare, hotel rooms and rental cars, too. Just try to use one card for all your expenses throughout the year to maximize your rewards.)

Saving in advance also helps you control the cost of your family vacation. If you didn't save it, you can't spend it. But don't think that means you can't have a fun vacation. I'm writing this series to help you find a fun, relaxing and memorable vacation, no matter what your budget ultimately turns out to be.

So how are you going to save up for your vacation? If you are fortunate enough not to be living from paycheck to paycheck, think about how much money you would be willing to take out of savings, right now, for a family trip. That's your base. If you are living paycheck-to-paycheck, your base is zero, but don't worry. We can find a way to build from there.

Whatever you do, do not take money from a retirement account, or reduce the amount you are contributing toward a 401(k), to pay for your vacation. That's just borrowing from your future, and we're trying not to borrow for this, remember? :-)

Let's start by writing down every single thing you spend money on for the next week. Next Thursday morning, look at that list and decide what you can cut out and instead put that money toward your vacation. Bringing lunch from home instead of going out? Buying a cheaper cup of coffee in the morning, or brewing it at home? Skipping a couple weekend getaways for a better week-long vacation? Figure out how much money you can set aside each week to pay for your vacation. Then do it. Transfer it into a savings account and leave it there.

Count your pennies, too. Put a jar on the night-stand and dump your spare change into it every night. Have your kids do the same with their own jars. You might be surprised how much "walking around" souvenir money you've saved this way by next summer.

With your budget in hand, you'll be able to make a more informed decision about what kind of vacation your family will be able to afford. Not only that, you'll be able to envision your vacation knowing that it will not put you deeper in a financial hole. How reassuring would that be?

It gets better, too. With your 2009 vacation paid off the moment you get home, you'll be able to start saving for 2010, without any old vacation debt payments slowing you down. And so on.

Next week, we'll start thinking about specific destinations. Excited yet? You should be. Planning a trip can be a great way to enjoy your vacation 52 weeks a year. Start writing down your expenses and let's get started.

Replies (12)

November 6, 2008 at 1:23 PM · Love it, love it, love it. The plan you described is exactly what we do. We have a vacation fund that we put money into and in an earlier discussion, I talked about our trip to WDW in June, how we reserved it and each month we make payments on it, several times a month. At the rate we're going, it will be paid off in January.

If you can afford to pay for everything prior to your departure, you really find yourself more at ease, enjoying your vacation more, and believe it or not, you seem to spend less money once you arrive at your destination. This is the only way we've ever done it and will hopefully always do it.

November 6, 2008 at 1:28 PM · Very Good article, but I also think to save alot on your vacations (and not skip on fun) is also the little tips and plans. Like which hotel is doing a special for, let's say, a week, you'd (well maybe not you) be surprised at what great deals you can get on some rather posh hotels.

Also, If you want to eat at a big or extravagent restaurant, instead of getting four or five big meals that no one will eat in a million years, try ordering an appetizer platter, they'll usually feed a whole family.

Disney hotels are a great way to save money, they are great for kids, and are extremely well priced. You also get perks like extra hours to the parks, and character breakfasts among others.

November 6, 2008 at 1:34 PM · This reminds me of my first Disney trip, other than when I was too little to remember, back in 2003. I was 14, and I reallly wanted to go to Disneyland over winter break. But my parents could not afford it. So I took up the initiative to save up the money. I made a box and labeled it "Disneyland Savings", and every week, I put all my allowance into the box. My little brother put some of his allowance in the box too. I even put some of my weekly lunch money into the box; I wanted to go so badly I was ok with eating less or nothing school. We got lucky and had some friends who worked at the Disney Store get us complimentary tickets, but I still had to pay for gas, hotel, food, allowance and lunch money wasn't enough, so I personally organized a garage sale, which put me over the top! I also took all the money I got as Hannukkah gifts and put it in the box. I paid for our Disneyland trip that New Years, and it is that trip that made me fall in love with Disney Parks and ultimatley led me to where I am today: A Walt Disney World Cast Member and die-hard Disney fanatic

The lesson is, that if you are really committed to the theme park vacation, and you set your mind to it, you can come up with whatever money neccessary. If a 14 year old could pay for a family of four's trip, you can do it to! Just set aside some money from your paycheck, ask your kids (if theyre old enough) to help the fund with some of their allowance, and you can even hold a garage sale if neccessary!

November 6, 2008 at 4:27 PM · I put our loose change in a cute wooden treasure chest from the time we get back from vacation till the day before we leave on vacation the next year. Then I take it to the bank and get bills. That is what we use to buy our amusement park tickets. Nearly every year I have saved enough to pay for 2 adult tickets for 2 parks. My mom does the same thing and always has her park money saved.

For our hotel, I pull out a few bucks every month from my husbands check for the same amount of time as above. At the end of the year we usually have close to the amount saved. We book the room while we are there for the next year so I know exactly what we need to save.

My husband enjoys tasting the specialty drinks in EPCOT. They can really run into big money at $5-$8 a piece. So I told him to start saving his own change for it. He has a coconut head monkey that he drops his extra pennies in. By the end of the year he has saved around $70. Not bad for extra change.

Gas became so expensive my dad started saving his change. He saved over $60 which in his car gets him to Daytona from Ringgold, Ga close to 600 miles.

Extra change can really add up and its always fun to see how much you've saved over the year. Of course we do other things like we rent a family size room with 2 bedrooms and 2 baths with my parents instead of 2 rooms. The suite costs $135/night whereas each room would cost $112/night per couple. So each couple is only paying $70/night. Plus we get a full kitchen.

For some out there that don't know websites like MyPoints give you points for reading emails, shopping thru the site etc. You then trade those points for gifts. One of the gift options is gas cards. Last year I saved enough points to cash in for 5 $10 gas cards. Free $50 in gas. I used points earned off my visa (which I pay in full every month) for a $50 visa gift card. That was 3 meals for 2 in Daytona.

My parents save cans and cash them in every so often. They get about $16 at a time and they set that aside for vacation. Over a year it adds up to quiet a bit.

These days you have to try every possible way to save money if you want a vacation. We have gotten pretty good at it.

November 6, 2008 at 5:29 PM · Love hearing everyone's ideas. Our son earns a weekly allowance so when he knows we're taking a big trip, he puts it in his piggy bank until a day or two before we go on the trip. He does the extra things, too, so he can earn extra cash. When we go on our trip, he has his own wallet with his own money. When it's his own money he has to spend, he's very careful with it as opposed to when mom and dad buy everything...

Since we pre-pay everything before leaving, several weeks out I pay for all the upcoming month's bills. I usually get paid right before we leave and my husband gets paid a day or two after we arrive on vacation. Although we've put away money for our vacation budget in our savings account, we usually don't end up touching it because we're able to use our paychecks for spending money since we prepaid that month's bills. It has worked out wonderfully for us over the years.

Although we could go "luxury style" when it comes to our sleeping arrangements, there's something about staying on site that makes our vacation that much more fun. When we go to WDW, we stay at the value resort because (1) the themes are great, especially when you have children, (2) the cost of the value resorts is so inexpensive compared to the others, and (3) we don't feel that it's worth it to spend $300+ a night for a room that we don't spend much time at. Besides, at the other moderate and deluxe hotels, it's not like you get many more freebies than at the value resorts.

November 6, 2008 at 6:21 PM · Let's be ABSOLUTELY Clear: The next two to three years are going to be pivitol for the theme park industry.

Reported TODAY: LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – The Walt Disney Co on Thursday said bookings at its theme parks have declined "considerably" in the last month as the global economy has soured, and its shares slid 9 percent in extended trade.

This echoes a post that was offered on October 10th at Jim Hill's site: "Based on what I've been told, the folks who work at Disney's Reservation Centers began raising red flags back in January. Even then, there was enough of a deviation from the way that people typically made their Disney World reservations, the numbers of days that Guests were opting to stay on Property, the types of packages that they were booking to suggest that late 2008 / early 2009 was going to be a real challenge for the Resort. Which is why -- starting in February -- WDW management began getting aggressive about cost containment.

I have ALWAYS been an advocate of the Disney company's inherent understanding of its own product. The Jim Hill report makes it clear that the folks at Disney have been preparing for an economic storm for more than a year. Certainly the "get in free on your birthday" campaign was an aggressive attempt at generating business from local Florida traffic to supplant the absence of traveling guests.

Having said all of this (from a Florida perspective) how will Disney ride the storm out?

1. South American traffic. The economy of Brazil has been relatively strong. Brazilian tour groups continue to populate the parks.

2. A weak U.S. dollar makes Disney an attractive destination for Canadian and UK tourists.

3. The aforementioned birthday promotion.

4. The confidence that comes with the Disney brand and the assurance that no company knows the theme park business better than this company.

The storm has not hit yet. I have been managing a small construction contract at DHS. Let me assure you that even during this odd time of early November weekdays, there are plenty of guests in the park.

Disney may be the only entity other than Kevin Cronin who knows what it takes to ride a storm out.

A final note: while Disney may be able to hold on through a rocky economy, one wonders whether other parks will be able to do the same. Or to put it another way, what are the chances that the Hard Rock Park will still be in business in 2010?

November 6, 2008 at 6:48 PM · If any theme park destination can weather the storm, it is Disney World...and if any company can overcome the economic crisis, it is The Walt Disney Company, especially because they will keep making money from the film industry, which is the one industry in America that tends to actually do better in economic depressions, due to people needing cheaper forms of entertainment...Disney is one of the few companies that hasn't been devastated by the economy in the last few months

I am optomistic that this upcoming Holiday season will be pretty close to business as usual for Disney World as far as attendance goes, because a lot of people book holiday trips almost a year in advance, in other words, before the economic crisis...and unless their family is in a dire situation, they likely won't cancel those is next year that I worry about if the economy doesn't get better soon

November 6, 2008 at 7:40 PM · I think all in all, we will be fine next year, but the article is still very helpful on how to afford going on vacation, especially to Orlando.

Great Job!

November 6, 2008 at 8:14 PM · The other question is how much Disney will BENEFIT from Universl's Harry Potter attraction(s). Many visitors from other states and countries who venture to Orlando to experience HP will likely jog down I-4 to spend a day at the competitor's park.

If I were Disney, I'd be lookin' at a gate-crasher attraction for DHS come 2010.

November 6, 2008 at 9:22 PM · Thats a good point TH. The only thing DHS is likely to debut as early as 2010 though is Star Tours 2. And while it may not be an entitrely new ride, it will still be a brand new film, and will be in 3D, and Star Wars obviously has the fan base to draw attention to the new, new E-Ticket or not, a lot people who come to Orlando for Harry Potter will end up going to Disney Disney will benefit, but for the first few months of HP, I would not be surpised if IOA has higher attendance figures than any of the WDW parks
November 7, 2008 at 7:49 AM · Great article Robert. This format has served us well over the years and is something we continue to do for all major spending events in our budget not just vacation. It has made a huge difference giving us much more leverage and agility in this weaker economy.

We are planning our June Disney trip right now and have already been saving for a few months. The kids are excited and contributing as well. Thanks for sharing this series with us, letting us contribute, and doing more than just being a coaster site.


Don Neal

November 7, 2008 at 11:50 AM · We save our change into a couple of jars and I take out the same amount in cash each payday and when there is some left over from the last payday I put that into the jar as well. We also use the AAA discounts for vacations with the family, they don't always include Theme Parks but going to the Grand Canyon Railway with my elderly Father-in-law and Uncle was a kick for them and gave us some family time on the train both ways. we use the rewards cards to book hotels and then we collect the rewards to pay for gas, food etc. which is a big help.

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