Planning your theme park vacation: Step 3 - keep track of your expenses

November 20, 2008, 2:58 PM · In our first two installments, we talked about the importance of saving for a vacation, then daydreamed a bit about where you might want to go. The next step is to start putting numbers on paper. But before we start looking into the cost of visiting specific parks, let's take a moment to think about how we will manage the information we find.

Theme Park Insider reader Don Neal e-mailed me about a wonderful system that he uses to budget for his family's theme park vacations. With his permission, I'm passing along his system, along with the spreadsheet he uses. Here's Don:

I love to plan, possibly to the point of over-planning. but I have never been let down because of it. It's one thing to know about the parks and the area, but not understanding cost will ruin a trip faster than anything. So to help with [that], I developed a spreadsheet [Microsoft Excel file] that I can reuse over and over with all the usual costs added in, plus some of the ones that no one thinks of.

It tracks the item, quantity, frequency (think days), cost per unit, and the total as a result.

The items that I track are:

- Airfare if flying
- Rental Car if renting
- Gas (if driving, I calculate the mileage at 22/mpg divided into the total x the current rate per gallon plus 10%)

- Hotel on the way to or from if you are driving
- Hotel or condo upon arrival

- Groceries, if staying at a place that has a kitchen (snacks, breakfast, drinks, etc)
- Breakfast, Cost per day x number of days ($4 per person assuming a trip to McD's or eating at the condo)
- Lunch, Cost per day x number of days ($7 per adult, and $5 per child assuming eating at the parks)
- Dinner, Cost per day x number of days ($15 per adult, and $7 per child assuming a Friday's, Hard Rock, or Applebee's type)
- The frequency of these can be dropped if park packages are purchased or meal deals bought.

- Putt-Putt: who doesn't go to Florida or Myrtle Beach and not putt-putt, $10 a person x frequency.
- Movies: This is about a 50/50 with us but I always budget for it. $10 a person x frequency
- Parks: Filled in based on where you are going. Add additional lines if multiple parks are in order.
- Shows if applicable, cost varies.

Spending Money
- We always budget spending money. This is where your money can disappear rather quickly. The $30 shirts, $20 hats, $20 key chains. We set aside a certain amount up front. Usually $100-150 per adult and $50-75 per child depending on available finances.

- Parking fees and tolls: $12 a day. This one slips a lot of people's minds as well. Can add up fast between trips to the beach in FL, parking at the parks, and such.
- Forgotten items: $5 a day. Shampoo, a toothbrush, throw away cameras, bandaids, and so on. Always something that gets forgotten.

This usually gives people a much larger number than what they are prepared for but it lets them get a true idea of what the trip is going to cost. I have helped several friends doing this and they all have come back praising the process. It only takes 15-30 mins to look up airfare, hotels, and park fees. Also if you plan to pay in cash, saving up so that you don't come back owing MC or Visa $5k-10k. We are going to Disney in June and are already saving up for it. We pull out the money and organize it in envelopes so we know what's what and are able to track it. Some people would think that's more effort than it's worth, especially on a trip where you are wanting to relax and not think about money, but we did this last year and came back with $80 in our wallet. Can't beat that. And I didn't owe anyone a thing when I got home. Nothing but great memories and time with the family.

I've put Don's spreadsheet up on Theme Park Insider for readers to use for their vacation planning. You can make several copies of the spreadsheet, one for each potential destination or trip length you're considering. That way, you can make a solid, apples-to-apples comparison about trip costs.

And then, once you've made your choice, your budget will be set and your family soon ready to roll.

Next week, we'll start filling out these categories by pricing individual park options.

Replies (7)

November 20, 2008 at 3:29 PM · Pretty good spreadsheet, Don. My only problem is that I love spontaneity - although I like most things planned out for a theme park vacation, sometimes we just feel like wandering off the path.
November 20, 2008 at 3:47 PM · I think that you can preserve spontaneity on a budget -- you just have to pick things that fit within your expense categories. Go with whatever restaurant, activity or hotel you stumble across, just keep it within the price range you anticipated.

Experience helps, too. After time (or with the help of others), you can better ID things that you will want to budget for.

November 20, 2008 at 4:01 PM · I love it too! Its a great way to think of how much money you really spend! However, his money for theme park tickets are either absent or lower. However, the interesting thing is you can shift the money around based upon if you stay at a hotel that gives you perks (such as Disney or Universal). For example, if you stay at a Disney hotel, you can take the Magical Express instead of renting a car and save money on theme park parking, which tends to eat up the budget. Still, that is an excellent idea and will be saving it in the future!
November 20, 2008 at 7:23 PM · Let's just consider the numbers in the spreadsheet right now as "dummy data," just there to give you a feel for the spreadsheet, not to represent real-world cost, which can vary from week to week.

The Magical Express situation provides a great example of how having spreadsheets for each vacation plan can help you compare total overall cost. Otherwise, you might figure the cost of a rental car as a given for all parks, when you might not need it for an on-site Disney visit.

November 20, 2008 at 7:10 PM · Excellent work, Don. Thanks for sharing your method and spreadsheet with the rest of us. The best thing about your method: "coming home with $80 in your wallet." Wow...that never happens on my trips. Kudos!
November 21, 2008 at 6:56 AM · Thanks guys! Glad it's helping others. Like Robert said, it's just a template with dummy data. My sheets are actually even more detailed when I get done with them but I always start with this template. So feel free to take it and make it your own. Also feel free to post any questions you might have. I am happy to help!
November 21, 2008 at 10:43 AM · I haven't had the chance yet to pull up the spreadsheet but I definitely plan to some time this weekend.

We've never created a budget for our trip. Generally we pay for our hotel, tickets and rental car months in advance. We take quite a bit of money with us for food, souvenirs and anything else. The way we've always done it is to pay for all of our big ticket items prior to leaving, then when we go on vacation, we try to take anywhere from $1,500-$2,000 with us. We always bring a lot of money back home with us, so we toss it into our "vacation fund" for the next year.

This is something I definitely want to look at though, perhaps it can help us even more! Thanks for putting this together.

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