How We Saved Money on Our Trip to Disney World

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Jeremy and I recently went on a trip to Disney World with my family. Our group had a total of 15 people, including my parents, two of my three brothers and their wives, and seven nieces and nephews. It was a blast!

We’re very budget conscious because we want to be good stewards of the money God has blessed us with and we have some very significant financial goals: paying off loans + saving for retirement, house, and future kids’ college. At the same time, we realize that life is now, and we want to enjoy the days we are given.

For us, that includes traveling.

Our goal is to take a week-long vacation to somewhere fun every year.

In 2017, this was our honeymoon to Cancun. In 2018, we did a combined trip to Las Vegas for a friend’s wedding with a national parks trip to Zion, Bryce, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. This year, Disney World was on our list! We wanted to go together before we had kids. :)

I want to share with you the top tips we used to save money on our trip to Disney World, but first I want to say one thing. 

Everyone has different priorities for their vacations. For some people, eating lots of delicious food is their number one priority. For others, staying somewhere really cool is the best part. Others want the fastest and smoothest travel experience possible. 

How you prioritize each of these things will influence how much money you are willing and able to save. Keep this in mind for the rest of the post. :)

Now with that out of the way, here we go!

How We Saved Money on Our Trip to Disney World

We used our Southwest Credit Card to save on flights!

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Jeremy and I use our Southwest card for absolutely everything, but the important part is that we pay it off completely every single month. This means that we don’t ever have to pay interest on a balance, which as we all know is the stinky part about credit cards. :)

I acknowledge that this isn’t the Dave Ramsey method, which we typically follow, but it works for us. Neither of us is tempted to make big purchases with our credit card that we can’t afford to pay off in the same month, but if we were, we would avoid credit cards altogether. It just wouldn’t be worth it.

Since we use our Southwest card this way to earn points, we were able to get three of our four flights for free (both flights going and one coming home)!! That was a big chunk of savings for us! 

We stayed off property with free breakfast and shuttle.

I looked and looked for the best deals, and we settled on a two-bedroom at Staybridge Suites Lake Buena Vista. Since we shared the suite with my parents, our portion came to about $95 a night with tax. 

I should mention that when we go on vacation, we always look for a place with free breakfast. It’s a money-saver that’s easy to miss! This place had the biggest free hotel breakfast I’ve ever seen. 

The third thing we were looking for in our hotel (besides a great deal and free breakfast) was a free shuttle to each of the Disney parks. We wanted to avoid renting a car because we knew this would add a lot to our total cost - even with a great hotel deal.

Staybridge offered a free shuttle to and from every one of the Disney parks - plus Universal Studios! Check, check!

To put this in perspective, the cheapest (and smallest...) room we could find on Disney property would have been an extra $85 a night including tax! All on-property resorts have free shuttles not only to and from each park but also to and from the airport. The free airport shuttle was a one-up on Staybridge, but not even close to making the price difference worthwhile. On top of that, none of the Disney resorts offer free breakfast! :(

In the end, though we considered staying on property, we were so happy we didn’t! We loved Staybridge Suites and plan on staying there again the next time we are in Orlando!

We bought “base tickets” to the parks.

We had 5-day base tickets to Disney World. With this type of ticket, you are only allowed entrance to one park per day, but you are allowed to come and go from that park throughout the day. The key is that you can’t “park-hop”. We took advantage of the leave-and-return option on a couple of extra hot afternoons, when we came back to our hotel and went to the pool. The only drawback was that the hotel shuttles didn’t run in the afternoon, so we had to take an Uber or Lyft, but it was well worth it for the break from the walking and heat!

Park Hopper tickets are nice in theory, but we didn’t find them necessary. Since we had five days in the parks, we didn’t feel the need to run from one to the next in the same day.

It forced us to go at a little slower pace, which we liked. :)

We dined wisely: didn’t get a dining plan, drank water, and ate at mostly quick-service restaurants.

A Disney Dining Plan one wasn’t an option for us as it’s only offered to those staying on property, but we definitely saved by not having one. We ate a big breakfast at our hotel, lunch at a quick service restaurant in the parks, and usually had a nicer dinner either in the park or by our hotel. We only spent more per person than it would have cost for the cheapest dining plan on one day of our trip, and it was just because we did a character breakfast on property that day instead of eating at our hotel. (It was so cute to see my youngest niece and nephews’ reactions to meeting the characters!)

Jeremy and I drank water at every meal in the parks - which they provide for free. By the way, you can get free cups of ice water at any quick service restaurant in Disney World even if you’re not ordering food! Drinking lots of water was muy importante since we went in June (it was so so so hot!!).

Side note: how I approach healthy eating on vacation!

The short answer is that I don’t really focus much on nutrition on vacation! I strongly believe that healthy, balanced eating doesn’t need to mean eating well 100% of the time and that eating well shouldn’t take away from the joy of living your life. To the contrary, eating should add to the joy of living!

To put it another way, I believe eating should be one of life’s simple, daily joys. If it’s not, something is wrong.

When I’m at home, I aim to eat healthy foods that align with the Mediterranean diet (whole grains, fruit, vegetables, nuts, olive oil, beans, fish, poultry, yogurt, kefir, etc.) about 75% of the time, which leaves plenty of freedom for foods that are just for fun while also ensuring that I have a nutritionally balanced eating pattern overall. 

On vacation, this percentage is basically backwards. I aim for foods consistent with a Mediterranean eating pattern about 25% of the time.

I don’t try to include a vegetable or fruit at every meal, eat whole grains, or limit my intake of fried food. These goals would be really challenging at a place like Disney World! Instead, I ate three meals a day with minimal snacks (walking around all day in 90+ degree weather takes away my appetite for snacks) and drank mostly water.

The only three things I really focused on nutritionally during the trip were drinking lots and lots of water, eating until I was comfortable but not stuffed, and having fruit with breakfast. Here’s why: 

  1. Water: It’s incredibly easy to become dehydrated being outside all day in Florida in the summer. I normally limit my intake of calorie-containing beverages at home and prioritize water, so this was easy to continue at Disney. It was also something that I had complete control over. It’s super easy to order water at restaurants and carry around a water bottle in the parks. In contrast, I had little to no control over how many items on the menu included fruits or vegetables that actually sounded good to me. Since I had little to no control over this, I didn’t worry about having fruits and vegetables at most restaurants.

  2. Stopping before I was stuffed: I don’t want to emphasize this too much, because it’s not what it might sound like. I didn’t pay meticulous attention to my “hunger and fullness cues” and stop when I was at an 8 out of 10. I’ve tried this before, and honestly for me it’s more trouble than it’s worth. This kind of intensive internal monitoring during meals actually takes the joy out of eating for me. Instead, I just ate until I was comfortably full, and stopped eating before I was uncomfortable. No rating of my hunger on a 1 to 10 scale - whew! :)

  3. Fruit with breakfast: As mentioned above, I didn’t worry about fruits and vegetables at restaurants during the day, because this would have been frustrating and difficult. However, our hotel had an awesome free breakfast and offered bananas and apples as part of the free buffet every single day. It was easy to intentionally include half a banana with breakfast. (For some reason, I have trouble eating a whole banana. Anyone else like me?) This was a smart and easy nutritional choice I could make since the breakfast buffet was almost the same every day.

I digress. :) Back to how we saved money on the trip!

We splurged on large purchases mindfully.

We had a few splurges on the trip, and we made these splurges very mindfully. The first was our character breakfast, mentioned above. The second was that we spent a day at Universal Studios to see Harry Potter World. This was a splurge because one-day tickets for either Disney or Universal are very expensive! 

Each additional day you have tickets at Disney World drives the price-per-day way down, so we had to count the cost of a one-day ticket to Universal vs. adding an extra day at Disney. It was a big difference in price, but so worth it! 

Universal Studios actually ended up being our favorite park! :) By the way, to prepare for seeing Harry Potter World, Jeremy and I watched all of the movies leading up to our trip. Highly recommend!

Our final splurge was a luau dinner with our entire family. It included dinner and a show and was such a fun memory with our family! Here’s a picture of all of us before the show!

What we didn’t do was drop money on unplanned splurges. We budgeted our whole trip on a spreadsheet, including the above items, so there weren’t any big surprise expenses. I highly recommend doing this so you know how much your vacations are going to cost - as well as how much you can save!

Conclusion

Those are the biggest tips that saved us a lot of money at Disney World! We did some smaller things to save money on the trip as well, but the things I mentioned above were by far our heaviest hitters. We had a fantastic trip and were very happy with all of the decisions we made about saving as well as intentional splurging.

What about you? In the comments, tell me your favorite ways to save money on vacations! I’m excited to hear all of your tips! :)