The Happiest Place on Earth: How to save time and money at Disneyland

Ready for the day!

Ready for the day!

We’ve been back from Disneyland for a week, and we’re still talking about it. Disneyland is not far from San Diego, but we were waiting until our kids were a  bit older to make sure they would really enjoy (and remember) their first visit. Since their birthdays are a month apart, we asked if they wanted to spend a couple of days at Disney instead of having birthday parties, and the Cars lover and princess fanatic thought this was a great idea.

I read some helpful tips for saving time and money before we went, so I thought I’d share what made our trip to the “Happiest Place on Earth” so much fun.

1. Buy tickets online
I buy everything online, so it’s no surprise I purchased our tickets that way. What was a surprise was how many people didn’t purchase tickets in advance and how long the lines were to buy them at the gates. Buy online and save valuable time!

Taking a break in the room for a nap and a snack

Taking a break in the room for a nap and a snack

2. Stay at a Disney hotel
I know some people may argue this, as the price is significantly higher than it is to stay at the local Marriott or Hilton. Time is money though, so it was worth the extra $100 to park our car on site and walk (not shuttle) everywhere. Another big advantage is that you can get into the parks an hour earlier than everyone else and avoid crowds. We were also able to come back to our room in the early afternoon. The kids and Chase took a nap while I did some work, then we watched the end of the Masters and had a drink and snack before heading back to Disneyland feeling refreshed.

Mmm...Pirate's Booty and fruit snacks

Mmm…Pirate’s Booty and fruit snacks

3. Bring snacks and drinks
I do this at every theme park (Sea World, San Diego Zoo), but it’s especially helpful at Disney where lines are long and prices are high. I bought Capri Sun waters and made individual bags of snacks for each kid. The obvious advantage is saving money since a bottle of water is $4 and popcorn is $6, but it also allows you to eat healthier than you would with most Disney options. Not to mention it keeps you sane, helping to distract the kids in long lines. And of course, you’ll be grateful for the time you save not having to wait in line with other hungry (and often grouchy) families.

Spent her gift card on Minnie!

Spent her gift card on Minnie!

4. Limit souvenirs
Disney is a marketing machine, and many attractions spill riders out directly into gift shops. We exited quickly, leading the kids off to new rides. Though the toys in the shops look fun, they were there for the experience and didn’t seem to mind. That being said, Avery got a Disney gift card from her aunt and uncle for her birthday, and Clay had a great week (of listening) at school, so we told him he could pick something $15 or less.  I was shocked Clay was able to find Cars he didn’t already have (he’s been collecting them for almost two years), and Avery chose a Minnie Mouse pillow pet. This was their first trip to Disney, so I was okay buying one thing each.  If you agree to buying a souvenir, I’d recommend buying it at the end of the day, so you don’t have to lug it around all day.

After his second ride on Radiator Springs Racers

After his second ride on Radiator Springs Racers

5. Get to the parks early
We got to Disneyland right when they opened and to California Adventure an hour before they opened to the public (thanks to staying on property). Lines are short when the parks first open, so head to the rides that are most important to you first. It’s also good to get FASTPASSES for the popular rides in the morning since they run out quickly. That was the case for Radiator Springs Racers in the new Cars Land. Chase and Clay went and got in line for the ride, while I stood in the FASTPASS line, which meant Clay got to ride again later that morning. FASTPASSES for that ride run out by 11:00 a.m. and without them, my coworker waited in line for three hours. No, thanks!

Our breakfast companion

Our breakfast companion

6. Book a character dining experience
Disney characters walk around the parks, but they have handlers like the celebrities they are, and kids have to wait in line to meet them. But, there is a solution for impatient people like me – character dining. I know $16 is a lot of money for a child’s breakfast, but for little kids, eating with Disney characters is pretty darn cool. At our hotel, the Paradise Pier, the food wasn’t bad either. They had an omelet station reminiscent of our Hawaiian honeymoon and Mexico trips, so Chase and I pretended we were on a tropical vacation. You have to eat breakfast regardless, so rather than spending time at the park waiting in line to meet Minnie, let her come to you while you enjoy some pancakes. We went early (7:00 a.m.), so the dining room was not crowded, and we got a lot of attention from the characters. Almost too much attention for me, but it was great for the kids. If you’re not staying at a Disney hotel, there are dining experiences at the parks, including Ariel’s Grotto, where you dine with the princesses (we chose the more generic Mickey & Friends option since Clay is not quite as obsessed with princesses as Avery is).

Cheers to a fun day and sleeping munchkins! Who cares that we're eating in the hallway?

Cheers to a fun day and sleeping munchkins! Who cares that we’re eating in the hallway?

7. Put the kids to bed, order room service and relax
Chase and I didn’t eat dinner at the park, choosing instead to order room service at the hotel. We brought a cooler with us, so we had drinks and the kids fell asleep quickly listening to a bedtime story from Cinderella on the TV (another benefit of the Disney hotel). The food was just okay and we ate in the hallway of our room with the lovely light of the bathroom, but it was nice to have some alone time and made it feel like a vacation for the adults as well.

All of these tips are specific to Disneyland, though for my East Coast friends, they’d probably work for Disney World, too. Chase and I joked that a fun drinking game (if they sold booze) would be to take a drink every time you hear a kid cry. Fortunately, it was never either of our kids. We had a blast!

I’m sure I’m forgetting some tips since I didn’t get much sleep on the trip and haven’t had time to catch up since. Do you have any tips for Disney, to make our next trip even better?

Time is money travel dilemma: fly or drive?

las-vegas-smallSouthern California is great place to live for people who like to travel. It’s a short drive to the mountains, desert or beach and just a quick flight to Napa Valley, San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, Phoenix or Las Vegas.

Right now, I’m planning our annual trip to Vegas to meet my brother and his wife for a weekend, and I’m considering driving. When I say I, I mean that I’m considering riding, while Chase drives. Lots of people drive from So Cal to Vegas and I’ve done it a few times. Driving across the desert looking at cacti is boring. Flying is easier, but it’s also more expensive and not that much faster. I’m more than willing to pay for convenience, but the security lines at the Vegas airport are hardly convenient, so what to do?

In the past few years, I’ve never really considered driving because we booked early enough that our flights were cheap, so it saved money (and time) to fly. This year my brother was slower to confirm his travel dates, so we’re looking at $450 on Southwest, or $320 on Spirit Airlines (which I’m pretty sure will charge me to use the restroom, based on the extra fees they added during my ticket search). Add in another $25 for parking at the San Diego Airport and $50 in cabs to get to/from the Vegas airport to the hotel, and we’re close to $400. We have a fuel-efficient car, so based on current gas prices, it would cost about $100 to drive.

So here is where the time factor comes in. Factoring in getting to/from the airports, time in the airports and the flight (assuming it’s on time) it would take about three hours and 45 minutes door-to-door. Driving takes five hours (assuming no traffic). I have to mention that since we are traveling Saturday and Monday, the roads won’t be too busy, meaning less traffic and not as dangerous as they would be driving on a Friday evening or a Sunday afternoon. Being on the 15 freeway to Vegas with cars full of people who are excited to get there, then back with them hungover is not safe, and I wouldn’t consider it. We also have a place to stay that is halfway there, so we could break the trip up if we wanted to.

I would like to save $300. Chase likes to drive and it might be fun for us to take a road trip alone. So, why can’t I decide? Because I’m a Libra and can be indecisive, especially when it comes to decisions that cost me time and money. Since he’d be the one driving, I’ll let Chase decide. And let’s be honest, l know that $300 could be gone in one hand of blackjack anyway. But, if we save some money by driving, I might miss that cash a little less.

My brother says anything more than a six-hour drive, you fly. Vegas is less than six, but still long. What is your limit in flying vs. driving to save money?

A sad goodbye to diapers.com

My baby girl will turn three next week. In the first few months of her life, I was as dependent on diapers.com as she was on me for food. I had two kids in diapers. I used baby shampoos, soaps and toothpaste. I loved everything about diapers.com. Free overnight shipping, no tax, and amazingly responsive customer service. When I was tired from sleepless nights and mistakenly ordered the wrong item, they replaced it without charging me. It was my fault, but they repeatedly did everything they could to make me happy.

For years, I’ve been a loyal customer. I’ve told friends about them and joked that they should pay me for all the good PR I’ve given them. So it was a sad goodbye when I unsubscribed from their email list today. It’s not because their customer service or product quality has declined or because (money-hungry) California caught up to them and they now apply tax on purchases. I simply don’t need the products they specialize in anymore.

Four strollers, five car seats, 100 sippy cups and God knows how many diapers later, I no longer have babies. I have a preschool-age child and an almost-kindergartner (I write, wiping away tears). Diapers.com sells some items for older kids, but most of their promotional emails don’t relate to these products, so over the past few months, their emails became clutter in my inbox. Yet I resisted unsubscribing, maybe hanging onto the baby stage just a bit longer.

If I need something, I’ll still check their site, or one of their sister sites, soap.com, yoyo.com or beautybar.com.  I will recommend diapers.com to all the new moms I know and I’ll buy baby gifts for friends on the site.

I remember reading the company story (they started in a garage) in a business magazine years ago and feeling good about giving my money to them. And it’s easy for me to get behind a service that saves me time and money. I’m not getting the emails anymore, but I’m forever grateful to the company that made having two babies in less than two years, just a little bit easier.

Looking polished for weeks with a gel manicure

After two weeks! (ignore my dry hands, please!)

After two weeks! (ignore my dry hands, please!)

I realize that I’ve been writing a lot of beauty-related posts lately, but I’m trying to find products and services that make me look presentable, without spending a lot of time or money. Today’s service: gel (or shellac) nail polish.

Before I had kids, my nails always looked perfect. Unlike my hair, my nails are strong and don’t break easily, so I spent time every Thursday night (while watching TV) painting them. Friends warned me I wouldn’t have time to do it once I had kids, but I managed to maintain my routine when Clay was born. He was a great sleeper and in bed by 7:00, so it was fine. Then Avery came along. She was also a good sleeper, but with more laundry to fold and bills to pay on the rare nights I had time to watch TV, I ended up with clear nails for a while.

A friend introduced me to the gel polish craze about 18 months ago and in that time I’ve had it done probably eight times, usually around special occasions (vacations, weddings, etc.). Every time I do it, I love it because it lasts for three weeks. Even french manicures, which with a regular manicure last five days, if you’re lucky.

I don’t know about you, but I just feel more polished (no pun intended) when my nails are done. Gel manicures are not cheap (about $30), but if you do the math it works out to be $10 a week. I was spending about an hour a week doing them myself. My time is worth more than $10/hour and I know yours is, too.

I know there has been criticism that the gel polish damages your nails, but in my case since I only do it occasionally, my nails have been fine. You do need to use acetone to get it off, which the salon can do for you, or you can buy a bottle for $2 at Target and soak it off yourself (while watching TV?). Also, they do use ultraviolet light to set the polish, so put sunscreen on your hands before you go, just to be safe.

For those who really want to save money and not just time, there are home gel kits, which they sell at Ulta and other beauty supply stores. I’ve considered buying one, but I have to admit, I like the little break I get at the salon. I’d love to hear if anyone has tried one and liked it though!

Happy Easter, everyone! Maybe the Easter Bunny will bring you a gift card to the nail salon and you can enjoy a gel manicure!

Missing spring break? How to save money on vacation travel

I’m slowly coming to the terms with the fact that I’m never getting a “spring break” again. I finished college 14 years ago, so I’m not sure why it took me so long. My teacher friends’ Facebook posts have me itching for a vacation, but I can’t take one now, so I’m planning  this year’s trips instead. Since we have a few weddings this year, and it is our year to travel to the East Coast for Christmas, our vacation time and budget is already accounted for.

We travel fairly often, usually for weddings, to see family or to meet my brother and his wife in Vegas for a weekend. Travel costs do add up, but Chase and I both grew up traveling regularly, so we prioritize this in our budget rather than buying each other gifts throughout the year. I wish I had an unlimited travel budget, but for now I use these five ways to save money on vacations:

1. Book early.
We’ve been lucky that our friends have chosen to get married in beautiful vacation destinations, from secluded islands off the Gulf Coast of Florida to Mexico and beyond. Destination weddings are great (who doesn’t love going on vacation with their friends ?), and we have another one in Mexico this year. Though the wedding isn’t until October, I booked our trip last week. Especially for popular destinations during peak season, travel prices will go up as you get closer to your travel date. The price for the same package has gone up $80 since I booked. Book early if you are certain you will be going!

2. Buy package deals.
Another way to save money is to buy package deals on one of the many travel websites: OrbitzCheap Tickets, etc. The discount varies depending on the site, so it’s worth spending a few minutes online checking around. For our Mexico trip, we saved $300 by booking our air and hotel together, and saved time by booking them both on one site. I also have less clutter in my inbox, since I received just one confirmation email.

3. Use airline miles.
I love my United Visa and Delta AmEx, but if I didn’t use the miles, it wouldn’t make sense to have them. I’ve written before about the ways we’ve used our miles for everything from our honeymoon tickets to Hawaii to a hotel room for Chase’s holiday party. Don’t forget to check mileage balances and use your miles before they expire!

4. BYOB (or food)
When we arrive at our destination, our first stop is at the grocery store. I know better than to think I’m going to cook  on vacation, but I know we will eat snacks by the pool or have drinks on our balcony. When we have a car, we stop by the grocery store and buy the necessities (in our case: water, Coors Light and crunchy snacks). We’ve even been known to ask the cab to stop at the store on the way to our hotel from the Las Vegas Airport. The minibar is pricey, and having some basics in your hotel room will help keep you on budget.

5. Stay with friends or family.
I grew up on the East Coast and Chase is a native Californian, so we’re lucky to have great friends and family spread all over the country. Some of our closest friends live near Palm Springs and it’s one of our favorite local getaways. Staying with friends or family is great because not only do you save money, you get to spend time with people you love. One note though: bring a small gift (wine, flowers, etc.) and treat them to dinner. It’s the least you can do to thank them!

Our Mexico trip is booked, and I plan to book Vegas, New York City and North Carolina soon. I’ll also do a girls weekend at a local spa, and take some family trips to see our friends in the desert and Chase’s parents at their lake house. No spring break for us this year, but we’ll still have fun while saving money!

Sample lots, buy once

sephora

If I ever win the lottery (which is unlikely since I don’t play often), my splurge would be to have my makeup and hair done by a professional every day. Like most moms, I rarely have the time to do either properly, so it’s a real treat when someone else does it for me. After a breakup years ago I decided I needed a new look, so in addition to growing my hair out (that boyfriend liked short hair), I went to the mall to get a makeover. I bought most of the makeup she used and decided I should do that every few years, so I have the tools to look good, in case I ever have the time.

To save time, I go get my makeup done on a day when I have plans for the night, so I don’t have to worry about doing makeup myself (I also schedule hair appointments strategically for the same reason). If I am spending money, I want to save time, too!

The last time I got my makeup done was for a wedding when Avery was a baby, so I decided to go last weekend before a friend’s 40th birthday party. I loved my makeup (go see Jessica D. at Sephora in UTC if you live in San Diego), but she also mentioned I should exfoliate my skin to help makeup stay on better. As much as I don’t want to spend money on another product or take the time to apply it, I knew she was right.

I didn’t buy any that day, wanting to survey my friends about products they like. And the survey tool for the 21st century? Facebook, of course. My friends suggested several products and in the past, I’ve just picked one randomly and purchased it. Sometimes I like it, sometimes I don’t. If I don’t, I’m wasting money and time, which you all know I hate.

When I was at Sephora last week, Jessica gave me samples of a few things, so I had an idea. I would take my list from Facebook to Sephora and ask them to sample the products my friends suggested. I also went to the Kiehl’s store next door. I don’t know why I never thought of this before. Before I spend $85 on Exfolikate, I should test it out first. So for the next week or two, I’ll be working from my little sampling station, trying to find the best product for my skin. It was free and even though I’ll have to spend some time buying the actual product, Sephora and BeautyBar.com offer free shipping on online orders over $50, so it will be quick and easy. And I know it won’t go into the trash unused a few months from now.

Time and money, saved! Now I’m off to buy a lottery ticket…

Costco rules!

costcI have a love/hate relationship with Costco. Definitely more love than hate since I like to save money, but we live in a small house with very little storage, so finding room for 20 bags of chips or 40 rolls of toilet paper presents a challenge. Though storage logistics can make me crazy, the good deals and quality products keep me coming back.

Before this year, I only shopped at Costco for meat, cheese and bread. Since my kids were fed at school, it made more sense to buy snacks and produce at the regular grocery store, otherwise things would go bad before we got around to eating them. Since Clay started preschool we are going through more food, so I’m shopping at Costco more.

I have a few rules that help me save time and money when shopping there, which I thought I’d share:

1. Don’t buy anything that only one person in your family will eat.
Chase and Clay are picky eaters, Avery will eat anything and I’m somewhere in between. When shopping at Costco, I only buy food that we all eat. That’s the only way we’ll actually use all of it before it goes bad. If that happens, not only did we waste money, but I wasted space storing it and time shopping for it.

2. Split, then freeze or share.
The Oroweat wheat bread we like comes in a pack of two. We eat a lot of sandwiches, but still don’t go through two large loaves a week. I immediately put one in the pantry and the other in the freezer. I do the same with tortillas, ground turkey, ground beef and chicken breasts. I leave one of each out, then freeze the rest. Another option is to share with a friend or family member. My mom and brother live near each other, so they often split items. She can’t eat 20 avocados, but between her putting them on her sandwiches and he and his wife feeding their friends guacamole while they watch sports, they all get eaten.

3. Don’t test out a new food for your kids.
I’ve made this mistake a few times. Oh the kids will love this, I think. Then they don’t and I have 47 waffles taking up half my freezer and I feel guilty wasting money by throwing them away. Buy smaller quantities at the grocery store and do a taste test first.

4. When you can, shop alone.
Husbands wander off to look at huge TVs when they already have one (or more) at home. Toddler girls talk you into buying tutu dresses. Four-year-old boys want to cruise the toy aisle, then beg you to buy something. If you’re alone, it’s easier to manuever the giant cart, you can park away from the crowds and you might even have time to browse the gossip magazines (they are 30 percent off retail price!) for a few minutes.

5. Time your visit wisely.
I work full time, so I can’t go going during the day on a weekday. When I worked from home I would run over at lunch sometimes and that’s not a great time either (retired people like to make a lunch out of the samples and working folks go to the food court on their lunch breaks). I’ve found that the best times are Monday or Tuesdays after work or Sunday mornings when they first open. I went right as the Super Bowl started this year and that wasn’t bad either – lots of TVs to watch the pregame festivities and everyone else was already home getting ready for their parties.

How about you? Any tips for saving time and money at Costco?