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?

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!

Credit cards: bring on the rewards!

Years ago, when Chase and I were dating long distance and flying cross-country every other week, I signed up for two credit cards that I thought could benefit us: the Delta Airlines SkyMiles American Express and the United Airlines Mileage Plus Visa. Just for signing up, I was given bonus airline miles, and I continued to accrue miles with our travel. At the time, I wasn’t really using the cards for purchases, and I was missing out.

Like many Americans, I use credit cards regularly. I still have the Delta AmEx and the United Visa. We are fortunate that we are not dependent on our cards to make ends meet, so I’ve learned to use the rewards associated with the cards to my advantage. We use the Delta or United card for online shopping and any in-person purchase we make over $200. I also have it set up so everything from our DirecTV bill to Clay’s preschool gets billed directly to one of the cards. I receive mileage credit for bills we have to pay and put those miles back to work for our family.

Chase’s office holiday party is next week and our friends reserved hotel rooms downtown. We wanted to join them, but I didn’t want to spend $200 with Christmas coming up. I thought about it for a week, then yesterday I remembered I could use airline miles for a hotel room. After a quick visit to United’s Mileage Plus web page, we’re staying at the same hotel as our friends – for free!

This is my first time using miles for a hotel room, but we use them for free plane tickets all the time. In October, we traveled to Tallahassee for FSU homecoming on free Delta tickets. We flew to Hawaii for our honeymoon on United frequent flier miles. I used an annual companion pass from Delta for another Florida trip earlier this year. The miles also come in handy when an emergency arises. When my grandmother passed away, I was able to meet my mom in Nebraska for the funeral with just two days’ notice and no out-of-pocket costs.

There is one caveat to using credit cards for rewards: you have to be disciplined and pay off your cards in full every month, or you will get yourself in trouble. Chase works for a non-profit credit counseling company and I know the evils of credit card debt. If you don’t think you will be able to pay the cards off each month, don’t use them. Interest charges will far outweigh the perks!

I mention the airline mileage cards because those are the ones we use. There are annual fees for both cards, but at under $100 per year they are worth it since mileage credit is not the only perk. I’ve also heard great things about the Costco American Express card, which gives you cash back every year.

I’m already looking to see where our miles can take us next year. How about you? What other credit card reward programs do you like? I’d love to hear other ways to cash in on credit card rewards!