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?

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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!

Groggy

iGoogle is my home page and every day they present a “Word of the Day.” I’m pretty sure it’s targeted at middle schoolers, but that’s okay because it makes me feel smart (Yes! I know the word again!). After six days of vacation, today’s word “groggy” resonated with me, as I feel “stunned or confused and slow to react (as from blows or drunkenness or exhaustion).” No one hit me on vacation, but we did enjoy some a lot of drinks and I slept in a room with two small children and a man who snores.

Is this a coincidence or is Google somehow stalking my amusement park visiting, ball game watching, surprise party hosting, horse race betting, bar hopping activities of the past week? How did they know? Facebook check-ins (which my sister-in-law did everywhere we went)? Maybe they are trying to remind me that I am too old for phone pranks and late night chats around fire pits.

Groggy or not, I had a nice break from reality, and so did my kids. I will be pretty freaked out if tomorrow’s word is “relief,” as in the way I’ll feel in late afternoon, when I can take a vacation from my vacation. At least until Monday, when I’m hoping “rejuvenated” is my word of the day.

Are you packed?

Some people hate packing. Me? I don’t mind it because it means I’m going on a trip! My mom worked for United Airlines, so we traveled often and I learned to pack light. And, if I haven’t mentioned it, I’m generally pretty organized. Maybe just a little compulsive. Chase loves it though, since he’s always anxious to get out of town. When he asks me, “are you packed?,” the answer is always, “yes!”

When we met, Chase lived in San Diego and I lived in D.C., so we traveled back and forth often. The  greatest perk of my government job was flex time.  Since I had every other Friday off, I did the bulk of the flying…and packing. Packing for San Diego is simple. The city is casual, and the temps are between 60-80 year round. I would throw some sunscreen and makeup in with a few tops, jeans, skirts (I rarely wear shorts) and flip-flops. One carry-on got me through a weekend. And in most cases, it still would. If I was traveling alone. But I have kids!

Our first trip as parents was to my in-laws’ home in Big Bear Lake when Clay was three weeks old. We brought a slew of baby gear and 27 different outfits. How does someone who weighs seven pounds have enough stuff to fill a GMC Yukon? I always prided myself on being an efficient packer and I wasn’t going to let a kid get in the way. I learned quickly that baby gear can multitask (stroller as a high chair, blanket as a changing pad, etc.). I would bring essential gear, clothes and toys, nothing extra. The good news is that as kids get older, traveling with them no longer requires a forklift to load your car. They can sleep in a bed or eat in a regular chair. They don’t go through six outfits or 15 diapers. So, finally, we have less to pack. Hooray!

Now that we are packing mostly clothes and toiletries, we have designated suitcases: a medium-sized one for the kids to share, a small one for me, and a duffel bag for Chase (which he packs himself). I make piles of clothes and other necessities before I pack them, to make sure we have everything. Since we use the same bags for every trip, I put things in the same section of the bag each time, so if Chase goes looking for something that I’ve packed, he knows where to find it (kids’ blankets and books in the top zipper compartment, shoes in the bottom, etc.). This also helps when re-packing, so I notice if something is missing. I also bring a plastic trash bag, and rather than putting dirty clothes back in the suitcase with the clean ones, I put them in the bag for our trip home. It keeps clean clothes away from dirt, and I don’t waste time sorting clothes when we get home, trying to remember what has been worn. I put the dirty clothes straight into the wash, and the unworn ones back into the drawers where they belong. 

In addition to the suitcases, we bring a canvas grocery bag of snacks and two sippy cups per kid (one for milk, one for water/juice). I also pack another small tote for the iPads, phone chargers, sunscreen and the magazines that I subscribe to, but haven’t yet had time to read (I save them for trips). 

As for unpacking, I am one of those crazy people who does it right away. Even if I’m tired, I would rather get organized and start my week that way, than have it hanging over my head the following day. For me, a packed suitcase on my bedroom floor would just be another painful reminder that I’m not on vacation anymore.

Four years after that first trip with a baby, we spent this past weekend in Big Bear (something we do fairly often). Efficient packing allowed us to take our smaller, more fuel-efficient car. We had so much fun out on the lake that I didn’t even read my magazines. But I did unpack them when we got home and put them back in the magazine rack where they belong. When Chase asks, they’ll be packed and ready to take on our next trip!