No one has ever said that a family trip to Orlando, Florida, is a bargain. So when my husband and I decided to take the kids and meet his brother and sister-in-law there over Thanksgiving weekend, we knew we had to be strategic to get the most value from our vacation.
Here are the rules we applied to our vacation planning to help us stretch our budget.
1. Consider non-traditional solutions
We have two senior dogs, and it can be a challenge for us to find someone to care for them when we travel. Because they are 12 and 14 years old, boarding them or having them stay in a dogsitter's home is not an option. We've paid as much as $60 a day to have someone stay in our house with our dogs.
>>Learn more: How to make traveling with your pet affordable
Because Orlando is a just few hours drive each way from where we live in South Florida, my husband floated the idea of bringing the dogs with us. At first, I was reluctant because it sounded like a hassle. But once we did the math, it was actually cheaper for us to stay in a dog-friendly hotel and bring our pups than to pay for doggy care. We saved about $180 on pet care.
2. Use your credit card perks
Every credit card comes with different features, which is why my husband and I own several each. I carry the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless™ Credit Card because even though it has an annual fee of $95, it also comes with a free one-night hotel stay at a property valued up to 35,000 points. While that may not be enough for a night in Manhattan or Paris, Orlando is teeming with hotels at all different price points.
I sorted through the options and found a room available at the pet-friendly Residence Inn Near Universal Orlando for about $206 a night where we could also redeem our one free night. Instead of shelling out over $600 for the three nights, the one free night dropped our total to $412.
>>Learn more: Nerdwallet’s top travel rewards credit cards
The room was a mini-suite with a kitchen, two queen beds and a seating area with a pull-out couch. The hotel also had a free shuttle several times a day to and from the Disney resorts that took about seven minutes each way.
3. 'Free' can be more expensive
When you're budgeting for a trip, expenses like meals out, parking fees and day passes to explore the parks can add up. For example, if the Universal Orlando Resort had been our main attraction, I might have preferred to stay on-site at one of its properties. Several of those hotels give guests free Universal Unlimited Express Passes, which allow them to wait in shorter, faster lines at the park.
>>Learn more: How to budget a family trip to Disney
Even with the free Express Passes, a three-night stay at a qualifying property for a family of four with three days' worth of Unlimited Park admission tickets currently runs about $3,400. We wanted to go to Universal only for one day, so it was cheaper to stay off-site and purchase admission and Express Passes for a single day. The single day price for us was $1,400.
4. Create wiggle room
There were two more cost-saving benefits to our hotel. First, breakfast, which included eggs, make-your-own-waffles, oatmeal, cereal, fruit, yogurts and juices, was free. All those items at an on-property hotel restaurant would have cost close to $100 for our family every day. And, unlike the on-site hotels, parking was free too.
These savings gave us a little wiggle room in the budget to do something extra. We took our boys to Medieval Times to enjoy some rivalry and revelry Middle Ages-style. Adult tickets were $64.95 each, and kids 12 and under were $36.95. Our total for the excursion was $203 — just about the same as a night at the hotel. If we hadn't gotten the one free night at the hotel through my credit card, we may not have had room in the budget.
5. Have a plan
There are a million ways to take a family trip. The last time we went to Orlando, our only plan was to see Universal Studios for two days. For that trip, we just had to plan lodging and park tickets. This time, we knew we wanted to do more.
Once we knew we wanted to stay at a hotel under the Marriott umbrella to use the free night and that we were going to bring our dogs, it helped narrow our search for an appropriate hotel. It was a definite bonus that breakfast and parking were free, and there was a complimentary shuttle to get to and from the park.
Because we took the time to research and compare our options, we were able to create a plan that saved us money and allowed us to add an extra adventure.
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Planning a trip? Check out these articles for more inspiration and advice: 10 ways to save on your first – or next – Disney vacation NerdWallet’s top travel credit cards Disney vacation pros dish up budgeting tips for trips