Last week I went to St. George to see my best friend for 20+ years, Lydia, her husband (who I’ve known forever, too) and her kids. It was our compromise for a meeting place, since she lives far from a reasonably convenient airport and having to fly with 3 children and a baby is not cheap. They drove 3-4 hours and we flew into Vegas and drove 2 hours to meet them. Considering the rental company was out of compacts and we were upgraded (for free!) to a Crown Victoria, the ride was pretty cushy. We spent a lot of time driving around in their van, so we had plenty of time to talk about traveling and some great budget tips that didn’t include “leave your kids at home”.
Being a single-income family, they can find it hard to get away often, but they tend to find the time, energy and money to do it more than a lot of families I know and not because they are using credit cards they can’t afford to pay off or sleeping in their van on the side of the road. To let you in on the big picture, Lydia has 4 children, aged 3 months to 9, a (sometimes more than) full-time job, a dog, coaches the soccer team her girls play on, teaches Sunday school and always has a house full of her children’s friends. So, she doesn’t have even as much time as other parents and still makes time for all the family time she can.
She and I are big researchers and planners, so we get each other on this whole saving money and still having fun thing. Life isn’t all that fun when your day consists of working, helping with homework, having dinner, going to bed and then getting up and doing it all over again, so she plans as much time as she can away from home doing things the whole family will enjoy. She had some great tips that were new to me and I had some for her. Good trades! To give you idea why I think she’s an authority of family travel, she says they can do 4 days at Disney (including meals, park passes and hotel) for around $1300. They don’t fly, because they live somewhat close, so they do save on airfare. Now, I know couples that can’t figure out how to stick within that kind of budget. There are FIVE of them (we won’t count the baby yet, because they won’t have to pay for him for a few years), so I believe if they can do it, then those with fewer children can do it, too.
Buy Disney t-shirts. This is a smarty pants idea. Go to your local discount store, like Target, and pick up a cheap Disney tee for each of your kids, then get some fabric pens. Instead of buying $10 autograph books at the parks, you can have the characters sign the shirts. It’s a souvenir and also won’t be thrown in a corner and forgotten once they get home. Lydia says the best ones to get are the 50/50 poly-cotton blends, since they don’t shrink and tend to be more fade resistant.
Buy pins on ebay. Are your kids all into the pin-trading fad? Try to avoid spending gobs of money at the parks on new pins and get a bunch of pins in a lot on ebay. Get 30 for $30 or similar, so you are getting a bunch for way cheap, and dole them out among your little ones for them to trade to their heart’s content. (Make sure they SAY Disney on them, though, or they won’t be able to.) Some cast members will only trade with kids and they can also get rare and limited pins this way. You can also trade with other pin owners.
Bring your own snacks. I’ve told you this as someone who does it, but now you know I’m not the only one who relies on this as a way to save money. They basically make sandwiches the morning before they leave for lunches and only eat one meal in the park if possible. This way they save big each day by cutting out a big chunk of cost. I mean, dining for five can really add up! Another great snack tip is to buy the thing that comes in a souvenir bucket (usually popcorn) and then make your own popcorn to bring with you every other day you go back. That way you have a souvenir and also a cheap snack.
Stay off-property. Another thing I always recommend because think of what you can do with the difference in cost between staying at the Disney hotels (~$250/night) compared to a regular hotel (~$70/night). That can pay for food for several days. They like to stay at one of the parks across the street from Disney, so if they get tired or hungry, they can easily go back for something to eat or a nap.
Take naps! Like I just said, staying close makes it easier to go back to the room for a nap. If your kids have a regular nap routine, you can’t expect them to not be totally crabby my mid-day if they don’t get one. Naps are good for adults, too, and you actually end up doing more when you take time out to rest, because you’re refreshed and can make decisions and not hate the world because you’ve been up for 10 hours and it’s only 3pm. Also, those around you don’t want to be witness to your child’s total meltdown in line for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride either.
We'll continue with her non-theme park travel tips in our next post. Do you have any creative budget tips for visiting theme parks with your kids?