Wild Wild Southwest, Part 2, the packing

I pride myself on being a “carry-on” only family, as I’ve written about before. There are many reasons why I like to pack in carry-on luggage, including that you have less chance of having lost or damaged luggage issues, it saves time at the airport especially when traveling internationally with multiple leg flights when you have to get your luggage and re-check it, and it makes traveling around your destinations easier.

For this trip however, we are going to have to check some bags as we decided to bring most of our camping gear with us. We still packed all of our clothes and toiletries in probably 3 carry-ons as we usually do (one for me, one for my husband, and one for the kids to share).

So even though I’ve been “travel hacking” for some time now, I still make mistakes and don’t realize certain things all the time. For example, I have a Delta sky miles credit card, which gets me a free checked bag. Since I never check bags I almost never use this benefit (the one exception was checking one bag when I came home from Spain, and one bag when I came home from Amsterdam. Both times were to bring home the fabric I bought in Europe ūüėä). Since I never use the benefit, I just assumed the free checked bag was for me, the primary cardholder. I spent months trying to figure out how to get all of our camping gear into one checked bag (under the 50 lb weight limit), and maybe one carry-on. After that was unsuccessful, I decided I would bite the bullet and we would check a 2nd bag for $25 each way. Included in these two bags were:

  1. Two tents
  2. 4 sleeping bags
  3. 4 twin air mattresses
  4. Air pump
  5. Two burner Coleman stove
  6. 2 backpacking camp chairs
  7. Set of camping pots and pans
  8. Various camping plates and utensils
  9. Bag of rope
  10. Hatchet/hammer tool
  11. Collapsible water jug
  12. Foldable cooler
  13. 4 camping towels
  14. 4 inflatable camp pillows

We assumed we would buy some larger folding chairs when we got there, as well as some other supplies that wouldn’t fit. I spent a good couple days before the trip trying to make all of this fit in two bags and keep them under the 50 lb weight limit.

Fast forward to the day before the trip, and I go on to the Delta app to check in. When I get to the screen about checking bags, I see that everyone in my party gets a free checked bag, not just me! After a quick moment of disbelief and a humbling fact-check with my expert traveler friends (who made fun of me of course), I realize that in fact, we can check 4 bags for free!!! This was a game changer! That’s 200 lbs of camping gear! I immediately found a couple more pieces of luggage and started piling more crap in. 2 large camping chairs, aluminum foil, paper plates, a tarp, ziplock bags.

I am now just hoping it all fits in the SUV!!!

To be continued…

Wild Wild Southwest, Part 1: The Preparation

Did you know that when a child is in 4th grade they can get themselves and their families into our national parks for free? It is called the Every Kid in a Park Program, and it starts when your child starts 4th grade, through the following summer. My oldest was in 4th grade this year so about a year ago we started planning our big summer road trip to visit some of our National Parks. We decided to focus on the Southwest “Grand Circle” in Utah and Arizona this time and maybe do some more northern ones in three years when our youngest is in 4th grade. I have been to this area before, once when I was about 14 with my Dad and brother, and once right after I graduated college. My husband has never been and I have been excited for years to show him this incredible part of our country.

This first blog post is going to outline some of the prep work that went into planning our three week adventure.

How to get there

I’ll admit, there is nothing like taking a westward road trip across the US in a car. I’ve done it twice, and it’s truly amazing to watch the landscape change before your eyes. My husband and I discussed the possibility of taking our Toyota Highlander and just driving out there. We love the car and it’s big and comfortable, but in the end we decided we didn’t want to use the extra week or so it would take to drive out there and back for driving. We also thought about flying and renting an RV or campervan when we arrived, but they are really expensive! They are an average of $300 a night plus gas! After lots more discussion we decided to fly using miles, rent an SUV when we arrive, and do a combination of camping and hotels on the road. We are going to try to pack as much camping gear as we can in checked luggage and then buy a few inexpensive things, such as camping chairs when we get there.

We booked 4 one-way tickets from Syracuse to Las Vegas for 70,000 Delta skymiles, and then 4 one-way tickets from Phoenix to Syracuse for 50,000 Delta skymiles. I used autoslash to find the best price on an SUV for 3 weeks. Next, to plan the itinerary.

The itinerary

I know it seems romantic to just hop in the car and drive, figuring it all out along the way, and maybe in decades past you could do so (in fact I did in the 90’s), but in case you haven’t heard, our National Parks are experiencing a surge of tourism the likes of which they’ve never seen before. This is causing serious overcrowding problems. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I’m glad more and more people are getting out there to visit and see our country’s incredible natural beauty, on the other hand, in some places it seems that this rise in popularity is overtaxing our park system’s infrastructure. That said, advance planning is essential, especially in the summer months for popular campgrounds and tours, which can be booked 6 months in advance.

Since I was booking these things in February for a July trip, I had to create a detailed itinerary for the three weeks. Here is what I came up with:

IMG_1066

July 10:Fly to Las Vegas, stay at Mandalay Bay. Originally I booked this room using Chase Ultimate Rewards points, but then Amex was doing a promotion where you received an extra 6,000 Membership Rewards points for booking an MGM property, plus you get their Fine Hotels and Resorts perks, which includes breakfast for two and $100 food and beverage credit at the resort.

July 11: Pick up rental car, buy camping supplies in Vegas, drive to Zion, set up camp. When we get some of our camping food, we will likely hit up the local Target or Walmart to fill out our camping gear supply with cheap air mattresses or camping chairs.
Zion is one of the most popular national parks, and so camping reservations book 6 months in advance. Luckily, they just opened a new, tent-only loop at Watchman campground, and we were able to reserve a site that looks pretty nice with shade and a fire pit (they don’t all have this).

July 12: Hiking and exploring Zion, stay at campsite. Hopefully we will get to hike the Narrows or do some tubing on the Virgin river!

July 13:¬†More hiking and exploring Zion, drive to Bryce Canyon, check into hotel. Our original plan was to camp at Bryce too, however they are doing major construction to their campgrounds this summer. We didn’t want to get into that mess, so I booked a hotel/B&B that got good reviews on my hotels.com account. This way we can also arrive later if we want to spend more time at Zion, and we won’t need to worry about setting up camp.

July 14: Explore Bryce Canyon, stay at hotel.

July 15: Leave hotel, re-stock food, drive to Capitol Reef, camp at Fruita campground. Apparently this campground used to be first come, first served, but they are now reservable so we got a site for 2 nights.

July 16: Explore Capitol Reef, stay at Fruita.

July 17: Drive to Vernal, Utah, stay at Springhill Suites.¬†A while ago I listened to an episode of one of my favorite travel podcasts, Amateur Traveler, on rafting on the Colorado River through Grand Canyon (which my Dad was lucky enough to do a couple years ago). It wouldn’t be an appropriate trip for kids, but the guest highly recommended rafting trips in Dinosaur National Monument with kids. Combine that with a geology and fossil loving husband and I decided to book this. It takes us a little out of the “Grand Circle,” but not too far. In Vernal I booked a SpringHill Suites using 15,000 Marriott points for 2 nights!

July 18: White water rafting on the Green River! I chose to go with Don Hatch Expeditions.

July 19: Drive to Moab, UT, stay in Expedition Lodge. I found this cool, retro inspired hotel on hotels.com and booked 2 nights so we can check out Moab as well as Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

July 20: Explore Arches, stay at Expedition Lodge.

July 21: Stay in Willow Flats campground, Canyonlands.¬†This is a first come, first serve campsite which is supposed to be beautiful in the “Island in the Sky” section of Canyonlands.

July 22: Drive to Telluride, CO, stay at an Airbnb. I wanted to do one Colorado ski/mountain town on this trip, and have heard great things about Telluride.

July 23: Explore Telluride, stay at Airbnb.

July 24: Drive to Mesa Verde, NP. I reserved a cliff dwelling twilight tour for this evening in the NP, and we booked a campsite at Morefield campground.

July 25: Four corners, Monument Valley, stay in Page, AZ at Hampton Inn. The kids really wanted to do Four corners, and I would like to do the driving tour of Monument Valley. Lodging in Page, AZ this time of year is ridiculously expensive! I dropped 50,000 Hilton Honors points per night at the Hampton Inn, but the cash price was $300!

July 26: Antelope Canyon tour, hopefully see Horseshoe Bend, stay at Hampton Inn.

July 27: Drive to South Rim, Grand Canyon, stay at Desert View Campground. This is also first come, first serve, so hopefully if we get there early enough we will get a site!

July 28: Explore Grand Canyon, Stay at Desert View Campground.

July 29: Drive to Sedona, AZ, stay at Kimpton. I booked this really nice Kimpton resort using Chase Ultimate Rewards, 40,744 for two nights. I’ve always wanted to check out Sedona, and I think staying at a “luxury” resort will be a nice way to end the trip.

July 30: Explore Sedona, stay at Kimpton.

July 31: Explore Sedona, hang out at Kimpton, drive to Phoenix after dinner to catch 11:30pm flight! Since it’s only a 2 hour drive to PHX airport, we should be able to have most of the day to hang out in Sedona and the resort, eat an early dinner, and still make it to the airport in time to return the rental car and catch our red-eye flight back home!

Well there it is, all laid out! You know what they say, “The best laid plans…” We will see how the whole itinerary works out in real time. In the meantime I plan on printing out all of our reservations and the itinerary itself and putting them in a binder to take with us, especially since cell service will be spotty out west. Next up, the packing!

Disney part III: Making the most of your time and philosophical musings

In this last post on Disney I am going to share my tips for time management/fun maximization and also, because I am a psychologist and former philosophy major, some thoughts I have about why Disney is so popular.

Disney time management

Being a tad OCD, I excel at maximizing time efficiency. It’s not always the best trait, as I sometimes (ok frequently) have trouble relaxing, but on a vacation at Disney this quality pays off if you want to make the most of your trip (i.e., do the most number of rides with the least amount of wait time). That said, here are my top tips for maximizing fun at Disney. Most of these I learned through my research from various Disney blogs and books, some are tips from friends.

Make a plan! It pays to research ahead of time when it comes to Disney. Because it is so darn predictable (my comments about that in the next section), there are people out there that can “forecast” your trip, in terms of crowds and events, much like a weather forecast except they can do so years in advance. So before you go, consult a crowd calendar online and plan which days have the lowest crowds for which parks. I don’t know the algorithms they use but I know some factors that go into it, including which parks have extra magic hours (EMH) that day. EMHs are when a certain park opens earlier or closes later but only for Disney resort guests. You probably want to avoid the park that has EMH that day because it will draw more people that want to take advantage of them. Disney also has events year-round that affect crowd levels. So for example the past two times we went were during the Disney marathon. On marathon day the race begins and ends at Epcot (they have a party for the runners there), so we made sure to avoid the parks that day).

You also want to know what rides you want to do ahead of time, and if you’ve never been to Disney, do your research on the rides! Otherwise you might get stuck in something like Tiki birds or Hall of Presidents when you could be doing Haunted Mansion!

Download some apps! You know how we always say, “how did we live without smart phones?” Well I don’t know how we did Disney without apps. There are several, including the official WDW app that will give you real time wait times for all the rides. That means you could be in line at Jungle Cruise and check your phone to see how long the line is at Space Mountain across the park, to see if you should run over there after your ride is over or look for something else. The “Lines” app by Touringplans.com even gives you “actual” wait times (vs what WDW posts), and tells you whether you should ride now or wait, bases on their predictions of whether the line time will go up or down.¬†

The lines app by touringplans.com is not well designed in my opinion, but it will also give you a detailed itinerary for your day at the park to maximize efficiency. You simply input which park you want to go to on which day, the times you will be there, which rides and restaurants you want to go to, any fast pass times you already know, and any breaks you want to take, and the app will spit out a minute-by-minute plan for you to follow. Since we go on low crowd days I sort of loosely follow the plans, but I think it can be very useful on crowded days, as it tells you when you should be at which ride for the least amount of line waiting.

Use fast pass! If you are staying on WDW property you can start booking your FP selections 60 days in advance (30 days if off property). Set an alarm and make sure you book these on your WDW app exactly when your window opens (it will open at 9am, no need to wait up till midnight). This is essential for really popular rides such as Frozen, Mine Train, Test Track, etc. Also a good rule of thumb is to book the Fast Pass selections during mid-day, not when the park opens or closes, because you can usually get on the popular rides without long lines within the first 30-60 mins of park opening and likewise the last 30-60 mins of the park closing. Also book your fast passes more towards the early part of the day because once you use all 3 you can book another one that day, and keep booking them as you use them. So for example, if you have used all your fast passes by 1pm, you can now go on your app and book another one for later that day. Usually the most popular rides won’t have availability, but you should be able to find fast passes for the “second tier” rides like Haunted Mansion and save more time on lines (so don’t expect to be able to do this for the really popular rides, always lock those in ahead of time). I usually start looking in the app as soon as they have scanned my last fast pass.

Get to the park as soon as it opens and stay until it closes (but take a break in between). You can take advantage of short lines during these times. As soon as the park opens book it over to the rides that have the longest lines (like Peter Pan in Magic Kingdom), especially if you don’t have a fast pass for those later in the day, this maximizing your time on the “best” rides. We also usually do a mad dash around the best rides 60 miniures before the park closes, especially when everyone is watching the shows.

¬†Take breaks in the middle of the day. All of the WDW blogs and books will tell you this and it’s great advice. In the middle of the day when everyone is tired, it gets hotter, and the crowds are bigger, head back to your hotel for a rest and then go back to the parks for the afternoon/evening. You’ll feel more refreshed and able to finish out the rest of the day.

Finally, my thoughts on why people LOVE Disney. When you go to WDW you will find people who go every year and have been hundreds of times. Think about that. If you are 35 years old, to go one hundred times you would have had to go an average of 3x a year since you were born. It seems crazy but there are people who do it (lots of them). Why? I think one reason is the nostalgia aspect. Although WDW does change and improve their rides and the park itself, a lot of it remains the same and in good condition. That means there are parts of the park that look and operate the same now as they did back in 1982. In that way it’s kind of frozen in time. There aren’t many places that can offer this and it feels really good to people. Did you ever travel back to a place you had been to as a kid, only to see that it had changed dramatically from your memory? Do you remember how sad and disappointed you felt? Disney helps to guard against this by changing things slowly and keeping their most popular attractions very much that same over time. Since it is so tightly controlled and systematized, you know that your walk through frontierland is going to look roughly the same today as it did in 2002, 1992, and 1982. This just naturally feels good, like you are going “home” again. I think Disney is well aware that this nostalgia factor is part of what keeps folks coming back over and over again, so they make sure to keep many things exactly the same while improving others (because in addition to liking things to stay the same we also want to see some new things).

I also think people love Disney because of what I discussed in an earlier blog post. It takes the anxiety out of traveling for most people. At WDW, especially if you’ve been there before, you don’t have to wonder “what’s it going to be like when I get there?” You know that everything is in the same spot, and occurs at the same time as it has for 40+ years. You also know with absolute surety that the people who work their will be nice to you and go out of their way for you no matter what. This is not likely to be the case anywhere else you may go, and so again, Disney takes away that anxiety that so many of us feel when traveling. Is it completely fabricated and therefore unrealistic? Of course! But that’s what Disney does best. So while I do believe it is important to challenge oneself through travel, and to use travel as a way to learn how to better manage your anxiety, it’s always nice to take a little break and visit Fantasyland for little while.

Disney by the numbers, Part II

In my last post I explained how we were able to plan a week-long trip to Disney World using points and miles to pay for much of the trip. With points and miles we were able to get a suite at Homewood Suites for 7 nights for free, 4 plane tickets, a rental car for a week, and four 2-day, park to park tickets for Universal Studios. The only things we paid for were the 6 day WDW park-hopper tickets ($1700) and our food. In the last post I contrasted that with how much we paid two years ago when we did didn’t use points and miles and stayed on Disney property (Wilderness Lodge), with the meal plan.

In this post I am going to discusss this trip versus the last trip and compare and contrast our accommodations and food. Finally in the end I will outline for you how you could potentially take a trip with your family to WDW FOR FREE (even the park tickets).

So, here are the numbers:

Lodging: 7 nights at Homewood Suites: FREE with Hilton HHonors points.

Transportation: 4 plane tickets: FREE with Delta skymiles

Rental Car: Free with Chase Ultimate Rewards

Parking: $80 (3 days at WDW and one day at Universal for $20 each)

Lyft: $10

Park tickets: 5 day park-hopper at WDW: $1700

2 day park to park Universal: FREE with bankamericard travel rewards.

Food and drink for 8 days: $995

Grand total: $2696
(Total for 2015 staying on property at Wilderness Lodge with meal plan: $7000)

So in all, our 7 day trip to WDW and Universal Orlando was 60% less than when we stayed on property 2 years ago. Not bad! On to the comparisons:

The lodging
While nice, it certainly wasn’t Disney. It was a typical mid-level hotel. The pool and hot tub were nice and we used them a few times but the weather wasn’t very warm. The biggest benefit was the free hot breakfast every morning. Was it gourmet, no. But was it on par with the breakfast you would pay for (either in cash or on the meal plan) at a WDW resort? In my experience, yes.

They had eggs plus a meat plus potatoes or grits or something every day, the typical cereals, muffins, fruit etc, and make-your-own Mickey waffles which the kids loved. Then, on Monday – Thursday they had a managers reception with free food, wine, and beer, which we used 3 nights. Again, it wasn’t anywhere near gourmet food but we filled up enough that we never bought dinner at the parks those nights which saved us at least $150 as you can’t eat as a family of 4 in the parks for less than $50.

The room was definitely way bigger and better than the one we had last time on property at Wilderness Lodge. We had a suite with a queen sleeper sofa for the kids, a separate bedroom with a king bed, and a full kitchen with a full size fridge, stove, microwave and dishwasher. I’m not one to cook dinner on vacation, but if you wanted to save even more money you could definitely cook full meals in this room.

The verdict
Hotel (other than room): B+
Room: A

The food

Ok so here’s the caveat. My husband and I don’t scrimp when it comes to food, especially on vacation.¬†So the $1000 we spent on food and drinks is WAY more than we needed to spend. I would imagine you could do a week at Disney for half that, especially if you cooked dinner at home.

We did eat breakfast for free every day at the hotel and we made use of their “manager’s reception” three times for dinner. What really broke the bank was when we ate meals in the parks, especially WDW (Universal’s food surprisingly seemed to cost a little less). Our most expensive meal was at the French bistro in World Showcase, where we plunked down $170 for a meal that was good, but anywhere outside the park would have been no more than $100. We also spent about $50-$100 for lunch in the park a few times (about 5x). This could have easily been avoided by packing lunch and bringing it to the parks, which you are allowed to do. Otherwise we did eat at outside restaurants like Macaroni Grill and Chevy’s a few times, and their prices were the same as anywhere else, so pretty reasonable.

Overall, I think we did ok with food and we had some¬†decent meals, but nothing to write home about. There was a family owned Cuban restaurant near our hotel that I really wanted to try but we never made it over there. So my only regret is we didn’t take the time to try to find the few local gems among all the chains in the area.

Transportation
We did rent a car for 7 days and I LOVED the freedom convenience of that. We didn’t drive it every day to the parks, so I think we spent a total of $80 on parking (it’s $20 per day but you can go from¬†park to park on the same receipt. We used the hotel shuttle twice, which was ok but only when their timeline matched ours. Then we used Uber and Lyft about 4 times (the place is crawling with drivers), and since we had some discount codes we only paid about $10 for the four rides.

You could definitely use Uber and Lyft the whole time and it might be about the same as a rental car, depending on how long you were there for. But given that our car was free I think we made out.

So, how could you go to Disney FOR FREE??

It definitely can be done, especially if you want to take a shorter trip and if you planned far in advance (1-2 years). There actually already are some blogs on travel hacking to Disney, check out Points to Neverland. They give a lot of great tips for how to do Disney on points and miles.

Here is what I would recommend:

Flights:
Do some research and figure out what airlines usually have the most convenient and cheapest flights from where you live. Go on their website to determine what they usually charge for award miles per flight (which will vary depending on peak vs. off-peak). Then take out a card (your spouse might need to take one out too if you are a family of 4 or 5) for that airline and start racking up bonus points until you get enough to book your flights.

Lodging:
Do some research on all the hotels in the area that take part in points programs. The big ones or Hilton HHonors, SPG, Marriott, and IHG. If you want to stay on property you can use SPG points to book the Swan or Dolphin (but read reviews first, they’re not great), or Hilton Bonnet Creek. Off property there are dozens of options. Look up how many points you will need for the number of nights you want to stay. Then take out a card for that hotel group and start racking up points. Again, you may need your spouse to take out a card to get enough points, or you can also take out a card for a general points program such as Chase Ultimate rewards or American Express Membership Rewards to then transfer the UR or MR to your hotel program (for example Membership Rewards will transfer to Hilton hhonors or SPG and Ultimate Rewards will transfer to Hyatt, Marriott, and IHG) to add more points to get to your goal.

Park Tickets: 
These are expensive so you may have to start a year in advance. If you take out a BankAmericard Travel Rewards card and put the tickets on that and then use the bonus points plus use that card for all of your expenses for a year, you could make it work. You may need your spouse to take out the card too and then you split the tickets (e.g. you each buy 2 for a family of 4). So for example, for 4 day tickets to WDW that would be a total of $1260 (not park hopper) or $630 each. You would need 63,000 travel rewards points to cover that. You would get 20,000 bonus points each for signing up and spending 1000 the first month (so really its 21,500 right there because for every dollar you spend you get 1.5 points). So that leaves you with 41,500 points that you need to acquire. You would each need to spend $27, 666 on the card to get enough points to do that. Which seems like a lot, but a) you have a year to do it and b) if you put every single thing you pay for (usually only mortgage, student loans, and power bills are not payable with a card, but everything else is) for a year, you could probably reach it or get pretty darn close. Even if you only got to cover half of it, you would still be going to Disney for $600 or so.

If you planned far enough in advance, you could actually have 2 years to save up enough points for this. You would take out the card one year before you wanted to buy the tickets¬†and rack up all your points, so let’s say you were able to collect 45k points in that first year with the 20k point bonus. At the start of year 2, you would buy the Disney tickets on the card, then you could pay down the cost of them by putting your 45k points immediately. You would then have a year to rack up the 18,000 extra points to pay for the rest (that translates to spending $12,000 and you can keep paying it down each month with whatever points you earn that month). Once you know how to do the math and if you can predict about how much you would spend using the card for your expenses, you could predict how many days you could potentially cover with the points.

Transportation:
There are many cards that give you points that you can redeem for rental cars and Uber and Lyft rides. So if you think you might use one or a combo of these I recommend looking into getting a card for Chase Ultimate Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards, the Capital One Venture Card, the Barclay Arrival Plus card, or using the Bank Americard travel rewards. The bonuses alone for each of these cards would cover your transportation costs.

Food:
I’ve already discussed how to save money on food. You can also use Disney gift cards throughout the park so I would recommend buying Disney gift cards ahead of time and using them for EVERYTHING you buy in the park. If you wanted to try to use points for those cards, you would look for a card that gives you points to use at a retailer that sells Disney gift cards. For example, if you took out an AMEX card you could use your membership rewards at Best Buy.com and buy Disney gift cards there. Theoretically, with enough points and planning you could get enough cards to eat for free in the parks! You could also purchase them from a store that will give you bonus points and/or a discount however. For example I bought all of ours at Staples so I got 5X their purchase price in points from my Chase Ink Plus card. BJ’s offers them at a discount and sometimes the Chase Freedom has BJ’s and other warehouse clubs as one of their 5x points categories, so that would be a great option to get a discount on them and rack up the points.

 

 

Disney by the numbers, Part I

So hopefully by now you’ve realized that I’m definitely not a packaged tour or resort type person. When it comes to travel I like to make my own itinerary, book my own lodging, stay in air bnb type rentals, and generally DIY. Plus you usually spend a lot less money that way. When it came time to book a Disney trip back in 2015 however, I actually let a AAA travel agent book it for us.

Prior to this trip I had been to Disney about 6 times when I was a kid in the 80’s. We stayed both on and off property. I remember back then loving the “on property” Disney hotels. They felt like an extension of the park themselves, especially with the monorail to get you there.¬†Fast forward to 2015. A LOT has changed in Disney over 30 years, which I realized when we went. To prepare for this trip¬†I did my due diligence and read countless WDW blogs, which all seemed to say the same thing: 1) stay on property if you can and 2) get the “meal plan,” because in the long run you’ll save money on food. I will be discussing each of these points in detail shortly, however since this post is “Disney by the numbers,” I want to break down how much that costs (vs going “off property”) and then in part II, once we get back from our recent trip, I will compare and contrast the two types of trips (both in cost and quality of experience).

So since the blogs told me we should stay on property with a meal plan, the only thing to do next was to give Disney more of our money by calling a Disney travel agent and having her book a package (room, tickets, meal plan). That takes all of ten minutes (and for me, all the fun out of planning a vacation! Although then I could turn my attention to obsessing on our minute-by-minute daily park attraction itineraries – more on that in part 3).

This experience of having everything completely packaged for you is quintessential Disney. As we arrived in Orlando and were shuttled right onto our “Magic Express” bus to our hotel (again, a service Disney provides if you stay on property). They literally get you on a bus as soon as you land, and then you do not leave the “Disney Bubble” until you get back on the plane to go home, as your only mode of transportation between the parks and various WDW hotels is on Disney buses, trains, and boats. I joked to my husband that Disney is making sure to take all the anxiety out of traveling for you. Which is funny to me, because I actually think one of the most valuable experiences of traveling is learning how to manage anxiety.¬†

But I digress. So, to get back to the numbers, I am going to break down for you what we spent that year. Here is the breakdown:

Disney 2015:
Flights: $220 each for 4 people
Lodging (Wilderness Lodge), meal, plan, and tickets for a 7-day vacation (6 days in the parks): $5,484.66
Incidentals bought off our magic bands: $600+*
TOTAL: $7,000

*another typical Disney feature is just like an all-inclusive hotel, they don’t want you to carry around any money (for the illusion that¬†you have a unlimited amount of it?) and instead link your credit card to the “magic band” you wear on your wrist, that they can simply scan at all the shops and restaurants. I can’t find my original receipt but I think when we checked out the total was a little over $600 for¬†souvenirs, tips at the restaurants, booze (not covered on the meal plan), the kids club (babysitting!) and other incidentals.

Anyway, this year we really wanted to go back to Disney, but I just couldn’t stomach spending that much money and having Disney curate everything for us. For one thing, I was really annoyed by the meal plan. Here is why. The typical meal plan that most people get (and most Disney blogs recommend), gives each person 1 “quick service” (like fast food); 1 table service (sit-down restaurant), and one “snack” per day. Here are 5 reasons why I hated the Disney meal plan.

  1. What about breakfast? I am a huge proponent of eating a big breakfast with lots of protein, especially on a vacation where you are going to be walking around a lot and need lots of stamina. On Disney’s meal plan if you want a real breakfast at your hotel (like eggs and bacon), you have to use one of your QS credits and then have nothing left for lunch. A lot of people use their “snack” credit to get like a muffin, but that is NOT going to cut it. Even though you get 1 QS, 1 TS, and 1 snack per day, you don’t have to use them all that day, you can save or “bank ” them. So then you have to spend half of your trip solving a puzzle in your head, like “if we use a QS service credit for breakfast and one for lunch today, we can have a TS for lunch tomorrow but then we won’t have a TS credit on Thursday…” etc. It is exhausting.
  2. The food sucks. Ok I may be¬†slightly exaggerating here, but as one blogger put it, if you like Burger King every day for lunch and Applebee’s every night for dinner, the meal plan is for you. We were constantly underwhelmed with the food at Disney (with a few exceptions). Now, they do have some amazing, award-winning restaurants, but here is the catch: for these places, other than having to book them¬†6 months¬†in advance, you have to use TWO TS credits for one meal (which means you take one away from your other days). Again, this takes a bit of finagling in your head (and you can’t use your kid’s TS credits because their meals are counted differently), you can make it work. Nonetheless,¬†I was able to save 2 TS credits and make a 6 month advance reservation for California Grill, one of their¬†premier restaurants at the Contemporary Resort for myself and my husband. We do say that was one of our best meals, not just at Disney, but¬†ever,¬†so there’s that. But I would say I was pretty “meh” about the food at the other TS restaurants.
  3. The service sucks.¬†This seems contradictory to the “amazing customer service” that Disney is known for, but other than at maybe two restaurants that we visited that trip¬†(California Grill and Tusker House in Animal Kingdom), the service was awful. For example, we ate at an Indian-themed restaurant in the Animal Kingdom Lodge one night and my husband and I had to wait probably 90 minutes to get our main course. Our kids ate their main course and dessert before we got our food. And it was just curry! I’m sure they had a big pot of it sitting somewhere. This kind of thing was status quo at almost every restaurant.
  4. I don’t want a dessert at every meal!¬†The Quick Service credits and the Table Service credits include a main course, entree, and dessert. Which means in order to “take advantage” of what you paid for the plan you feel compelled to get everything, so that means two desserts per day. We really don’t need a brownie at lunch and then cake at dinner, but you end up eating this because of the plan. Plus the kids figure out pretty quick that they always get a dessert, so good luck telling them no sometimes.
  5. It’s too much math.¬†At the risk of sounding redundant, I felt like I spent a huge amount time and energy trying to plan out when we were going to use which credits for which day for what meal. In the end it all worked out but it was too much to keep track of.

So why do people do it? The main reason people seem to buy the meal plans is because the food is so over-priced in the parks and hotels, that if you eat all your meals¬†only in the parks,¬†you¬†are getting a deal. Believe me, there are¬†many blogs that actually have calculated out how much you would spend on meals in the park out-of-pocket vs how much you would spend on the meal plan, and it always comes out to be a better deal with the meal plan. Disney bloggers also find amazingly creative ways to use the plan to get the most bang for their buck, including publishing a list of places to use your snack credit that might be more like a meal, for example getting an egg roll or chili cheese fries (which count as a snack credit, but don’t seem like a full meal to me). That said, all of these blogs count on one thing, that you will be eating all of your meals in the park! This makes sense because if you stay on Disney property, it’s virtually impossible to leave the Disney bubble, lest you should invest your money elsewhere. So yes, if you are staying on property it does make sense to get the meal plan, but since this left me feeling trapped and annoyed, I decided to try ¬†off-park lodging for our next trip so that I could have some more freedom of choice. Because the thing is, once you are off property, you don’t have to settle for Applebee’s type food at every meal. You can actually leave the Disney bubble and visit the many fine dining establishments (I hope!) in the greater Orlando area. Also the off-site hotels often offer free breakfast (and in the one where we are staying, free dinner on weeknights). In part II of this blog post I am going to actually log the costs of all of our meals and do a review of eating off property vs eating on, so that you can see the differences not just in cost but also quality and experience.

As far as the lodging goes, it’s pretty clear that you save mega money staying off-site. Disney properties often cost¬†2-3x as much as an equivalent, off site property. The hotels off property (of which there are many), are often relatively¬†inexpensive and offer deals and perks such as shuttles to the park and free breakfast to try to lure people out of the Disney bubble. The main benefit (as I see it) of staying on site, is the transportation to and from the park. But honestly, unless you are paying MEGA BUCKS to stay at one of the poshest resorts (Contemporary, Grand Floridian, or Polynesian, where rooms start at $400 a night) to catch the monorail to Epcot and Magic Kingdom, you end up taking a bus back and forth to the parks, which can be annoying and frustrating with all the waiting around and stops that the buses make. The other reason to stay on property is that, because they are Disney, the hotels have all these “magical” touches (like a geyser that goes off every 90 minutes at the Wilderness Lodge) and really nice pool complexes. The employees are all Disney so they do have that amazing customer service, and some hotels, including where we stayed, have “kids clubs” where you can pay for your kids to stay for the night so you can go out and enjoy the parks without them.

A major downside is the cost and size of the rooms. In 2015 stayed at the cheapest of the high end resorts, The Wilderness Lodge. It was a beautiful resort, with amazing attention to detail. There was a humungous Christmas tree in the center of the lodge, a stream that ran from the lobby to the pool, and a great pool with a waterslide for the kids. You also did get to take a boat from the hotel to Magic Kingdom, which was a lot of fun. BUT, at $300+ a night the rooms were TINY. You barely had enough room to maneuver around the two double beds. When we travel we like to stay in a suite, but at over $1000 a night that was just not an option to stay on property at Disney. So we made do with out teeny tiny room at the beautiful resort.

For these reasons, and because I wanted to try to use points and miles to save money on our next trip, we decided to stay off property in 2017. Here is a breakdown of what we spent so far. I will then explain how I accrued enough points and miles to get there.

Disney 2017:
Airfare: FREE with 100,000 Delta skymiles (25,000 per ticket)
Lodging: FREE at the Homewood suites, Lake Buena Vista, with 238,000 Hilton HHonors points.
WDW tickets: $1700 park hopper tickets for 5 days
Universal Orlando tickets: FREE with Bankamericard travel rewards points
FOOD: Total will be forthcoming.
Rental car for 7 days: FREE with Ultimate Rewards points
Parking at the parks:
TOTAL SO FAR: $1700

Airfare: Delta is the main carrier for MCO so I knew ahead of time that we would likely be using them to fly. I therefore took out an Amex sky miles credit card with 50k bonus points and had my husband do the same. Voila! Within a few months after reaching the minimum spend to get the bonus points we had the tickets booked.

Lodging: This was a little trickier and took¬†a lot of advanced planning. First I looked at the off-park resort properties that are part of rewards programs (most hotels are part of some larger hotel group such as Hilton, IHG, or Starwood), and looked at the reviews on tripadvisor. I wanted a place that offered free breakfast, had a decent pool, had a suite with a kitchen, and free parking. I ended up settling on a few that use Hilton Hhonors points. I calculated how many Hilton Hhonors points we would need for a week and I think it was about 240,000. Now to get to work. I took out the Hilton Hhonors amex for 60,000 bonus points and then the citibank hilton hhonors card for 75,000 bonus points. In bonus points alone that got me to 135,000 points. For the rest, I simply kept trying to rack up points any way that I could. That included booking a couple stays at Hampton Inns for other trips for double points (they are part of the Hilton Hhonors group), using my card¬†at restaurants, supermarkets and gas stations for 6x points per purchase, and referring a friend (e.g., my husband) for another 10,000 points. It took a few months but as soon as I hit the magic number I booked the 7 nights at the Homewood Suites. I liked this hotel¬†because they got good reviews, it’s a suite, they have a free hot breakfast¬†and¬†they have a manager’s reception Mon-Thurs with a hot dinner and free wine and beer! What parent couldn’t use that after a day at the parks?

Tickets to the parks: I’ve done a lot of research on this, and there seems to be only one way to get free tickets to amusement parks such as Disney and Universal. That is to take out a Bankamericard travel rewards card and use the bonus points to pay for the ticket. This is because this is the only travel card that will code “amusement park tickets” as travel. I knew that for the four of us a 5 day park-hopper ticket to WDW would be about $1600 and I couldn’t conceive of any way to earn enough bankamericard points to pay for that (I now think it’s possible, but you would have to use that card for every single purchase you made for probably about a year to cover it). So I figured we would just pay for the WDW tickets ourselves, and set our sights on getting the Universal tickets for free. For this trip we definitely wanted to hit Harry Potter world at Universal Orlando because the kids are into HP this year and it’s supposed to be amazing. Of course, Universal knows that this is their main attraction so they take advantage and make sure you have to buy the park-to-park ticket to get to all the HP attractions. I figured out ahead of time that¬†one day park hopper tickets at Universal will cost $600 for all four of us. I know. It’s crazy. Which was why I was determined to get them for free. I had my husband and I each take out a Bankamericard travel rewards card, which as no fee and gives you 20,000 bonus points once you reach the minimum spend, and then 1.5x points per purchase after that. To redeem the points for travel you just buy the purchase (in this case the tickets) on the card, and then once you have enough points to pay for it (in this case it would need to be 30,000 for each of us, if we each bought 2 tickets), you apply it to the purchase and get a refund. Since we got the 20,000 bonus points we just have to keep using the cards for everything to get another 10,000 points. Easy peasy. The cool thing about this card is that you have 12 months from when you make the travel purchase to ear the points to erase it. So we could buy the tickets in December 2016 and have until December 2017 to keep accruing points to cover it. If you use the card for every purchase you make, you would be surprised at how fast those points add up.

Transportation: Because we are staying off property this time, we need to rent a car. Many of the off-site hotels do offer a shuttle (including ours), but after doing a bit of research you will find that their timetable¬†is a lot more limited than the Disney bus system, so you would really need to be beholden to their schedule. I like the idea of being able to come and go when we wanted, so we decided to rent a car. Car rentals in Orlando are pretty cheap – about $120 for 7 days, but I wanted to challenge myself for this trip to see how much I could get for free, so I used my Chase Ultimate Rewards to book the car rental. That cost me about 13,000 UR points. But I have over 100,000 (and my husband has over 70,000), so I figured I could afford to use some. The Chase UR system is one of the best points and rewards systems out there and most travel hacking bloggers recommend starting with their cards first. If you plan on travel hacking with cards where you are going to take out a lot of cards, you MUST take out all of your Chase cards FIRST before you get any other cards. This is because Chase has a 5/24 rule, where they won’t approve you for any card, no matter how good your credit score is, if you have taken out 5 new credit cards in the past 24 months (with ANY company – amex, citi, etc). So if you take out their cards first you will at least get them before the 5/24 rule will apply to you.¬†There is more of a system to understand with the Chase cards, including how to maximize points with the “trifecta” of the Sapphire, Freedom, and Ink, but if you want to read more about that I recommend you¬†google “chase trifecta” and start there.

Food: I will have to report on what we spend on food post-trip, but I am hoping it won’t be that much. We will have breakfast at the hotel every day for free and plan on taking advantage of their free dinner a few times in between visits to the parks. We have a full kitchen in the suite so we can get some stuff at the grocery store and make our own lunches a few days and bring them in. I’m usually not that cheap but honestly the lunch places in the parks are really just fast food burgers and such. You end up waiting on line for an hour that you could be going on rides! No thanks. I would also like to go off-site to some restaurants that I have been reading about on Yelp and tripadvisor, which seem to have better food for much cheaper than Disney prices. We are going to have a couple meals in the park because we did love one restaurant at Hollywood Studios and I feel like we should at least eat one meal at World Showcase. I will report back a full meal report with total cost in Part II.

I will also be buying Disney gift cards at BJs or Staples before we go because with my Chase credit cards I can get 5x points per dollar at either place (and at BJ’s you get $5 off a $100 gc). We will use those for food, souvenirs, and parking. So even though we can’t pay with points, we will be earning them on our purchases.