Many families will trek to Orlando, Florida, this spring and summer for some Mickey magic and undoubtedly pay a hefty fee to do so. After a recent trip to the land of the mouse with my family, we engineered some creative ways to shave the cost of a Disney vacation beyond the typical money-saving travel tips (like packing your own water bottles, buying multiday park tickets and visiting during low season). Here are five unexpected ways to save at Walt Disney World.
Take advantage of free checked bags
When researching flights for our Orlando vacation, we strongly considered the cheapest available option, which was Allegiant Air, a new carrier flying into our airport. But after some study, we realized the benefits of Southwest Airlines and the slightly higher cost outweighed the negatives and slightly lower cost of Allegiant. For one, Southwest allows each traveler to check two bags and bring one carry-on and one personal item for free. It also does not charge an extra fee to change flights to a different day or time, and offers free in-flight entertainment on a Wi-Fi enabled device (great for entertaining kids) on most flights.
Using the free checked bag allowance, we brought enough clothes to minimize our need to do laundry and packed an entire bag full of nonperishable food for breakfasts and snacks, along with a small fan to drown out noise while sleeping. Additionally, Southwest flies into Orlando International Airport, which allows you to take advantage of Disney's Magical Express free transportation and luggage service (if you're staying at a Disney resort), whereas Allegiant flies into a smaller airport farther from the parks. If Southwest doesn't service your airport, consider JetBlue: The carrier allows you to check one bag per person for free.
If you do decide to fly with Southwest and you're a Rapid Rewards member, see if you're eligible for the program's Companion Pass. If both you and your spouse have enough points for the pass, you can each bring a child with you for free.
Hop on board Disney's Magical Express
The downside to checking so many bags: lugging them to and from the airport. However, if you're staying at a Disney resort, you can take advantage of Disney's Magical Express. Once you check your bags at your departure airport, you won't see your suitcases again until they "magically" appear in your hotel room no later than three hours after you arrive at the hotel. When it's time to go home, you can check your bags at your Disney resort just like you would at the airport, and then pick them up at baggage claim upon returning home.
To take advantage of this service, book your reservations at least two to three weeks in advance. Once reserved, Disney will send you luggage tags to place on each bag. This service also allows you to take a free bus from Orlando International Airport to any Disney resort, which saves on the cost of renting a car or taking a taxi. Keep in mind: Disney's Magical Express works with select airlines, including Southwest, Delta, American, JetBlue and US Airways. Another caveat: The service is only available for flights arriving between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m.
Spend with the Disney Visa credit card
Disney offers two Visa credit cards, which when used to pay for everyday purchases, can net you discounts and points to use on your Disney vacation. For every $100 you spend, you earn one Disney Dream Reward Dollar, which is a $1 value on Disney purchases and on air travel. Depending on your monthly expenditures on the card, you may be able to accrue enough points to pay for your park tickets or meal expenses.
With the cards, you also save 10 percent at select Disney resort restaurants, you'll get 10 percent off select merchandise purchases of $50 or more, and you can participate in an exclusive daily character meet and greet at Epcot, which comes with a free photo. The Premier card, which has a $49 annual fee, allows you to earn double points when you spend on gas, groceries and at Disney locations.
While we don't hold a Disney card, we did use our Discover It card, which is currently offering a 5 percent cash back bonus when using the card at most restaurants. I paid the balance as soon as we returned home and considered this a 5 percent coupon at a destination where coupons are hard to come by. This is also handy if you venture outside the world of Mickey to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure or other Orlando attractions, where the Disney card does not provide a discount.
Ditch the rental car
When planning this trip, we debated whether or not to rent a car as we had in years past. In addition to all four Disney parks, we also like to go to Universal Studios, and we needed a way to get there. Since Uber has greatly expanded its geographic coverage since our last Disney visit, we decided to give it a try.
Uber worked beautifully for us, picking us up at the resort within five minutes of requesting a car and dropping us right in front of Universal, saving us both the $17 to $25 Universal parking cost and the long walk from the garage. It cost us $21 going to the parks in the morning and $14 on the way back -- a great deal for a family of four.
Save on laundry
While there's plenty more to get excited about at Disney besides laundry, I have to say Disney's new system had me over the moon. While not cheap to do laundry ($2 to $2.50 per load to both wash and dry), it is handy to have fresh clothes and swimsuits during your vacation. To help reduce the cost, bring your own trial size laundry detergent and fabric softener sheets in your checked bag and choose the lowest possible dry time for a smaller fee.
The new digital system lets you pay and select your washer or dryer from a central station and pay by credit card (forget traveling with rolls of quarters!). It even lets you monitor how much time is left in the cycle via an app on your smartphone, which also sends you a text alert when each load is done.
While Disney vacations are far from cheap, with a little extra knowledge and planning you can maximize all possible savings, choosing to splurge only when you want.