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Monday, May 8, 2017

Vacation Budget Tips

While scrolling my facebook feed the other day, I read a post about vacationing with kids and it really struck a cord in my heart (here's the what I read on  The entire time I read I thought "YES!!! THIS!!!" Annie, author of ScaryMommy, does a great job of giving the top 5 reasons taking a vacation with your kids is important (head over to her post to read those 5 reasons).  This inspired me to share my thoughts on vacations, because I haven't always considered them essential (travel yes, but vacations were not on my list of essentials until very recently).

I'm an obsessive planner.  I need to have every detail of everything planned out.  I need predictability.  I need to know what's going to happen before it happens.  I need to have the security of knowing.  I don't like the unknown and I don't like not having planned for contingencies.  This means that I'm a miser.  Yes, I'm a miser.  A frugal, penny-pinching, second-hand buying, cheap-to-the-core, money saver.  I don't like to spend money.


This means that I am creative when it comes to travel.  It means that our travel is always within our budget.  But it also means that I meticulously plan our budgets and make sure to save enough money throughout the year to cover our vacations.  You see, we take multiple vacations a year.  Sounds crazy, right? Multiple vacations every year?!  How can we possibly afford that?!

We are a middle income family, but we haven't always been here, what we have always done is find ways to take family vacations.  It's important for our family's health and wellness to make those memories together.  It's also important for my husband and I to take vacations alone, without the kids, occasionally.  Date nights are great, but vacations together without children allows us to really remember who WE are as a couple, not just who we are as PARENTS.

Traveling is easy when it's just you.  One person is relatively easy to please and you can travel for cheap, eating is less expensive, hotels are cheaper for one, and air fare is much lower when your only paying for one person.  Traveling alone was easy when I was younger.  At first, traveling as a family was difficult for me to stomach because of the expenses.  Remember, I like to save money.  I'm a miser.  Traveling as a family is much more complicated and takes a great deal more planning, but over time I learned some tricks that have made me realize how important travel is and how easy it is to travel on a minimal budget.

Save On Airport Parking

 I would never recommend taking a vacation that you "can't afford".  Don't go into debt to go on a vacation!  That can just cause more stress and eventually will actually be more detrimental than good for your family's health.  So how do we budget so that we can afford these trips?

Budgeting Your Family Vacation...

1.  Make a plan to travel somewhere every 6-8 months.  Mark it on your calendar.  Now you know your time frame.  It's amazing how something as simple as blocking out a time to travel can push you into the motions of saving and planning.

2. Decide if this is a long vacation or a short vacation.  Longer vacations (5-7+ days) tend to be more expensive while vacations over long weekends or for shorter periods (3-4 days) tend to be less expensive.  Shorter vacations are also easier to manage with small children because they don't become as exhausted after being out of routine for only a few days.  Typically you'd want to travel somewhere close in a shorter vacation (easily driven in under 6 hours) and save the further destinations for longer trips (6+ hour drives or vacations that require a flight). Don't forget to ask for your time off work!

3. Decide who will be on the vacation with you.  Is this just a vacation for your family?  Or maybe you want your family to travel with another family (traveling with another family is a great way to get group rates and keep kids entertained!)?  Maybe you want to travel with extended family (having grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, etc on the trip with you can be very helpful when it comes to child watching and you can find great group deals).  Or maybe it'll just be your spouse and you on a romantic get away.  Make a decision so that you can start planning.

4.  Decide where to go.  Don't leave this as an open ended trip.  You need a destination (or at least a broad destination) so that you can start looking for deals.  If this is a short trip, look at cities or attractions near your home, or if you live in a destination city like I do think about if a stay-cation is right for you.  Check out large U.S. cities to see if they appeal to you and your family.   Maybe you want to try something tropical?  Decide that your destination will be in the Caribbean.  Whatever you do, pick a place or general geographic area and stick to it.  

5.  Save a little each month.  We set aside $20-$200 each month, depending on our destination and length of trip.  Our savings also depends on our other expenses.  After all, as a family some months are more expensive than others.  You probably wont save as much during the summer because expenses are higher.  December might not be a high-savings month because of Christmas. Maybe you can save a great deal in February because you get a tax return.  Whatever you do, make sure to save for your necessities FIRST and travel SECOND. Expect the amount you can save to be variable, but make sure to at least save SOMETHING specifically earmarked for Travel each month.  For shorter vacations we typically save $500-$800.  For longer vacations we tend to save right around $3000.  

6. Start looking for Deals.  Deals pop up all the time.  Follow a variety of websites and check frequently for price changes.  When you see a deal that appears to be the lowest price, snatch it up.  Last minute travel can be cheaper for one person, but waiting until the last minute to book deals as a family can end up costing much more.  Typically you want to have your hotels, cruise, flights, etc booked about 2 months in advance for the best deals. Here is a list of the sites that I follow to stay updated on price:

7.  Not all Destinations are equal.  If your looking for a Caribbean vacation remember that each destination has it's own advantages and disadvantages.  Some countries are more expensive to travel to than others.  Likewise, not all U.S. cities will be equally priced, some cities are just more expensive than others.  *Read more about this in a future post*

8.  Try to find a resort that is all-inclusive or that has complimentary breakfasts.  This saves a small fortune for our family.  Not only does each member of our family typically get what they want, we also don't have to worry about nickle and dime-ing each meal.  All-Inclusive resorts normally have buffets that are more than worth their price and complimentary breakfasts will star your family off with a filling meal and last you hours into your day. *come back later for another post with tips on saving on your food expenses*

9.  Detail out a Daily Budget.  If your going to leave at 6am on a Monday and return at 8pm on a Sunday, plan out each day's meal budget (for our family of five if we aren't staying somewhere food is included we typically budget $25 for each breakfast assuming $5 in tax and each person spending about $4, $50 for lunch assuming about $10 in tax and each person spending about $8 on their meal, and $100 for dinner assuming about a $15 tax and each person spending roughly $16 on their meal... this makes our daily budget $175 for food).  Make sure to also include gas expense, parking expenses (at the airport, resort, or destination), travel expenses (flight, tolls, etc), tickets for attraction entry, etc...  Every little thing should be included in your budget.

10.  Plan for the Unexpected.  It's always better to over estimate your expense and come back having spent under your budget than to comeback and find out that you've spent way over.  Did you plan on spending $25 at a fast food place for breakfast and the line was sooooo long that you had to go to a sit down breakfast place and it came out to $50?  Ok, adjust your plan.  Since you spend $50 at breakfast, hit a fast food place for lunch and pick items from the value menu.  All the same, don't count your pennies the entire vacation!  That will just lead to added stress.

Other Tips...

11.  Put your trip on a Credit Card with travel points or reward points.  We get $25 for every $2500 we spend on our credit card.  It's not much, but the points do add up to extra savings.  If you do follow this advice, make sure to PAY OFF THE CARD as soon as you get back so that you don't end up paying interest.

12.  Hit up the Dollar Tree before you leave and get items like Ponchos, tooth brushes, travel size items, and snacks.  I learned this the hard way one year when an unexpected storm came while we were at Universal Studios.  In the park it cost $10 per poncho!  Likewise, if you forget to bring a tooth brush (because you planned on using it the morning that you left and then forgot to throw it into your bag) the price will be much higher in your resort gift shop.  Go ahead and buy everyone a new tooth brush before the trip and pack them in the bags right away.

13.  Take advantage of free stuff offered at your resort and in the surrounding area.  Lots of restaurants have free kids meals with the purchase of an adult.  Some destinations have free refills if you buy the big cup (just buy the big cup and let everyone share! then refill for free or cheaper than the cost of a new drink).  Some places even give you free entry for a child with an adult ticket.  Do your research and know your options before you arrive.

14.  Know the policies of the destinations your visiting.  It's all in the details.  Carnival Cruise lines charge for soda and juice (it's not included in your upfront costs) but they will allow you to bring juice boxes and soda cans on board (up to 12 per person).   Just remember that they wont let you bring bottles on board.  Some theme parks will not let you bring food or drink in, while others allow you to bring small items for children with special dietary restrictions.  Know the policies and use them to your advantage.

300x250 - National Park Lodging

15.  Do your research before the trip.  Not only can you do internet searches and read blogs like this one, but you can also join Facebook groups for local moms/parents at the destination you are going to.  Then you can ask those locals for advice on the best free and cheap things to do and places to stay.    You can also check out your destinations local government website and see the events in the area that are being advertised there.  Those events typically are for locals and typically have lower prices than touristy places.

How do you save for your family vacations?  Do you have any other great tips or tricks for saving some money while planning your trip?  Share your thoughts and comments below.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Disney World Tips and Tricks

Read the Ultimate Disney Guide on TripAdvisor

Disney World.  A trip that can both excite and exhaust us just thinking about it.  I spent my childhood at Disney World.  Every year, often twice a year, my family would make the 12 hour trek down to Tampa, Florida to visit my grandparents and while on that visit we would spend at least one day at one of the Disney Theme Parks.  And now I like to share those experiences with my children.  I've been to Magic Kingdom more times than I can count.  I've been to Animal Kingdom 4 or 5 times.  And I've been to Hollywood Studios (which used to be called MGM Studios wayyyyy back when...) and Epcot a handful of times.

But let's face it, no one wants to spend thousands of dollars on a Disney Vacation and then spend hours waiting in traffic and lines in the hot sun all day.  That's why I have developed a handful of tricks to maximize my time and fun at the parks.

Read reviews and find resort deals on TripAdvisor

Top Tricks and Tips for Making the Most of Your Disney Visit:
1.  Don't Visit During the Summer.  Let's face it, everyone goes on vacation in the summer or on holidays.  It's when our children are out of school, when we have long weekends, and when many don't have to work at all.  Skip the popular times, take time off work, and pull your kids out of school for the week because you will find much smaller crowds in the Fall, Winter, and early Spring.

2.  Go on Halloween Day.  Disney does a great Halloween night event each year.  Most people who are going to that event will be saving their energy for the all-night extravaganza and wont be at the park during the day.  This opens up a great opportunity for you!  Go Halloween day and forgo the evening events.

3.  Visit on Good Friday.  Everyone who visits Disney World the week of Easter will be either traveling to Disney on Good Friday (in order to spend the week after Easter in the parks) or will be headed home on Good Friday (in order to be home for Easter).  Again, this opens up a great opportunity for you!  Use that day to your advantage.

4.  Thursday is their Least Busy Day.  I'm not sure why, but the parks have noticeably fewer people on Thursdays.  This could be because week-long-vacationers have already visited all the parks and are taking a "rest day" or it could be because half-weekers are headed home, or that weekenders haven't arrived.  Either way, Thursday is your best opportunity for shorter lines.

5.  Visit the Other Parks.  Magic Kingdom is the ONE PARK everyone goes to, which also makes it the most crowded.  Many people skip Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios.  Use that to your advantage!  Visit these other parks and save Magic Kingdom for another trip or plan to visit that park on one of their less crowded days (see #2, #3, and #4 above).

6.  Plan to ARRIVE an Hour Before You Can Get into the Park.  It takes that long to get through the maze of parking lots and to actually park your car.  Then you have to stand in the line to actually enter the park and get through security.  The closer to the front of the line you are the more likely you will be one of the first to ride.

Getting early entry into the park is also a great time to take that picture that EVERYONE wants!
Notice that we are all in jackets?  That's because we visited in Mid December!  The park wasn't crowded at all!
7.  Take Advantage of Early Opening.  That extra 30 minutes to an hour really makes all the difference for that first ride.  Often, if your early into the park you will have a minimal wait for your first ride, so plan accordingly and get their early.  It's worth the added expense.

8.  Plan Your First Ride.  Which ride do you want to ride the most and which will be the most crowded?  Make that your first ride of the day.  The first ride will often have the shortest line, especially if your utilizing early entry.

9.  Look at the Map Ahead of Time and Chart a Course.  This could perhaps be my biggest tip.  Look at the map long before you even arrive to Orlando and plan which rides you want to wait for and which to skip.  Create a plan of attack with routes into and around the park.  Having a plan ahead of time will save countless hours of deciding where to go next and will also save you from wasting time playing with the map in the park.

10. Get the Park Hopper Option.  The Park Hopper option is critical in my opinion and well worth the added expense.  Getting to switch parks let's you use early entry in one park, switch parks during the day, and then visit the parade of your choice at night.  This let's you have optimum time in each park and allows you to switch parks if you find yours to be too crowded.

Park Hopping or not, expect your children to pass out after the fireworks!
Make sure they have somewhere easy and safe to sleep and get the rental stroller!
Notice how the rental stroller on the right protects her legs from getting bumped into by stranger?
 It also would let a smaller child stretch out when sleeping.  
11.  Use the Rental Stroller.  People are maniacs in the park.  They steal stuff, they bash their strollers into yours to get a better spot in line, they don't look where they are going, and they have no concern for others.  I once had someone step over top of my sleeping child in a stroller and actually FALL on top of her.  The park rental strollers are much sturdier and wider than regular umbrella strollers, thereby protecting your little one.  Using a rental also deters thieves because your nice clean new expensive stroller isn't sitting their advertising your nice things, ripe for the stealing.

12.  Bring Someone in a Wheelchair.  Don't purposefully put someone in a wheelchair that shouldn't be (this is just dishonest) but if someone in your party has an ankle, knee, hip, etc problem let them ride in the chair!  My brother-in-law went with us to Magic Kingdom just weeks after breaking his leg.  It's a little known fact, but wheelchairs are often channeled through the quick pass line.  This is because there is limited handicap seating on rides and the ride staff show preference for those seats to those in wheelchairs and the people accompanying them.

Not only was the wheelchair a "get in quicker" tool, but it also
gave the kids a break from the strollers when they got to ride!

13.  Use The Rider Switch Program.  Another little known secrete is that often families will get to ride a ride multiple times with the Rider Switch Program.  Consider this:  you have a family of 5 (2 parents and 3 kids), 2 of the kids can ride everything but the youngest is just a tad too small.  So parent 1 takes the older 2 on the first ride while parent 2 waits with child 3.  The next ride, parent 2 gets to ride WITH THE OLDER 2 while parent 1 waits with child 3.  In other words, the 2 older kids actually get to ride the ride twice.  Total WIN!  The trick is making that time alone with each parent special with the child that doesn't get to ride.  I brought all kinds of fun things with us to do with our youngest while he waited for each ride.

14.  Eat.  Really, eat as often as your children want.  Don't try to make them share the pizza at lunch, don't tell them "it's not lunch time yet", and don't deny them the Mickey Mouse Ice Cream.  Keeping your kids full and happy is CRITICAL in enjoying your time at Disney.  A hangry child wont wait in a line and will not remember this vacation fondly.  Feed your kids.  And buy the big drink to refill!  Florida is hot and your little ones can easily get dehydrated.

15.  Don't Worry About VIP Tickets to Parades.  The parade routes are long and the parade is quick.  It's easy to find a spot to watch them and the VIP area isn't worth the added time and expense.

16.  Plan a Rest Day.  Don't try to visit all the parks back to back.  Even a grown adult will have trouble with this.  The heat and walking alone are enough to exhaust you.  Plan a day or two to just lay around the resort property.  Plan to play in the pool, sipping tropical drinks, and enjoying all the amenities the resort has to offer.

17.  Spend Two Days in Magic Kingdom.  There is just NO WAY to get all of Magic Kingdom done in one day.  If you plan on spending two days in the park it will be much less stressful trying to fit it all in.  This way, you can start your to do list (see #9 above) and if you have to skip something because of a long line then you can plan on making that ride a priority your second day.

18.  The New Rides Will Be the Most Crowded.  Feeling frustrated by the 3 hour line to Frozen Ever After?  For your next ride pick one of the older rides that often get over looked.  Our favorite go-to rides when we are tired of long lines are Small World, Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin, and Jungle Cruise.  These lines move quickly and are sure to have you on in no time.  We also like Haunted Mansion, the Tiki Room and Pirates of the Caribbean, who have very entertaining line areas (so you feel like your getting to experience the ride throughout the entire wait).

19.  Let your Kids Play.  Areas like Tom Sawyer's Island, The Swiss Family Robinson Tree House, the Boneyard, and Project Tomorrow are great areas to just let your kids run for a bit.  After waiting in lines it's essential for them to get some wiggles out and play.  You'll be surprised how refreshed they are after being out of the stroller for a bit.

Testing out the Gorilla Hands at Animal Kingdom.
The parks are about more than just rides, make sure to enjoy the sites and Play Areas too!!

20.  Big Groups are Better.  As much as traveling as just your little family of 4 sounds like fun, at Disney it's better to travel in large groups (multiple families or extended families, groups of friends).  Just don't expect people to stay together.  It takes a village to raise your kids, so bring your village with you to the parks.  This will most likely give you a small rest (when other's take over the care of your kids for a bit) and lets people with similar interests stick together.

A few more great tips:
21.  Get your Disney Parks Merchandise online instead of at the park!! You will find much better sales and deals here: Fantastic merchandise previously available only at Disney Parks can now be purchased exclusively at the online Disney Store.
22.  Planning to do Breakfast with the Princesses?  Get your costume BEFORE you arrive.  You can save with extra sales here: The Disney Princess Shop - Royal Adventures Await!
23.  Make sure your little one looks great in ALL your Disney pictures by getting them some great Disney apparel to wear.  Check out the sales here: Find the best Disney kids apparel for girls, boys, tweens, toddlers and babies when you do your Disney shopping at
24.  Save a bit by staying off resort and taking shuttles from your hotel.  Check out the deals here: Save BIG on Orlando Travel Deals. Don't Miss Out!

Have you been to Disney World?  What are your tips and tricks for having a good time and making the most of your trip to the Most Magical Place on Earth?  Share your thoughts and advice below.

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