Making The Family Vacation Less Stressful On The Wallet

Family vacations – just reading those two little words did you cringe or smile? My children are 19 and 24 so it’s been a while since we all went on an extended family outing. I recall being a tad tense trying to keep everyone content, (I take disturbances in the force personal.) I had everything, including the kitchen sink, but if someone was hungry, tired, or their “flip had been switched” well then only time would squelch the storm.

After reading the family vacation “reader tips” from the dollar $tretcher site it reminded me of the communal break room at work. Ideas are shared and suggestions are made. It’s an awesome way to learn what worked for others to help you reach your goal, whatever it may be. I was thrilled at dollar stretcher ideas. Who knew that EBay was an option when looking to book a trip? Or there was an outlet to bid on unused timeshares? If I traveled with kids now it would be so much different….hah – I can dream can’t I? I guess I’ll have to utilize the tips on the next vacation with my husband.

Planning a Frugal Theme Park Vacation

I’m trying to plan a trip for the family to Disneyland this summer. We are driving my company car, which is a big help as they foot the gas bill. But I still have food, lodging and incidentals to consider. We are budgeting to have this trip paid for in cash, using no plastic unless we run into an emergency. I’ve realized that staying at the resort is way too expensive and am looking at off-resort hotels, but what about the food and extras? Does anyone have any tips for saving money while visiting “the happiest place on earth”? Or for any theme park vacation?

Try This Book

There is an awesome book called Disney on a Dime, which has great ideas for doing Disney on the cheap. There are free ideas (like going to the campground and participating in the Chip and Dale sing-a-long/bonfire and we didn’t stay at the campground) and ways to make the most of your money.
Amy in Grand Rapids, MI

House Rentals

We travel to Disney twice a year and rent a house rather than stay in a hotel. This provides much needed “space” at the end of the day when we’re all worn out from the parks, etc. A fully-loaded kitchen means we can shop at the grocery store for items we’d otherwise have to buy at restaurants or fast food places. We usually fix breakfast and supper in the house and eat lunch at the parks during the day. A nice pool outside with a gas grill is a wonderful touch, as is the game room with a pool table, big screen TV, all sorts of board games, etc.

For budgeting at parks, we give each child a flat amount each can spend for a souvenir at each park. They can either spend the entire amount at one park or save it and add it to the amount for the next park and buy something there.

As my daughter has become older, she likes saving all of her “park spending money” and we go to the Premium Outlet there and shop, which is also a lot of fun!

Recording Favorite Memories

My family and I save all year to buy annual passes to Disneyland, and it is a large source of entertainment for us as long as we keep other costs to a minimum. To sleep near the park, there are quite a few “good neighbor” hotels just off Disney property, but they can be pricey depending on the time of year you visit. If you go off season (early fall, late winter, or just before summer), you can usually land a deal booking through an Internet travel website or going to the website of the motel itself. Or, if you don’t mind driving a bit, you can book a hotel further away, but that can be difficult if you don’t know the area that well. Just look for anything off of the I-5.

As far as food is concerned, Disneyland is one of the few places that allows you to take your own food inside the park. If you don’t live nearby, you can pack a tiny ice chest filled with goodies like fruit, cereal (great for small fingers), or doughnuts. You can pack disposable containers, a small cutting board, and a few utensils in your baggage and make use of a nearby grocery store to make sandwiches. Cut your own fruit (as it is $4.75 for a cup of chopped fruit or grapes) and don’t forget about crackers, cheese, and pepperoni stacks. You must absolutely bring your own water bottles as small 16.5 bottles are $2.75 minimum in the park. You can fill them up again at water fountains.

If souvenirs are something the kids are asking for (and they are literally everywhere), buy your children each a disposable camera that they can use to record their favorite memories. Make sure that the children understand that souvenirs are just things no matter how whiz-bang they are and will have to be picked up off of their bedroom floor for the next few years, but they can actually frame their memories and stories into books to keep forever and to show their friends.

In addition, go to a dollar store before you leave to pick up an autograph book with Disney characters on it (we found small notebooks with Buzz Lightyear) and have the kids get their autographs with it. Also, you may find glow in the dark bracelets and necklaces very inexpensively at discount/party stores that are not so inexpensive at night in the park where it seems every child is twirling one.

If you are really savvy, you can pre-purchase candy and snacks with Mickey Mouse or Princesses on them without the kids seeing them and pull them out of your snack bag/ice chest when they start to ask for some of the delicious and overpriced goodies that are displayed.

Find Accommodations on eBay

When I was looking into this, on a whim, I looked on eBay. There were quite a few listings of places that people owned and were looking for people to rent them for a week or so. Some of them were very affordable, very nice, and on shuttle routes to Disney. Many were within about 30 minutes of the park. Now, this was for Disney World, but Disneyland may have the same type of opportunities.

Souvenir Shop Before Leaving

If you have younger kids or are planning on any “souvenir” shopping, keep an eye out for Disney “souvenirs” at your local thrift stores, yard sales, etc. This obviously depends on how long you have in advance. Many of the items in the park gift stores are the same things that have been sold for years, so save on other people’s gently-used, over-priced purchases.

Six Tips for Savings

Tip 1: Take your own food and water into the park with you. This will save huge amounts on overpriced items. My son would only settle for PBJ and I didn’t have to waste food on stuff he was unfamiliar with. We did indulge in Mickey ice cream as a treat.

Tip 2: Buy Disney souvenirs before you leave for the trip and pack away in your suitcase. Surprise your kids when you pull them out.

Tip 3: Check out local discount stores for souvenirs and clothing for much cheaper prices than the “real” thing. Make sure to purchase cute novelty cups before heading into the park to hold drinks that would otherwise be an impulse.

Tip 4: Take plenty of batteries and film. You don’t want to purchase these on the Disney properties.

Tip 5: We had a lot of fun riding the monorail around the parks. We got off at the resort hotels and walked around and saw many different things for free. The monorail ride was like a ride in itself and we could occasionally take pictures at the hotels with characters (no crowds).

Tip 6: Try to eat most meals that are local to your area so you won’t break the budget on the “themed” dinners.

Online Sources of Help

The best advice I can give is to check out Mousesavers at and especially The Mouse for Less, which is a Yahoo group found at The wonderful folks at this group will answer your questions if you can’t find the answer in their extensive library and postings.

Another great site is, which will help with what to do and see while you’re at Disney. I think this is just as important. Your time at the park costs a lot of money, and you don’t want to waste it on something you don’t enjoy when there’s certainly something you would enjoy. Also, this is a great site to check out the restaurants on site at Disney and plan your meals if you eat there.
Mary Z. in Alabama

When Traveling with Kids

We found, when traveling with our kids to Disneyland, that we could stay in a more reasonably priced motel or hotel a little further away from the park but on the free shuttle route. It also helps to look for a place that provides a full breakfast. This can save you quite a bit on meals and can offset the slightly higher cost of the room. (A high carbohydrate continental breakfast will only leave you hungry sooner at the park.) The hotel we stayed at gave us vouchers for breakfast at the coffee shop next door. We did have to pay for coffee and juice, though. Take trail mix, dried fruit, granola bars, crackers, even cereal with you to snack on during the day. If the room has a refrigerator or you can manage with an ice chest, you can have cereal and milk in the room for a meal. If you take an electric pot or small microwave, you can find an enormous variety of food in the grocery store that can be heated in a microwave or have boiling water added to and eaten for dinner in the hotel room. Of course, there are also suite style hotels that have kitchenettes, but they may cost more. However, if you have more than two children, this may be your best bet. If you want to eat one meal in the park, lunch is usually cheaper than dinner, and there are a variety of dining experiences to choose from.

The other thing we did that I would highly recommend with children is to spring for the two-day pass. If you only go for one day, you feel the pressure to do and see everything, staying from sunup to the fireworks and it wears everyone out. With a two-day pass, you are free to return via shuttle when the kids get tired, maybe eat lunch in your room, nap or swim in the pool, and return to the park in the evening if you wish. We used our two-day pass on two non-consecutive days, spending the day in between doing something more low key, like the La Brea Tar Pits to see dinosaur fossils. We had more energy to return to the park with a day in between doing something else. I would highly recommend this to anyone with children.
MB in California

Bid on Vacant Timeshares

We have gone on vacation several times, including two times to Disney by renting a timeshare from the site They have auctions for timeshares that are not used. They would rather have it filled for a very low price than have it empty. You have to look through the auctions to find the ones that are for the timeshares. With the ones that we won, we were first able to look through the inventory of timeshares that were available (which changes even throughout the day) and reserve the one that we wanted. You then bid on the certificate for the week. I have always won it for under $50. You then pay $295 for the week. It is a full seven nights, and they are very nice. We always cook all of our meals since we have a full kitchen.