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In this post we provide a roadmap for planning a budget Disney World vacation. This post focuses specifically on planning a trip with a limited budget and the issues related to that. If you’d like a full planning guide for Walt Disney World, that covers FastPass+, park itineraries, and everything else, click here. Otherwise, let’s get budgeting!
Preparing to Track the Best Deals
Unless you have a record-setting memory and math skills to boot, you can’t track the best deals in your head. You need a method for tracking your options. We suggest Google Sheets, Microsoft Excel, Apple Numbers, or a similar program.
Consider this. If you start with the fixed point that you need four park days, you still need to evaluate the following options:
Four full park days with travel days on either side (5 nights, 6 days off of work/school)
An early flight with a park on day one, three days full of parks, and travel on day five (4 nights, 5 days off work/school)
A travel day, three full park days, and a park day followed by a light flight on day five (4 nights, 5 days off work/school)
An early flight with a park on day one, two full days of parks, and a park day followed by a late flight on day four (3 nights, 4 days off work/school)
That's four options right off the bat, each complicated by the seven steps we offer below. No, you can't do this in your head. You can't even do it with a bunch of tabs, because trust us that the cookies from all those searches will not play well together.
Step 1. Pick Your Dates
There’s no right order to do things when it comes to picking a hotel, picking dates, and picking flights. Saving most requires a combination of right hotel, right dates, right flights, and right booking method.
Unfortunately, there is no way to search the universe of booking sites for “lowest combination of flights and three-to-five night Disney World hotel stays.” We suggest starting with dates here, as you can at least narrow your options down somewhat.
Disney’s Lowest Rack Rates
You'll want to book during the days that Disney has the lowest rates (these would usually correspond to the lowest rates at the Disney Springs hotels, too). You can check the rate table over at MouseSavers. The lowest prices for 2020 are roughly available around the following dates:
January 2 through February 12 (with exceptions for holidays and the marathon)
August 23 through September 12
November 8 through December 5 (except around thanksgiving)
This is definitely just a starting point, though.
Checking for Current and Expected Disney Offers
Disney’s current offers can be some of the best ways to save. Especially when you're planning far into the future, though, there might not be current offers for your dates. Mousesavers has a great table of historical Disney discounts. Things change, but many of these deals have been around for 5+ years around the same times.
Step 2. Pick Your Hotel
When planning a budget trip to Walt Disney World, it makes sense to focus on Disney’s value resorts. We’re honest fans of the value resorts and stay there a lot even when our budget doesn’t require it. In particular, we recommend:
Some people don’t like the new rooms in these resorts. If you check out our reviews and aren’t a fan, Art of Animation offers Little Mermaid Rooms (we also have a post comparing Pop Century and Art of Animation), and All Star Music and All Star Sports both have (as of publication) older, more colorful rooms.
If you want to expand your options, consider the Disney Springs hotels. These hotels have access to the 60-day advance FastPass+ window and to Extra Magic Hours, though you should always confirm the latest list of perks with the hotel and be sure there are no restrictions (like having to book an entire package with them, for example). You also won't get Disney's Magical Express service to and from the airport (so plan for $30 for an Uber each way).
Step 3. Find the Best Rate
When it comes to hotels (and sometimes flights), ask ten sites and you'll get eleven “best” prices. Kidding, of course, but you should check a variety of sources for the best price. These include:
Priceline Express Deals (link to Disney Tourist Blog post) are a great way to save on your hotel if you can deal with not knowing which hotel you’ll be booking.
If you decide to book through Disney, we highly recommend using an Authorized Disney Vacation Planner, like Lauren. We book almost all our trips with Lauren these days, and the convenience is unbeatable.
Whether it's low or peak season, whether Disney has deals or not, whether your hotel is showing availability on one site or not, the prices across these sites will vary. It's always good to check these (and any sites you favor) to find the best prices. It’s also important to make sure you know how to get the Disney World website to show its lowest prices.
Finally, while it won’t have much use for budget Disney travelers anymore we still have to mention the Citi Prestige and the Citi 4th Night Free perk just in case this option makes sense for you (but it probably won’t).
Step 4. Book Your Flights
As we said earlier, there's just no perfect order in which to do these things. If you look at flights for your selected dates and they're crazy expensive for every combination you can consider, look into shifting your hotel dates around. Our guide to always getting the lowest rate on flights is a good accompaniment to this post, but here’s a quick run-down.
Be Open to Flying Low-Cost or Basic Economy
We know, there are lots of horror stories about low-cost flying and basic economy. But you can really limit the risk of these options with some basic steps. On some days, low-cost flights one way can be $50 less than legacy carriers (United, American, Delta). That's $400 for a family of four, round-trip.
We fly Spirit, Frontier, or basic economy almost every trip these days. There’s just no reason to ignore this option because you don't understand it. With some simple tips for surviving low cost airlines, you can beat their system.
Know How to Pack for Low-Cost and Basic Economy
Chief to flying low-cost or basic economy is packing. On domestic flights, this is really 90% of the game of your versus them. We've written before on tips for packing for low-cost airlines. Children with tickets get personal items on low-cost carriers as well, so keep that in mind when distributing your luggage.
Remember, too that for one person the difference between a low-cost airline and a legacy carrier might be outweighed by the cost of a carry-on or checked bag, but if a family of four can use one carry-on or checked bag (plus personal items, of course), they'll often wind up saving.
Always Remember to Tinker With Your Dates
One last time: don't be afraid to add or subtract a night and see if it makes sense. A $25 difference in a flight price can be enough to add or remove a night at a Disney hotel for a family of four.
Step 5. Save on Tickets
Here are two easy ways to save on tickets:
Don't buy the park hopper option. Budget trips require sacrifices, and this is a fine one to make. One park per day can be plenty of fun, and it simplifies your planning a bit.
Buy discount tickets from authorized sellers. We recommend Undercover Tourist, but we have a full post covering different options for discounted Walt Disney World tickets.
Disney has tight control over the ticket market. You shouldn't buy tickets from someone not authorized by Disney to sell them, you bear all the risk in that transaction.
Step 6. Save on Dining
Dining is probably the area where people spend the most effort to save the least. Honestly, to save on dining at Walt Disney World, you can just avoid going crazy or having any table service meals. If you eat to hunger at quick service locations, you'll do just fine on your food budget. That said, some of you may want to get a little more creative.
Consider A Disney Dining Plan
Generally, we don't care for Disney dining plans. We think they require a lot of effort for not huge return. That said, we're just two people who don't care much about food.
There's no doubt families can save using the dining plan, but it’s rare, and more likely than not you’ll be “saving” by dining at restaurants you would have skipped.
Prepare Your Own Meals
If you get a room with a kitchenette staying at Disney Springs (or a DVC property), or if you're willing to go to your Disney resort's microwave (they all have them, usually in the store or food court), you can plan to buy groceries and/or frozen meals and eat those. Again, we file this under high-effort low-savings.
Use Discount Disney Gift Cards
If you're not on a dining plan, dining is one of the few ways we advocate using discount Disney gift cards. The savings won't be huge, but with a little effort you can cut 8% to 10% off your food budget!
Use Your Disney Chase Visa Credit Card
Another way to save on dining is to charge meals to your Disney Rewards Chase Visa credit card. At select locations, you'll save 10% on your meal when you use your Disney Chase Visa credit card. The list of locations can be found here. Note that none of these are cheap options to start. Since the Chase Disney Rewards Visa (not the “Premier”) has no annual fee, this is a free way to save 10%.
Step 7. Consider some Upgrades
Congrats, you’ve planned your budget Disney World vacation and hopefully you’ve got a little wiggle room. Here are some ways you might upgrade your trip if you come in under budget.
Get Deluxe Accommodations at a Discount
Renting DVC points is our favorite way to get deep savings at Disney World hotels. Yes—even with these discounts you’ll still be spending a significant amount, but it’s also the best way to book deluxe stays at prices competing with moderate hotels.
Consider Adding Park Hopping
Park hopping is a Disney travel hacker’s dream, and with a good Disney World FastPass+ strategy you can put together a perfect roster of Disney attractions. You can read more about Disney World park hopper tickets here.
Consider Adding A No Parks Day
A Disney World no parks day is an awesome way to see more of Walt Disney World. Spend most of it away from the value resort. This especially makes sense if adding the day helps you save on flights.
Consider a Ticketed Event
Ticketed events at Walt Disney World are usually quite expensive—usually more than adding a park day to your tickets. But many families consider these to be the highlight of their vacations. We’ve specifically reviewed the following ticketed events:
And for each park we have a post discussing park hours and events that can get you early or late access to the parks:
Consider A Park Tour
Though a bit pricey, these are great ways to see an entirely different side of Walt Disney World. Note you need park admission to do these tours. You can save on these tours with a Chase Disney Visa credit card (referral link).
All Your Other Disney World Planning Questions Answered
Don't be overwhelmed by Disney World planning! Take a second to check out our most important content and you'll not only be an expert, but you'll save big $$$ along the way.
Just starting out? Check out our Walt Disney World planning guide! If you're still picking dates, we've got everything you need to know about Disney crowd calendars. For picking your hotel, check out our Walt Disney World hotels guide.
When it comes time to book we’ll help you find discount Disney World tickets. Decide whether you need a dining plan in our Complete Guide to Disney World Dining Plans! And at 180 days out it's time to book those Disney World Advance Dining Reservations!
Don't forget to master your Disney World FastPass+ strategy a few months in advance. We'll keep you out of long lines so you can maximize the magical time in the parks! We've got park-specific guides as well: Magic Kingdom FastPass, Epcot FastPass, Animal Kingdom FastPass, and Hollywood Studios FastPass.
Know what to ride with our guides to: Magic Kingdom rides, Hollywood Studios rides, Epcot rides, and Animal Kingdom rides! Plus learn about the water parks with our guide to Blizzard Beach and our guide to Typhoon Lagoon! And for some some fun prep, check out our Ranking of Every Ride at Walt Disney World.
Finally, before you head out, be sure to check out our to-the-point packing list, 10 essentials you forget to pack for every Disney trip. And if you're interested in saving, there's no better list than our 53 Ways to Save on your Disney trip from start to finish.