Driving to Walt Disney World probably offers the most flexibility of any method of travel. It allows you to pack heavier than by plane, including the possibility of packing a cooler and some food to save money. Our youngest is a picky eater, so we sometimes will pack Pop-Tarts and cereal for breakfast, and peanut butter, jelly, and bread for lunch. You also have the ability to stop at a grocery store and stock up. By driving, you aren’t dependent on Disney transportation once you get down there. And you also have the ability to incorporate other stops into your vacation, such as visiting friends, relatives, or other sites of interest along the way.
Driving can also be cheaper than flying or taking a train. With driving, most of your costs aren’t related to how many people are going. That is, it’s almost as cheap for a family of five to drive down as it is for a single person. With mass transportation, your cost is almost directly proportional to the number travelling; it’s almost five times as expensive for five people to fly down as it is for one.
However, depending on where you live, the road trip down to Disney World can be loooooong, about 14 hours of actual driving time each way, for us. Fourteen hours together in a cramped car can fray the nerves of the most patient, loving family members. I can’t get in the car to Disney World without thinking of the Griswolds’ trip to Wallyworld in the first Vacation movie and hear “Holiday Road” in my mind.
A big expense for a drive to the World that you have little control over is the price of gas. About all you can do is make sure your car is properly tuned up and the tires are at optimum inflation. This can also help prevent a mechanical break down that will possibly lead to a mental break down.
Another way to save money on the drive is to reduce your eating expenses along the way. Eat a hearty breakfast at the house before leaving. You can pack a lunch and some snacks to eat along the way. Freeze some bottles of water and put them in the cooler. They’ll help keep the food cool and keep you from having to spend money on bottled water along the way. By not having to stop for lunch, you can save around $15-$20, and save a few minutes of time.
Hopefully, you live close enough to make the drive in a single day. That will save you from having to spring for a hotel room along the way. We live on the outer edge of what I would consider single-day driving distance. I suppose that if we left before dawn and drove until night, we could be at Disney World in one day. We have done it once, but that was more than 10 years ago. These days, I’m not sure that we would feel like doing anything for a day two after we arrived. We break the trip up into two (or sometimes even three) days each way.
My standards are lower for an enroute hotel that I’m only going to be sleeping for a single night than for the resort where I’ll be staying for a week. Unfortunately, my wife’s standards are higher than mine, so I can’t stay as cheaply as I’d like. Still, most hotels offer discounts for AAA, veterans, AARP, and other groups. The $47 a year for AAA membership may pay for itself in discounts at the hotels along the way. Disney usually offers AAA discounts, too. Another way to save is to pick up the discount books at the rest stops. You can find coupons for hotels along the way. You may be rolling the dice, though, as to whether there are any rooms available the night you need them.
One of the best ways I was able to save on hotels along the way was by joining the hotels’ rewards programs. My work required a fair amount of travel, so whenever I went on a trip, whether I was staying at a Hilton, Marriot, or Radisson hotel, I could apply the stay, which was paid for by my employer, to my individual rewards account. I travelled an exceptional amount in 2007 and we stayed two nights driving down to Orlando, and one night coming back, all for free. I personally prefer the Marriot Rewards card. It seems to build up points for a free night quicker, and I don’t believe the points expire.
Always try to stay in a hotel with a free continental breakfast. This saves you the cost of an additional meal.
This may not work for most people, but staying with relatives or close friends along the way can save some money, as well as give you a chance to visit. For example, both my parents and my wife’s live about 21/2 hours south of us, along the way to Disney World. We’ll frequently leave in the evening after work and spend the night there, then get up the next morning and start the “real” trip to the World. In our case, we still don’t feel like it’s close enough for us to comfortably make the trip in one day, but it allows to get farther the first day, and thereby arrive earlier at Disney World the second. If we had relatives in say, Columbia, South Carolina, it’d be perfect!
If you live along the East Coast, you might want to check into Amtrak’s Auto Train. It leaves from Lorton, VA to Sanford, FL. In a way, you get the best of both worlds. Your car travels with you on the train, so it’s there with you in Florida, but you can sleep all night and arrive rested. We’ve thought a lot about it, but finally decided not to take it. It’s really not a money-saver. The prices I found were comparable or more expensive than plane fare. The cost, however, includes a dinner buffet and continental breakfast, so that helps offset some of the cost. We may do it someday when we’ve got a little money to burn, just for the experience. Checking around in online discussion boards, I’ve really heard nothing but good things about it. We had some friends take it a few years back, and they were happy with the service.
Besides the Auto Train, you can also take a regular train trip and leave your car at home. This will probably be cheaper than flying, and allow you to sleep while someone else does the driving. Amtrak has stations in Orlando, Sanford, and Kissimmee. You’ll have to factor in the cost of getting between the train station and your resort, though. Many people who are afraid of flying but don’t want to drive go by train. Children 15 and under travel for half price. Amtrak also offers discounts for AAA members, veterans, students, and other groups.
Finally, there’s bus transportation. I’ve never taken a bus to Disney World and I haven’t heard of anyone who has. I’m sure there are those who have, though. My impression is that it would be the cheapest, but probably least convenient, method of travel to Walt Disney World. I’d love to hear from anyone who either has personally travelled by bus to Disney World or knows of some who has and can relate the experience.
Combining these various methods of saving money on the trip to and from the World can result in savings for almost everyone. Whether it’s saving $20 by eating a lunch you packed rather than stopping for fast food, or saving $150 in hotel expenses, any money saved in getting to Disney World can then be spent while at Disney World. I know where I’d rather spend my money!
Contributed by: Mark (NDD #102). Mark is our resident “how to save money while living the Disney Driven Life” expert.