Airfare Discounts for Disney Vacations
Finding airfare discounts can be a real challenge, but with the right tools and some know-how, you can often save hundreds of dollars.
When are the cheapest airfares available? I have to say, it’s pretty random. Good fares can pop up at any time due to fare wars and other factors. Being persistent in checking fares (ideally, every single day) really pays off. I have some hints below about the easiest way to do this.
To the extent that there is any pattern, it seems that the lowest airfares are often available approximately 4 months in advance and again 6-8 weeks in advance. It’s best to avoid booking within 14 days of your trip, or worse yet, within 7 days. That’s when the airfare prices skyrocket. The only exception is if you’re willing to buy a last-minute vacation package.
If you will be traveling during a peak period such as Spring Break, June, July, Thanksgiving or Christmastime (especially Friday departures and/or Sunday returns), buy your tickets early, or you may not be able to get seats.
Best days of the week to fly? The cheapest and least crowded days will be Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday.
- Which Airport to Use
- Finding Low Fares & Airfare Discounts Online
- Major Airlines
- Promotional Fares
- What Happens if the Fare Drops After You Buy Your Ticket?
- Consolidator Fares
- Use Alternate Airports
- Costco Discount on American Airlines Gift Cards
- Flight + Hotel / Flight + Car Package Deals
- Extra Baggage Charges (and how to avoid them)
- Frequent Flyer Miles
- Where to Stay at the Orlando Airport
- Save Time With Off-Airport Check-In for Your Return Home
- Air Travel Hints
If you are going to Walt Disney World, the closest airport is Orlando (MCO). The next-closest airports to Walt Disney World are Sanford (SFB) or Tampa (TPA).
If you’re planning a trip to Disneyland in California, you have a lot of airport options:
- The closest to Disneyland is Orange County (SNA), followed by Long Beach (LGB), Ontario (ONT), Los Angeles (LAX) and Burbank (BUR).
- Those who will also be visiting San Diego should consider flying into or out of that airport (SAN), which is about 1.5 hours south of Disneyland.
- Those who also plan to visit Universal Studios Hollywood should consider flying into or out of BUR or LAX, since those airports are closest.
- Keep in mind that you can often fly into one Southern California airport and out of a different one for the same fare as a roundtrip using one airport only. So if you plan to visit San Diego, then Disneyland, then Universal Studios, you might want to fly into SAN and out of BUR.
The airport you’re traveling from will dictate what airlines you will need to check. The easiest way to find out what airlines fly from your local airport is usually to visit the airport’s website. (Do a search by the airport name.)
The easiest way to find the lowest current fares on most major airlines is to go to Travelocity:
- Enter the airports in the “From” and “To” boxes.
- Be sure to select “Flexible Dates.”
- Enter the number of travelers and search.You’ll see a list of airlines and the best airfares they are currently offering. On the right side you’ll see a summary of the rules for that fare (dates you can travel, etc.) Pick the lowest fare that will work for your trip, and then check to see which exact dates and flights are available and qualify for the fare.
- At that point you can either book through Travelocity, or you can go to the airline’s website. It’s more convenient to book with Travelocity but be aware that the site charges a nominal fee for this convenience.
- If you decide to book directly with the airline’s website, be sure to first write down the flight numbers, dates and times you have found through Travelocity. Then go to the airline’s website and plug in the correct dates and times. The same fare you found on Travelocity will usually (but not always) pop up.
Another nice feature on Travelocity is the Fare Watcher. Go to the site, register and sign up for the destination(s) you want to watch. You will receive an email every time the fare changes.
Residents of the UK can check airfares at Travelocity.co.uk to get prices in UK pounds.
Another website that provides good tools for finding low fares on many of the major airlines is Expedia.
Expedia allows you to search for the best fare for a particular date, or click on the Fare Compare or Fare Calendar options and you can find the lowest fares for flexible dates. Expedia charges a nominal fee for issuing air tickets.
Canadians can check airfares at Expedia.ca, which quotes fares in Canadian dollars. Thanks to Tod B for this tip.
Residents of the UK can check airfares at Expedia.co.uk to get prices in UK pounds.
ITA Software offers a free, very useful “Trip Planner” site that allows you to search a wide variety of airlines for the lowest fares. It’s a bit more complex to use than Travelocity or Expedia, but you often get more comprehensive results. Also, if you have flexible dates, this tool allows you to make broader searches (up to 30 days at a time).
ITA asks you to log in the first time you use it — just click on the link that says “log in as a guest.” You cannot book tickets from the ITA site, but if you write down the exact flight numbers, dates and times that have the lowest fares, you should be able to book them on the appropriate airline’s own website. I’ve used this tool a lot and have never had any issues with booking the fares I’ve found.
The major airlines may offer the best fares on the Internet through their own websites. Some airlines offer bonus frequent flyer miles or even cash discounts if you book through their websites.
If a particular airline offers a lot of flights from your home airport to Orlando (or to Southern California, if you’re planning a trip to Disneyland), sign up for the airline’s “e-fares” or “web specials” emails. Most airlines offer these – just go to the website and sign up.
Links to major airlines that fly to/from Orlando and Southern California:
- AirTran Airways
- Alaska Airlines
- Allegiant Air
- American Airlines
- British Airways
- Continental Airlines
- Delta Airlines
- Frontier Airlines
- Hawaiian Airlines
- Northwest Airlines
- Southwest Airlines
- Spirit Airlines
- United Airlines
- US Airways
- Virgin America
- Virgin Atlantic
Promotional fares are used by airlines to create price wars with other airlines (usually with the long-term goal of driving out a competitor in a particular market). Once you know what the going fare is for your destination, if you see a good fare, jump on it. Most deeply discounted fares disappear within 2 days, and sometimes they only last a few hours. That means you have to keep watching the fares all the time.
Did you know there’s a best day of the week to get cheap promotional airfares? It’s Wednesday, according to some experts. However, I have gotten great promo fares every day of the week, and find them to be pretty random, so don’t assume Wednesday is the only day to check. I strongly recommend using a service like Travelocity‘s Fare Watcher, or checking Travelocity or ITA daily to grab the best fare for your destination.
Even if your plane tickets are nonrefundable (which is almost always the case if you buy the least expensive fares), there may be a provision allowing you to rebook the ticket before departure. That means if the fare drops after you buy your ticket, you may be able to rebook the ticket at the lower fare, though you may be charged a fee. The fee can be up to $150 per ticket, depending on the airline.
Obviously if the fare drops $100 per ticket but there’s a $150 per ticket fee, it’s not worth it. However, if the fare drops $100 per ticket and the change fee is less than that, it’s worth making a call to the airline and having the tickets rebooked. You won’t get a cash refund, but you will be issued a credit that you can use on that airline. Typically the credit is good for a year from the date the original tickets were booked.
Alaska, Southwest/AirTran and JetBlue are particularly good about offering these credits, and they don’t charge a change fee! Most of the major airlines charge $150. Some airlines (such as Allegiant and Spirit) do not offer credits if the fare drops. Airfarewatchdog.com offers a chart listing which airlines offer the credits and what fees are charged.
Thanks to Jeff B for reminding me of this important way of saving on air tickets!
Consolidators buy large blocks of tickets from major airlines at a discount, and resell them. Often these are offered through the small ads in the travel section of your local newspaper. You usually do not qualify for frequent flyer miles and these are almost always “no refund, no exchanges.” While I’ve had good luck with consolidators, I would strongly advise paying with a credit card to protect yourself if the consolidator turns out to be fly-by-night.
Don’t forget to check the fares from close-by alternate airports. For instance, if you live in Asheville, NC, check the airfares from Charlotte. You might save enough to make a short drive worthwhile.
Fly into Sanford or Tampa instead of Orlando. If you can’t find a good fare to Orlando, look at the fares to Sanford Airport (serviced by quite a few flights from the UK, plus charters from a few Midwest and East coast cities) or Tampa (serviced by many major airlines). Sanford is about 45 minutes from Disney World; Tampa is about an hour’s drive (vs 20 minutes from Orlando). The car rental rates from Tampa are about the same and you can sometimes save $50 per ticket (the fares are about the same but the discounted seats don’t sell out as fast). However, be aware that Sanford Airport has limited services (it may be more difficult and/or expensive to get a rental car, shuttle or limo). Thanks to Lewis C and Don S for this excellent suggestion!
Consider flying into one airport and out of another. MouseSavers reader Gretchen F writes, “I had no problem booking an early flight into Orlando, but it was almost impossible getting any return tickets at a good price that weren’t first thing in the morning, thereby cutting off the last day of our package. I live in Connecticut, equally close to the Hartford or New York City airports… I tried various airports and found a decent rate in New York. When I called Delta to book it direct … the ticket agent told us we could fly out of Hartford and come back to New York. The price was even cheaper than going to and from the same city and we got an earlier morning flight out and a late one coming back …. I always thought that doing that did not consititute a round trip and would have been more expensive … if you have more than one airport close to you, and you can get some kind of transportation, you can sometimes get flights into and out of different airports for a better rate and/or a better schedule.”
As of April 2012, at participating Costco stores, they are selling $300 American Airline vouchers for $269.99 (10% savings) valid on flights only. You can use use multiple gift cards at one time when buying tickets, though there is a limit. This may be a regional Costco offer (one reader reports she bought hers in Orange County, California) and may be for a limited time. It’s certainly worth asking at your local Costco if you plan to fly on American Airlines. Thanks to Frances S for info.
Priceline has multiple options for purchasing airfare. The easiest option, and the one that gives you the most control, is to simply pick your airline and buy a published airfare, just like you would with any other travel agency. Unlike any other agency I can think of, they don’t charge any booking fee.
Another option is Priceline’s “Name Your Own Price” feature, which allows you to bid on your airfare, so it’s possible to get some real bargains. However, there are trade-offs: for one thing, you don’t get to choose the exact flight time. You can specify the date and whether you’re willing to accept a red-eye (overnight) flight, but that’s about all. You also don’t get to pick the airline, though Priceline only works with major carriers. Most important, if they accept your bid, you are charged immediately and your ticket is absolutely “no refunds, no exchanges.”
In short, this is a purchase you should think through carefully, and before bidding through Priceline, first do your homework and find out what the best fares are, using some of the techniques listed above. Then you’ll know how much to bid.
Since there are so many uncertainties and restrictions with Priceline bids, I recommend waiting until you’ve exhausted other options first. However, if your travel dates are drawing close (i.e. within a month) and you have been unable to find a good fare, it may be worth trying a Priceline bid. If you have more time, I would recommend continuing to monitor other options.
If you need airfare and hotel accommodations, or airfare and a rental car, there are some good resources for booking a cheap vacation package that includes both (or even all three: air, hotel and car).
Note that most of them offer the best deals fairly last-minute (typically 2 weeks to 4 months in advance). If you are booking really late (3 weeks or less before your departure date) these are especially worthwhile, because sometimes you can buy an entire package (airfare and hotel or airfare and car) for LESS than it would cost to book a last-minute airfare alone!
- Southwest Vacations
- Priceline Packages
- Expedia (under “Build Your Trip” click on Packages)
Currently only JetBlue and Southwest Airlines do not charge for the first checked bag. The other major domestic US airlines now charge for all checked bags, and Spirit Airlines charges for carry-on bags, too!
Typically the cost is $25-$45 for the first bag, more for additional bags. Additionally, bags are typically limited to 50 lbs or less in weight, and 61-62 inches in overall dimensions (length+width+height). If your bag is over the weight or size limits, you will pay significant surcharges. The surcharges are cumulative, so if you have “excess” bags that are also oversized and overweight, you will pay ALL of the surcharges listed, per person, each way!
These fees are subject to change at any time and vary by airline, so be sure to check your airline’s website before traveling to confirm the information.
So how can you avoid these charges?
- Fly on JetBlue (1 free checked bag per person) or Southwest (2 free checked bags per person).
- Pack light. With very few exceptions, you won’t need any dressy outfits at Disney. It’s warm most of the year at both Disneyland and Disney World, so you shouldn’t need heavy clothing. Keep your shoes down to a minimum — no one cares if you have a matching pair for every outfit. Avoid packing a lot of “just in case” items. (Remember, you’re not going to the Moon — if you end up needing something unexpectedly, you can buy it when you arrive.) Trust me, if Mike and I could travel around the world for a month and a half with one standard sized, under-50-pound suitcase each (and we did), you can manage a week at Disney on one bag per person. For more packing tips for Disneyland and Walt Disney World vacations, click on the links.
- Buy lighter luggage. If you have older suitcases, they may be surprisingly heavy even when empty. We bought new luggage for our around-the-world trip and shaved almost 5 lbs off each bag! eBags offers weight information, reviews and discounts; it’s a great place to buy luggage.
- Remember, the allowances are per seat. If you’re taking a baby or child, she gets the same allowance, but you might not need a whole big suitcase for her. (Note that “lap babies” don’t have a seat, so they may not get a baggage allowance.) Take a bigger (but not oversized) bag than you need for the child and pack some of the adults’ items in it.
- Carry more on. I hate to suggest this, because most planes are already beyond capacity when it comes to carry-on bags. Still, if you don’t mind the fact that one of your carry-ons might end up under the seat in front of you, this is an option. Be sure to check your airline’s website for the exact limits on carry-on bags. Note that Spirit Airlines charges for carry-on bags, so there is no advantage to carrying your bags onto the plane on that airline.
- If you must pay the airline luggage fees, see if you can pay through the airline’s website in advance. Some airlines offer a discount for advance online payment.
- Several of the major airlines offer branded credit cards that include FREE checked bags for the cardholder and family on the associated airline. Among those offering such cards are Delta, United and American. All of the airline cards carry an annual fee, but considering a family of four could save $200 or more in baggage fees on a single round-trip, it may be worth it.
- If you go to Disney World every year, consider a service like Owner’s Locker. You’ll have a lot less to carry back and forth.
- If you need to take a lot of bulky but not terribly heavy items (diapers, etc.), ship a package ahead to your hotel by UPS or the US Postal Service. As long as the items aren’t too heavy, this can save you some money. (And if you’re buying something new for the trip, such as a stroller, order it online and have it shipped straight to the hotel.) The package should be addressed as follows:
Hold for guest: (write the full name under which you made the reservation)
Check in date: (insert date)
Hotel’s name and address (which will appear on your confirmation form)
Exceptions to the baggage allowances:
- One stroller and one safety seat per child will usually be excluded from the baggage allowance. Check your airline’s website for details.
- If you are flying in full-fare Coach/Economy, or in Business or First Class, or if you belong to one of the upper tiers of the airline’s frequent flyer program, the baggage restrictions may be eased or eliminated. Check your airline’s website.
- Some airlines allow sports equipment (golf clubs, bicycles) that exceed the baggage size allowances. Check with your airline if you have specific questions.
Probably seems obvious, but frequent flyer miles are a great way to get FREE or upgraded flights. Be sure to sign up for the frequent flyer program at every airline you will ever use. It’s free to join and the miles add up! Even if you only fly on a particular airline once, those miles are like “money in the bank.” Small amounts of miles can sometimes be exchanged for goodies like free magazine subscriptions.
There are also lots of ways to get frequent flyer miles without flying – and in some cases, without spending a cent! Poke around on the airlines’ websites, under the “promotions” section or the frequent flyer area. You’ll often find that the airline has a relationship with supermarkets (get miles every time you shop), florists, rental car companies and more.
The single fastest way to build up frequent flyer miles without flying is to get a credit card that earns miles or points. By using one to buy absolutely everything from groceries to gas (and paying it off every month), I’ve been able to take a lot of fabulous vacations for free or almost free.
Some airlines offer bonus frequent flyer miles if you book through their websites.
If you have frequent flyer miles or points in more than one program and you’d like to consolidate them so you can use them, consider signing up for Points.com. This is a FREE program that allows you to trade various points and miles between programs, including American Airlines AAdvantage® miles, Delta SkyMiles®, Priority Club® Rewards and more. You’ll be able to get the most from airline, accommodation, frequent shopper and savings reward programs to which you already belong!
Arriving late at night? Leaving early in the morning? The Hyatt Regency Orlando International Airport is an upscale hotel that is actually located in the terminal, making it a great choice for those situations.
My husband and I arrived at the Orlando airport late at night on the first night of our honeymoon, and we chose to stay at the airport Hyatt that night so we didn’t have to worry about traveling any further. We just collected our bags, took them up on the elevator, checked in and crashed. (The rooms are well insulated from the airport noise, by the way — we did not hear the planes.) It was not only convenient — we spent much less than we’d have paid to sleep in the Disney Deluxe resort room where we spent the next two weeks.
The airport Hyatt is a great option for those who need to catch an early-morning flight as well. You’ll be right at the airport in the morning, so you can sleep in a little later!
When your vacation in Orlando ends, there’s a great way to avoid the hassles of dragging your luggage to the airport and waiting in line to check in. Consider taking advantage of one of the off-airport check-in services that allow you check your bags and get your boarding pass while you are still in Orlando! In addition to saving you time in line, using one of these services may make it possible for you to spend a pleasant final day in one of the theme parks, shopping or doing whatever you want.
There are three options for off-airport check-in:
- If you’re staying at one of the official Walt Disney World resorts (owned and operated by Disney) and flying on most of the major US airlines, you can use the Resort Airline Check-in Service right in front of your hotel. This service is FREE, except for the tip you’re expected to give the baggage handlers and any baggage fees assessed by your airline.
- If you are flying on Virgin Atlantic, you can use its Downtown Disney check-in location near Cirque du Soleil. There may be a fee for this service, depending on the class of service, elite status and other factors. Click here for details.
Reconfirming Flight Times & Seating
Be sure to reconfirm your flight times periodically, especially if you’ve booked far in advance. The airlines have a poor record of notifying passengers when flight times change. Aileen T from West Chester, PA reports that her connecting flight was changed by 8 hours and the airline didn’t notify her! Fortunately she discovered this in advance of her trip and was able to rebook on a different flight.
Likewise, some airlines are notorious for changing the type of planes used on a particular route. Each time they do this, the seating has to be rearranged. The airline will not warn you about changes it has made to your seating. So if you are flying on an airline that assigns seating, be sure to check your seat assignment online every so often. You may discover that your carefully selected seats have been reassigned. It’s not unusual for a family of four to find themselves scattered all over the plane.
Handling Travel Delays
If your flight is delayed or cancelled, get in line for rebooking at the airport, but also immediately use your cell phone to call the airline directly. In many cases you can get the rebooking handled by phone faster than you will get through the huge line at the airport. (Be sure to program the airline’s phone number into your cell phone before you leave.) Thanks to Christy F for the reminder.
MouseSavers reader Teri M from Newton, Kansas offers some hints for handling air travel delays: “We had a 12 hour delay in taking off and were stuck at the airport. Plan for delays and pack entertainment for your kids and yourself. Pack a deck of cards, paper, crayons, game boy, etc. to make it through this wait.” It’s a good idea to bring plenty of snacks, but don’t bring liquids or foods that can be considered “gels” (peanut butter, pudding cups, etc), since those will be confiscated when you go through security.
Teri also points out that if you are delayed for a mechanical reason, you should go to the ticket counter and ask for food vouchers, hotel vouchers and flight vouchers valid toward future travel. If the delay is due to weather or anything else beyond the airline’s control, you’re on your own.
For overnight delays that aren’t covered by the airline, if you have an iPhone or an Android phone, an app called Hotel Tonight provides same-day hotel bargains in a number of cities and major airports. Starting at noon local time, you can book a hotel at up to 70% off for that night. The reservation is made right on your smartphone, through the app.
- Once you’ve downloaded the app to your phone (use the links above), enter invite code mwaring and you’ll get a $25 credit toward your first booking!
Reducing Time in Security Lines
At the Orlando airport, the security lines are often extremely long and slow — more so than any other airport I’ve visited. Think about it: Disney World attracts a lot of families and therefore a lot of people who have never flown before. However, it is possible to avoid the long lines if you are willing to spend some money and pass a background check.
A service called CLEAR, which operates at Orlando International Airport (MCO), allows you to get access to exclusive lanes at airport security. This lets you skip the long lines and speed through to screening.
It may be worth considering a CLEAR membership if you frequently travel to Orlando, or one of the other airports served by CLEAR. Currently CLEAR is operating at the following airports:
- Denver International Airport (DEN)
- Orlando International Airport (MCO)
- San Francisco International Airport (SFO)
- Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW)
- Westchester NY (HPN)
CLEAR requires you to apply and pass a background check. While membership costs $179/year for the first person in your family, it’s only $50/year more to add the rest of the family. If you really hate waiting in line, it’s basically a “fastpass” to avoid that.
The TSA Pre✓ (pronounced “pre-check”) program allows certain pre-selected people who are flying on participating airlines to go through a special lane at many US airports, including MCO (for Disney World) and LAX and SNA (for Disneyland). The Pre✓ security lane usually has little or no wait and allows you to leave on shoes, light outerwear and belts, as well as leaving your laptop and 3-1-1 baggie of liquids in your carry-on bags. Basically you just toss your stuff on the conveyor belt for the X-ray machine and walk through the metal detector, and you’re done.
In order to qualify for Pre✓, you must either have elite frequent flyer status with certain airlines (and be invited by them to participate) or be a member of various Trusted Traveler programs (including Global Entry, SENTRI and NEXUS). Joining one of the Trusted Traveler programs takes a little time and there is a fee, but pretty much anyone with a clean record can do it. For frequent travelers it’s very worthwhile to get qualified. If you only take the occasional vacation, it’s probably not worth the hassle and expense of applying.
NEXUS membership is the cheapest option for getting access to Pre✓, but you’ll need to live near the Canadian border to qualify. NEXUS is a program primarily intended to expedite the border clearance process between Canada and the United States. A secondary benefit is that you can access Pre✓ once you register your NEXUS number with your airline frequent flyer accounts. NEXUS requires you to pass a background check and in-person interview (at one of their offices near the border) and pay a $50 application fee per person. NEXUS membership is valid for 5 years.
Global Entry is the best choice for people who also travel internationally. The primary benefit of a Global Entry card is that you get to skip the lines at US Immigration and Customs in most major US airports when returning from an international trip, but a secondary benefit is that you can access Pre✓ once you register your Global Entry number with your airline frequent flyer accounts. Global Entry is open to anyone with a valid US passport who can pass a background check and in-person interview (which you can do at many major US airports). There is a $100 per person application fee. Global Entry membership is valid for 5 years.
- If you have the Platinum Card® from American Express (a charge card that requires a substantial annual fee – NOT an American Express Platinum credit card, such as the Optima, Costco or SkyMiles Platinum cards) the card entitles you to a refund of your Global Entry fee. Just charge the fee to your card and it will be automatically refunded.
SENTRI is a program that allows access to a dedicated commuter lane that expedites road crossings between Mexico and the United States. A secondary benefit is that you can access Pre✓ once you register your SENTRI number with your airline frequent flyer accounts. SENTRI requires you to pass a background check and in-person interview, and pay fees of $122.50 per person. SENTRI membership is valid for 5 years.
Reducing Ear Pain & Pressure
If you or your kids suffer from pain and/or pressure in your ears during flights, there is a great product called EarPlanes that you will love! They equalize the pressure in your ears, eliminate discomfort and reduce noise. Each pair lasts for two flights. You can get EarPlanes at many drugstores.