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? We 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. We 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
- Flight + Hotel / Flight + Car Package Deals
- Extra Baggage Charges (and how to avoid them)
- Frequent Flyer Miles
- Where to Stay at the Orlando Airport
- 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).
- All major and most minor airlines fly to Orlando (MCO) and Tampa (TPA). Only Allegiant, Air Unlimited, Sun Country, Surinam, TUI and Via serve Sanford (SFB)
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 Burbank (BUR) or Los Angeles (LAX), since those airports are closest to Universal.
- 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 Diego (SAN) and out of Burbank (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. Below is the direct link to the airline lists for each Southern California airport. With LAX, you can save yourself some trouble: pretty much every major and most minor airlines fly to LAX. If you plan to fly with one of the top six US airlines (Delta, United, American, Southwest, Alaska and JetBlue), they all have flights to all of these airports except that Alaska and United don’t fly to Long Beach and JetBlue doesn’t fly to Orange County. With the smaller low-fare carriers like Allegiant, Spirit and Frontier there are bigger differences; many of them only fly to one or two Southern California airports.
- Orange County (SNA) list of airlines
- Long Beach (LGB) list of airlines
- Los Angeles (LAX) list of airlines
- Burbank (BUR) list of airlines
- Ontario California (ONT) list of airlines
- San Diego (SAN) list of airlines
Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity (all part of the Expedia family) currently have the most straightforward flexible-date search of the major online travel agencies, so if you aren’t completely settled on a date it’s a good place to start. Each site has a slightly different interface for triggering their flexible date chart, but it’s the same chart on each. You may want to try all three and see which one makes the most sense to you. You may either need to click the “flexible search” checkbox at the bottom of the search box (if it’s there), or when you get to the search results page, click the small “flexible dates” dropdown above the search results. You’ll see a grid of the lowest fares found on dates +/- 3 days in either direction. Click a specific grid cell and you can see a live search for the flights on that combo of arrival/departure days. If you want finer control and/or the ability to check a larger time period, take a look at ITA’s Matrix search or Google Flights.
Keep in mind that their flexible date search isn’t perfect – it keeps track of the lowest fares found for each date and airport pair, but they aren’t “live” prices; they just update every once in a while. So the flexible date search can show that there’s a great fare on a specific date, but when you run the actual live search, that fare may be gone. If you want the most accurate flexible-date search, the best is ITA Matrix, which we cover below.
Also consider that Expedia flexible-date searches just show you the lowest possible fare for each date combination without regard to how unappealing that particular routing is. Sometimes a particular date will have a low price only because there are seats left on an unattractive flight, like an overnight flight or one with a long layover. It is usually worth your while to look at the full listing of flights for several different date options, because there might be a better deal on a flight that works better for you, or you might find that the specific flight you want is the same price or nearly the same price on your preferred date.
Some airlines, including Southwest, do not offer fares through Expedia, however, so you’ll need to go directly to the airline’s website to check fares.
Once you’ve found your flight, it may be worth comparing the flight cost with the airline’s own website; sometimes booking direct can be a few dollars cheaper, or the airline may offer some sort of benefit for booking direct, like bonus frequent-flyer miles or first dibs on upgrades.
ITA Software offers their free “Matrix Airfare Search” 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). Definitely take some time to explore their advanced search and filtering options; it’s really by far the most sophisticated search tool out there, albeit the most complicated. It’s especially good when you want to do a complex search, for example “the cheapest fare in a particular time span on a specific airline that has no more than 1 stop and no short connections.” The other sites will let you do those kind of searches on a single day, but not on a range of days with a range of trip lengths.
ITA is actually owned by Google, and the same technology is behind the Google Flights search engine. Google Flights doesn’t have nearly as many features and options as ITA Matrix, but it’s much easier to use, and is a good place to look for most basic domestic US routes. Like Orbitz and Expedia, it relies on saved information that is a few hours old when doing flexible-date searches, so it can be frustrating to find the lowest fare in a date range. If you really want the most power and up-to-date info, you have to learn how to use the more complicated ITA Matrix.
Also consider that Google Flights flexible-date searches just show you the lowest possible fare for each date combination without regard to how unappealing that particular routing is. Sometimes a particular date will have a low price only because there are seats left on an unattractive flight, like an overnight flight or one with a long layover. It is usually worth your while to look at the full listing of flights for several different date options, because there might be a better deal on a flight that works better for you, or you might find that the specific flight you want is the same price or nearly the same price on your preferred date.
ITA Matrix allows you to be more specific with your flexible-date searches, like limiting to just non-stops or filtering out specific airlines or overnight flights, but you can’t remove really early/late flights or flights with long layovers without drilling down and checking each day out for yourself.
As with Expedia, ITA Matrix and Google Flights do not offer pricing for Southwest and some other low-fare airlines. You have to separately check the airline’s website directly to compare prices.
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. We’ve used this tool a lot and have never had any issues with booking the fares we’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. Some of them offer extra bonuses or frequent flyer miles if you book using their own branded credit card, so if there’s an airline that you find yourself flying on a lot (perhaps your home town is one of their hubs), it may be worth your while to get their branded card.
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:
- Alaska Airlines
- Allegiant Air
- American Airlines
- British Airways
- Delta Airlines
- Frontier Airlines
- Hawaiian Airlines
- Southwest Airlines
- Spirit Airlines
- United Airlines
- 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, we 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. We strongly recommend checking Expedia 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 $200 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 and JetBlue are particularly good about offering these credits, and they have the lowest change fees ($0 for Southwest!). Most of the major airlines charge $150-$200. Some airlines (such as Allegiant and Spirit) do not offer credits if the fare drops.
Thanks to Jeff B for reminding us 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 we’ve had good luck with consolidators, we 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 constitute 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.”
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 most agencies, they don’t charge any booking fee, but overall you’re usually best off booking the final fare through the airline’s own website.
Another option is Priceline’s “Express Deals” feature, which allows you to book without knowing the exact airline or times. You get a rough range of times and a list of potential airlines, and some basic assurances on policies (like that you won’t have to pay for your carry-on) but that’s about all. Your ticket is absolutely “no refunds, no exchanges.” We don’t think this is worth doing unless you can get a seriously good deal, like 15% or more off the best fare you can find the normal way. Also, obviously, you need to be flexible as to timing. You can end up with a flight that leaves at 6:00 am but has a 3 hour layover in Newark and doesn’t get you into Orlando until 10:00 pm. You may get to choose your seat, but the flights involved might only have middle seats left. Think carefully about how much money it’s worth to have some predictability in timing.
Since there are so many uncertainties and restrictions with Priceline express deals, we recommend waiting until you’ve exhausted other options first.
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!
Currently only Southwest Airlines does 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 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.) Read our packing tips for Disneyland and Walt Disney World vacations.
- Buy a lighter carry-on. If you have an older carry-on, it may be surprisingly heavy even when empty. For a carry-on bag, lightness and maximum interior space is much more important than extreme durability. TravelPro Maxlite is a great line of lighter bags, and we hear good reports about Lucas’s Ultra Lightweight series, but shop around. Amazon is actually a great place to buy luggage; they often have the best price or very close to it, and they have a very generous return policy. Just save the original box for return shipping until you’re sure the new bag meets your needs.
- 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. We 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.
- Required medical devices, such as a CPAP, do not count toward your carry-on allowance on most airlines.
- 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), we’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 directly through the airline’s website.
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.
MouseSavers.com founder Mary Waring arrived at the Orlando airport late at night on the first night of her honeymoon, and chose to stay at the airport Hyatt that night so they didn’t have to worry about traveling any further. They just collected their bags, took them up on the elevator, checked in and crashed. (The rooms are well insulated from the airport noise, by the way — they did not hear the planes.) It was not only convenient — they spent much less than they would have paid to sleep in the Disney Deluxe resort room where they 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!
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 a smartphone or tablet, an app called Hotel Tonight provides VERY last-minute hotel bargains in most major cities. When we say VERY last-minute, we mean “a few hours before you check in.” Starting at 9:00 am local time, you can book a decent-to-upscale hotel at up to 70% off for that night only (or sometimes up to 5 nights). The reservation is made right on your smartphone, through the app.
- Get the Hotel Tonight app for iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch.
- Get the Hotel Tonight app for Android.
- Once you’ve downloaded the app to your phone (use the links above), enter invite code sstone63 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 we’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.
The TSA PreCheck (often written “Pre✓”) 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 PreCheck 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 PreCheck, 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 PreCheck, 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 PreCheck 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 US citizens who don’t live near the Canadian border. 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 PreCheck 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 or SkyMiles Platinum cards) the card entitles you to a refund of your Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application 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 PreCheck 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.