So much of your theme-park vacations to Orlando contain elements that are, quite frankly, outside of your ability to control – tickets to either Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando Resort are pretty much (date) fixed, and hotel rates are immutable. (Let’s not even bring up merchandise or Butterbeer!)
But it turns out that one of the single biggest chunks of change you’ll have to spend on your Floridian excursion – your flight – just may have a bit more wiggle room than you would have normally thought (and certainly more than all those other items). After monitoring and, of course, taking countless flights ourselves into and out of the Orlando area over the years, we’ve realized that there are several key factors that may be able to help families save some hard-earned dollars; when combined together, they can add up to a not-insignificant sum, money which can then be spent at the parks themselves or, even, invested into the next theming sojourn.
1. Book in advance
Arguably the most impactful decision you’ll ever make in regards to how much you’ll pay for your airfare has to do with when you purchase your tickets.
Way back when, last-minute bookings were all the rage with travel agents, as great deals were to be had shortly before a plane’s takeoff – airlines had empty seats, and they were desperate to fill them. The entire culture and business surrounding flying has changed, however; with online tools and up-to-the-minute analytics, the various companies have generally maximized filling their planes up, and doing so as early as possible. This means that – again, generally speaking – procrastinators tend to pay more as opposed to less, so be sure to purchase your tickets as soon as possible.
There is, of course, a giant caveat we should probably mention here, and that is it’s possible to buy airfare too early – in our experience, prices start out a bit higher, then drop for a certain, lengthy period of time, and then start to raise considerably the closer one gets to her flight. Just how long this sweet spot is, however, seems to be the subject of much (passionate) debate; there is a lot of accepted online wisdom that some sort of mathematical formula is at play, with X days in advance providing a savings of Y dollars (some venues claim it’s a month before the departure date, while others swear that it’s nearly a full year beforehand). Much like fad diets, our best recommendation is to put the specific numbers away and concentrate on the core essence of the matter at hand – the instant you decide to make the trip down to Orlando, start monitoring what flights are available and how much they cost, and continue to keep your eyes peeled.
Does that sound like something of a full-time job? Yeah, we admit it can sometimes feel like that. Luckily for all of us, however, there are a number of tools you can employ in order to take much of the hassle out of the ordeal.
2. Get some help in the flight fight
Unsurprisingly, there is, essentially, an entire cottage industry of flight tools out there, each jockeying to help you monitor, book, and manage your airplane itineraries – just as airlines have gotten more sophisticated in their efforts to turn a profit, these third-parties have kept pace in their efforts to help consumers save some cash.
Here are just a few of the various websites or services that we take advantage of – feel free to add in your own favorites over in our OI Community Facebook group (where this is a perennially popular topic):
Kayak offers a flight search that will give a recommendation of whether it thinks now is a good time to purchase your airfare or you should hold off until later – a feat replicated by Hopper’s When to Fly and Buy Reports and Skyscanner’s flight price tracker. Most of these services also provide a function that displays the total cost of a flight, including all of those increasingly-multiplying fees for baggage, seat assignments, and food that most companies tend to hold back on mentioning until later on in the process, which allows you to make an apples-to-apples comparison right upfront.
Then there’s Google. Yes, Google Flights will similarly allow you to track prices and book itineraries, but there’s also the company’s Matrix Airfare Search tool, which is, arguably, the most robust offering out there, providing a whole raft of complex features to make the process as nuanced as possible (don’t worry – the basic functionality is clean and simple to use and might be all that you end up needing). You might find it’s the easiest to compare flights here, but note that you can’t actually purchase them through the service – Matrix Airfare Search is purely for research purposes only.
While all of these tools can be quite handy, they do have one noticeable limitation that you absolutely have to take into account: some of the low-cost airlines, such as Southwest or Allegiant, tend to not be included in any of their results. Unfortunately, there’s no remedy here, so you’ll need to go to their individual websites and search manually, and compare these results with whatever automated results you’ve set up.
And here’s one final tool we sometimes like to play around with: TripAdvisor’s SeatGuru, which allows you to explore over 1,100 aircraft to find the best seat for you and your family once you’ve already settled on a flight.
3. Be flexible with your searches
Searching multiple airlines might be second nature to you by now, but what about all of the other factors that could help affect the bottom line? Implementing a bit of flexibility in your vacation-planning could end up being one of the biggest moves you make to help save money (although, if your itinerary is rather locked into place for whatever reason, you might want to skip on to the next point).
Thinking about leaving on the 15th of the month? Try setting up all of those fancy search tools you’ve now deployed all across the internet to start a few days early or end a few days later – depending upon the time of year and the projected volume of travelers for that specific day, you may notice quite the difference in cost. (In fact, a number of the services listed above, such as Skyscanner, allow you to search by the cheapest month in addition to a specific date range.) Yes, it’s true that you may have to end up staying in Orlando for, say, a night longer than you originally intended, but, sometimes, the savings can more than make up for the added expense of the additional room rate and associated meals.
Type of flights
While we’re talking here about the possibility of looking into a direct flight as opposed to one with layovers – one often costs more than the other – there’s also a whole other way to approach this: instead of searching for a round trip right off the bat, it might behoove you to look up a one-way flight to Orlando, and then another one back home, even if it’s with an entirely different airline. There isn’t necessarily any savings baked into the former, and whatever extra hassles are associated with the latter (you have to learn a different company’s rules and fees, for example), it could also potentially be a financial boon.
We’ll say right off the bat that this final category may not save you as much as the others – it may not end up saving you anything at all, actually, at least on the Orlando end of your travels – but it’s absolutely worth looking into, just in case. Broaden your search parameters to include different airports than the ones you normally fly into or out of – something which may end up including some nice fringe benefits, such as smaller crowds (again, particularly in Florida). Just be mindful of the extra costs that traveling further to these different airports may incur, such as the fact that Disney’s Magical Express, the free shuttle service it offers to and from Orlando International Airport, doesn’t service Orlando Sanford International Airport, which is most travelers’ favorite alternative to MCO.
4. You should only fly or book during certain times (or should you?)
This is another area in which a considerable amount of collective online wisdom exists but which also points in multiple different directions. Some sources claim that vacationers should only depart on Wednesdays and never on Sundays; others make equally compelling arguments for practically every other day of the week. (And let’s not forget the equally-contested edicts regarding which are the best days to fly back home.)
Here’s what we can definitively say on this matter from our own experience: typically, in most situations, weekends are the busier travel days and, thus, are more expensive to fly on (something which seems to be doubly true for Orlando, which is one of the convention capitals of the country). A general rule of thumb should be to avoid Saturdays and Sundays at all costs, although, again, the above exceptions could very well come into play – make sure you (or your bots) keep them in your constant surveillance or consideration.
Similarly, there has been much hullabaloo about not just flying on certain days but on which ones to book those flights; the common wisdom for a good long while now seems to have indicated Tuesdays were the only days to make the splurge on purchasing your airfare, but a more recent countervailing argument has been Sundays (perhaps ironically enough) – since the majority of Americans have the down time to buy their tickets on the weekend, the reasoning goes, that’s when most companies will trot out their deals. Not to continue beating a dead (flying) horse, but, at this stage in the industry’s evolution, we truly believe this point is all but moot – we’d be more willing to put our money on the statistical analytics of how many days out before your flight you are rather than on one particular day of the week or another.
Finally, not only have these various online considerations been focused on specific weekdays, but also on entire months. Is January the worst or best time of the year to arrive in the heart of the theme-park world? How about August? There are definitely certain trends to be mindful of here, such as when school breaks land both across the country and throughout the entire world; in the United Kingdom, for example, it’s now illegal to take your kids out of school for vacations, which means that one can expect to see a surge of traffic both in the skies and in the City Beautiful during British out-of-school sessions. As such, higher prices for not only flights but also hotels and, now, single-day theme-park tickets generally fall during spring break, the summer, and, of course, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, which is, obviously, the busiest day of the entire year for the parks. (Need some help in accurately predicting crowd levels? We have a FREE 12-month calendar that does just that.)
5. A couple of final tips/suggestions
There are three final items to keep in mind that may not seem to be as big or impactful as our first four entries but which can nonetheless still prove to make a substantial dent on your expenses. In fact, if you play your cards right, these last tips could actually end up making the biggest difference for your next vacation!
Despite the maximum efficiency that the airlines have achieved over the past few decades, there are still times when flights simply don’t fill up or when projected passenger levels trend downwards. In these instances, the companies will send out deals on tickets through good, old-fashioned email, and if you sign up for their various newsletters, you’ll be notified of these little gems as soon as they become available.
Airline loyalty programs
By joining one particular airline’s frequent-flier membership, the trip you’re currently taking can actually help pay for the next Orlando sojourn in the form of points or cash back. While this may not be a worthwhile investment of either your time or money (yes, some loyalty programs are only accessible through a premium) if you fly infrequently, for those avid theme-park enthusiasts – or for those who find themselves traveling to other destinations throughout the year for other pursuits, such as family visits or an on-the-go job – this one can really pay off in spades.
Credit card programs
Since you’re already going on vacation, and since you already have hotel reservations, meals, and park admission to pay for in addition to your flight, why not sign up for a particular credit card that has a particular rewards program that pays out travel-related bonuses? We even know of some individuals who use their vacation-friendly cards all throughout the year, on everything from groceries to rent- or mortgage-payments, in order to build up those points that they can then cash in when it comes time to hightail it to the theme parks. If you have the financial ability to pull this off, it can be a great multiplier to whatever other deals or discounts you have managed to accrue.
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