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Disney offers a free dining plan each year – generally in the off-season between September and early December (also when flights are cheaper and crowds are mercifully low). (Scott Audette/Reuters)
Disney offers a free dining plan each year – generally in the off-season between September and early December (also when flights are cheaper and crowds are mercifully low). (Scott Audette/Reuters)

SMALL CHANGE

How families can do Disney (and other destinations) on a dime Add to ...

Small Change is a series of stories that show how consumers can save money by making minor or incremental changes to their lifestyle.

A family trip can be a fun-filled adventure that both parents and children will remember fondly for years to come. It can also be a nightmare of crowds, lineups, overspending and frustration. So how do you make sure your family vacation is the former, and not the latter?

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It’s all in the planning. My family of four loves to travel, but neither my husband nor I like to spend more than we have to. (Especially my husband.)

Walt Disney World is an especially contentious trip in our household. My children (who are 8) would hit the Magic Kingdom every year if they could, and I’m also a fan of the House of Mouse. My husband? Not so much. To make sure he has a good time ’round Orlando way, the expense, the crowds and the irritation that can be a part of the Disney experience have to pretty much go away. And with the Canadian dollar in the doldrums, our recent trip to Florida might have been particularly tough on the wallet if we’d been overzealous in our spending.

When planning a trip with the kiddos (whether to Disney or elsewhere), a few simple steps can help ensure everyone stays happy and your bank accounts remain plump:

Be flexible when you fly

It may not be a new trick, but the price advantages of using an alternate airport (and booking a U.S. airline) continue to be cost-effective. On our recent trip to Orlando, we flew out of Buffalo instead of our home airport in Toronto, which saved us at least $600 in fares. That’s including the parking costs at Buffalo Niagara International Airport (about $50 for the week), tolls, gas and the currency exchange.

Cheryl Leung, the Toronto-based founder of Kids on a Plane family travel blog and a mother of two, suggests booking flights six months in advance and signing up for airline newsletters in order to be aware of any one-time promotions or discounts.

“Since we travel during lower seasons – January or February – or the beginning of the school year – September or October – we are able to save a few hundred dollars [on flights],” she says. “We know we won’t be able to travel during shoulder season forever as the children get older, but for now this is our money-saving strategy.”

Voula Martin of Canadian travel site Family Fun Canada suggests altering your departure dates to save money. “At spring break, the kids get off on Friday so a lot of families want to travel Saturday to Saturday,” she says. “But if you were to fly say, Thursday to the following Tuesday, those are days you can typically fly a lot cheaper and maybe save $100 or $200 dollars a ticket.”

Ms. Martin points out that there are websites that can help you figure out the price differences between departure days, such WestJet’s new Low Fares Finder, which displays a month’s worth of airline ticket prices. Websites such as Google Flights and Skyscanner can also give you a better idea of which date and airline will save you the most money.

Think ahead. Waaaaay ahead

“If you know you’re going to do a trip in the U.S., every month, purchase American dollars so you can ride out any fluctuations in the exchange rate over the course of the year,” suggests Ms. Martin. “If the rate’s dropping, you’re better to have bought $500 in January rather than in December right before you go.”

Opening a U.S. dollar account will also mean you can use your U.S. debit card down south and avoid out-of-country transaction fees, she adds.

Eat smart (and maybe even for free)

If you’re heading to Walt Disney World, consider staying on-site at one of their resorts. The accommodations are just fine and the price is right at the value resorts (Pop Century for the win!), plus no rental car is needed because you can take buses to and from the parks.

Best of all, Disney offers a free dining plan each year – generally in the off-season between September and early December (also when flights are cheaper and crowds are mercifully low).

The food at Disney varies in quality depending on where you eat, but it all goes down a lot easier when it’s free. If you do opt for a meal plan, be sure to book reservations at the sit-down restaurants as soon as you can (180 days before your first day there).

If you’re a family that prefers road tripping, try and score free breakfasts along the way, suggests Ms. Martin. “A lot of hotels will throw in a continental breakfast as a part of your night’s stay, so eat before you leave,” says Ms. Martin. She also suggests turning three meals into two, fortified with plenty of healthy snacks.

“There’s brunch, but we like lupper – lunch/supper. We skip lunch because we’ve filled up on that continental breakfast and then don’t eat until 3 or 4 o’clock and we’re pretty full. Then a snack before bedtime.”

Snacks on the cheap

Quick eats on the fly can be a budget-killer and they are usually unhealthy to boot. Vancouver-based Claudia Laroye, a mother of two who runs The Travelling Mom blog, says she never goes on a family road trip without edible supplies.

“There are coolers in the trunk, and the kids each have their own backpacks with their own snack supplies,” says Ms. Laroye. “We pop into grocery stores to resupply and get ice to keep things cold, everyone has their own water bottle to stay hydrated.”

On my latest trip to Disney, I had about $50 worth of groceries delivered to our hotel to arrive when we checked in: bagels, cereal, milk, peanut butter, jam, banana, apples and so on. That way, we didn’t have to waste our meal plan on breakfast and it ensured we got moving quickly in the morning. It also provided quick and healthy snacks throughout the day (that weren’t huge, chocolate-dipped, ice cream Mickey ears).

Plan your activities and excursions ahead of time

A little time upfront can save you cash while abroad. Ms. Laroye suggests doing some research to see if you can find discounts in your destination when it comes to excursions, activities and side trips.

“Take a few hours to huddle around the computer,” she says. “If you’re planning a trip to Palm Springs, [Calif.], you should be on Groupon Palm Springs looking at what deals are available while you’re there.”

Some cities have discount cards for tourists, such as CityPASS, which offers admission to top attractions for one price. CityPASS is available in Atlanta, Boston, Toronto, Chicago, New York, San Francisco and more. Many European destinations have discount passes available from their tourism bureaus, says Ms. Laroye, including the OMNIA Vatican and Rome card, which offers a sightseeing pass that gives entry to popular attractions as well as fast-track entry and a hop-on, hop-off bus tour.

In the case of Disney, booking FastPasses for the attractions you want to hit is an essential step. They’re free, and avoiding lineups is a sure-fire way to convince even reluctant travellers (like my husband) that the cost of the whole trip was worth it. Websites such as Touring Plans, WDWinfo and Mousesavers can help you figure out what you want to see in each park and how to hit everything with minimal wait time.

Have fun, but be firm

Vacations have a way of eroding even the most budget-conscious traveller of their will to save money. To keep impulse buys to a minimum, put a number on your spending money before you make your trip.

“Set a souvenir budget and enforce it,” says Ms. Leung. “This not only saves money but also saves space in your luggage and carry-on.”

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