Editor’s note: This is a new monthly column by senior editor Benét J. Wilson on how to travel comfortably on a budget without sacrificing fun or enjoyment.
I became a bargain hunter as a kid sitting at the feet of my paternal grandmother, who hated paying full price for anything.
Growing up, it was common to see her wearing items she’d reimagined with her sewing machine. Rather than buy an ensemble new off the rack, she’d purchase damaged clothes that she could put her own spin on, turning once discardable items into stylish, one-of-a-kind pieces.
While I don’t take the same approach to my wardrobe as my grandmother, sticking to a budget when I travel is incredibly important to me. I constantly seek out travel deals around the globe rather than chasing points and miles (except when it comes to Southwest Airlines and Hyatt). In fact, I’ve visited Tokyo, the Bahamas and Iceland by snagging low airfares and great hotel deals when they arose.
I decided to put my bargain-hunting skills to use for a long weekend getaway in March. Here’s how I stretched my dollars further to plan a fun (yet affordable) vacation in Orlando for a group of five adults and three teenagers.
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I branched out beyond my preferred airline for flights
I am the resident Southwest Airlines expert and fan at The Points Guy, so I always check the airline’s website first for flights. But after seeing round-trip fares of more than $1,200 for my teen and me between Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) and Orlando International Airport (MCO), I went to plan B: Spirit Airlines.
I know, I know — Spirit isn’t the carrier of choice for some travelers. However, after having two good experiences with the airline during a trip to Boston in 2017 and another to Fort Lauderdale in 2018, I decided it was worth considering the ultra low-cost carrier again for this adventure.
Even after paying for a checked bag and seats for two people round-trip, I still spent less than half of what the Southwest flight I was originally eyeing would have cost. Plus, the two-hour flight ended up being surprisingly comfortable, aside from the tiny seatback trays and the inflight credit card announcements.
I pivoted when choosing a rental car
I’ve always been a big fan of Hotwire when it comes to reserving a rental car. Not only does it often generate great prices, but many times, I’ve even received upgrades when I’ve rented through the site.
For this trip, I needed transportation that could comfortably handle eight riders. Luggage wasn’t an issue since all of us (except for my kid) had Spirit-friendly underseat bags or small carry-ons. Unfortunately, not only did Hotwire lack inventory for eight-person cars, but the site’s rates were also shockingly high.
So, I once again went to plan B. In this case, that meant turning to Turo, a car-sharing service that lets you rent privately owned vehicles.
I was able to find an eight-seat 2018 Honda Odyssey minivan in pristine condition for the comparatively bargain price of $558.71, which was about $200 less than a minivan would have cost me through Hotwire.
The price included a full tank of gas, basic supplementary insurance, 800 miles of use and a pickup and drop-off of the van at Parking Garage A at MCO. I communicated with the car’s owner via the message section of the Turo app, so I knew exactly how to locate the vehicle.
Once I had landed and was ready to retrieve the car, it was unlocked remotely by the owner for me to use. The key was left in the glove compartment, so rather than wait in a long line at a car rental desk, I was able to pay the $3 parking fee and quickly depart.
The process to return the car was easy, too. I parked the car in the same area, took 10 photos of the car inside and out, uploaded them to the app, put the key and parking ticket in the glove compartment, sent a message to the owner explaining where the car was located, left it unlocked as instructed and walked to the terminal, again avoiding a wait at the rental car return desk.
In total, the cost of the van split between five adults totaled just $112 per person, plus another $25 each for gas and tolls. Considering the high fees for rental cars throughout the coronavirus pandemic, we scored a great deal with Turo.
I opted for a vacation rental instead of multiple hotel rooms
While I’m a big fan of Hyatt properties, it quickly became apparent that reserving multiple hotel rooms for my large group would be expensive. So, we decided to use Vrbo to book the Diamond House in Kissimmee, Florida.
Offering plenty of elbow room for everyone, this vacation rental had six bedrooms, five full and two half bathrooms, a formal living room, a fully equipped kitchen with a butler’s pantry, a great room, a dining room that seated 10 people, laundry machines and a covered swimming pool and hot tub.
We split the cost five ways, paying a mere $392.94 each, which was far more economical than booking four hotel rooms for our group of eight.
I took advantage of special rates for our theme park visit
Because a person in our group was a member of the military, we were able to save money on tickets to Universal Orlando. Rather than pay $235.98 per person for a two-day pass, we were able to purchase tickets for $199.99 each, saving us $35.99 per ticket.
If you don’t happen to be traveling with someone connected to the military, you’re not out of luck: Special rates are also available for Florida residents and those who book multiday vacation packages through Universal.
You can save even more if you pack your own snacks and limit souvenir purchases, which the teens in my group did this trip.
I maximized credit card perks to cut costs for other necessities
Thanks to the Walmart Supercenter located up the street from our vacation rental, we were able to buy groceries and incidentals needed during our stay without traveling far. Another draw to visiting Walmart was the money I was able to save on gas.
Because I have The Platinum Card® from American Express, which comes with a Walmart+ subscription that would normally cost $12.95 a month, I saved 5 cents per gallon of gas bought at Walmart. Had I planned a longer trip, I could’ve also taken advantage of the service’s free next-day and two-day shipping benefit for everyday items purchased online.
Seeking out lower prices, even if it meant deviating from my preferred travel providers, and utilizing savings available to us through special rates and credit cards meant that my travel companions and I were able to save nearly $1,000 per person across flights, transportation, theme park tickets and lodging without compromising the quality of our trip.
If anything, saving that money made it easier to enjoy our time together, both at the theme park and while relaxing at our vacation rental.
While I’ve had my fair share of luxury vacations, there’s something gratifying about taking a trip that successfully sticks to a budget. Not all memorable vacations require spending a lot of money, as my recent Orlando trip shows.
Featured photo of Universal Orlando by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket/Getty Images.