Disney trips: How to save money and reduce stress

If a trip to see Mickey Mouse is on your spring break wish-list, but you don't want to break the bank, a little pre-planning can go a long way.

I know, I've been to Orlando's Disney World and Disneyland in Anaheim, California a dozen times or so.

These seven tips can help save money on flights and cut down on the stress in the parks. 

1. Shop now

You should typically start shopping for domestic flights three months before departure and finish up 30 days before take-off, which pretty much covers all spring break weeks so get moving.

2. Choose airports carefully.

Whether you're heading to Orlando of Anaheim, compare airfare and compare fares to different airports.

Disney World: If flying with impatient kids, it may be best to fly direct to Orlando (MCO) but prices to Tampa (TPA) may be cheaper and the driving distance between the two cities is a bearable 84 miles. It will mean renting a car but that'll be handy for going to parks outside the Disney sphere (like Universal) or if you need to travel to the park from an offsite hotel. You could also combine destinations and activities: Beach time on the Florida coast plus Disney. These sample airfare prices from Chicago may help you decide:

  • Orlando from $267
  • Tampa from $183

Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure Park: There are lots of airport choices for these side-by-side parks. The closest is Santa Ana's John Wayne Airport (SNA), which is often referred to as Orange County; the largest is Los Angeles International (LAX) and LA's hub may be your best bet for the cheapest flights.  But don't overlook Long Beach (LGB) or Burbank (BUR) either; these can offer the best deals but the only way to know for sure is compare prices.

3. Get a FastPass early

To avoid standing in line, get a free FastPass or FastPass+ and use it early to reserve a spot for a favorite ride or attraction. With FastPass+ you reserve online in advance from home.  According to Disney's website, "You you should be able to make up to 3 FastPass+ selections for attractions and entertainment each day" per theme park per day, which especially handy if going to both Disneyland and neighboring California Adventure Park. Reserved spots are of limited availability though so reserve favorite rides first and consider sending Dad ahead to scout others out (he will need everyone's admission tickets to reserve spots).

An alternative is MagicBands, a FastPass on steroids that provides more perks (charging food and souvenirs, etc.); these are free to hotel guests and annual pass holders but others can get a band for a small fee.

4. When to ride

If you have little ones in tow, hit the kiddie rides (such as the Mad Tea Cup ride ) early. In my experience, lines are shorter first thing in the morning since many parents with small children often don't arrive at the parks until 10:30 a.m. or so.

5. Fun for adults

Inside Disney's California Adventure Park (ride next door to Disneyland) is the Wine Country Trattoria but keep your eye out for the wine-only window to the right of the establishment. That's where tired parents or anyone older than 21 will find a pleasant outdoor space to sit and sip behind a rail while keeping an eye out as older kids run around. It's a perfect spot for parade watching, too, because you're seated above the standing crowds. Or dine in the trattoria and pay a little extra for a great view of the World of Color light and water show (though the show is currently closed for "enhancements" until March 12).

6. Bring water

Even during the spring, it can be hot in Orlando and LA - and goodness knows you'll be doing a lot of walking - so you'll want to have water handy. Somewhat surprisingly, Disney allows park-goers to bring their own bottles (as long as they're not glass) which can be filled for free at any of the numerous drinking fountains scattered about the parks.

7. Last minute things to pack

Autograph book: Those characters wandering through the park will happily give kids their autographs for free but you'll need to provide paper and pen for these priceless keepsakes (you can ensure a meet-up with a favorite princess via "character dining" at both Disney World and Disneyland but it's not cheap).

Patience: Pack plenty because while you can plan ahead, plot strategies, get those quick passes and anything else you can think of, in the end you still have to wait in line. It won't be fun but ultimately it will be worth it.

Rick Seaney is an airline travel expert and the co-founder of FareCompare.com, an airfare comparison shopping site