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Photo by Matthew Bassett

By Pixie Leslie

As a travel agent, I spend a fair amount of my time with clients helping them narrow down which resort will suit their family the best, how many days of park tickets they will need, and whether the dining plan or park hopper option makes financial sense for them.  But it might surprise you to know that I spend almost as much time helping folks decide how to get to Walt Disney World in the first place.  It’s true!

For a certain portion of the population, the decision is easy: they either live so far away that flying is a must, or they live so close that driving is the simplest and most economical option.  For many, however, the decision comes down to a number of factors:

·        Family size:  a great deal on airfare might not be such a great deal if you have a larger family.  $200/person round trip for a family of 3 hits the wallet differently than the same fare for a family of 5 or 6.  While I can book flights through Disney, my clients almost always do better booking their own airfare.  They can find web-only specials and control their departure and arrival times based on their personal preferences.

·         Distance, and where those miles are:  8 hours or even 12 might seem reasonable to someone who enjoys driving, but 6 hours may be too much for someone else.  The density of traffic on portions of that journey can also factor into the decision.  If some of those miles take you through the Baltimore-Washington corridor, for instance, those miles could take a lot longer due to heavy traffic and back-ups, and can cause a good deal of  extra stress for the driver.

Time of year: I use my own family as an example. We have done the 12 hour drive many times, but I will never again consider doing it during the winter months. Several years back in February, we drove through a snowstorm that hit us about mid- Brunswick, Georgia of all places. This was not minutes after a waitress told us they had not seen snow since 1989! It took hours to get through South Carolina in treacherous conditions with limited visibility. Never again.

·      Hidden costs:  Flying isn’t just about the airfare, folks.  The majority of airlines charge for checked bags, often as much as $20 for the first bag and $25 for the second.  Multiply that by a few family members, then double it (since those bags have to come home, too!) and that great fare you just found suddenly doesn’t look so great.  I’m a big fan of Southwest, who gives fliers 2 checked bags free and is usually still quite competitively priced.  You also need to consider airport parking costs.  The final insult to any Disney departure is the cost to get out of the airport parking deck!  Look for a “park and ride” near your local airport. Here in my hometown, we have “Park n’ Go” where we can leave the car, have a shuttle driver load our luggage onto the van and drop us at the curb outside our airline’s check in desk.  When we return, we just call while waiting at baggage claim and within 5 minutes the van is back to pick us up at the curb.  Our bags are even loaded into our car.  It’s convenient and much easier than dragging our bags through the parking deck. At under $6 a day, it’s cheaper, too!

·         More hidden costs:  driving isn’t just about the gas, dear travelers.  Loaded to the gills your family truckster will get fewer miles to the tank than it does normally, plus you need to give some thought to the wear and tear on your vehicle.  At 12 hours and 750 miles each way, a round trip visit to Mickey means the next scheduled maintenance will come that much sooner, and that can throw off a carefully planned budget.  Speaking of maintenance, are you sure your car is up for such a journey?  Are you financially prepared to make repairs if you have trouble while out of town?  You will need food on the road trip, and depending on how far it is you may even choose to break your trip with an overnight stay in a hotel along the way.  Factor all of these things into your decision making so you’re not surprised when that road trip costs you way more than you initially thought.

·         Go old school:  take the train!  On the East Coast, Amtrak’s Auto Train is a viable and interesting option to get you to Florida with your car, without having to drive.  Their website can help you find out whether this an option for you, but it has its pros and cons.  On the plus side, you’re saving wear and tear on your vehicle and on yourself while retaining the flexibility to pack what you want and have your car while in Florida.  On the con side, it isn’t cheap, and it can mean spending the night in a train seat or shelling out more for a sleeping compartment.  It’s a fun trip for the kids, though, and an option you should investigate doing at least once!

In future articles I will take an in-depth look at flying with your family without losing your mind, and about planning a safe and relatively stress-free car journey to Walt Disney World.