It's the sort of thing that the hardcore Disneyphile just doesn't like to talk about in mixed company, but nonetheless it is true: If you're traveling to Walt Disney World on a strict budget, you owe it to yourself to see whether staying off-site might be your best option. So, if your wallet's feeling kinda light, or if you just would rather sock those extra dollars away for a rainy day, here are some factors to consider when deciding whether to stay on or offsite, and whether to rent a car (which is closely, but not inextricably, linked to the on-site/off-site question for many WDW Guests).
Room cost: This is usually the biggest savings. Even during the off-season (which at this point seems to be about three days long), Disney hotels just plain cost more than off-site hotels with similar amenities There are many inexpensive hotels just a few minutes outside Walt Disney World, some of which also provide money-saving amenities such as complimentary breakfast.. Plus, if you're willing to do a little extra homework and perhaps incur a little more risk, using opaque travel sites such as Priceline or Hotwire can find you some serious bargains (WDW Today podcast episode 922 has some great advice here).
It's a tough call, of course, since none of the off-site hotels can offer the total immersion of staying on-site, and it's hard to put a price on the Disney themeing. But we knew that budgeting was tough, right?
Transportation: Frugal travelers staying on-site can save money on transportation by not renting a car, and instead simply relying on Disney transportation. Not only is complimentary transportation available within WDW, but you can also rely on Magical Express for your airport transportation. There is, of course, a bit of a convenience cost; many of us prefer to have a rental car even when we're staying onsite.
Parking: If you do choose to rent a car, you'll need to park it somewhere while you're visiting the Mouse, right? And (unless you have an Annual Pass) parking at WDW theme parks runs $14/day. Ouch.
So, between the need for a rental car, and the parking costs, it might just sound like staying onsite is the cheaper option. But wait, there's more . . .
Meals, snacks, and sundries: Some hotels offer complimentary breakfast (sometimes even hot!), which is a great savings. But of course that's just the beginning: Having a rental car unlocks access to a whole new world of dining options. This may not mean much to a solo traveler, but the meals costs add up quickly if you have a family. That $14/day for parking doesn't sound like much compared to the difference between a sit-down restaurant at virtually any Disney location, and a (yes, not quite as fancy, not anywhere near as well-themed) sit-down meal at some of the less expensive restaurants off-campus. Plus, if you're going to have to rent a car, you can stop off at the grocery store anytime you want to replenish your bag with snacks for walking around the parks, sunscreen, or even a sweatshirt if the weather takes a sudden turn.
There are also a number of off-site timeshare properties where you just might get a good deal on a condo, with full kitchen and laundry facilities. I've saved a tidy pile of money by packing light and avoiding baggage fees, not to mention the huge savings on certain trips when I ate almost all of my meals back at the condo.
Souvenirs: Huh? But yes, and once again this tip's especially helpful for families. If all you want is a classic Mickey Mouse t-shirt, you might well do better shopping at an off-site store than to pay the premiums you'll usually pay on-campus. And sometimes you can pick up some great official WDW bargains too, if you're willing to keep an open mind and remember that bargain shopping takes a little more patience.
Earning Points: As we discussed in our last class, staying off-site can allow you to earn points in hotel rewards programs, which can really add up if you also hold a rewards credit card with that same hotel chain (for example, charging your Hampton Inn stay to your Hilton Hhonors credit card).
If you want to consider staying offsite, but don't quite know where to get started with the math, just start out with the basics: Room and transportation. To calculate this for a on-site Disney stay without a rental car, it's simple: Your room and transportation costs will simply be the room rate multiplied by the number of nights (plus tax). But off-site gets a little more complicated, as your equation looks more like:
total cost = (room rate * number of nights) + (car rental rate * number of days) + ($14 * number of days in the parks)
Or, if you're handy with a spreadsheet, it might look something like this: