My Life, Travel

Florida on $1200; Here’s how we did it

I could have also titled this blog post “Young and Stupid” but, I will let you make the judgement call on this after reading. (Photo gallery at the end of the post)

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been in vacation planning mode. We have a trip to the Southern US planned for late May, a weekend getaway to Ottawa with my parents in August and then a cruise in November. I’m not sure how we ended up with 3 “vacations” planned in such a short time…it just happened.

Deals, deals, deals.

But here’s the thing – when Joy and I travel, we go CHEAP. As cheap as possible. We still have a great time, but if I had the choice between travelling often, on a small budget or travelling rarely, with a bigger budget – I would rather go cheap and more often.

I just like to see things I’ve never seen before – which leads me to a story about our first trip to Florida together.

The year was 2006.

Joy and I were married just 2.5 years at the time and we liked to explore and travel as much as we could, even though we were beyond broke due to my grocery store adventures.

Like many young couples who were broke, we were also naive…and possibly foolish, looking back on it today. 🙂

You live and you learn.

Back to the story…

It was January; Christmas was over, shopping was done and I was out of a job as of December 31st. Happy New Year!

The company that I worked for in a contract position was acquired by another company and about 100 people got laid off.

Joy also worked at the same company, but a few months before that, she left and started a new job at Ford Credit. I stayed until the end of the contract as there was a bonus offered for staying and I didn’t have any other stellar job prospects on the horizon.

You would think that this was a bad situation, given that I didn’t have a job and Joy’s new job wasn’t exactly big money, but I like to always look at the positive side of things. 🙂

My reasoning was as follows if you’re wondering…

#1. I got a small severance so we had a little money in our pocket.

#2. The company was paying me for the next 4 or 5 months because I stayed until they closed when many others left to pursue other jobs before it closed.

#3. We had some time. I had all the time in the world and Joy now had paid vacation!

So…we started to look for things to do. Winter in London is pretty boring and cold, so we decided to look for something to do for a week, in a warmer climate.

We set our sights on Orlando, Florida because we wanted to go to some theme parks.

We flew to Orlando for 6 nights, stayed in a hotel, went to Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and the Magic Kingdom – and the whole thing cost just around $1200. Given all that we saw and were able to do, we think this was a pretty good bargain. 

This is how it all came together…

Flights

First, we needed flights. I didn’t want to drive that far so we were searching for any cheap flight, pretty much any time, out of Detroit or Buffalo. When flying to the US, it’s often cheaper to fly from the US. Not always, but at that time the savings were significant. We were fortunate that the prices were very low and our round trip flights only cost $294 Canadian, round trip for the 2 of us on Spirit Airlines.

Pre-Flight

Our cheap airplane tickets were out of Detroit and our flight was leaving at 6 AM, so we had to stay overnight in Detroit. We found a park and fly, in a pretty sketchy Comfort Inn for about $75 USD, which was about $100 CAD. This allowed us to stay overnight, park our car for a week and it came with free breakfast and shuttle to the airport in the morning, so no additional cost for food.

Since we were already in Detroit, we went to the North American International Auto Show which was a fun way to start our vacation.

Airport Transportation

Once we arrived in Florida we didn’t plan on renting a car, so we needed to figure out how to get from the airport to our hotel on International Drive in Orlando. We came across a company called Mears Transportation, and they offered a shuttle to the hotel for a reasonable price. We booked a round trip shuttle ride for the two of us, for under $100.

When we were picked up at the airport there were about 10 other people in the van with us, being dropped off, one-by-one at various hotels and resorts. Most of which looked AMAZING!

Joy and I were riding along, whispering that we hoped our hotel wasn’t next – because we would have to crawl out of the back of this shuttle, in front of our $29 a night hotel, which we knew, would NOT look like the hotels we have stopped at thus far.

Thankfully, the last stop was ours. The driver was nice – I even gave him a $3 tip, which was pretty brutal thinking about it now, because we had very little money to spare!

Our Hotel in Orlando

And the hotel…

We weren’t concerned about the quality of a prospective hotel, because we didn’t plan on spending much time in the room. We just needed somewhere to sleep. I was able to find a hotel online, that was only $29 per night and Canadian money was at par at this particular hotel. 6 nights was just about $200 all in.

The name of the hotel at the time was the “International Palms Hotel” which sounds pretty fancy, don’t you think? Sounds like a resort with palm trees and swimming pools.

Well….it wasn’t quite like that.

Here’s what they don’t tell you when you book online. The hotel was so cheap because it had been damaged by a hurricane several months prior and it smelled like a wet locker room. Thankfully, they had replaced the carpet “IN” the rooms, it was just the hallway that smelled, and the carpet was buckled from water damage.

Not a big deal – it was clean enough, and the staff were friendly. AND, it had a free shuttle to and from the major theme parks each day.

And, it was across the road from Denny’s. More on that later.

Theme Parks – Universal Studios & Islands of Adventure

We decided that we needed to find something to do each day, that wouldn’t cost too much money and we really wanted to go to the theme parks, but the tickets were expensive!

After some more Googling, I found a deal for Canadians only, offered by Universal Studios. For $99 per person Canadian, we could buy a 5-day pass to both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. They were desperate to get Canadians down there over the winter. January was a little cool but perfect for theme parks.

Most mornings started off in the 50’s and mid-day temperatures were in the low 70’s.

Our morning routine for 4 days was to get up, go to Denny’s for breakfast, head back to the hotel to take the 8:30 am hotel shuttle to Universal Studios. The park wasn’t open yet, but there was a Starbucks in CityWalk, just inside the gates where we could grab a coffee and wait for the parks to open.

The Trolley

For transportation around Orlando on the days when we left the theme parks early enough to do something else, we needed a cheap way to get up and down International Drive and we found it.

There was a hop-on, hop-off trolley that just drives up and down International Drive all day. At the time, for $7 per person, per week, we could use the thing as much as we wanted. And we did.

I remember waiting and waiting and waiting at the trolley stops as their schedule wasn’t exactly stellar. But, as they say “beggars can’t be choosers” – we were willing to accept a little waiting since we did only pay $14…

The Money

Once we arrived, I realized just how tight we needed to be with the money that we had allocated. We had already parted with $200 for the hotel, $300 for the flights and $300+ for the shuttles and other expenses.

That leaves us with about $200-300 for the entire week. $300 sounds like plenty for 2 people, but Orlando is one of those places where you can spend money everywhere you go.

I decided the best way to stay on track was to divvy up our money in cash and put it in the in-room safe, and only take out enough cash to get through the day. Each day I took out about $45 and that had to last the day.

Food

When we got to our hotel, there were coupon books. We rounded up coupons for Denny’s and Cici’s Pizza. The food was so cheap that after using the coupons, we actually had enough money left each day to have a decent dinner.

Cici’s Pizza had a deal on an all-you-can-eat buffet, including salad and dessert. It was buy one, get one free, for $3.99, and all we had to buy was drinks. Our bill was about $7.

Denny’s had a huge breakfast special for $5 including coffee. We shared the breakfast special and coffee.

Eating at the theme parks wasn’t as much as people say. We would just find a little restaurant in the park selling hotdogs – and we would get 2 hot dogs and a bottle of water. It was likely $12, which is expensive for what you’re getting, but it worked for us.

Joy did have the chance to try a gigantic smoked turkey leg, which is the thing to do in these places. It was around $6…and not that tasty to be honest.

Because we had been so frugal on the food for breakfast and lunch, one night, we even decided to forgo the Trolley and took a cab over to Cracker Barrel, because we were flush with extra cash.

Eating at a restaurant in Orlando at the time was suspiciously cheap which worked in our favour.

Our little treat at Starbucks every morning – since we just buy coffee is quite inexpensive. At the time, around $3.80 per day for 2 coffees.

AND…The Timeshare Presentation

After having gone to Univeral Studios and Islands of Adventure for 4 days straight, we were looking for a change of pace for the last full day. Late afternoon of the previous day, we wandered up to one of those tourist booths, claiming that they sell cheap tickets to attractions.

I know the routine. I had been through a few timeshare presentations as a child and teenager, so I played along.

The guy told us that we just had to go to view this property and after we’re done, we get 2 Disney tickets for $15 each.

We’re in!

The thing is, we didn’t have a car, so we arranged for the timeshare people to pick us up at our hotel at 7:30 am, we would attend an 8 am presentation that included FREE BREAKFAST, and then when it was done, they would drop us off at Disney, tickets in hand.

Everything went well – the sales guy was nice enough until we got to the point where we told him we didn’t have any money.

I wasn’t lying. We literally had about $100 to our name. I could have purchased the timeshare for just $75 down that day, in-house financing. But…we didn’t bite.

We reasoned that 2 young people, who could barely afford the shoes on our feet had no business buying a timeshare. 🙂

So, the presentation was over – we went outside and sat at the curb, waiting for a shuttle to take us over to the Magic Kingdom, and by 11 am, we were walking in the gates – for $30!

All those other suckers walking in the gates of the park paid hundreds and we even had free breakfast. What a deal!

Was this our best trip ever?

Looking back on it now, this was likely the tightest trip we had ever taken but it’s the trip that Joy and I talk about with fond memories – almost as memorable as the cruise ship fire.

We had a great time, we were able to go with the flow, our expectations were low so there was nothing to be disappointed about. Overall, a wonderful time!

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