The best way to save money at theme parks this summer is simple. Don't go.
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Peak season means peak pricing. Admission discounts can be hard to find, and nearby hotels jack up their rates. Add in the always-inflated prices of food, souvenirs and parking, and you're buying a pretty expensive day out. At the mega-parks operated by Disney and Universal, a family of four can easily spend $1,000 per day.
If you're determined to visit a theme park this summer, here's how to rein in costs while keeping your sanity.
BEWARE OF TOO-GOOD-TO-BE-TRUE PRICES
As prices rise, scam artists pounce, offering discounted tickets and "unused" passes for sale to those desperate for a bargain. Often what they're selling is fake. Even if the passes are legit, they may be unusable since some parks now use biometrics — specifically, finger scans — to link passes to the original buyers.
Robert Niles, editor of ThemeParkInsider.com, advises against buying from strangers, whether it's on the street in front of the park or through eBay, Craigslist, social media or any other sites that connect private parties.
Better places to look for discounts include:
—Your employer, if you're a local
—Warehouse clubs such as Costco or Sam's Club
—Groupon and other deal sites
—AAA, AARP and other member groups
—The park's Twitter or Facebook feeds
—CityPass, which offers a bundle of discounted tickets to area attractions
—Authorized resellers such as Undercover Tourist and Visit Orlando
—Vacation packages that include hotel rooms, tickets and sometimes flights
If nothing else, you usually can save a few bucks and avoid yet another line by buying your tickets online from the park's site. Grab a parking pass, too. A single-day parking pass at Busch Gardens Williamsburg costs $16 in advance online and $20 on site.
KNOW WHEN TO SPLURGE TO SKIP THE LINES
Disney has the free FastPass system, but other parks charge — sometimes quite a lot — for line-cutting privileges. At Universal Studios in Orlando, the Universal Express Unlimited pass can cost up to $160 per person on peak days. Plus, parks typically limit the number of skip-the-line passes and can run out quickly when crowds swell.
Since you're already bypassing the best advice about managing lines — which is to visit only when kids are in school — you'll want to consider other tactics. Avoid the busiest days, which you can find using the skip-the-line pricing calendars or crowd calendars for your targeted park.
Other ways people try to beat the crowds:
—Be there when the gates open
—Visit the most popular attractions first
—Use single-rider lines
—Use apps that estimate wait times to plan your attack
—Stay late. Crowds often start to thin an hour before closing
You're still going to spend a lot of time waiting. If you're a local, you can bail when it gets too crazy and come back another day. If, however, this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip at a time when crowds will be thick, splurging on line-skipping passes could mean actually getting to enjoy all the attractions you came to see, Niles says.
You may get a discount by being an annual pass holder, buying in advance or opting for a vacation or other bundle. Universal Express Unlimited passes, for example, are included for guests who stay at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando and Loews Royal Pacific Resort. The savings could pay for, or at least dramatically offset, the cost of your room.
MAKE A FOOD PLAN
A common frugal hack is to keep a cooler in your car or hotel room and retreat there for a picnic lunch. If that doesn't appeal to you, research the park's outside-food policies in advance. You don't want to discover at the gate that you have to give up your snack stash — or that you could have brought more.
Some parks offer prepaid meal plans or passes that can be a good deal. Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, has an all-day dining pass for $31.99. Users can get a meal or snack every 90 minutes throughout the day.
Some general ideas:
—Start with a hearty, high-protein breakfast before you enter the park to stave off the munchies.
—Lunch is typically cheaper than dinner at sit-down restaurants, so have your big meal earlier and plan on a snack later. (Make reservations if you can, or arrive before the lunch rush.)
—Soda prices are outrageous and can add up fast, especially when you're chugging sugary goodness in the heat. Bring water bottles or opt for souvenir cups with free refills.
One final tip: Give each kid $20 or so to spend on souvenirs or extra snacks with the understanding that when the money's gone, it's gone. That will cut way down on the begging, giving you a little peace. You're going to need it.
This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet.
Liz Weston is a columnist at NerdWallet, a certified financial planner and author of "Your Credit Score." Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @lizweston
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