When my son was younger, one of our family’s favorite summertime traditions was spending a day at Six Flags Great America. We would typically take along one of my son’s pals to make pairing up for rides easier and to add to the fun. But taking a family of four to the amusement park — even if it’s just a day trip and doesn’t require hotels, rental cars, etc. — can be anything but fun for your budget.
Depending on the park, the price of admission for a family of four can exceed $200. Tack on the price of a meal or two, beverages (no one wants to dehydrate waiting in line to plunge three stories on a roller coaster), and the price tag for one day can easily surge upwards of $350 or more.
Our family tradition is still going strong, only these days, we can’t get away with paying child admission prices, and we bring along my son’s girlfriend instead of a preschool pal. Over the years, however, I’ve learned some tricks that help keep costs from sending our family’s entertainment budget riding off the roller coaster rails.
Pick up a package
If you’re heading to a major amusement park that’s out of town, look for promotional package deals. With these, you can snag airfare, hotel and theme park admission tickets for one price. And that price often comes with a best-price guarantee as well as perks you can’t get if you booked each separately.
For example, Disneyland frequently runs specials that grant early access to the park one hour before regular ticket-holders, as well as FASTPASS tickets to some wildly popular rides. Universal Orlando’s vacation packages also offer early park admission to portions of the park as well as the added bonus of free breakfast. Don’t worry if neither of those sounds appealing. There are often a variety of package options to suit different budgets.
Clicking around the park’s website can score you a deal on admission because buying tickets in advance online often carries a small (up to 10 percent) discount. But there are also deals and steal to be found via the parks’ Twitter and Facebook channels. Before buying tickets, check these and other social media pages for promotions available only to followers.
Belonging to organizations or associations may help you land a group discount or other savings. For instance, membership in alumni associations, teachers associations and AAA all open the door to amusement park perks and travel deals. AAA offers 30 percent off tickets to Six Flags and 10 percent off to Knotts Berry Farm in addition to discounts at hotels.
Being charitable doesn’t just help others; it’s good for your budget, too. Taking a nonperishable food item to the park (on special days) or volunteering with the family can shave precious dollars off the price of admission. At Universal Orlando, families that participate in the Volunteer Vacation package spend four hours at the park helping out at Give Kids the World Village. In return, they enjoy deeply discounted rates on three nights at a nearby Universal hotel, a two-day pass to the park and early park admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter before the theme park opens.
Double-check your credit cards
Your credit card may have rewards or other benefits that can help you save a few bucks or earn rewards for what you spend on your trip to the amusement park.
“Be sure you check your credit card rewards and see if there’s a way to save money,” says Beverly Harzog, a nationally recognized credit card expert and author of “Confessions of a Credit Junkie.” For instance, the Citi Dividend Platinum Select Visa Card offers 5 percent cash back at theme parks from July 1 through Sept. 30, 2014. Is the park a long drive from where you live? Use the Chase Freedom card to buy your gas and get 5 percent cash back from July 1 through Sept. 30, 2014.
“Even if you don’t have a rewards card that offers specific rewards for amusement parks, you can use a card that gives miles or cash back and still get a benefit,” says Harzog. That way, the price of a day at the park pays you back days and weeks later. “It’s also better to use credit cards when you’re in a big park with lots of people. Walking around with a lot of cash isn’t a good idea.”
Dig for deals
Before booking a trip — even a day trip — to an amusement park, surf discount sites like Priceline and Hotwire. They often have deals that come with vouchers for things like two-for-one park admission or free parking. Amazon Local is another good place to look.
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