We are staying in nine different hotels over 10 days. We want speed, convenience, and comfort. We go for the mid-level sub-brands of the major chains, as these are reasonably priced and perfectly suit our needs. Our favorites are Hampton Inn & Homewood Suites (both are Hilton brands), Residence Inn & Springhill Suites (Marriott), and Holiday Inn Express (IHG). We often get discounts through AAA on the Entertainment Card, and we are members of the Hilton MVP program, which provides discounts as well. I book as early as possible. I never book non-refundable rates, as plans can change. I also frequently find that rates can drop in the week or two before the trip if occupancy is low, so I check rates again before I leave. I saved about $200 on this trip by re-checking rates at the last minute.
What we like in a hotel
All the hotels on our trip have the following:
- Large room or suite with king size bed and sofabed
- Free buffet breakfast (all hotels except Great Wolf Lodge)
- Free Internet access
- Free parking with a short walk to the room
- Most have an indoor pool and gym
- Most have a kitchenette or full kitchen
What we don’t need in a hotel
- Room Service
- Bell Service
- Valet Parking
I almost exclusively rent from Alamo and Budget. There has been significant consolidation in the rental car business in recent years – Enterprise, National, and Alamo are all one company, as are Avis & Budget. Since Alamo and Budget do not have loyalty programs, they cost less, but provide excellent cars and service. They both have frequent renter programs that don’t give points, but allow you to get to your car quickly and to choose your own car. I usually either book through Costco’s website or using Entertainment card discounts. I also pay for American Express car rental insurance, which charges a single low flat fee for the LDW (damage waiver) for each rental, saving a significant amount of money. For a 1,000 mile trip like this one, I did buy the SLI (Supplemental Liability), which was worth the peace of mind.
We checked out all the available cars in Cleveland and rented a new Dodge Journey SUV, which fit our luggage perfectly and drives well. Before I drive off, I always take pictures of the car from every angle, in case they claim that I caused some damage.
Music: We tried to include a Sirius/XM radio as part of our rental, but they were sold out of the portable units (even though I reserved it in advance). I fortunately brought an iPod and cable, and as many cars (including ours) have iPod jacks, we have good music available throughout the stretches where radio might be spotty.
GPS: Even though many smartphones have GPS capability, having a good portable GPS is priceless. We pre-programmed the entire trip into our Garmin 2555LMT, so it will take seconds to get going from each destination. The Garmin also shows exactly what each exit or lane change looks like, erasing any possibility of wrong turns. It also quickly finds the nearest restaurants, gas stations, markets, etc. Most importantly, using a separate GPS allows my smartphone to stay fully charged and available throughout the trip. As a backup, we printed the entire itinerary using Google Maps.
One of the most difficult elements of a trip like this is the constant packing and unpacking. Vivian came up with an ingenious system: we have three suitcases. One has the things we need every day (e.g., toiletries). The second has the clothes for the first half of our trip, the third has the clothes for the second half. Each day’s clothes is in its own packing cube. That way, we just need to pull out one packing cube in each hotel.
One of our best ideas was to get a backpack with wheels and extending handle. This served as Joel’s carry-on and was the one bag we brought into the parks. Nothing causes more pain and soreness in a park than lugging a bag filled with sunscreen, water bottles, etc. on your shoulder all day (except perhaps carrying a kid, but we’re fortunately past that stage). When it rains or in areas with uneven terrain, we can use it as a backpack. To avoid buying water bottles at every turn, we bought refillable bottles with filters, so we could refill at water fountains at each park.
Our Theme Park Rules
- Get to each park before it opens. Parks are best in the first hour before they get crowded, and you will get great parking.
- Buy tickets in advance. You usually will get discounts for doing so (many companies and organizations also sell discounted advance tickets), and it will save you time when you arrive.
- Research in advance what the key things are that you want to do and where you want to eat. Do the most important things first, as you never know if it will rain or if a ride will break down (or if you will). Try to eat off-hours.
- Don’t try to do too much in one day. Take breaks. Drink a lot of water.
- Do your driving in the afternoon/evening, so you can sleep in and be refreshed the parks in the morning.
- Whenever possible, buy passes that allow you to reduce the time waiting in line. Standing in a hot queue takes a toll on the body and on everyone’s nerves. For me, this is a higher priority than a nice hotel room, good meals, souvenirs, etc. Those who wait in line for hours generally have poor park experiences, and those who wait 5-10 minutes for each ride have the time of their lives.
We are now ready to hit the parks!