HOW TO TAKE A 3 DAY TRIP TO UNIVERSAL STUDIOS $400 PER PERSON – COMING FROM AFAR AND CAR CAMPING
Last week, my husband and I went on an adventurous and very affordable trip to Universal Studios Hollywood. That is why I was so MIA, I apologize for being late on a post. But it’s hard to write on the blog when there is something to do at every waking moment and there is so much sleeping to do during downtime when you’re completely and utterly exhausted. So, here I am, barely recuperated from my trip, tell you about how I made said trip affordable. But don’t worry about me, only a couple of days until the weekend when I can fully recharge.
The amazing thing about this trip is that not only was it a dream come true to finally see The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but we also did it on an extremely small budget– and you can too. I’ll give you my tips and tricks of how to make the most out of your visit, but also how to make it work when you are a broke twenty-something just trying to get by like me. (This is why we DIY so often, get it?) So to start, let’s look at the budget I was working with!
First of all, we need to start with the most essential puzzle piece– Universal Studios Hollywood tickets. We bought these from Costco back in November of 2017, because I asked for them for Christmas instead of any other big gifts from my parents. (They’re the best!) They were running a special for that month for just $99 for a three day pass to the park ($33 per day). This means that the tickets cost only $200 total for two people for three entire days, open to close. To give you an idea of what a screaming deal this is, right now these same discount tickets through Costco are $120, (either it is a time of the year price drop or they realized they were giving too good of a deal and raised their prices, I’m not really sure) and even more surprising, if you were to buy them from the Universal Studios website ahead of time they are $109 PER DAY. If you were to buy the two-day tickets from their website, you would pay $129 ($65 per day), and then you would have to add on the $107 one day pass to compare apples to apples and make it three days, totaling at $237 per person. Yikes!
Truthfully though, no one should ever do the two-day pass plus the one-day pass, because the Silver Annual Pass is only $179 for an entire year (with some blackout dates of course). This is not the worst deal, but it still doesn’t come close to $99 per person for three days through Costco. If you have been to the park before and you would love to go over and over again or you live relatively close, it may make sense to go the Annual Pass route, but honestly, even though I am the biggest Harry Potter nerd, I think that three days is actually plenty to see all of the park several times over. So with all of that in mind, I highly recommend looking at Costco’s prices first, because you will likely get a steal for plenty of time in the park. Long story short, we have so far spent $200 total, and $100 per person.
The next large travel item to figure out was the flight. Living in Sacramento, we of course would have to factor into the budget the cost of getting to Southern California. Although we live in the same state, we might as well not for how difficult it is to get down there. Luckily, Southwest was running a special for $55 flights to LAX and then $45 flights back to Sacramento on the days we needed to travel. I believe that the beginning of April is usually a week of specials, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled on prices during the month of March (if possible) and sign up for Southwest’s email lists to be alerted about deals! The only downside about both of these flights is that they were both very late at night, and it was already a very tiring trip, but as a Dave Ramsey kind of money saver, you do what you gotta do! Our total bill for the flights after all taxes and fees was $215 total, so $107 per person.
Our flight down there was late on a Wednesday night. After my Dad gave us a ride to the airport, we took the 1.5 hour flight down to LAX to arrive around 11pm at night. Luckily, although these flights were cheap, they allowed one free checked bag for each of us under 50 pounds. My husband only needs his carry-on for his clothes, so I was able to pack a large suitcase for my clothes (I love clothes, okay? Sue me), one medium suitcase for the air mattress and blankets (we’ll get to that in a minute), and a small carry-on suitcase for more blankets, sheets, towels and shoes. So when we arrived, we got our bags from baggage claim and then walked right outside to hop onto the shuttle to our rental car place. In case you didn’t know, LAX has shuttles going for almost any rental car company you can think of coming back and forth every 8 minutes, so you will likely not ever have to worry about waiting for this shuttle. This of course brings me to the next item, the rental car.
When I was looking for a rental car for this trip, it needed a couple of specific things. First, it needed to be large enough AND have the capability to fold the seats down all the way so that we could have a flat floor space for an air mattress, allowing us to sleep comfortably in the car. Think about it, it’s basically like our full-time RV living right now, just without a kitchen or a bathroom! (We will get to how to make car camping work in just a moment, don’t worry.) Second, the car rental place needed to be accessible from the airport by their shuttle service, because I didn’t want to have to pay for a taxi or an Uber to take us to our rental car. I personally love the app Kayak, because it compares all of the different travel companies in each category by price and shows you almost all of your options. It’s super fast and easy, especially for rental cars. (flights are a bit more difficult because they don’t include some airlines such as Southwest or Spirit) And no, this post is not sponsored by them, I just love their app! I went on Kayak and searched for a rental car for the days I needed in Los Angeles and the car size of “minivan.” I found a rental available for a “Dodge Caravan or similar,” saw that it was with Fox Rent-a-car and offered the shuttle service (you can find those rental car services in a list here) and booked it immediately. The Dodge Caravan part is important to look for, because the newer years of this model (and the Chrysler Town and Country) have Stow ‘n’ Go seating, which is what I mentioned earlier about the seats folding ALL THE WAY into the floor so that the ground is completely flat. Check out this video to see how it works!
Now, to the huge downside of our trip. Although this was a brilliant plan in theory, Fox Rental Car did not give us a Dodge Caravan. We arrived close to midnight on Wednesday night, and although we were tired and delirious and frustrated with us, they insisted that the SUV with seats that do NOT fold down at all was the “something similar” that they had promised. We could not tell them that we would be sleeping in the car of course (I recommend avoiding saying that to you as well) but we insisted in return that it was not what we had paid for. Alas, we could not get the Dodge Caravan that has Stow ‘n’ Go capabilities like we needed. I still believe that this idea could work if you get lucky with your rental car company, but we did not get so lucky.
Our SUV was pretty nice, but the sleeping was not comfortable, to say the least. The car has three rows of seats and no gap in between the two sides and no raise in the middle, so at least the rows of seats were flat and smooth. However, the back row was more narrow than the rest of the car. So while my husband who is a foot taller than me laid in the middle row, I laid in the back row and could not extend my legs out all the way or move very much from side to side. The pillows and blankets that we brought definitely did help make everything softer, but it wasn’t enough to give us more than 4 hours of sleep that first night. On the bright side, it wasn’t very cold out at night in Southern California, which we had been a little worried about before the trip. So one blanket was enough to cover each of us, despite the fact that we had no wall insulation. So, yay?
The second and third nights, we tried a different approach of staying in the front seats with them leaned all the way back. I laid in the drivers seat side and put my small carry on suitcase underneath my feet so that they were level with the rest of my body, so I was able to stretch out and be relatively flat. I slept pretty much like a baby the next two nights! But I suppose that is only because I am 5’4, because my 6’1 husband could not get comfy in the passenger seat. His feet were too long to put lower than him and it wasn’t comfortable to put his legs up on the dashboard without the knees being supported, so he really suffered. Every morning I would wake up pretty refreshed and ready to hit the park, he would say that he was delirious because he woke up around 3am or 4am. Such a bummer! Here is a picture of our expectations that unfortunately did not turn into reality this time:
The other thing to note is that we successfully did this car camping by parking in the parking lot of Walmarts. There is a Walmart only 15 minutes away from the park in Burbank, and it felt pretty safe and we never ran into any trouble at all. It was well-lit enough that we felt safe, but not too bright that we were blinded. We didn’t ask permission the first two nights, but then one day asked if we could stay overnight because we were on a road trip and too tired to carry on, and they said they didn’t care at all. Ha! It was also easy to wait until they opened at 7am and go in to freshen up, use the bathroom and grab a cheap smoothie or breakfast snack. I will do a future post on car camping in general with more of these tidbits, but for the purpose of this trip, our rental car served as our transportation AND our bed. This rental car for these three days broke down to $45 per day, but after taxes and fees around $200 total. This brings our trip so far to $615 for two people, and $307 per person. Not too shabby for a three day vacation to a world-renowned theme park!
Now, let’s get to the category everyone has been waiting for (likely, especially if you can’t wait to try the Butterbeer): food! Aside from a few grocery runs (which turned out to be useless sadly, as we left a protein pack with cheese in the hot car all day and threw it away) that probably added another $20 onto this total, here is the breakdown of the food and drinks that we bought to survive hunger in the park AND to enjoy some of the park experience through our tastebuds.
Breakfast outside the parks (McDonalds and Denny’s) = $5 x 3 = $15
Subway sandwiches = $15
Lunch at Three Broomsticks (twice)= $26
Dessert at Three Broomsticks = $6
Dinner at Taco Stand = $10
Dinner at Krusty Burger = $10
Donut = $7
Frozen Butterbeer = $7.50
Pumpkin Juice (my favorite) = $7.50
Dippin Dots = $6.50
Total + outside snacks = $138
I will write and link more posts in the future dedicated to which food and drinks are worth it in the park, but for now I wanted to make it clear that you can get a few of the best (obviously just my humble opinion) snacks and drinks in the park without completely breaking the bank. If my husband and I were to buy a load of groceries for the month from Costco, our typical food budget is $300. Therefore, we plan on spending about $75 per week, or $33 for three days of food. If you take the $138 we spent on food and divide that by three days, we only spent an average of $46 per day at Universal, meaning we spent just $13 more per day than our usual daily lives. I count that as a win! Although each meal felt so extravagant, we were able to share quite a few meals and eat snacks we brought in to tide us over until “linner” so that we only had to buy one park meal instead of two to get us through the night. The other good news– the park food fills you up. The Krusty Burger from the Simpson’s Springfield will leave you feeling full for hours!
Here are the final calculations for our three days in the park with all lodging and travel accounted for:
$200 Universal Studio Tickets
$200 rental car
Total = $828 divided by two people = $414 per person
To give you an idea of how long of a total cost this is, imagine that you went on a vacation to another similarly priced park, Disneyland. I know you may assume that Disneyland is much more expensive than Universal Studios, but according to their website, a ticket for one day for one person for one park is about $100, which is even a little bit cheaper. The three day ticket to Disney is $280 for one person. If you were to also stay in a hotel, you would likely end up paying at least $80 per person, bringing the total for tickets and hotel (two nights) to $440, and that is before we have even begun adding in rental car/transportation, gas and food, and especially flights.
Therefore, although $400 is still quite a lot for us to spend as a family per person (granted, the tickets to the park were mostly a gift from my parents), it still doesn’t come close to the cost of a typical amusement park vacation. I apologize for all of the math you had to endure to get to this point, but I wanted to 1) help myself feel better financially about the sacrifice we just made, and 2) share with you the secrets to experiencing a magical park while sticking to a small budget. It really is possible, I have seen it with my own two eyes on my receipts. I hope that you can now consider planning the vacation of your dreams for your family so that you can get up and close to the magic of Hogwart’s castle. Seriously, the light show was stunning. Leave a comment if you have more questions on how to enjoy and save, and let me know if you know of other clever ways to save a galeon or two in the park!