Eight easy ways to save at Universal Orlando

Getting the experience of your dreams at Universal, and especially at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, doesn't have to blow your budget.

Universal Orlando/Handout via Reuters/File
Diagon Alley, the Harry Potter attraction at Universal Orlando in Orlando, Florida, is pictured in this undated handout photo provided by Universal Orlando Reuters July 8, 2014.

The very idea of being frugal at the consumer-driven free-for-all that is Universal Studios Orlando is almost laughable. Between the hundreds of branded restaurants and shops selling overpriced (but inarguably amazing) swag, there's the cost of buying your tickets, booking a hotel, and, of course, the cost of actually getting yourself to Orlando. 

As anyone who's ever looked into this vacation will tell you, these costs add up quickly. And yet this past weekend I somehow managed to swing a three-day excursion at Universal Orlando for less than $400 TOTAL -- including park tickets, plane tickets, hotel costs, meals AND souvenir shopping. $400 might seem like a lot, and it is! But it's also significantly less than the $1,453.67 "all-inclusive" deal offered by Universal for the same trip, which includes just one meal and zero shopping. No thanks!

You might not be able to recreate my entire vacation down to the penny -- I went with a friend sans children, so I only had to pay for myself -- but many of these tips will be helpful no matter how many tiny humans you'll be shlepping along for the ride. Here's how I planned and executed my dream trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (and the rest of Universal Orlando, of course).

Book your flight with miles (if you can).

This saved me about $300 right off the bat. Like any good Brad's Deals employee, I use rewards credit cards to rack up airline miles and cash back rewards. If you don't have one yet, you're in luck! Signup bonuses abound, and if you budget accordingly and find the right card, it's pretty easy to get a round trip ticket for you (and possibly even a loved one) for free! We keep a running tab of the best credit card signup bonuses in this blog post, and you should also check out all the cards we're currently featuring in our travel rewards cards deals section if you want to hack your way to a free flight.

Buy the two-day park-to-park ticket with the free third day (while you still can)!

This offer is only available until April 12, 2016, and tickets must be used before May 31, 2016. But if you're planning a three-day trip to Universal Orlando before that, this deal will save you around $10/ticket, and opting for the park-to-park ticket means you can have double the fun at both Universal's Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida, AND you get to ride the Hogwarts Express, which is an amazing and immersive experience.

Find a cheap hotel with a daily shuttle to the park.

I've written before about how much I love airbnb, but for this trip, we opted to use Hotwire and book a $90/night hotel about two miles away from the park. While airbnb is a great choice if you're looking to get a feel for a city, cook homemade meals and avoid touristy areas, this just wasn't that kind of vacation. When looking at airbnb options, we found most of them to be a little too far away from the park for our liking, which makes sense given that the very touristy area that surrounds the park is nearly devoid of private homes and apartments. Our hotel was cheap, clean, and included a free daily shuttle to and from the park, which was great considering the recent hike in parking fees at the resort. We saved $20/day on parking alone, and we had access to a nice pool for evening swims and afternoon lounge sessions.

One thing piece of advice for booking a hotel on Hotwire: don't go with the absolute cheapest option before you read the reviews! I almost booked a room for $80/night at a very sleazy motel, before I noticed the hundreds of one-star reviews panning everything from the cleanliness of the sheets to the safety of the locks. I was very happy to pay an extra $10/night for a hotel with an infinitely better rating, and my final pick (what up Rosen Inn International!) fit our needs perfectly.

Don't waste your money on an express pass.

Yeah, a lot of the lines are long, sometimes an hour or more during the afternoon peak. But you don't need to pay $80/day to skip them, because most of the really popular rides have a "single riders" line that will get you to the front in half the time -- sometimes even before the fast passers get there! This can even work for families with kids, so long as the kids are old enough. We took the single riders line on many rides, and always had a lot of families waiting with us. Usually most groups would still get on the same coaster car, and sometimes we'd even be able to sit next to each other!

Of course, families with younger kids might not want to split up, but many of the longer lines are experiences in themselves. My friend and I opted to wait in the normal line the first time we rode the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride, and boy were we happy about it! It ended up being a tour through Hogwarts castle that included everything from the Herbology classroom and Dumbledore's office to the Gryffindor common room and the Great Hall. I've been patiently waiting for my Hogwarts acceptance letter since I was 11, so this was a literal dream come true. The attention to detail is astounding, with talking portraits and floating candles to boot, and I was so captivated I didn't even notice the time it took to get to the ride itself. Same goes for the Escape from Gringots ride, which features animatronic goblin bank tellers, a magical elevator ride, and an in-line photo op.

Bring your own snack and drinks.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the food and drinks inside the park are overpriced. It's a theme park. It kind of comes with the territory. If you're traveling with small children or adults who get hangry when they haven't eaten, packing your own snacks and drinks is a good way to save a LOT of money on food. You can buy souvenir cups that'll give you pop refills for $1.19 forever, and water refills are always free no matter what kind of cup you have. There are some pretty cool restaurants scattered around the park, though, so if you want to try them without breaking the bank, you should...

Order off the kids' menu in the theme restaurants for a half-price meal.

I didn't want to spend $14 on a plate of fish and chips, but let's be serious, I couldn't NOT eat at the Leaky Cauldron! Lucky for me, the kiddie version of that meal was just $6.99 and still a good amount of food -- as in -- what an adult's portion would look like if you were actually in London. Lucky for me and my rumbling belly, this particular restaurant is actually located in the good old US of A, where giant portion sizes are written into the constitution (editors note: citation needed), and children's meals are no exception. At the end of my meal I was full, happy and $7 richer than I would've been if I'd opted for the adult portion. Win!

Buy souvenirs outside of the park.

There are hundreds of souvenir shops lining the strip outside the park, and their prices are actually reasonable compared to those inside. Want a Jurassic Park t-shirt? Would you rather pay $40 for one straight from the source or $8 for a decent knock off? The choice is yours.

You don't NEED to buy a $50 interactive wand to enjoy the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Full disclosure: I did anyway because I'm a crazed Harry Potter fan who will probably go so far as to have it framed at some point in the near future. But seriously, despite what you might have heard, you don't need an interactive wand. Yes, it's cool that you can use them "cast spells" at different points around Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, but a lot of these spell stations are buggy, and even more have lines. It's probably more fun to watch little kids perform the spells than it is to do it yourself, so if your kids are begging you for a wand, a good compromise is to buy one for all the little ones to share and let them take turns. It's not exactly a frugal purchase but it's fun, and that's what you're there for, right?

This article first appeared at Brad's Deals.

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