Before you Travel
You may have been to the US many times in recent years or this may be your first trip. If it is your first trip or if you haven’t been there for a while, then there are some things you need to bear in mind.
Do you need a visa?
If you’re a UK citizen, then in most cases you won’t need a visa and you can travel with an ESTA visa waiver. Go to https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/ for more information and to apply for an ESTA. They cost around $14 and are normally valid for two years.
Choosing a flight
While we’re not exactly travel experts and the travel landscape keeps changing, we tend to look for direct flights from the UK to Orlando. We’ve had many flights with a stop each way at a US hub. The tend to be a little cheaper and you do go through US immigration at the hub so that you can step off the plane in Orlando as a domestic passenger. The downside is that it can take a while to get through US immigration on your outbound journey and you may get anxious about missing your onward connection. Sometimes, transfer times at the hub can be long, adding to your overall journey time when all you want to do is get there or get home.
We’ve had problems with our first homeward flight of the two leaving late, meaning that we risked missing our transatlantic connection. This happened once and we were forced to spend a night in a hotel in Cincinnati. Only when you’re flying within the EU or from an EU airport do you discover that the US airline concerned has no responsibility to offer you either overnight accommodation or meals. We also got home a day late. In winter time you may find that your US hub becomes snowbound, meaning that you can’t readily fly on to Orlando.
You can also fly with Aer Lingus via Dublin and clear US immigration there so that you arrive in the US as a domestic flight, but these flights do cost more than many others.
At the time of writing, the only two airports with regular direct flights from the UK to Orlando are Gatwick and Manchester. You can get charter flights from other airports, particularly in school holidays, but they tend to be noticeably more expensive. Our nearest of those two airports is Manchester but flights from Gatwick are usually so much cheaper that it still pays for us to fly from there and have a night’s accommodation at Gatwick before we go and sometimes a hotel day room there on our return to catch up on sleep.
Both Virgin Atlantic and BA fly from Gatwick but only Virgin Atlantic fly from Manchester. Your final choice may come down to a preference for one airline over the other or on the price. Sometimes we choose the earliest flight offered so that we get to Orlando Airport while the biggest choice of hire cars is still available and it means we’re likely to get to the villa while there’s still time to relax before calling it a day.
We strongly urge you to take out travel insurance as soon as you’ve booked. Make sure that it covers the USA and we recommend that you have medical cover of £10,000,000. A good policy should cover all the usual eventualities for when you’re abroad and particularly if you have to cancel or curtail your stay due to events beyond your control.
While guests do survive without a car, it’s very hard to get by in a villa without some form of transport of your own. Buses are few and far between and nobody walks anywhere. When I was first told that I didn’t believe it, but it’s true. Some guests have used Uber and that can work well and you’ll save on parking charges at the parks as they can just drop you off or pick you up.
For car hire, we’ve only ever used either Alamo or Dollar. Alamo is recommended by Which? and we’ve used them quite a lot over the years, but more recently we’ve found Dollar to be noticeably cheaper. Beware of upselling when you ask for your car at the hire desk. Sometimes the assistants will try to sell you additional insurance which they always quote as a ‘per day’ price. It may not sound much until you multiply it by 14 or 21, so just make sure it’s what you want for what you’re happy to pay. Try https://www.icarhireinsurance.com/. They’re a UK breakdown cover provider and come well recommended. You have to pay any costs in the US and then claim the money back when you return.
If you need help with car hire bookings we can refer you to the travel advisor we use who can usually get a good price on car hire and we’ve had no problems transferring a booking we need to because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Florida Toll Pass
If you’ve never been to Florida, you may not realise that they have quite a few toll roads and these are usually faster roads with higher speed limits and less traffic than on the toll-free routes. The Florida SunPass/EZPass trial is now available for visitors to the state.
You register your trip dates online at https://visitortollpass.com before you travel and then pick up a pass at Orlando International Airport (only Orlando Airport does it at present) from one of the many booths in ‘Arrivals’ when you land. You hang it on the rear-view mirror when you collect your hire car and you can then drive through the SunPass/EZPass lanes on the toll roads instead of having to stop and pay cash.
At the end of your stay you deposit it in one of the collection boxes at the airport and they then bill your credit card a few days later at a discounted rate. Don’t let the idea of paying tolls put you off a longer journey. We went on a toll road from Palm Beach to Orlando and the charge for the whole stretch was very reasonable. This was useful considering the time it saved us.
Last of all on this, if you have a SatNav at home, you may find it cheaper to make sure it’s loaded with maps for North America and to take it with you rather than hire one from the car hire company. Alternatively, you can use such as Google Maps on your smartphone, although you may incur expensive data charges if you’re from the UK. One way to get round this is to have a SIM (or contract) from the Three network as you can then ‘Roam like Home’ in the US. But make sure you don’t phone any US numbers on it as you’ll be charged for an overseas call. Wifi is widespread in the US and you can plan journeys that way.
Most visitors want to spend some of their stay at one or more of the theme parks. Admission charges are high and can mean that a family has to spend a lot to have the experience they want. There are various ways to keep costs as low as possible and this generally involves buying your tickets before you travel. Possible places to try are Attraction Tickets Direct or FloridaTix, both UK-based companies. Both do Disney, Universal, Kennedy Space Center, SeaWorld and Gator boating.
Bear in mind that parking at the parks is also expensive and difficult to avoid. The latest daily rates are $25 for Disney parks and $27 at Universal. Parking tickets are valid all day, allowing you to leave for a break and return later. Some people have tried to park up at Disney Springs and get a free Disney bus to the parks to avoid the parking charge, but that can be very time-consuming and there is talk that Disney will soon charge to park at Disney Springs too.
As you look at the various price tags when out shopping, remember that sales tax of between 6% and 7% will be added to the cost. In the UK retailers have to show the price including VAT, but in the US they can display them before sales tax is added.
Driving in Florida
For more information on driving in Florida, please download this document – Crash Course On Driving In Florida.
What’s the weather like?
Like anywhere else, that very much depends on the time of year and how you like your weather. In high summer both temperature and humidity are high and there’s usually one or more rain showers mid-afternoon (and they are showers like you’ve never seen before!). However, when you’re out and about there’s a lot of aircon around and you can duck and dive to keep cool (and dry!).
Easter is pleasant and the weather between Easter and high summer is generally dry and very appealing. The period between November and March is likely to have chilly evenings and you can get the occasional cold spell with northerly winds. It goes without saying that the days are shorter in winter and the weather generally reflects that.