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2012 DCL-WDW 007For nearly a decade, Disney has been offering free dining in the fall and early winter as a way of filling hotel rooms during slower months of the year, a promotion which also has the effect of keeping Disney restaurants full and their staff occupied and up to speed.  Under free dining, a family of four still pays full-price for their room and tickets, but they can easily save around $200 a night.  For this reason, free dining is the stuff of a Disney fan’s dreams and the subject of endless threads on Disney message boards:  Will it be offered at all, what are the dates, what hotels will it cover?  Speculation builds to a frenzy in the weeks before free dining is expected to be released, however, as we approach the latest round of free dining rumors with our forks poised, ask yourself this:  Is free dining really a good deal for you?

I’ve already written about whether or not the Disney dining plan is a good deal, but I haven’t discussed how you use it. Chances are if you’re a first-timer using the plan, you’re a little overwhelmed: You’ve got credits and refillable mugs and desserts that you might not even want coming out of your ears! Fortunately, using the plan doesn’t have to be confusing and it can be easy to maximize your credits so that you get the most out of the plan. Here’s how.

1. The dining plan starts as soon as you check into your resort and get your Key to the World Card. Contrary to popular belief, “check-in” at a Disney resort doesn’t start when you get your room, which may be as late as 3:00 in the afternoon, but when you check into the resort, which can be any time of the day. You’ll get all your dining credits and then you can start using them immediately. On a related note, your credits are good until midnight the day you check out.

2. Quick-service and table-service meals each come with one entrée, dessert, and a non-alcoholic drink. At buffets, this means access to the buffet and drinks.

Using the Disney dining plan isn’t as straight-forward as simply walking into a restaurant and handing over your Key to the World Card: While all credits are created equal, not everything you buy will be. While it’s obvious that missing meals is essentially throwing money away, so is using a snack credit for a soda. Fortunately, using the plan effectively is actually quite easy. Here are the top ten tricks that will help you get the most out of the plan:

10. Use your dining plan for character meals and other more expensive dining locations. Look at it this way: For guests 10-years old and up, the dining plan costs $56 per person per night: This gives you a table service, meal, a quick service meal, a snack, and a refillable mug. If you estimate $4 for a snack, and $14 for a quick-service meal, you still need to “spend” $38 on your table-service meal that day. That’s not difficult to do if you’re eating dinner at location like Boma or Ohana, but if you’re eating at Via Napoli or 50s Prime Time Café, your tab is going to come in at around $30 per person. Not only did you not break even that day, you actually lost money.

9. Pay out of pocket for less expensive meals and you avoid the scenario above. This only works if you plan on eating more table-service meals than you’re actually allotted on the plan.

8. Avoid using your snack credits for drinks. As noted above, the dining plan works best when you save your credits for more expensive items, so save your credits for items cupcakes or ice cream (both $4 or more) and pay out of pocket for your drinks (usually under $3).