Rewards card tips to cut the cost of a trip to Disney World
Strategically using card rewards can get you free airfare and hotel stays
Getting a free – or heavily discounted – trip to the Magic Kingdom doesn’t require a magic wand or a fairy godmother, just strategically signing up for some new credit cards.
You can easily make your Walt Disney World dreams come true if you allow plenty of time, carefully consider your card options and snag the big bonuses that will pay for your trip. It’s well worth the effort since families often shell out as much as $5,000 for a vacation at the famous theme park.
So, does this mean your should run out and sign up for the Disney Rewards Visa credit card? Not necessarily, unless you’re enchanted by being able to pull out a card with Sorcerer Mickey, Tinker Bell or Lightning McQueen on the front and you love the fact that the card does offer one of the few available ways to buy tickets to the park with points.
However, rewards experts say it’s better to first focus on the non-co-branded cards that will get you a bigger bang for your buck.
For example, Brad Barrett, a CPA who runs the site Richmond Savers, where he offers a free Disney challenge to help families get to the theme park for “pennies on the dollar,” does not advise getting the card.
That’s because the Disney Visa sign-up bonus is usually $200, quite a bit less than many other cards, Barrett points out, adding: “For those with the card, it’s still savings, of course, so it’s not a bad thing.”
So, what do you need to charge your way to Disney? Well, you’ll have to start about a year in advance and work on racking up enough rewards to cover the three big pieces of a Disney vacation: flight, lodging and passes to the kingdom.
Don’t pay for your Disney stay
Disney travel planners recommend arranging your Disney lodging at least six months before your stay as the first step in your trip planning. So, it’s smart to focus on first acquiring the cards you need to make your hotel reservations with points.
While you do have plenty of options, you might want to consider aiming for one of the resorts on the property. Two popular choices: the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin resort hotels.
When Barrett and his family went to Disney, they stayed at the Swan, which is about 100 yards from the Dolphin, on the same complex.
“Both hotels are beautiful,” Barrett says, adding that guests have only a three-minute walk to the Disney Boardwalk or a 10-minute walk to EPCOT or Hollywood Studios. “So you’re right there in the mix of it all,” he says.
By staying onsite at Disney, you also get perks that include all transportation throughout the Wald Disney World complex and Extra Magic Hours, which are times when the park opens only to resort guests.
Both the Swan and Dolphin are Starwood properties, so Barrett recommends opening cards that earn Starpoints, starting with the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest credit card. As of March 2018, this card is offering a sign-up bonus of 25,000 points when you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months, and the $95 annual fee is waived the first year.
Once you’ve met minimum spend and earned your bonus, your significant other can open the same card and repeat to reach a combined total of 50,000 points.
Or, if you’re churning on your own, you can open a second card, such as the business SPG card (35,000 points after you spend $7,000 in the first three months) or the Chase Marriott Rewards Premier card, which currently has a sign-up bonus of 75,000 points after you spend $3,000 in the first three months.
Since Marriott and Starwood are under the same ownership, you can transfer the Chase points to your Starwood account, Barrett says. You then should have enough points to book five free nights at the Dolphin or the Swan.
There are other lodging options, of course, including other Disney resorts and cheaper options outside the Disney World border that will allow you to stay for fewer points. If you prefer to go one of these routes, consider signing up for one or more Chase rewards cards. (See the section on flights for specific card suggestions.)
Chase Ultimate Rewards points work well for Disney travel because they’re flexible. In fact, you can book a stay at a Disney resort, or another hotel, through the Chase rewards portal. The Million Mile Secrets site highlights in detail how to search for lodging at Disney on the portal.
Finally, if you want a convenient option that won’t use loads of points, the Sheraton Lake Buena Vista might be a good choice, says Jim Wang, a personal finance blogger at WalletHacks.com who is planning a trip to Disney with his family.
That hotel is not affiliated with Disney and is outside the park, but starts at just 3,500 Starpoints per night, Wang says. “It’s really close to Walt Disney World, and they offer a free shuttle,” he says.
Fly to Disney for free
Once you’ve got your lodging squared away, it’s time to decide how you’ll get there. Unless you’re within driving distance, that means accruing miles or points toward flights to Orlando.
Chase cards offer big sign-up bonuses and plenty of redemption flexibility. So, if you want lots of airline options, open several general Chase rewards cards, prioritizing the biggest sign-up bonus first. Know that if you have opened five or more credit cards in the past 24 months, you likely will not be approved.
First, if you or your significant other have a small business or even a side hustle, consider getting the Chase Ink Business Preferred card, which is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 80,000 points when you spend $5,000 in the first three months after opening the card.
The Ink business card does have an annual fee of $95, but the bonus is worth more than $1,000 when redeemed for travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, and possibly much more if you transfer Chase points to a partner airline frequent-flyer program.
Another good option, or a second card once you’ve earned your bonus on the Ink Business card, is the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which offers a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points if you spend $4,000 on the card in the first three months. The annual fee of $95 is waived the first year, and a couple who each open a card can rack up 100,000 points.
Even though you can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Southwest Rapid Rewards program on a 1:1 basis, you may want to consider the Chase Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier card, with an annual fee of $99, and the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Plus card, with an annual fee of $69. Both offer sign-up bonuses of 50,000 points.
And you might want to follow this savvy strategy to get free flights to Disney for the whole family. Get both Chase Southwest cards for 100,000 points, then get two friends or family members to sign up for one of the cards for a referral bonuses of 5,000 points each. That will get you to the 110,000 qualifying points needed to earn a Southwest companion pass, which allows a family member to fly with you for free. Use points for the rest of the tickets.
Advantages of flying Southwest include no blackout dates and the rewards ticket price is based on the dollar cost of the flight, which allows you to find good value.
“Most families fly Southwest to get to Orlando, and they are the easiest of all the rewards programs to use, especially for families,” Barrett says.
Enter the Magic Kingdom at no cost
The final step of putting together your free Disney vacation is getting tickets to the theme park.
Getting into Disney with rewards is a bit tricky. However, it’s worth finding a way to do it, because Disney tickets aren’t cheap. A five-day trip for a family of four can ring up $1,500 if you pay cash.
This is where having the Disney Visa can come in handy since you can make just about any Disney purchase using the rewards you rack up on that card. Fortunately, the Disney card is not subject to Chase’s 5/24 rule.
One mom, Jennifer Reich, from Allentown, Pennsylvania, takes her two sons to Disney World every summer and often uses her Disney Visa to get park tickets.
To get tickets this way, you have to request a Disney Rewards Redemption Card from Chase and load your rewards onto that card, she says, adding: “I’ve never had a problem getting tickets.”
Though it’s tricky to use regular rewards to get Disney tickets, Barrett found a way, using the Capital One Venture travel purchase eraser feature. Disney tickets are not normally coded as travel purchases, so cannot typically be “erased” using rewards.
However, Barrett found that you can buy Disney tickets through UnderCoverTourist.com, which is an authorized Disney vendor and does code the purchase as travel. This means you can buy them with your Capital One Venture card and then use rewards to retroactively delete the cost from your bill.
And the Capital One Venture Rewards credit card has a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points for spending $3,000 in the first three months after opening the card (with a waived first-year annual fee of $95).
Barrett used that tactic when he and his wife saved $4,000 on a Disney trip with their two daughters, who loved meeting the Disney princesses and, as fans of Frozen, were especially enthralled by Elsa. The parents were equally happy over their savings.
“I was thrilled when it did code as a travel expense, and I could use those miles to offset those ticket purchases,” Barrett says.
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