Getting a free – or heavily discounted – trip to the Magic Kingdom doesn’t require a magic wand or a fairy godmother. You can easily make your Disney dreams come true if you allow plenty of time, consider your card options and snag big bonuses to pay for your trip.
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 can shell out anywhere from $3,000 to $8,000-plus for a vacation at the famous theme park.
So, does this mean you should run out and sign up for the Disney Visa card from Chase or the Disney Premier Visa Card? Not necessarily, unless you’re enchanted by being able to pull out a card with Mickey, Tinker Bell or Chewbacca on the front and you love the fact that the card offers 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 sign-up bonuses for the Disney Visa Card and the Disney Premier Visa are $100 statement credit (after your first purchase) and $250 statement credit (after spending $500 in the first three months), respectively – quite a bit less than many other cards.
“For those with the card, it’s still savings, of course, so it’s not a bad thing,” Barrett said.
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.
See related: A week at the ‘most magical place on Earth’
How to stay at a Disney hotel for free
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 have plenty of options, you might want to consider aiming for one of the resorts on the property when they resume taking reservations. 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 on-site at Disney, you also get perks that include all transportation throughout the Walt Disney World complex and Extra Magic Hours, which are times when the park opens only to resort guests. (Note that Extra Magic Hours are currently suspended, according to Disney’s website.)
Both the Swan and Dolphin are run by Marriott International, so Barrett recommends opening cards that earn Marriott points, starting with the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card.
This card is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 75,000 points when you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months. The card also offers 2 points for every dollar spent, so you’ll rack up 6,000 points by the time you meet the minimum spending requirement.
Once you’ve met the minimum spend and earned your bonus, your significant other can open the same card and repeat to reach a combined total of 162,000 points. Keep in mind that the card has a $95 annual fee, so factor that into your calculations.
You may also want to consider getting the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card*, which offers a sign-up bonus of 80,000 points when you spend $4,000 in the first three months after opening the card.
You can transfer as many Chase Ultimate Rewards points as needed to your Marriott account, Barrett says. The points transfer at a ratio of 1:1, so you don’t need to worry about losing value.
If you transfer 60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points and add them to your Marriott haul of 212,000 points, you should then have enough to book five free nights at the Dolphin or the Swan. (Marriott designates each as a category 6 hotel, which typically requires 50,000 points per night. And if you redeem for four nights, you get a fifth night free.)
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 hotel near Disney World through the Chase rewards portal. Mouse Hacking, a site devoted to Disney travel, 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 planned a cheap trip to Disney for his family.
That hotel is not affiliated with Disney and is outside the park, and you can book for 20,000 points per night off-peak.
“It’s really close to Walt Disney World, and they offer a free shuttle,” Wang says.
See related: 6 ways to get a free hotel stay
How to 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 has a small business or even a side hustle, consider getting the Ink Business Preferred Credit Card from Chase, which is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 100,000 points when you spend $15,000 in the first three months after opening the card.
The Ink business card has an annual fee of $95, but the bonus is worth $1,250 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 Card. With the sign-up bonus of 80,000 points for spending $4,000 in the first three months, a couple can rack up at least 128,000 points from the bonus plus the points earned for the minimum spend, if each person signs up.
That’s worth more than $1,500 in free travel when redeemed through the Ultimate Rewards portal, or you can transfer to airline partners. If you plan to open Chase cards as part of your Disney strategy, it’s important to keep Chase’s 5/24 rule in mind and open Chase cards before applying for other credit cards.
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 Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card, with an annual fee of $99, and the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card, with an annual fee of $69.
Both cards offer sign-up bonuses of 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on the card in the first three months.
While one person is not allowed to own both Southwest consumer cards at the same time, each spouse can open one. That means you can provide free flights for you and your spouse’s two guests or children, as long as you each book your own tickets with your Southwest cards. Even if you don’t snag a fare sale or Wanna Get Away deal, those bonus points and Companion Passes should get your family to Disney.
The 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.
See related: A complete guide to airline companion passes
How to enter the park for free
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 at over $2,000 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.
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 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 Rewards Credit 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 100,000 bonus miles when you spend $20,000 on purchases in the first 12 months from account opening, or still earn 50,000 miles when you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months (with an 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.
*All information about the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card has been collected independently by CreditCards.com and has not been reviewed by the issuer. These cards are no longer available through CreditCards.com.