Heading to a theme park is a popular choice for summer trips but it can come at a steep cost. Leverage rewards cards, loyalty programs and these expert tips to score major savings on your visit.
Heading to a theme park is a popular choice for summer trips, but it can come at a steep cost. Finding ways to manage the different expenses involved in a theme park vacation can make travel planning less stressful.
Your credit card could be the answer to summer savings. Keep these rewards card tips handy as you plan your next theme park visit.
See related: Best travel credit cards
6 ways to save at theme parks this summer
Get the best ROI on rewards card travel bookings
Kari Lorz, travel expert and founder of personal finance site Money for the Mamas, recommends using an airline rewards card to book flights and skipping the theme park’s airfare package if one is offered.
“Disney can book a flight with your hotel stay package, for example, but there aren’t any big deals to be had,” says Lorz.
If you already have a co-branded airline rewards card, you may have a bank of miles you can apply to your booking.
For example, with the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, associated with Chase Ultimate Rewards, you can transfer points on a 1:1 basis to a number of partner domestic airlines. This gives you some wiggle room in comparing fares to find the lowest rates possible and reduce your out of pocket cost with points.
Also, check your card for additional family travel-friendly perks. Several Southwest Rapid Rewards credit cards, for instance, offer a money-saving benefit in the Companion Pass.
See related: How to get the Southwest Companion Pass
Compare options for saving on local travel
For getting around locally, former travel agent and founder of BubbleBum Grainne Kelly says to first take advantage of any freebies offered by your hotel if you’re staying at or near the park.
“Most theme park hotels, or those close by, offer free transport to and from the park,” says Kelly. “Some even offer free transportation to other venues as well. When booking a hotel, be sure to consider that in the overall decision.”
If that perk isn’t included in your stay or with your theme park passes, your rewards card may pick up the slack.
A card like the Uber Visa, for instance, allows you to earn rewards on travel and dining, which you can redeem for Uber Cash. That could save you money on local rides if you opt not to rent a car on your trip.
If you do rent a car, consider a travel rewards card that includes car rental perks. The United Explorer Card, for instance, allows you to use your miles for rental car upgrades.
See related: Best cards for renting a car
Do the math on dining plan value
Buying a meal plan when you purchase your passes may be an option but consider what you’re getting for the cost.
“Many times, a meal plan makes sense if your family doesn’t have dietary restrictions and aren’t picky eaters,” says Kelly. “If you have either of those things, it’s probably not a great idea.”
DeeDee Weber, founder of finance and travel blog Chasing a Better Life, is a regular visitor to Disney World, Sea World and Universal Studios and says purchasing the in-park meal plan makes trips easier.
“We find this allows us to spend more time enjoying the park and less time worrying about finding dinner,” says Weber.
Dining plans’ value depends largely on the park and how many days you plan to visit.
- Disney’s standard dining plan, for example, includes one quick-service meal, one table service meal and two single-serving snacks per guest, per day.
- LEGOLAND offers an all-day dining package but only for guests staying at a LEGOLAND hotel.
- At Busch Gardens, the dining plan covers meals, snacks and beverages and can be used once per hour all day long, regardless of where you stay.
When choosing whether to pay for a dining plan, be realistic about how many meals you think your family will eat in the park and check for any restrictions on how frequently you can use it.
See related: Best cards for restaurants
Ask about merchant codes if you’re skipping the meal plan
Some travel cards only categorize theme park meals and snacks as dining purchases if the merchant codes them that way. If you’re forgoing the meal plan but still plan on buying food inside the park, make sure you’re getting the most rewards value from your card.
The Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card is an attractive option for diners, with a 4 percent cash back rewards rate on dining. That includes “purchases at restaurants, cafes, bars, lounges, fast-food chains and bakeries.”
But theme park restaurants and snack bars aren’t specifically mentioned in that list. You’ll need to check with merchants before you pay. Otherwise, you may earn the standard 1 percent cash back rewards rate on those purchases.
The good news is that the Savor Card offers 4 percent cash back on entertainment, which extends to theme park ticket purchases.
Andrew D’Amours, founder of travel site Flytrippers.com, says if you’re skipping the meal plan to check your reward card for insider freebies on dining.
“For those who have The Platinum Card® from American Express, for example, there’s actually a lounge inside Universal Studios Orlando where you can get free snacks and drinks as a cardholder,” he says.
That may not be a huge game-changer for your theme park budget, but D’Amours says it could save you a few bucks each day at the park.
Likewise, you may be able to get free meals or snacks at the hotel. Depending on where you’re staying and whether you belong to that hotel’s loyalty program, the options might include free breakfast, free dinner or complimentary snacks in the hotel lounge.
Check the park’s hotel partners and stack rewards if possible
When deciding where to book your stay, Lorz says to first look at any deals on tap through the park’s partner hotels or on-site properties.
- You may be able to double dip rewards if you belong to a loyalty program associated with a partner hotel or have a co-branded or travel rewards card – plus take advantage of savings by getting a packaged hotel stay through the park.
- Compare room rates to ensure you’re truly getting a deal. Read the fine print on your loyalty program. If you’re booking your room as part of a travel package with tickets or dining included, for instance, check that you’ll earn loyalty rewards on the purchase.
- If you’re redeeming rewards earned with your hotel or travel rewards card, get the scoop on booking if you’re planning to apply free nights. You may need to book directly through the loyalty program’s website to use your nights, which could take packaged deals off the table.
Kelly says the Capital One Venture and VentureOne cards are both good alternatives to co-branded cards if you’re not loyal to any one hotel. Through January 31, 2020, members can earn 10 miles per dollar on hotel rooms booked and paid through hotels.com/venture.
Be selective about souvenir purchases
You may be tempted to load up on shirts, hats or other mementos from your trip at the park, but that can be a huge budget trap.
Kelly recommends shopping online for souvenirs if you’re just interested in having something with the park’s name on it. Shopping with your rewards card through a cash back portal such as TopCashback.com, Ebates or Swagbucks is another way to stack rewards.
If you’re set on getting a few items for the family while you’re at the park, review merchant codes so you know what you stand to earn in rewards on those purchases. Also, consider whether the park partners with any credit card issuers to offer discounts.
For example, in addition to the lounge access D’Amours mentioned, Amex Platinum also offers 10 percent off merchandise purchases of $75 or more at Universal’s Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida.
Lorz’s family uses the Disney Rewards Visa card from Chase to save 10 percent on shopping at Disneyland and Walt Disney World Resorts – on purchases of $50 or more. The card also offers 10 percent off on dining at Disney parks.
She acknowledges that other rewards cards can offer more than the 1 percent cash back in shopping purchases, but says the discount is a great money-saver.
“Besides, half the fun of souvenirs is remembering when and where you bought it while you were on the best vacation ever,” she says.
Weber has a final tip for theme park spending: plan ahead.
“All of my regular expenses go on my card every month so I’m earning rewards throughout the year,” she says. When it’s time to book, she has points at the ready to redeem for theme park vacation savings.