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  • Writer's pictureNick Burgess

Travel-Hacking Disney Parks With Credit Cards, Points and Miles

The following article is for entertainment and educational purposes only, and should not be considered financial advice. Please seek a licensed professional for any individual advice. This website has an affiliate marketing deal with Undercover Tourist, which is mentioned below. Some links to credit cards below may be referral codes, in which the site is compensated by the credit card issuer upon successful sign-up at no additional cost to you.

 

Travel-Hacking Disney World with Credit Cards, Points and Miles

Every January 1, my house looks something like this: my wife and I struggle to wake up from our champagne-induced hangovers as the dog threatens to shit on my carpet. I roll out of bed, take the dog for a walk and wish for death until my coffee kicks in, while my wife wakes up to the various nonsense noises coming from her TikTok account. Inevitably, she falls into a Mickey Mouse-shaped TikTok hole, which then prompts her to move to the television where she loads up YouTube and tunes into hours of watching Mammoth Club or AllEars.Net deep dives into Disney World. This turns into her missing Disney, wanting to go to Disney, and then begins the slow drumbeat of my wallet offering itself on the altar of Iger to shell out $3,000 for a trip to Satan's own personal hellhole - Orlando, FL.

fireworks at Disney World

I'd imagine that many households around the world have a similar tradition of one person in the home becoming so loud in their need to visit Disney World that it becomes too much and they ultimately relent, so I thought "what's the absolute best way to do Disney World from a points and miles perspective?" I'll admit it: I get sticker shock when I see the prices to visit. Even at Disney's "Value Resorts," which are the lowest tier hotels on the Disney property, you're still shelling out many hundreds of dollars per night. This has led me to do Charlie Day-levels of research into the best way to book a room at Disney World, which I hope to share with you today.

So this begs the question: Can you travel-hack Disney with credit cards, points and miles? Let's chat about a few of the ways you can do it, including with cards from American Express to Citi to Capital One, as well as how to make the hotel costs a little more palatable.


If you're really particular about one thing or another, there are plenty of ways to break up these travel hacks. Here are the quick links if you want to jump around (but you might learn something in each section!):

Booking Flights to Disney

Let's start with the easiest one: booking flights. Thanks to Disney World (and Universal Studios if you ask anyone from NBC Universal or someone with a Harry Potter fetish), Orlando has a big fucking airport. That means that it's really easy to get flights into, and out of, Orlando, regardless of your preferred carrier.

To make the flights as easy as possible, you'll want to rely on points, miles and certificates where possible. I live in Atlanta, which means the relatively short hop to Orlando generally runs about $350, or 18,000 Delta SkyMiles (my carrier of choice) per ticket. When you plug that into The Points Guy's Awards Calculator, this turns out to be a pretty decent deal.

The Points Guy's Award Calculator
The Points Guy's Award Calculator

However, if you're a bigger family, this can add up quickly. The best way to reduce costs flying on your carrier of choice is likely any companion certificates that come with airline co-branded credit cards. For me, it's the American Express Delta Platinum Card, which comes with one Main Cabin companion ticket per year. This can save you the aforementioned $350 (or likely more) on a single ticket, a game changer when you're trying to stretch those dollars.


Another phenomenal free ticket perk comes with the Southwest Airlines Credit Card. In fact, fellow finance blogger Money With Katie recently chatted about how her and her husband have basically flown Southwest for free for the last two years thanks to both of them owning the credit card.

If you're more of the non-co-branded (is that how you say it?) credit card type guy, don't forget to transfer those points! Again, since I'm an American Express homer, my points transfer 1:1 to Delta, giving me a quick top-up on my SkyMiles when needed.



Outside of the Amex ecosystem, some high-end credit cards have annual travel statement credits that can certainly apply towards the cost of your flight! The Chase Sapphire Reserve card has an annual $300 travel credit that applies to travel of any type, meaning you could easily combine this travel credit with a free certificate or some miles to make your flight cost literally $0. It's a similar story with the Capital One Venture X card, but be warned that this card's $300 annual travel credit can only be applied to travel booked within the Capital One Travel portal, but more on that later.


Disney Transportation From The Airport

The great secret of traveling to Disney World is that it's actually quite far from Orlando itself. Unfortunately, the solution to this is kind of a bitch.



Thanks to the previous CEO, Bob Chapek, seeing the parks as his own personal piggy bank, the extremely beloved and popular free method of transportation, The Magic Express, is gone. And even though everyone's favorite CEO uncle, Bob Iger, is back in the corner office, you can't put that Robin Williams-shaped genie back in the lamp. Paid options are here to stay from the airport, so here are some ways to get to The House of Mouse ranked from "frugal" to "slangin and bangin:"

  1. Shared Shuttles - When life gives you lemons, fill it with shitty buses. That's exactly what Mears Connect and Sunshine Flyer have done to fill the hole left by The Magic Express, and to varied effect. On the way back from Disney World last year, my wife and I got a Mears Connect shuttle that was Magic Express-esque. It was comfortable enough and played cartoons for the kids for the 45 minutes back. However, on the way from the airport to Disney World, we were clearly forgotten about and then shoved in some guy's van with two other traveling parties, a discarded Jimmy John's bag and a toolbox. Not sure I'd overly recommend it, but they are the cheapest option at $15 per person per leg of the trip ($30 roundtrip).

  2. Rideshare - It's Uber and Lyft. What else do you want? You get some guy who grew up in Turkey driving you in a bombed out Lexus and you trust that he knows the highway better than you. It's the same game plan as when you stumble out of a bar at 3am, although this one is going to cost you a lot more. According to Uber's own site, the ride from MCO to Disney World will cost you anywhere between $46-$84, depending on the hotel you're staying in, surge pricing, etc.

  3. The Minnie Van - That's right! The world's most needless brand integration is back! After a short hiatus during the pandemic, these Chrysler Pacifica's with chickenpox are back roaming the streets of Orlando. In all seriousness, it's probably your best option if you're traveling with kids. The drivers are tailor-made to navigating the Disney on-property hotels, and they come equipped with car seats for the little ones, as well as accessibility options for anyone in a wheelchair. It's gonna cost you, however. These bad boys are powered by Lyft, but are in partnership with Disney so they don't surge price like normal rideshares. Instead, they're just expensive as hell to begin with. According to WDW Info, Minnie Vans are $155 per vehicle, per way from MCO to Disney World and back.

  4. Rental Car - We all know the drill on this one. They're expensive, time consuming and annoying to keep up with, but at least they're reliable and private! However, this is where your credit cards can come into play. If you're an American Express Platinum Card holder, you get Hertz President's Circle status and pricing, which can reduce the cost of your ride, as well as score you an upgrade. If you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you get primary rental car insurance, which can save you a ton on your daily rate. Just don't forget the Disney hotel parking fees, which are about $25 per day.

Travel-Hacking Disney Hotels

If you're anything like me, this is the line item you dread the most when coming to the parks. You know you're going to get taken for a ride on some dinners, but the food is usually pretty great. The parks are fun, and the beer is cold. But the hotels? While most of them are great in terms of general ambiance and service, they can still be pretty overpriced.

Disney World's Grand Floridian Resort
Disney World's Grand Floridian Resort

Well, my friend, you're about to enter a whole new world of credit card points and miles hacking to reduce the amount of blood you'll have to sell to afford one of these things. To do this, we'll split this section up to discuss credit card programs, travel portals and discount services. And thank Christ I don't have to talk about that stupid Star Wars hotel that lasts for two days and costs as much as a diamond-encrusted enema.


Please note that this section is for those traveling in without a secret Disney-themed mansion. Didn't know that was a thing? Here's the full write up on "Golden Oak," the Florida playground for Disney billionaires.


Credit Card Hotel Hacks

If you're a frequent traveler, chances are that you have some kind of elite status with a hotel chain or two. Hell, even if you just have a particular credit card in your wallet, you may qualify for a hotel rewards program. Lucky for you, metro Orlando has just about every kind of hotel you can imagine.

If you're a Hilton person, you basically have endless options around Disney Springs, Disney's outdoor shopping mall and food area. Do you get "official" Disney stuff like extra time in the parks and access to buses? No, but you're saving literally hundreds (and possibly thousands) of dollars by staying off property. But what if you want the Disney magic with the flavor of business travel? Buckle up.


Staying at The Swan, The Dolphin and The Swan Reserve

May I introduce you to The Swan and Dolphin? These strikingly out-of-place hotels are technically "Disney Hotels" in the way that the guy dating your mom is technically "your dad." They look like they should be attached to an airport, but they are actually official "Disney" hotels that come loaded with the official Disney perks of extra park time, early sign-up for rides, transportation options, etc. The key difference, however, is that they're also official Marriott properties. This even includes the swanky new "Swan Reserve" that looks like if the original Swan hotel took a bath.

The Swan and Dolphin Hotels at Disney World
The Swan and Dolphin Hotels at Disney World

This means that Marriott loyalists are handsomely rewarded for their time and money. You can burn a few points to stay, the cash rates are markedly cheaper than other Disney properties and Marriott elite members qualify for room upgrades at these hotels. Critically for your wallet, that includes Club-Level rooms, which include an all-inclusive style club room full of food and drinks you can load up on for breakfast, a snack or a lite dinner. For a family of 4 or more, this can add up to thousands of saved dollars over the course of a longer trip in breakfast costs alone!


To do this right, you'll want to take advantage of any free night vouchers you have lying around. This can be from your other travel pursuits, or from one of the countless Marriott credit card co-brands they have with American Express. At time of writing (mid-June 2023), the Marriott Bonvoy Bevy and Bonvoy Brilliant cards are offering absurd sign-up bonuses of 175,000 and 200,000 points, respectively, after meeting the required minimum spend. Each card also comes with one free night per year for redemption of a room 50,000 points or less. Effectively, these cards at current sign-up bonus levels can net you a free Disney hotel for 5-6 days.

You can also transfer American Express Membership Rewards Points to Marriott at a 3:2 ratio, but the math usually doesn't shake out for these types of transfers.


Travel Portal Hotel Hacks

Let's say that you're a learned traveler. You've decided you don't want to book through the Disney website, and you'd rather check in with your credit card issuer for Disney deals. Well, I applaud the effort, but you're likely shit out of luck. However, there are a few sneaky workarounds that I'll outline here.


The Capital One Travel Portal

A few years ago, in an effort to be more hip and "with it" for fellow kids, Capital One launched themselves into the premium credit card game with the ferocity of Elon Musk launching himself at female executives and introduced the Capital One Venture X card. The card comes with a large number of perks and a hefty points sign-up bonus, but Capital One also overhauled their internal booking portal to match their swanky new card. This included buying up the rights to booking Disney hotels from the Chase portal, a major coup for a credit card company that no one likes.

Capital One Venture X card on a green background
Capital One Venture X

Well, here's your chance if you've been playing the Capital One game. Mid-tier hotels (called "Moderate Resorts") will run you around 23,000 Capital One points per night, but prices vary heavily depending on resort and time of year. Effectively, you're getting about 1 cent per point on Capital One. Is it a great redemption? No. Is it a use of your points? Yeah sure. You can also apply the aforementioned $300 Venture X travel credit to bookings like this since you're booking within the Capital One travel portal, which could offset a night at a Moderate hotel!

It's worth noting that a similar trick can be pulled off with the Citi cards and travel portal, but those points are a little more archaic and tougher to use.


Delta Vacations

This is the one I personally use because, again, Delta loyalist over here. Delta Vacations is the inbred little brother of Delta Airlines, but it occasionally can throw enough deals your way to be interesting.

the delta vacations website

If you're a Delta Medallion member (Delta's loyalty program), you frequently get solicited with offers that range from SkyMiles multipliers to cash discounts if you book a trip via Delta Vacations that include a flight and hotel package. And do you want to guess what hotels are in the Delta Vacations booking system? That's right! But it doesn't stop there.


You can also book Disney tickets through the portal! You have to call them to pull this part off, but you can package airfare, hotel and tickets into one Delta purchase. And the best part of all of this is that you can apply Delta SkyMiles to the trip, lowering your overall cash cost. It's not a super great value on the redemption, but it's a great discount if you're tight on cash.


Discount Hotel Providers

This section probably wouldn't have existed a few years ago. However, thanks to the rise of the bizarre little Disney micro-economy, there are a few avenues that the average consumer can go down in order to stretch their dollars at Disney.


Undercover Tourist

Full disclosure: this site has an affiliate partnership with Undercover Tourist, so if you click on one of their links on my site, this site will receive a small commission.

Now that that's out of the way, I love this site. They are a one-stop-shop for hotels and tickets to Disney, Universal, Six Flags, you name it. My wife and I booked Disneyland hotels and tickets through this portal and saved nearly $300 on our total package, which will no doubt be rolled right into some kind of merch in the parks.


Renting DVC Points

This one is a real trick of the trade. Here's what it is: Disney has a timeshare program for the real diehards (because of course they do), and it's called the Disney Vacation Club (DVC). Each year, members of the timeshare program purchase points that can then be cashed in for specific hotels or resorts around the world (think one of the upscale hotels in Orlando, or even the resort in Hawaii).


But what if you can't use those points? Rather than have them go to waste, there is now an economy built around the reselling of these points, called "renting." DVC members will sell their points to an exchange like David's Vacation Club Rentals, who will then sell those points to a tourist coming to town.

For the DVC member, it's a way to recoup some of the possible lost cost of their membership. For the tourist, these points can then be rolled into one of the elite hotels in Disney, but for half of the actual cash cost of just booking outright. You're effectively getting the best of Disney hotels while paying for the middle-tier. It's a lesser known, but effective, strategy that I have yet to try out.


Disney Park Tickets

Alright, there's no getting around it: Disney tickets are expensive and aren't getting cheaper. With the recent introduction of what effectively amounts to surge pricing, Disney tickets can be the brutal gut-punch on the final booking screen that you weren't quite prepared for. Here's the biggest way to offset a bit of that cost:


Undercover Tourist (Again)

Relationship disclosure see above blah blah blah. Undercover Tourist also sells park tickets! And they're real! And they're discounted! That means that you get the same ticket for maybe $10-$15 off, but hey; every little bit counts!

What makes these interesting for a points and miles nerd (see also: virgin) like myself is that these tickets code differently than tickets purchased through Disney. Tickets purchased through Disney usually code as "Entertainment," which generally is not a credit card category that scores a multiplier. However, Undercover Tourist tickets generally code as "Travel," which usually scores big points multipliers across the major credit card carriers. This can be a big difference for your points and miles, and could offset the cost of a future trip to this mouse-themed torture chamber.


Buying Things At Disney

Are you ready to get incredibly niche? Like, you're going to ask yourself why you're still here? Alright, you've been warned. Let's get into the nitty gritty of Disney purchases.


Food

Disney has no shortage of food options. From egg roll carts that are surprisingly stuffed with ground beef to themed sit-down restaurants to admittedly really fun Starbucks themes to an entire fucking park based around ethnic food options, Disney has a nonsense amount of food. However, they do not all code in the same way.

The sit-down restaurants and bars pretty reliably code as "Restaurants." For the standard person, that makes sense. For the credit card aficionado, that makes you salivate. Why? Because you likely have a card that gets you 4x points on food and groceries, like the American Express Gold. Or you're a big-brain baller who is taking advantage of the American Express Platinum Resy offer and you've scored 125,000 points on sign-up with a 10x multiplier on food for the first 6 months. This is why this is so critical: the points can add up quickly.



So what food doesn't qualify as "food?" That would be the food carts dotted around the parks that sell you the above mentioned ground beef egg rolls or that critical bottle of Dasani that's the only thing keeping your kidneys from shutting down. These actually usually code as "Entertainment," which is generally the opposite of what's happening.


Merchandise

It's no secret that you're likely going to walk away from the parks with hundreds of dollars of t-shirts or lightsabers or maybe your own droid that you can attach to a bar cart because you've evolved from "drunk" to "lazy drunk." But what's the best way to pay for it all?

Well....here we go. Gift cards. I know, I know, but hear me out. Anything in Disney can be paid for with a Disney gift card. That includes the merchandise. But why might you opt for purchasing gift cards over just...using a credit card? Because of the points! If you still have to ask that question 14 minutes into this article, I'm going to have to ask you to click the "X" in the top right.


Chances are, you can purchase a Disney gift card at your local grocery store. Earlier, I mentioned that the American Express Gold Card gets 4x points at grocery stores. Put two and two together yet? That's right! That $500 worth of lightsabers could be worth 2,000 American Express points to you, again helping to potentially subsidize future travel.


Are Disney's Own Credit Cards Worth It?

At this juncture, it's worth taking a breath (and potentially a bathroom break since you've been here for awhile) and taking stock of what we haven't covered yet: Disney's own co-branded Visa credit cards. There's a reason I haven't mentioned them yet: they're just OK.

Disney Visa credit card from Chase
Disney's Custom Credit Card Branding

As you might imagine, the Disney credit cards are entirely focused on spending money on Disney and Disney-adjacent goods and services. As such, these cards are great for the Disney spend, and not so great on anything else.


Let's start with the positives. At time of writing, the Disney Visa and Disney Visa Premier cards are offering statement credits of $150 and $300, respectively, as a sign-up bonus if you spend $500 or $1,000 in the first three months, again respectively. Pretty good!


You also get strong discounts on Disney stuff. The base Visa gets 1% flat cash back on all purchases, but that cash comes back to you in the form of Disney Rewards Dollars that can only be used at Disney. The Visa Premier gets you 5% back on purchases made with Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+, as well as 2% on gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores and Disney locations, as well as 1% on all other purchases. Again, this cash back is Disney cash, which is the PG equivalent of Bunny Money.


Finally, you also get great discounts on merchandise in the parks ($50 or more in spend) and you get 10% off your bill at select restaurants in the parks, as well as any bolt-on activities during your Disney trip.


Now it's time for the not so positive: everything else is terrible. The earnings rates are BAD, even with the merchandise discounts. Also, the return you get in Disney Dollars or Scrooge McBucks or whatever is only going to help you on your return to the parks. Other cards with transferrable points can lead you to other trips and experiences.


For me, these cards are a clear stayaway.


My Favorite Disney Credit Cards Strategy

Here we are. My favorite strategy for booking Disney trips in 2023:

  • Hotels - If we're staying at a mid-tier or bottom-tier Disney resort, I'm using Undercover Tourist. Again, they're an affiliate with us, but they still offer the best rates on these hotels. I also use my Delta American Express Platinum card to make this purchase, which gives me a 3x multiplier in Delta SkyMiles. If we're staying at a high-end hotel, I'm testing out David's Vacation Rentals and the DVC program. Pricing it out, we can stay at a $1,000 per night hotel for about half that cost. The only downside is they don't accept Amex which is tantamount to terrorism.

  • Flight and Tickets - I'm going Delta Vacations on this one. Again allowing me to claim a multiplier on my purchase, using my Delta card on this one actually nets me 5x thanks to the math on the Vacations product. It also scores me some huge jumps in the math for my Medallion status requalification, which is the gift that keeps on giving with complementary upgrades on flights. I flew 36 times last year and got upgraded on 20 of them, netting me over $3,000 in free upgrades. This one is worth it for me.

  • Merchandise - I'm a psychopath, so I'm going with the gift cards. I'm milking that grocery store multiplier on my American Express Gold Card for all it's worth, so we may as well load up on the 4x points multiple, essentially providing you an 8% return on merchandise purchases.

  • Airport Transportation - Thanks to my Amex card ecosystem, I could probably go Uber here with all the Ubercash I get each month. However, I'm going with Mears. I know I got burned by them last time, but the return experience was good enough for me to use them again. If you want to get really weird with it, it's like the foreplay before the...where was I going with this.

Conclusion

CLEARLY booking a Disney vacation is a long, confusing, arduous, expensive process. However, with a little research and a willingness to check your FICO score, there are better ways to book than bending over the nearest barrell and waiting for Goofy to do his thing.



With a proper understanding of points, miles, credit card benefits and multipliers, you'll be ready to head to Orlando with your head held high and your Mickey Ears held higher. Good luck.


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