Travel Hacking Sent My Family to Disney World for Free. Here’s How

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Travel hacking -- most often associated with credit card reward redemption -- is the process by which consumers can leverage card issuer promotions into all expenses paid vacations.

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I’ve been to Disney World more times than I can count.

I grew up going there once every few years and have continued visiting as an adult. Once my wife and I had our son, we knew we wanted him to experience it too.

Everyone knows going to Disney World can be expensive. As someone who’s visited many times, I’ve figured out where my family can save money and where it makes sense to spend more to get the most value out of our trip.

To make things easier financially, I used my travel hacking skills to save our family even more. With some diligent planning, we took our family to Disney World for four days for free.

A Look at Where We Cut Costs, First

Here’s how we kept our costs down and the key to getting a cheap Disney World vacation. Use these tips and strategies to make the trip a reality for your family.

Travel

The cost to travel to Disney World can vary dramatically depending on where you live. Admittedly, my family only lives a six-hour drive away so we didn’t have to pay for airfare. If you do have to fly to Orlando, there are ways to substantially reduce the cost of your flight

According to travel site SkyScanner, the best month to fly into Orlando is January, when flights are about 11% cheaper.[1] September and February are also good options. Travelers should book their flights between three to six months in advance to snag the best deals.

Flights and tickets are almost always more expensive around holidays, both major ones like Christmas and New Year’s, but also minor ones like Martin Luther King Jr. Day. If you want to visit Disney World, pick a weekend that doesn’t coincide with a holiday. Yes, you may have to take more vacation days or have your child miss school, but the cost savings may be worth it.

Driving can be cheaper but takes up more time in most cases. Sometimes it’s worth paying more money to save time, especially when you have a limited number of vacation days at work.

Total travel cost: $98.77 — $10 in tolls and $88.77 in fuel for our car.

Accommodations

Accommodations are one of the most significant expenses of a Disney World vacation. You can splurge and spend hundreds of dollars per night to stay on the resort property.

Staying on the resort comes with a few perks such as free parking at the theme parks, although you do have to pay to park at the hotels. You can get convenient transportation to the parks if you don’t feel like driving.

To save money, we rented a two-bedroom hotel room off the Disney property. We split the cost of the hotel with my parents who came with us. This cut our total hotel bill, which was $855.02, in half to $427.51.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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You may want to consider booking a vacation rental through sites like Airbnb or VRBO. If you split these larger accommodations with a group, you can get affordable lodging. They may not provide free shuttles to the parks like many hotels do, but having more space and cheaper pricing can make it worth it.

Total accommodations cost: $427.51

Tickets and parking

Disney World tickets aren’t cheap, but there are ways to get lower-priced tickets. The first thing you should do is check all the organizations you’re a part of to see if they offer discounted tickets.

Since my dad was visiting the parks with us, he was able to secure discounted retired military ticket vouchers through his Navy base’s Morale, Welfare, and Recreation department.

The catch was that he had to visit the parks with us to redeem the ticket vouchers for real tickets. We would’ve also qualified for discounted tickets as Florida residents, but the MWR department discount was better.

Disney charges different rates daily based on demand. Your ticket price will be lower and the parks will be less crowded if you plan to go during a lower demand time.

We opted to visit in February to take advantage of smaller crowds and avoid the Florida summer heat. This also happens to be a lower-priced time of year.

We saved even more money by taking our son before he turned 3 years old. Kids age 2 and under are free, while kids ages 3 to 11 only get a minor discount.

He won’t remember the trip whether he is 2 or 3 years old anyway. The trip was more for us and to see his reactions. Tickets for my wife and I ended up costing $473 for two 4-day park hopper passes.

If you do decide to drive and park at the theme parks, you’ll have to pay a daily parking fee. When we went, this was $25 per day. You can carpool with family to save money. We split the parking fees with my parents. In total, we paid $50 for half of the parking costs.

Total park visit cost: $523

Related: 11 Cheap Vacation Ideas for the Budget-Minded Adventurer 

Food

Food is an expense that can grow out of control at any theme park. We did a lot of planning to make sure this didn’t become a huge part of our travel budget.

First, we made sure to book a hotel that had free breakfast daily. This saved us $25 or more per day.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Next, we decided to bring snacks into the park, which Disney allows. We used these to hold us over between meals. Our family did purchase lunch in the park, though. We preferred to eat at the quick-service restaurants, which had plenty of options at a semi-reasonable price.

Thanks to our 2-year-old’s need for a nap, we found ourselves leaving the park before dinner each day. This saved us a ton of money on our dinner bill. We’d usually order pizza, eat at the Wawa right next to our hotel, or eat the free dinners offered at Staybridge Suites on Monday through Wednesday nights.

Total food cost: $253.17 for a family of three for our 5-night, 6-day trip.

Souvenirs

Since we’ve been to Disney World several times, we usually skip out on the souvenirs. We knew this would be an issue with a 2-year-old, so we decided to pre-purchase a light stick from Amazon for $8.59 before we left. This kept him entertained.

We purchased a teacup for a gift for our pet sitter and an art print I wish I had bought years earlier on our prior visit. 

Total souvenir cost: $53.23

Where Travel Hacking Comes In

We spent a decent amount of money on this trip but managed to keep our costs low with some smart planning. But how does a $1,364.27 trip end up being free? The simple answer is credit card rewards.

We signed up for several credit cards — a process know as card churning — with bonuses that covered our trip. These bonuses made it possible to earn enough points quickly.

If we’d only used a 2% cash-back credit card, we would have had to spend $68,214 to earn enough cashback to cover our trip. But credit card sign-up bonuses made it a much faster process.

Credit card sign-up bonuses give you a large number of points, cashback, or airline miles for spending a set amount of money during the first three months of being a cardmember. For instance, one card may offer 50,000 bonus miles, worth $500 in free travel, for spending $3,000 within the first three months of opening your card. We only had to earn three of these bonuses to pay for our trip.

The key to earning sign-up bonuses responsibly is only putting charges on the card that you can pay off in full. My wife and I use a simple churning spreadsheet to track when payments are due so we never miss a payment. We’ve earned thousands of dollars of sign-up bonuses which have paid for several vacations. We never pay any interest, penalties, or late fees, either.

Coupling Cost-Savings and Rewards Points Together Was Key

We managed to take our family of three to Disney World for free because we kept our costs low and used credit card sign-up bonuses to pay for our trip. Once you come up with a budget for your trip, start planning how long it will take to earn the credit card rewards you need to cover your costs.

If you have to fly, consider using airline credit card sign-up bonuses to pay for your flights. If you want to stay off the resort property, hotel credit card sign-up bonuses could pay for the hotel room. Disney tickets and other theme park expenses may not count as travel, so it’s best to pay for those expenses with credit cards that offer sign-up bonuses with cashback.

Space out your applications so you can reach the credit card sign-up bonus spending requirements. This may result in earning sign-up bonuses for over a year to pay for your trip. All of the planning and effort is worth it when you get home from your vacation and don’t have a huge credit card bill.

Zero to Travel has a great beginner guide to travel hacking for anyone interested in getting started.

Author
Lance Cothern, CPA

Lance Cothern is a personal finance and credit expert. Together with his wife, they paid off over $80,000 of student loan debt in just under 3 years. His work has been featured in U.S. News and World Report, Forbes, Investopedia, Credit Karma, and more.

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