Disney by the numbers, Part II

In my last post I explained how we were able to plan a week-long trip to Disney World using points and miles to pay for much of the trip. With points and miles we were able to get a suite at Homewood Suites for 7 nights for free, 4 plane tickets, a rental car for a week, and four 2-day, park to park tickets for Universal Studios. The only things we paid for were the 6 day WDW park-hopper tickets ($1700) and our food. In the last post I contrasted that with how much we paid two years ago when we did didn’t use points and miles and stayed on Disney property (Wilderness Lodge), with the meal plan.

In this post I am going to discusss this trip versus the last trip and compare and contrast our accommodations and food. Finally in the end I will outline for you how you could potentially take a trip with your family to WDW FOR FREE (even the park tickets).

So, here are the numbers:

Lodging: 7 nights at Homewood Suites: FREE with Hilton HHonors points.

Transportation: 4 plane tickets: FREE with Delta skymiles

Rental Car: Free with Chase Ultimate Rewards

Parking: $80 (3 days at WDW and one day at Universal for $20 each)

Lyft: $10

Park tickets: 5 day park-hopper at WDW: $1700

2 day park to park Universal: FREE with bankamericard travel rewards.

Food and drink for 8 days: $995

Grand total: $2696
(Total for 2015 staying on property at Wilderness Lodge with meal plan: $7000)

So in all, our 7 day trip to WDW and Universal Orlando was 60% less than when we stayed on property 2 years ago. Not bad! On to the comparisons:

The lodging
While nice, it certainly wasn’t Disney. It was a typical mid-level hotel. The pool and hot tub were nice and we used them a few times but the weather wasn’t very warm. The biggest benefit was the free hot breakfast every morning. Was it gourmet, no. But was it on par with the breakfast you would pay for (either in cash or on the meal plan) at a WDW resort? In my experience, yes.

They had eggs plus a meat plus potatoes or grits or something every day, the typical cereals, muffins, fruit etc, and make-your-own Mickey waffles which the kids loved. Then, on Monday – Thursday they had a managers reception with free food, wine, and beer, which we used 3 nights. Again, it wasn’t anywhere near gourmet food but we filled up enough that we never bought dinner at the parks those nights which saved us at least $150 as you can’t eat as a family of 4 in the parks for less than $50.

The room was definitely way bigger and better than the one we had last time on property at Wilderness Lodge. We had a suite with a queen sleeper sofa for the kids, a separate bedroom with a king bed, and a full kitchen with a full size fridge, stove, microwave and dishwasher. I’m not one to cook dinner on vacation, but if you wanted to save even more money you could definitely cook full meals in this room.

The verdict
Hotel (other than room): B+
Room: A

The food

Ok so here’s the caveat. My husband and I don’t scrimp when it comes to food, especially on vacation. So the $1000 we spent on food and drinks is WAY more than we needed to spend. I would imagine you could do a week at Disney for half that, especially if you cooked dinner at home.

We did eat breakfast for free every day at the hotel and we made use of their “manager’s reception” three times for dinner. What really broke the bank was when we ate meals in the parks, especially WDW (Universal’s food surprisingly seemed to cost a little less). Our most expensive meal was at the French bistro in World Showcase, where we plunked down $170 for a meal that was good, but anywhere outside the park would have been no more than $100. We also spent about $50-$100 for lunch in the park a few times (about 5x). This could have easily been avoided by packing lunch and bringing it to the parks, which you are allowed to do. Otherwise we did eat at outside restaurants like Macaroni Grill and Chevy’s a few times, and their prices were the same as anywhere else, so pretty reasonable.

Overall, I think we did ok with food and we had some decent meals, but nothing to write home about. There was a family owned Cuban restaurant near our hotel that I really wanted to try but we never made it over there. So my only regret is we didn’t take the time to try to find the few local gems among all the chains in the area.

Transportation
We did rent a car for 7 days and I LOVED the freedom convenience of that. We didn’t drive it every day to the parks, so I think we spent a total of $80 on parking (it’s $20 per day but you can go from park to park on the same receipt. We used the hotel shuttle twice, which was ok but only when their timeline matched ours. Then we used Uber and Lyft about 4 times (the place is crawling with drivers), and since we had some discount codes we only paid about $10 for the four rides.

You could definitely use Uber and Lyft the whole time and it might be about the same as a rental car, depending on how long you were there for. But given that our car was free I think we made out.

So, how could you go to Disney FOR FREE??

It definitely can be done, especially if you want to take a shorter trip and if you planned far in advance (1-2 years). There actually already are some blogs on travel hacking to Disney, check out Points to Neverland. They give a lot of great tips for how to do Disney on points and miles.

Here is what I would recommend:

Flights:
Do some research and figure out what airlines usually have the most convenient and cheapest flights from where you live. Go on their website to determine what they usually charge for award miles per flight (which will vary depending on peak vs. off-peak). Then take out a card (your spouse might need to take one out too if you are a family of 4 or 5) for that airline and start racking up bonus points until you get enough to book your flights.

Lodging:
Do some research on all the hotels in the area that take part in points programs. The big ones or Hilton HHonors, SPG, Marriott, and IHG. If you want to stay on property you can use SPG points to book the Swan or Dolphin (but read reviews first, they’re not great), or Hilton Bonnet Creek. Off property there are dozens of options. Look up how many points you will need for the number of nights you want to stay. Then take out a card for that hotel group and start racking up points. Again, you may need your spouse to take out a card to get enough points, or you can also take out a card for a general points program such as Chase Ultimate rewards or American Express Membership Rewards to then transfer the UR or MR to your hotel program (for example Membership Rewards will transfer to Hilton hhonors or SPG and Ultimate Rewards will transfer to Hyatt, Marriott, and IHG) to add more points to get to your goal.

Park Tickets: 
These are expensive so you may have to start a year in advance. If you take out a BankAmericard Travel Rewards card and put the tickets on that and then use the bonus points plus use that card for all of your expenses for a year, you could make it work. You may need your spouse to take out the card too and then you split the tickets (e.g. you each buy 2 for a family of 4). So for example, for 4 day tickets to WDW that would be a total of $1260 (not park hopper) or $630 each. You would need 63,000 travel rewards points to cover that. You would get 20,000 bonus points each for signing up and spending 1000 the first month (so really its 21,500 right there because for every dollar you spend you get 1.5 points). So that leaves you with 41,500 points that you need to acquire. You would each need to spend $27, 666 on the card to get enough points to do that. Which seems like a lot, but a) you have a year to do it and b) if you put every single thing you pay for (usually only mortgage, student loans, and power bills are not payable with a card, but everything else is) for a year, you could probably reach it or get pretty darn close. Even if you only got to cover half of it, you would still be going to Disney for $600 or so.

If you planned far enough in advance, you could actually have 2 years to save up enough points for this. You would take out the card one year before you wanted to buy the tickets and rack up all your points, so let’s say you were able to collect 45k points in that first year with the 20k point bonus. At the start of year 2, you would buy the Disney tickets on the card, then you could pay down the cost of them by putting your 45k points immediately. You would then have a year to rack up the 18,000 extra points to pay for the rest (that translates to spending $12,000 and you can keep paying it down each month with whatever points you earn that month). Once you know how to do the math and if you can predict about how much you would spend using the card for your expenses, you could predict how many days you could potentially cover with the points.

Transportation:
There are many cards that give you points that you can redeem for rental cars and Uber and Lyft rides. So if you think you might use one or a combo of these I recommend looking into getting a card for Chase Ultimate Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards, the Capital One Venture Card, the Barclay Arrival Plus card, or using the Bank Americard travel rewards. The bonuses alone for each of these cards would cover your transportation costs.

Food:
I’ve already discussed how to save money on food. You can also use Disney gift cards throughout the park so I would recommend buying Disney gift cards ahead of time and using them for EVERYTHING you buy in the park. If you wanted to try to use points for those cards, you would look for a card that gives you points to use at a retailer that sells Disney gift cards. For example, if you took out an AMEX card you could use your membership rewards at Best Buy.com and buy Disney gift cards there. Theoretically, with enough points and planning you could get enough cards to eat for free in the parks! You could also purchase them from a store that will give you bonus points and/or a discount however. For example I bought all of ours at Staples so I got 5X their purchase price in points from my Chase Ink Plus card. BJ’s offers them at a discount and sometimes the Chase Freedom has BJ’s and other warehouse clubs as one of their 5x points categories, so that would be a great option to get a discount on them and rack up the points.