This November, my wife and I are going to Disney World for FREE. No, we didn’t win a trip. Instead, through travel rewards, we will be staying on property for 6 days/5 nights at a high-quality resort and it won’t cost us a thing despite having a value over $5,000. Through intentional planning, we are using airline and hotel points combined with cash back to cover all costs of this trip. While Disney World can be quite expensive, I am excited to share with you our strategy for visiting Disney World for free so that you can too.
Using Travel Rewards For Disney World
Before getting into too much detail, I’d like to outline this plan, so you have a broad understanding of the approach.
Essentially, we are paying for this trip using travel rewards earned from credit cards and some checking account sign-up bonuses. You know when you see advertisements that offer “x” amount of points or cash for signing up for an account or a credit card? Well, that is what we have done, but not just once, between my wife and I, we have signed up for 7 individual credit cards and 3 checking accounts in about 18 months to achieve this. That might sound like a lot, but for as long as it takes to plan a trip to Disney World, you can be accumulating these rewards while planning your trip.
Even if you don’t want to go this full extent, which I can completely understand, you can still save significantly by getting 2 or 3 cards or accounts. Covering airfare or hotel alone can make a giant difference in your trip cost. Plus, it isn’t just about credit card rewards, there are other tips and tricks we have applied to bring the total cost down.
So, regardless of whether or not you would ever attempt to go for free, there are things that you can learn that can save you hundreds, if not thousands on your next trip. Find what works for you and go with it.
Our Plan To Visit Disney World For Free In 3 Simple Steps
OK. So how do you plan to go to Disney World for free?
Well, the first thing you need to do is identify the costs. This includes the following items.
- Park Tickets
- Misc. Fees
The following 3 steps are something that we realized while going through the process of collecting all these bonus points.
Step 1 – Use points to pay for airfare and hotel
Step 2 – Use cash back to pay for tickets, food, merchandise and miscellaneous fees
Step 3 – Apply discounts to your purchases to stretch cash further
It is best to separate these out because each has a different approach. Plus, these individually can be applied to any vacation, even if you aren’t doing it all for free.
Before I get into specifics about our actual trip, just know that what we plan is going to be different than your trip and that is OK. Don’t think that you only have to do what we do because we all know that there are lots of factors that make up someone’s trip.
As I said earlier, it will just be my wife and I going. We do have 2 kids who are 2 and 4 but they will not be joining us. Before everyone freaks out, we are planning to take them to Disneyland in a few months and that will be an easier for us to manage. Plus, we are thinking of going back to Disney World in September of 2020 before the 2-year-old turns 3 since he would still be free. They will have plenty of chances to go to Disneyland or World during their lives. This trip is for us.
If our kids were going, could we still do it for free? In short, yes, it would be a different trip though and we would need to save up a bit more money, but I firmly believe it is possible.
Our trip will be 6 days, 5 nights and we are staying at The Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel. We will spend one day in each park, but our park day for the Magic Kingdom will be to attend Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party.
We did not get a chance to explore the various resorts on our previous trip, so we wanted to build in time for that as well. As much as I wanted to add more park time, I think we have found a pretty good balance between the parks and the resorts.
Travel Rewards and Checking Account Bonuses
Going back to our 3 steps we laid out earlier, we plan to use a combination of credit card points and cash back along with some checking account sign-up bonuses to pay for our entire trip.
Here is a list of credit cards and checking accounts we signed up for as well as their sign-up bonuses.
- Southwest personal card (40,000 points)
- Southwest Business card (60,000 points)
- Starwood SPG AMEX (now Marriott Bonvoy) (75,000 points)
- Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Visa (100,000 points)
- Chase Ink Business Preferred ($700)
- Disney Visa ($200)
- Chase Ink Business Unlimited ($500)
- Bank of America Checking Account ($300)
- SoFi Money Checking Account (Both my wife and I signed up for one) ($300 total)
This isn’t our first-time using credit card rewards to pay for travel. We have paid for airfare and hotels with points before and used cash back to cover a portion of a trip, but we have never put it together like this. That past experience gave us the confidence to tackle this head on.
To get each credit card bonus, you typically have to spend ‘x’ amount on the card within ‘x’ amount of time. For instance, spending $3,000 in 90 days is common. Higher rewards might start out at $5,000 in 90 days and smaller rewards are $500 or $1,000 in 90 days. After having done it a few times we knew how much we spent and felt comfortable with this plan.
Focus on sign-up bonus rewards and not cash back. Cask back can be great, and you will use it, but whether you earn 1% or 5% on your purchases, it doesn’t move the needle the way sign-up bonuses do. Those big up-front rewards are what makes the difference.
The Golden Rule(s) of Credit Card Rewards
Before we go any further, I need to state a few things if you are going to try this.
- If you can’t pay off your card in full at the end of every month then this is not for you. If you end up paying interest, then you will ultimately lose. You must pay off all charges by the end of the billing cycle.
- Do not buy anything just because you want to earn points. That will also not benefit you.
- Don’t cancel your card the moment you earn points. Canceling immediately tells credit card companies that you just want the points and that will make it difficult to get new cards in the future. I’m not saying you can’t ever cancel, but when opening the account/card, do so with the intention of keeping for a while.
- Learn about the Chase 5/24 rule. This rule is important because in order to be approved for future Chase cards you can only receive no more than 5 credit cards in 24 months including non-Chase cards. This is important because Chase has some of the best rewards cards so you want to prioritize those first. AMEX or Capital One do not have the same rule.
Each credit card bonus is worked on one by one. We tend to alternate between my wife and I so that we aren’t signing up for them too frequently. If you spend 3 months getting a reward, then signing up for about 4 cards a year is a decent pace. You can speed it up a bit, but it just depends on your spending and what you feel comfortable with.
We did 5 cards the first 9 months of this year, so we were a bit more aggressive while trying to hit this goal.
The checking account bonuses are nice because you can work on earning those while also earning credit card rewards at the same time. For a checking account bonus, you typically have certain direct deposit minimums to make so it is a different criteria than credit cards. Or, maybe you find a great account like SoFi Money where you simply get a $50 bonus for signing up and transferring over $100. Something like that takes 5 minutes to do so it is a no brainer. Plus, it is a great savings account you can store your vacation money in and earn interest. Here is a review of it. You can then start earning more money for referring friends and family which can really add up. A married could can easily get $150 by each opening an account which is what we did.
The big lesson that I learned here is that since credit card bonuses change, you must be flexible in your plan. For instance, there was a credit card that had a $700 cash back bonus and right before we signed up, the bonus was no longer offered. We had to be flexible and find a similar bonus elsewhere but fortunately made it all work still. There are even cards that we got earlier this year that aren’t around anymore but that is OK.
The other lesson we learned was to start big. Don’t waste your energy trying to save 3% on tickets when you could put that energy towards saving hundreds on your trip. In an ideal world you would do both but prioritize the biggest bonuses first. They don’t take much more energy and time than the small bonuses.
Airfare – Southwest Companion Pass
My wife and I are flying Southwest Airlines using points earned from sign-up bonuses.
Additionally, we earned the Southwest companion pass so one of us flies for free, meaning we only have to use points on one person which allows us to use our remaining points on other trips.
In order to earn the companion pass, you need to earn 110,000 points in any calendar year. You earn these points either through purchasing flights, spending if you have a Southwest credit card or through sign-up bonuses.
Unless you travel a significant amount for work (50 flights a year) or spend tens of thousands of dollars a year on a card then most likely you won’t hit that.
How you hit 110,000 points is for one person to sign up for 2 separate southwest cards. This would mean both a personal card and a business card based on their rules. If you don’t have a side business, then each of you could sign up for a personal card. Personal cards earn about 40,000 points and business cards can earn between 60,000 – 80,000. Ideally, you can snag a business card since it is the higher point total. This assumes you have some sort of side business or hustle that earns even a minimum amount of money.
We earned 40,000 points for our personal card and 60,000 points for the business card but currently you can get 80,000 points for the business card. We made up the remaining 10,000 points with spending on the card.
While you do not need to earn the companion pass to fly for free, it helps no doubt. Once you earn the companion pass it is good for the rest of the calendar year and all next year, so it is really a way to save on flights for future vacations.
For our flight, we spent 43,803 points plus $22.40 in fees.
Now, the cost in points is something that is different for everyone. I keep making the mistake of waiting too long to book. I probably could have only paid 25,000 points if I had booked sooner or we flew at different times.
Inversely, we could have spent more so 43K points isn’t the end of the world. Using the companion pass really helps as you can see, otherwise our total would have been over 87,000 points.
Also, there are fees of $11.20 per person even if the other person flies for free. That is where the $22.40 comes from.
If we paid cash for the flights, we would have paid $1,200 but once again, you could probably get that price lower if you shop around.
To cover those fees, we will use cash back rewards which we’ll go into more later.
Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel
For our hotel, we plan on staying at the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort. Despite the name, it is actually owned by Marriott, therefore you can use Marriott points to pay for it. You cannot use points for Disney hotels, but the Dolphin or Swan is a great option. There are some Hilton hotels near Disney Springs that you can use points for as well. Personally, the Dolphin really appeals to us and while you don’t get all the benefits of staying at an official Disney hotel, you still get some of the best benefits.
It is also designed by Michael Graves, which appeals to me as an Architect, and it is a building that I have seen multiple times growing up and associating with Disney World, so it is exciting to get the opportunity to stay there.
Now, I wouldn’t say it is cheap whether paying in points or cash, but there are a lot of benefits, such as location, to staying here that make its cost in point more palatable.
Disney World has three tiers of hotels in respect to quality. These tiers are value, moderate and deluxe. Since the Dolphin and Swan are not official hotels there is no official classification, but I often see people throw it into the deluxe category. At the very least it would be considered a higher end moderate so we know it will be a great place to stay regardless of how it is classified.
Also, when booking the hotel, the concierge indicated that if we stayed in the hotel the nights we booked, it would have been $400 a night. I’ve heard of it being as cheap as under $200 (before taxes & fees) so the prices fluctuate when paying in cash. If paying with points, it is a flat rate regardless of time of year.
So, what does it cost in points?
Cost: 50,000 Points per night
If you stay 5 nights, you get the 5th night free so you only pay for 4 night technically if staying 5 nights. If you average it out, you essentially pay 40,000 points a night in that case.
Total Cost: 200,000 Points plus the resort fee ($175 total)
A typical hotel on a generic vacation might cost about 25,000 points a night. To spend 50,000 points you better make sure that it is worth it as it is a tradeoff, but we really felt like it is worth it. The location of the Dolphin is highly desirable being in between Epcot and Hollywood Studios and it is architecturally very interesting as funky as it might look.
Despite it not being an official Disney hotel, it does get some useful benefits that appealed to us. It doesn’t get all the benefits those hotels get so here is a list of what in included or not.
- Access to Extra Magic Hours
- Access to Fastpasses 60 days out
- Able to book dining reservations 180 days out
- Magical Express
- Magic Bands
- Access to Disney Dining Plan
While it would be great to get everything official Disney hotels do, we’re pretty excited to be staying for free so we’ll take what we can get.
With that said, nothing is truly ever free. While we are staying at the Dolphin for free there are additional fees we need to be concerned with. That’s OK though, we have accounted for them in our budget and will pay for them using cash rewards. The fees can add up though, as they are somewhere between $30-$35 a day. Over 5 nights that is up to $175.
There are also parking fees at the Dolphin/Swan, and now all Disney hotels, so if that applies to you then please note it in your Disney budget.
We will not be parking on property but will have to cover transportation costs with cash back.
How To Earn Marriott Points
50,000 points per night is a lot even with the 5th night free.
We signed up for and earned bonuses on two Marriot credit cards. My wife earned a bonus for 75,000 points and I earned a bonus of 100,000 points. That got us to 175,000 points but as you saw earlier, we need at least 200,000 points.
To get the final 25,000 points we earned them the hard way and put $12,500 on the card over time since you earn 2x points for general spending. We realize everyone can’t do this, but if you focus your spending, it is possible.
One thing we learned which caught us off guard is that you can only transfer 100,000 points per calendar year to someone else. So, if you each get a card in your name, just know that you are limited to what you can transfer.
Tickets are another high-priced item. To cover their cost, we paid for them with credit card cash bonuses.
We each purchased a 3-day ticket along with tickets to Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. Going to the party was actually the main reason we planned the trip.
The tickets weren’t cheap though. This is where if we brought the kids it would be more, but even just the two of us in a lot.
3-day tickets: $710.10
Christmas Party: $195.50
Total Cost: $906.60
To cover this cost, we used rewards from the Chase Ink Business Preferred ($700 reward) and the Disney Visa ($200 reward).
This brings up an interesting point. One might think the Disney Visa card would be one of the first cards you should get but it really isn’t. I would say it is one of the last. There are much better rewards elsewhere.
With that said, it is the easiest of all the rewards to get since it has such a low spending requirement that is can make a great card to start with if you are just wanting to dip your toes in the water so to speak.
Using this link, you get a $200 bonus and pay no annual fee plus you get some discounts in the park if you use it.
Also, when working towards your bonuses, you not only get the bonuses, but you also get the cash back you’ve earned in the process. For instance, the Chase Ink Business card has a $5,000 minimum spend. I would have earned at least $50 in cash back rewards on top of the bonus, as you get points based on your spending, so that is how we cover the rest of the cost.
A lesser priority, but still effective is to find ways to pay less for your tickets. This is basically step 3 of the 3 steps I laid out earlier. Find ways to stretch your money further. Whether you do the first two steps or not, this is something to do regardless.
I have 2 ways of doing this.
- Buy tickets from Undercover Tourist. Undercover Tourist is an official reseller of Disney World tickets. We purchased our Christmas party tickets through them with no issues and saved a little over 7% (or $15). We foolishly missed the opportunity to buy our 3-day park tickets through them but if we had, we would have saved a little over 5% or $40. In total that would be $55 of savings.
- Purchase Disney gift cards using a Target Red Card. The Target RedCard gives you 5% off purchases including Disney gift cards. The savings is provided the moment you buy the gift cards. Then, you would use the gift cards to pay for your tickets through Disney. If paying for $1,000 worth of tickets, you would save 5%. Disney gift cards can also be used in the parks for food or merchandise so keep this tip in mind for other things if you already have tickets.
Unfortunately, you can’t combine these methods. It is one or the other, but both are great options and the 5% off Disney gift cards can be used on multiple things.
The last of the big-ticket items. For us to say we did Disney World for free we wanted to truly cover all costs and using cash rewards to pay for food was our solution. Now, when we go to the parks, we plan to take some Disney gift cards to save 5% which will help keep costs down a little.
I have worked up a whole budget of anticipated spending for our trip, so we had an idea of how much we need to collect in rewards.
Based on this budget, we are anticipating about $700 of spending during our 6 days.
That is a lot of money for food, but Disney has some expensive meals and since we are without the kids, we plan to spend more and enjoy ourselves.
The big offender in cost is dinner at Ohana. After seeing this review by the WDW Couple we were sold on going there. We think it will be about $150 though which we have never ever spent that much on a meal before but it looks like a great experience.
To cover these costs this is where the bank account bonuses and Chase Ink Business Unlimited ($500 reward) come in handy. That is actually more money than we need for food, but we have plans for the rest of it.
Since we are truly trying to cover this whole trip for free it means we need to identify any and all additional fees or costs that might pop up.
This includes buying magic bands, paying resort fees or transportation to and from and around Disney World. For this we have about $400 set aside to cover these costs.
What about merchandise?
Well, my wife and I aren’t really into merchandise. We like magnets, but last time we were there we didn’t find any we liked. Maybe we will this time, but our lack of interest means that we don’t plan on budgeting any money for merchandise.
Personally, we’d rather be eating or on the rides than shopping but that’s just us.
Also, something that is personal to us, for all the cash back/rewards that we get, we are tithing that money to our church. That right there took 10% out of our cash rewards so if you are trying to do the math then that might explain where some of it is going.
Will We Hit Our Goal?
We have been working on this for around 18 months, but the last 9 months have been the most intense.
At this point in time we have just crossed the threshold for 200,000 Marriott points and have long since earned the points on Southwest. We have earned about $2,470 in cash rewards but we tithed 10% so we have a little over $2,220 available to spend.
At this point we should be good to go and are just under 30 days away from our trip.
I honestly can’t believe we got to this point after dreaming about it for months and are so excited for our trip.
We haven’t done it perfectly, but we have done good enough and that is all that matters in this case.
Once again, even if you can’t do it for free, you can still focus on reducing the cost of your trip significantly so instead of just saving 3%-5% you can save 25%, 50% or 75%.
Now that is how you reward yourself to magic!