Disney For Free: Learn the Travel Hacker’s Secrets the Happiest Place on Earth

I love to travel.

I will save money in other areas of my life so I can spend more on travel. And one of my favorite places is Walt Disney World because it lets me be a kid again. There really isn't anywhere else in the world that can give you that.

It comes at a cost though. Disney isn't cheap. Park tickets cost a hundred bucks a day, their premium hotels cost a fortune per night, and that's before you fly yourself down there. There are ways you can save here or there, but on the whole it's going to be an expensive vacation.

A vacation at Walt Disney World can be extremely expensive... unless you know some tips and tricks to getting there cheap. We share the best travel hacking secrets that will save you nearly $4,000 -- and have you staying in the best hotels (think the Swan and Dolphin resorts), hopping around the park, and planning on having a memorable time on a reasonable budget.Bu everyone knows it going in. And we don't care.

Our children are 4 and 2 and for the longest time our son loved Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Every day he wanted to see what the gang was up to (probably didn't help that we didn't let him watch all that often! Absence makes the heart grow fonder!). He's since moved onto other shows like Octonauts but Mickey still holds a special place in his little heart. Even our youngest is a fan … but of Minnie. She carries around a little purple Minnie Mouse around the house some days.

Disney is easy. Disney is convenient. They package everything up together and they're really good at making it seamless. They win because even though you're spending a mortgage payment on the trip, you aren't dissatisfied. You don't leave the parks unhappy. That's why everyone keeps going back!
So here's the thing… the last time we went was before we had kids. Now, we want to wait until our kids are old enough to enjoy it, remember some of it, and not have to take naps so they can really get the whole experience. We figure we're probably a year or so away from making the trip…

… which puts us in a good position to start stockpiling reward points we'll need to get that trip for as close to free as possible!

I've been doing a lot of studying and research to find the best combination of offers. I've settled on six cards (3 each for me and my wife) with $3600+ in bonuses. The three cards are from different issuers, so you won't run into any problems with the issuers, and they're well known issuers.

Now, my step-by-step guide to getting to Disney as cheaply as possible.

Three Pieces to the Puzzle

The high price of a Walt Disney World vacation comes down to three major expenses:

If you solve the puzzle for these, it can go a long way to keeping your budget reasonable. The three are mutually exclusive too, you can get your lodging on points but pay for airfare with existing points. Or you can get the airfare on points and get lodging with the points you already have – mixing and matching is fine. The three are treated separately and we will tackle each one to get you to Disney as cheaply as possible.

Sadly, everything else is up to you. Food, souvenirs, trinkets, and the like – to each their own. You can use the savings from your lodging (we show you how to stay at WDW's best hotels for free!) to go all out on Mickey ears! 🙂

Free WDW Park Tickets

Old school WDW Park Hopper Tickets
Old school WDW Park Hopper Tickets

There is no way to get the tickets for free.

Sadface. 🙁

A quick check of prices tells me that it would cost us $1,437.80 for four 4-day tickets (2x ages 10+, 2x ages 3-9) on Undercover Tourist, which counts as a “travel expense” for credit card purposes (and that's slightly cheaper than direct from Disney). The fact that it's a travel expense will become important later because the card we recommend offers statement credit only against travel expenses.

Undercover Tourist is an authorized Walt Disney World Resort broker, they have an A rating from the Better Business Bureau and they've been featured in the WSJ, Fox Business, and SmartMoney. They also offer free shipping of tickets and their pricing includes all taxes and fees, which makes comparison shopping easy (I hate it when I go to checkout and get slammed with “fees”). 365-day refund policy and all Disney tickets are RFID and FastPass+ enabled.

The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card gives you 75,000 miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first 3 months of opening the account, equal to $750 in travel. You also get unlimited 2x miles on every purchase, every day with a $95 annual fee.

With the free miles, you can significantly cut the cost of transportation depending on how many people are traveling. If you're near an airport that has an airline that flies to Orlando direct and inexpensively, you're in pretty good shape.

Learn more about this card

Get two cards, one for me and one for my wife, and we now have $920 in statement credits. (you also get 5% of your redemption back, so another $23 afterwards)

Remember, most travel reward cards will have an annual fee that is usually waived for the first year. You have to decide, after the first year, whether you want to keep them. The Barclaycard has an $89 annual fee (1st year waived) and the Capital One card has a $59 annual fee (1st year waived).

Once you apply for the cards, buy your tickets with the card and apply the statement credit once you've hit the spending requirement. You will want to spread the buying across cards so you use up the entire statement credit.

Free WDW Lodging

This is going to be so easy it'll blow your mind.

We always love staying at a Disney resort because of convenience. You get the full immersive Disney experience, free transportation to and from the park, and… this cannot be overlooked, complimentary delivery of your purchases back to your room. All that free transportation also means no rental car… which is a nice expense not to have!

Transportation to and from the airport is not available if you stay at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin, unfortunately. You will have to arrange other methods.

Oh, and did I mention that by staying on resort, you get extra “Magic Hours” in the park? The foot traffic drops tremendously during those times since all the resort guests are now spread across all the parks (maybe not the Animal Kingdom nearly as much). The last time we did this, we had the run of the park and went on certain rides over and over again without waitingx. 🙂

wdw-swan-dolphin-resortOK, I promised easy, so here it is. The Disney Swan is a Westin Hotel and Disney Dolphin is a Sheraton Hotel, which means they're both part of the Starwood Hotels. They're two of the best hotels in all of Walt Disney World with rates starting at $400 a night… if you can get them.

For a limited time, the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express will give you 35,000 Bonus Starpoints. You get 25,000 bonus Starpoints after you spend $3,000 in purchases within the first three months then an extra 10,000 bonus Starpoints after you make an additional $2,000 in the first six months – expires 4/5/2017!

Here's the play – Get the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express, which gives you 25,000 bonus Starpoints after $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months. That's 28,000 Starpoints given the bonus and the points on the spending.

To see more about this and other travel rewards cards, visit our partners.
Walt Disney World Swan Hotel -- Source: Public Domain
Walt Disney World Swan Hotel — Source: Public Domain

Both hotels are Category 4 Starwood hotels, which means a night will cost you 10,000 Starpoints per night BUT you get a Fifth Night Free if you book 4 nights.

As of >March 1st, 2016, the Disney Swan is becoming a Category 5 Starwood hotel. Category 5 hotels cost 12,000 – 16,000 per night depending on the season. The Disney Dolphin is remaining a Category 4.

So 5 nights but you spend just 40,000 Starpoints at one of the most ridiculously luxurious hotels in all of Walt Disney World. (I've used the bathrooms in the lobby and the hand towels were nicer than my room towels at Port Orleans Riverside!)

One card gets you 28,000 Starpoints, which isn't enough, so you need to get two cards (one for me, one for my lovely wife) for a total of 56,000 Starpoints. Then, transfer the Starpoints onto one account and book through the reward redemption page.

Boom! 5 nights on points alone is worth a cool $1500 — plus you'll have 16,000 Starpoints left over to use on something else.

Learn More about this

A non-WDW Resort Hotel… Sheraton Lake Buena Vista

Sheraton Lake Buena Vista, Source
Sheraton Lake Buena Vista, Source

If you don't care about staying on WDW property, still get the Starpoints but stay at the Sheraton Lake Buena Vista (12205 S Apopka Vineland Rd, Orlando, FL 32836). It's a great alternative because it's:

  • Only 4,000 Starpoints a night,
  • It's 0.6 miles from the front door of Walt Disney World Resort,
  • AND they offer a free shuttle.

For this one, you only need one card. Get the 28,000 bonus Starpoints from one card and you can stay there for an entire week!

Flights to Orlando

The play is to open the rewards credit card for your favorite airline to get the bonus points/miles to get free airfare.

Southwest: We live on the East Coast and both BWI Airport and Orlando International Airport are major Southwest hubs, so we're going to fly Southwest using points we've accrued from Southwest promotions and our Companion Pass. Otherwise, we'd open a Southwest Rapid Rewards credit card, snag the bonus points for both my wife and myself, and use those to book the flights.

Learn more about this card and others

If you are airline agnostic, get a general rewards card that will give you rewards across the board. The >Chase Sapphire Preferred Card will give you Chase Ultimate Rewards which you can use directly on their site or with United, Southwest, or British Airways. Their current offer is 60,000 Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first three months – grand total it's worth $750 in travel when booked through the Chase portal. (or check out the Chase Sapphire Reserve card for the next level)

Learn more about this card and others

Again, two cards and now you have $1250 in value to spend either through the Chase Ultimate Rewards site or with partners.

Total Savings: $3,670

The total savings comes out to $3,670 plus some leftover rewards you can use elsewhere, like at least a night in a Starwood Category 4 hotel. All this will have you open six credit cards, three for you and three for your significant other, which is a pretty good return of nearly $600 per card opened.

To help you keep track of the bonuses, I've created this free 1-page printable table (or as a Word Document you can edit).

We’ve preloaded each category with the recommended card plus extra for you to put alternatives. Bonus miles is the promotional bonus you earn by hitting the spending amount by the spending deadline. The approval date is the date you were issued the card and that’s when the promotional spending clock starts. All are left blank because promotions change so put in the number when you apply.

What to Watch Out For

Every reward card mentioned here has an annual fee. All of them are waived for the first year though, so remember these cards and decide if you want to keep using them after the reward period.

Opening three credit cards in a short time will have a minor negative impact your credit score. Remember your credit score is a measure of credit risk and someone who opens up three credit cards is riskier than someone who didn't. If you plan on needing a loan in the next 6-12 months, you may not want to do this.

You can pick and choose which parts of this blueprint to execute. If you opened all of the cards on the same day, you'd have to meet the spending requirements within a short 90-120 day window. If you cannot do this, spread the applications out throughout the year. You do not want to open a card and fail to meet the bonus requirements. My best advice is to spread out your applications across a year and plan your spending accordingly.

Good luck!

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Photo Source: Sam Howzit, with modifications

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About Jim Wang

Jim Wang is a forty-something father of four who is a frequent contributor to Forbes and Vanguard's Blog. He has also been fortunate to have appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Entrepreneur, and Marketplace Money.

Jim has a B.S. in Computer Science and Economics from Carnegie Mellon University, an M.S. in Information Technology - Software Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a Masters in Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University. His approach to personal finance is that of an engineer, breaking down complex subjects into bite-sized easily understood concepts that you can use in your daily life.

One of his favorite tools (here's my treasure chest of tools,, everything I use) is Personal Capital, which enables him to manage his finances in just 15-minutes each month. They also offer financial planning, such as a Retirement Planning Tool that can tell you if you're on track to retire when you want. It's free.

He is also diversifying his investment portfolio by adding a little bit of real estate. But not rental homes, because he doesn't want a second job, it's diversified small investments in a few commercial properties and farms in Illinois, Louisiana, and California through AcreTrader.

Recently, he's invested in a few pieces of art on Masterworks too.

>> Read more articles by Jim

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  1. slbno1 says

    Wow! My previous husband and I took our 8 year old daughter, to WdW, for her birthday. We went for 11 days in May from Texas. We had to take her out of school, for 15 days, but the school was cool about it..lol After 3 days, she was so bored, she said ” Mama I want to go home, and go back to school!” I was heart broken. We had character meals everyday, and my baby was miserable. If I ever go back, it will not be with a child!

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