Mormons love Disneyland, and my family loves it just as much as the next. We’ve visited either Disneyland or California Adventure three times in the last two and a half years.
And we’ve done it for free each time. Well, almost.
Before I begin, let me say that I’m a credit card churner. I apply for a credit card, meet the minimum spend requirement to get its sign-up bonus, then move onto the next one. I do all of this using our regular spending, and we’ve earned thousands of dollars in free travel doing it. We live on a budget and have never paid interest. That said, if you’re morally opposed to credit cards or tend to overspend with them, this strategy probably isn’t for you.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s walk through our trip last month. I’ll share the costs and how we were able to successfully avoid most of them using credit card rewards.
Disneyland tickets with general travel rewards
Other than the Disney-specific credit cards, I don’t know of any cards that allow you to redeem rewards for free Disneyland tickets. At least not directly. The bad news is that the Disney cards are mediocre. The good news is that some credit cards allow you to redeem your rewards for any travel-related purchase. You simply make the purchase using the card, then you use your rewards to get a statement credit for that purchase.
The card: For this, I applied for the Barclaycard Arrival Plus MasterCard. The card currently offers 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in the first 90 days of having the card. That’s $500 worth of travel. Each dollar you spend also nets you 2 miles. By the time I reached the spending requirement and paid for the Disneyland tickets, we had a little more than 58,000 miles. (Note: the card has a $89 annual fee, but it’s waived the first year. I plan to cancel the card before the fee hits.)
How we did it: While Disneyland is a popular travel destination, Disney is not a travel “merchant”. So buying tickets directly from Disney won’t work.
The way to get around that is by purchasing your tickets from a travel agency. We chose Get Away Today because they already offer discounts on multi-day tickets. For two days at Disneyland and one day at Universal Studios (Harry Potter!), we spent $580. Fortunately, our two kids are under three so we didn’t have to buy a ticket for them.
Once the transaction posted to my account, I used 58,000 miles to wipe out the purchase.
Total savings on Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood tickets: $580
Hotels using Hilton and Starwood Hotels rewards
We stayed in a Hilton in Glendale the first night because it’s about 15 minutes from Universal Studios. After a fun day of drinking Butterbeer and eating Cauldron Cakes, we drove down to Anaheim and checked into the Hotel Ménage for the rest of the trip.
The cards: There are several Hilton cards out there, some from Amex and some from Citi. I got the Hilton HHonors card from Amex when it was offering 75,000 points after you spend $1,000 in the first three months. It’s currently offering only 50,000 points when you spend $750 in the first three months. The card has no annual fee, but know that Hilton points aren’t worth a lot (about 0.5 cents a point on average). I only got the card because of the limited-time offer.
The other card I used to cover the second stay was the Amex Starwood Preferred Guest Business card. The card usually offers 25,000 Starpoints when you spend $5,000 in the first three months. It’s currently offering an extra 10,000 points if you spend another $3,000 in the first six months—so $8,000 total. The card charges an annual fee of $95, but also waives it the first year. Of course, if you don’t have a business, you can’t get this card. That said, the personal version of the card offers the same sign-up bonus (and you don’t have to spend as much to get it). Starpoints are ridiculously valuable, giving you about 2.3 cents a point of value on average.
How we did it: Since I already had the points in my Hilton and Starwood accounts, redeeming them was straightforward. The first night cost 30,000 Hilton HHonors points, saving us $229 and a long drive from Anaheim to Universal Studios the next morning. The next three nights cost 21,000 Starpoints, saving us $507. We did end up having to pay for parking at both hotels, though. More on that later.
Total savings on hotels: $736
Airline tickets using Delta SkyMiles
Booking flights from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles are usually relatively cheap. But free is better than cheap, right? Since our son turned two earlier in the month, this was the first time we had to buy three tickets instead of two.
The card: I already had 25,000 Delta SkyMiles, but needed more to book three tickets. I used the Amex Platinum to make up the rest. The Amex Platinum isn’t a card I’d recommend to most people because it has a $450(!) annual fee. Why did I get it then? At the time, it was offering 100,000 points—worth at least $1,000—when you spend $3,000 in three months. The card also offers $200 in airline incidental fee credits per calendar year, so I’ll have $400 worth by the time I cancel it. What’s more, Amex reimbursed my $85 TSA pre-check application fee, and I got access to a pre-sale on Hamilton tickets. I bought four and resold them for a $1,000 profit. So I definitely got my money’s worth. 🙂
For flights, I’d recommend going with an airline card. Each of the major airlines have them.
How we did it: Booking our flights to LAX took a little finesse. Like I mentioned before, I didn’t have enough Delta SkyMiles. The good news is that Delta is a partner with American Express’s Membership Rewards, so I transferred 30,000 points to my Delta account. Of course, Amex charged me $18 to do it. Lame!
In all, we used 55,000 miles to book three round-trip tickets, saving $780. My Amex Platinum’s airline incidental fee credit covered the fees Delta charges for award flights and checked bag fees.
Let me also say that Barney is a lifesaver. The flight wasn’t long, but we downloaded a couple Barney episodes for my son to watch and he was happy the whole time.
Total savings on airfare: $863.60
Rental car using general travel rewards
There aren’t really any good credit cards out there that you can use to get free rental cars, so we again went with a general travel card.
The card: My wife signed up for Barclayard Arrival Plus, the same one I used to cover our Disneyland tickets, to pay for our rental car.
How we did it: I used Expedia to find the cheapest standard SUV possible. The total amount for the five days was $180.58, and the rental car company tacked on an extra $150 for a deposit initially. We were able to redeem our miles for the full $330.58, giving us the extra $150 in the statement credit to help cover other travel costs. We were then refunded the deposit when we returned the car.
Total savings on rental car: $180.58 plus a $150 boost to our travel budget.
As I mentioned, this trip was almost free. Anyone who tells you it’s possible to get a fully free trip through credit card rewards is lying. And you know where liars go…
Here are some of the costs we ended up paying out of pocket for the trip:
- $18 to transfer my Amex points to Delta
- $63 to cover trip insurance
- $136 to cover parking at the SLC airport, our hotels and Universal Studios
- $20 for gas
- $350 on food
I know, I know. We spent a lot of money on food. I did actually get about $150 worth of restaurant gift cards to cover dinners using my Amex points. But we ultimately decided it would be a pain to leave the park early, walk to our hotel, and then drive to the restaurant. We also had money set aside in our vacation savings account, so we felt free to get all our favorite snacks. It’s hard to pass up stuff like Butterbeer and other wizardly treats at Universal Studios, and churros and pretzels at Disneyland.
So the total out of pocket for our trip to Disneyland (minus that $150 from the rental car) came out to $437. But hey, it’s better than $2,797! And if we really wanted to, we could have cut down on the food costs quite a bit.
5 tips to getting to Disneyland for free
1. Use credit cards responsibly. I can’t stress this enough. If you find yourself overspending just to reach a minimum spend requirement, it’s just not worth it. No number of free trips is worth getting stuck with interest. If you’re not on a budget, get on one and stick to it. And be sure to pay off your cards on time and in full every month.
2. Be patient. I’ve discussed a lot of cards in this post, but it’s important to understand that I’ve been earning those rewards over the course of a year. Take your time earning them. If you apply for two at a time, make sure you can reasonably meet the minimum spend requirements with your normal spending.
One strategy you can use is to get a card and add your spouse as an authorized user. Then both of your spending can go toward getting the sign-up bonus. Once you’ve met the requirement, have your spouse get the next card and add you as an authorized user (and so on). Either way, you’ll want to give yourself at least a year to earn enough rewards for a trip like this.
3. Have a plan. You can’t just go out and get any travel card and hope it’ll cover everything. Different cards offer rewards for different things. For example, hotel cards are best for redeeming hotel rewards in most cases. It’s the same with airlines. Write out the different expenses you’ll have and match those needs with a card. If you’re not sure where to start, go with the cards in this post.
4. Don’t be afraid to pay an annual fee. I hate fees. And for the longest time, I refused to apply for cards that charge annual fees. Most of the cards listed above either have no annual fee or waive it the first year. But there are some solid travel cards out there that don’t waive the fee upfront. I have two Marriott cards that charge annual fees, but I get a free night stay every year on each card worth more than the fees. The Southwest Airlines cards charge fees too. But I’ve used them to earn Southwest’s Companion Pass, which allows my wife to fly free with me for up to two full years. Annual fees aren’t always worth it, but if you do it right, they can be.
5. Don’t overdo it. Credit card churning has its limits. I’ve had close to thirty credit cards over the last two years, and at some point, banks start denying your applications. Also, if you’re planning on getting a mortgage anytime soon, wait until you’ve closed before you start doing this. In fact, you shouldn’t apply for any kind of credit while you’re going through the mortgage process.
So there you have it. With all our tricks and tips, we were able to do Disneyland and Universal Studios for just $437. It was an experience we’ll always cherish. And in the end, that’s why I do it. I don’t do the points and miles game just because it’s free stuff. I do it because it helps me create memories with my family that would be impossible otherwise. It also allows me to travel while letting me put my money toward our other financial goals.
Got questions? I’m an open book. Ask in the comments below!