We continue our Disney World podcast episode series by looking at how to plan a Disney World Vacation for your family using points and miles. A Disney World vacation can be an expensive trip between accommodations, transportation, park tickets, food, souvenirs and other travel expenses.
Several years ago, I was introduced to the world of travel rewards. I learned that by getting certain credit cards, I could earn rewards and redeem them to cover our family’s travel expenses.
In fact, our very first trip using points and miles was to the Orlando area. We visited Disney World and Universal Studios Orlando on that trip. We earned points with two hotel rewards programs and split our trip up between stays at two area hotels within those programs so we could cover the entire expense with points. We flew Southwest using Rapid Rewards points. Also, we earned enough points to qualify for a Southwest Companion Pass, which helped us save even more money. We rented a vehicle for the week, but I don’t remember if we covered the expense with rewards.
Travel rewards can be overwhelming when you start. Going into that first rewards trip, my goal was to earn enough rewards to cover our flights and accommodations. I knew if I could figure out how to do that with our family of six, it would be worth the time and effort. If I had known then what I know now, I probably would’ve been able to pay for our Disney World tickets and rental car with points, too.
There are so many ways to earn and redeem travel rewards for a Disney vacation. The following guide is a high-level look at travel rewards, how they work, and common strategies to pay for a Disney World vacation using points and miles.
Travel Rewards Basics
Credit cards are available that earn valuable rewards redeemable in several ways, including for travel. Redemption options vary depending on the specific card and include:
redeem rewards include:
- Statement credits
- Cash back
- Gift cards,
- Online shopping
We personally focus solely on travel rewards. That’s what we’re interested in, so the bulk of this podcast episode and post revolve around travel redemptions, although some strategies may involve statement credits, too.
Depending on the credit card, you may be able to redeem rewards to book flights, hotels, rental cars and activities directly through your card issuer.
Some credit cards allow you to transfer your rewards to airline and hotel partners to use within their rewards programs. Some credit cards, like the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card and Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, allow you to pay for travel expenses using your card and then use rewards to cover the charge.
Let’s look at the two main types of travel rewards credit cards.
Flexible travel cards
These are rewards credit cards that earn flexible rewards you can redeem in several ways. Examples would be the previously mentioned Venture cards from Capital One. This also includes cards like:
Flexible credit cards generally allow you to use your rewards to book travel in several ways, including ways we mentioned earlier — directly through their travel portal, transferring your rewards to airline and hotel partners, and in some cases, covering travel purchases made with your card.
Co-branded rewards cards
Co-branded credit cards earn brand-specific rewards. This category includes hotel cards, airline cards, and retail cards. They’re co-branded because they’re available through a partnership between credit card issuers and brands.
Almost every airline and hotel has a loyalty rewards program, and many offer credit cards that earn rewards within their respective program. Examples include Marriott Bonvoy cards, IHG One Rewards cards, and Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards cards. Here are some of our favorite co-branded travel rewards cards:
As you earn rewards with a cobranded card, you can redeem them within their loyalty program for flights, hotel stays, and other brand-specific redemptions. Some of these programs allow you to redeem rewards in other ways, but usually, they offer the most value when redeemed within their own program.
How do you earn points and miles?
There are several ways to earn rewards with a credit card. The most lucrative method for boosting your rewards balance quickly is earning a sign-up bonus or welcome bonus. Credit card companies try to entice consumers to apply for a card and spend money by offering limited-time offers of large sums of rewards when you meet the card’s spending requirements within the specified offer period.
Say you are approved for Card A. It might come with a sign-up bonus of 80,000 miles after you spend $5,000 on your card within the first six months from account opening (FYI, this is a hypothetical example, not an actual offer).
The other primary way to earn points and miles is through card spending. Many rewards credit cards offer higher reward rates for spending in specific categories, like dining, groceries or travel purchases. Other cards earn flat-rate rewards, meaning you earn the same reward rate per dollar spent regardless of where it is spent. You can earn a ton of points through card spending, especially if you use cards that align with your spending habits.
Staying on Disney Property Using Points
Can you use travel rewards to cover your stay at a Disney World resort? Yes and no. Disney technically has its own rewards program and Disney credit cards, but I don’t believe you can redeem those rewards for resort stays. And even if you could, it’s probably not the best strategy from a value perspective. There are better cards and better ways to stay at Disney World with points.
Another option is travel rewards cards and cash back cards that allow you to redeem your points for statement credits. So, you could use one of these cards to book accommodations at a Disney Resort and then redeem the points you’ve amassed from welcome bonuses and card spending for a statement credit.
Cards that you can do this with include:
One of the most well-known strategies for using points at Disney Resorts is to book one of the Marriott hotels. There are 3 Marriott hotels located on Disney property — the Swan, Dolphin, and Swan Reserve. They aren’t technically Disney Resorts because they aren’t operated by Disney. They are owned and operated by Westin. But they are considered Deluxe Disney Resorts and are listed on Disney World’s website. All three properties are located next to each other in the Boardwalk area at Disney World and receive additional Disney-related benefits you don’t receive at other area resorts and hotels.
So, how do you stay at the Swan, Dolphin and Swan Reserve using points? By opening Marriott credit cards. The hotel brand offers several co-branded credit cards that earn Marriott Bonvoy points. They’re one of the few brands that have co-branded cards through multiple credit card issuers (Amex and Chase). Current Marriott card offerings include:
Marriott credit card annual fees range from $0 to $650. The welcome bonuses vary, too. Some earn a specific point sum. I currently have the Boundless card. I think the bonus offered currently is less than when I applied, but it is still a great deal. Award nights at the Disney Marriott hotels typically exceed the point limit on free nights earned with these cards, but Marriott lets you cover the difference with Bonvoy points.
The other perk that makes this strategy work really well is that for every four consecutive nights you book at a Marriott resort using points, you get the 5th night free. Not to mention all the other benefits you receive as a Marriott cardholder and Bonvoy member. I’m currently a Gold Elite member, which isn’t as impressive as it sounds> it’s on the low end of the Bonvoy membership tier. But it was good enough to get a free room upgrade, premium internet, and late checkout.
Other cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and Chase Sapphire Reserve® allow you to transfer your points to your Marriott Bonvoy account, but that’s not always the best value for Chase Ultimate Rewards points.
Paying for Disney World Tickets Using Points
Buying Disney World tickets follows the same statement credit strategy used for hotels. You can purchase park tickets directly through Disney using select cards and redeem points to cover the ticket purchase as a statement credit. The Chase cards I mentioned previously are great for this.
Disney World Tickets Using Capital One Miles
The process is slightly different with the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit. Unfortunately, Capital One codes Disney ticket purchases made directly through Disney as “entertainment,” not travel, so you can’t cover ticket purchases this way. The workaround is to purchase your tickets from a third-party site, like Undercover Tourist. You might be leery of buying tickets through someone other than Disney. The good news is that Undercover Tourist is an authorized seller of Disney World tickets and tickets for several theme parks and other attractions. Plus, sometimes the tickets are discounted, so you pay less than buying them through Disney.
With the Capital One Venture Cards, you purchase your tickets through a third-party site like Undercover Tourist and then redeem your rewards to erase the purchase from your balance. If you were staying at a Disney Resort and purchased tickets as part of your resort package bundle, the tickets would then be coded as travel, but not by themselves.
Some credit card portals previously had Disney World Resorts and Disney tickets listed, but I haven’t seen those options lately.
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Flying to Disney World
Orlando is home to two airports — Orlando International Airport (MCO) and Orlando Sanford International Airport (SFB). Most major airlines fly through MCO, while Orlando Sanford is for flights through a few budget airlines.
You can book flights using miles through airline co-branded credit cards or flexible travel rewards credit cards, which give you the option to book directly through their travel portal or transfer your points to an airline partner. The best card and airline for Disney World flights depends on your location and airline preferences.
We love Southwest Airlines when we fly to Disney World. Southwest is family-friendly and affordable and offers tons of flights from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. There are currently five Southwest credit cards between personal and business cards, which all earn big sign-up bonuses and come with other Southwest benefits.
If you fly Southwest often, it can be worth it to go all in with the Airline to try and earn a companion pass. The Southwest companion pass allows you to designate one person to fly with you for free on Southwest on booked flights (well, not free. You’ll pay $5.60 in
The Real Deal on Disney World and Travel Rewards
You can use rewards to stay at a Disney Resort or a Deluxe Disney Marriott Resort on Disney property.
But those aren’t your only options.
Lake Buena Vista and the Greater Orlando area offer endless hotel and resort options. Airbnbs, VRBOs, and other vacation rentals, too. There are also Disney Good Neighbor hotels, which are select hotels near Disney World with additional partner benefits.
What isn’t talked about enough in the points and miles community is that you can use points to cover almost any hotel, resort or vacation rental stay. You don’t have to stay on property, and typically, it requires fewer points to book award stays at off-property resorts. It may not be as convenient as staying at a Disney Resort, but there are other advantages worth considering. Think about how much time you’ll spend at the resort outside of sleeping and which amenities you want before settling on a Disney Resort. Your points may stretch further staying off-property.
Best Practices For Rewards Credit Cards
People often jump into rewards credit cards head first without understanding the risks involved or how to use credit cards safely. Here are some best practices to follow if you’re thinking of getting a rewards credit card.
- Don’t open a card if you’re drowning in debt: Don’t apply for a rewards credit card if you’re struggling with debt or have a history of overspending.
- Only use credit cards for expenses you were already paying: It’s important to hit spending requirements to earn sign-up bonuses, but figure out how to do it within your spending budget. Start paying monthly bills with your card. Plan card applications around large upcoming purchases or home projects to hit spending requirements. Always make sure you can hit spending requirements before you apply for a rewards credit card.
- Pay your full balance on time each month: It’s always better to pay your credit card balance off each month to avoid interest charges. It’s even more important with rewards cards. When you carry a balance, you pay interest charges, which cancels out any value earned with rewards. Plus, a positive payment history is one of the biggest factors that affects your credit score. Paying your bills on time will help boost your score and avoid late fees.
- Read the fine print: Many rewards credit cards have annual fees. Understand the cost and consider the card’s rewards potential and benefits to determine whether it’s worth getting. It is often worth it, but it’s always good to do your homework upfront to make sure.
Plan your first rewards trip to Disney World
Now that you’ve learned the basics of travel rewards, how do you plan your first trip using points and miles? Here are some tips for getting started. These tips are for planning a Disney World vacation using points and miles but can apply to any destination.
- Determine how you want to travel: Ask yourself (or your family) pointed questions to determine precisely how you want to travel. What are your family’s travel preferences? Do you like a specific hotel chain or airline? Are you a large family like us and need extra space? What are the most essential amenities or aspects of the trip that are non-negotiable, and what can you live without? Do you want to stay at a Disney Resort? Are you flying or driving? How long is your trip? Use your answers as a guide for which cards to consider. You can stray outside of your preferences, especially if there’s a deal or sweet spot, but figuring out what you want your trip to look like will help as you research and plan your trip.
- Research credit cards: Figure out which cards allow you to earn rewards you can use to cover your trip. Look at flexible travel rewards credit cards, hotel credit cards, and airline credit cards based on the trip you want to take.
- Calculate rewards: Once you’ve figured out where you might want to stay or which airline you want to fly, search dates to estimate how many points and miles you’ll need to earn and when you’ll need them. Remember, you’ll need to book your trip in advance, so plan card applications accordingly to earn bonuses and build up rewards before you need to book.
- Apply for a rewards credit card: Generally, you need good to excellent credit to qualify for a rewards credit card. There are some outliers, but generally, you’ll need at least good credit.
Some card issuers allow you to prequalify or get preapproved for card offers without a hard credit check, which can cause a temporary drop in your credit score. It doesn’t mean you’ll be approved, but it can give you an idea of how credit card companies view you. When you apply, they will do a hard credit check.
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Kevin Payne is the budgeting and family travel enthusiast behind FamilyMoneyAdventure.com. He’s also the host of the Family Money Adventure Show podcast, where he helps families learn to manage their money better so they can afford to do the things they love.
Kevin is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance and travel. He is a regular contributor to USA Today, Forbes Advisor, Bankrate, Fox Business, Credible, and CreditCards.com.