Shortly after our family adventure to Myrtle Beach, my brain started churning with ideas for our next adventure. It was way too early for Barb to think about, but I just can’t turn off that part of my brain! As soon as one vacation ends I start thinking of the next one Can you relate? I’m always drawn to big cities so Chicago and New York City made the shortlist, as did Washington D.C.
These are all places I’ve visited and know my kids would absolutely love. However, there is one vacation destination that always makes its way onto my list: Orlando, Florida. Growing up, my family ended up at Walt Disney World for what seems like every 2-3 years. I was spoiled by the Mouse. I can admit that.
Still new into the world of travel hacking, with only one trip to San Diego for Barb and myself under my belt, I started to research how to travel hack a trip to Walt Disney World. It turned out there isn’t as much information out there as you would think there might be with it being one of the most popular vacation destinations on the planet.
As I started to talk it over with Barb, we realized that on our last family adventure to Florida, our kids actually enjoyed Universal Studios more than any of the Disney parks. Our oldest son became an absolute Harry Potter fanatic after that trip and the other 3 enjoyed the whole park too. We didn’t even go to Islands of Adventure on that trip. I made the call. No Disney on this trip. Only Universal Studios.
Before I get into the nuts and bolts of how we travel hacked a trip to Universal Studios, let me put out a brief disclaimer. Barb wasn’t sure we could afford a trip to Orlando and was still in denial that I could indeed travel hack anything. How dare she doubt me like that, right?!
My guidelines for the trip from Barb were as follows: “Figure out a way to fly down to Florida and back for free and get us free lodging at a place with a full kitchen and I can probably find the money for tickets, food, and souvenirs.” She forgot the rental car, but I covered that too. With that in mind, this was not a “complete” travel hack in that not everything is going to end up being free, but it’s still pretty good for a family trip for 6 people to Florida. Don’t worry, though. I will leave you some tips of taking advantage of some hacks that we didn’t necessarily use.
One other note: Because of school and work, our trip took place shortly after the school year ended in early June, one of the busiest times of the year in Orlando. Because of work vacation restrictions, we also didn’t have much flexibility in making travel arrangements. Flexibility in your travel plans will always net you more opportunities to save money and use your reward points in more optimal ways. Our trip wasn’t ideal for rewards travel. But it was our trip. And we loved it.
Ok, Let’s tackle the Big 4: Airfare, Lodging, Rental car, and park tickets.
I had already made the decision to fly Southwest as soon as I knew we were going to Orlando. I like Southwest and the cost versus other airlines makes it appealing to families like mine. I had already signed up for the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card earlier in the year. I went ahead and signed up for the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Business Credit Card as well, which netted me enough points to earn a companion pass. Our timing for getting the companion pass wasn’t ideal. You can do much better than us. I did what I needed to do for this trip, not thinking long-term.
We also signed Barb up for the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card. We quickly reached our initial spending requirements and had more than enough points (also my wife flying on a companion pass) for 6 people to fly with the Wanna Get Away pricing through Southwest.
The one drawback for Southwest is that they don’t offer assigned seating. Seating is picked by boarding order. Not too difficult to navigate if you are flying solo or as a couple, but it’s a little bit of work when traveling with a large family with young kids. Checking in exactly 24 hours before your flight is key, which is what we did. I had multiple devices ready to go, alarms set ahead of time just so I wouldn’t miss my chance for the best boarding spots for all 6 of us. We made group B, which allowed us all to sit in two groups of 3 close to each other.
On this trip, we did something we’ve never done before. We stayed at more than one resort. Points programs were never really designed with large families in mind. Neither are most hotels or anything else we encounter in our travels. Anything past 4 people usually adds more challenges. After looking at the 8 million options in the Orlando area, we settled on 2 spots.
Marriott’s Royal Palms and Holiday Inn Vacation Club Orange Lake. I won’t go into detail here, but our choice to go with both of these was a good one. Check out our reviews on both resorts here and here.
I rented our car (well, minivan) right before our trip. I had actually almost forgotten we needed a car. Oops. We had more than enough Southwest Rapid Rewards to get us a free van for the week so I just did that. I am sure there are better ways to rent a car, but it was free.
We did not travel hack park tickets. Our family spent 2 wonderful days at Universal Studios with the park to park Universal Express Unlimited tickets and just bought them off the Universal Studios website. However, I did spend some time looking into how to do just that. The best way I found to knock a portion of the ticket cost off is to get a good cash back credit card (or cards) that give you cash back in the form of a statement credit to use towards travel purchases. Then purchase your Universal Studios (or another theme park) tickets through Undercover Tourist. Tickets bought directly don’t qualify as a travel purchase, but tickets through Undercover Tourist do because they are considered a travel agent by credit card companies. Make sure you verify this before moving forward with any ticket purchase to be safe.
Our Universal Studios Orlando trip was one of the best trips our family has planned in a long time. We enjoyed both Universal Studios Parks as well as our time relaxing and adventuring in Florida. Check out our blog for more blog posts from our trip.
How does your family save money visiting Universal Studios Orlando? Let us know in the comments below!
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Kevin Payne is the co-founder and budgeting and family travel enthusiast behind FamilyMoneyAdventure.com.
Kevin is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance and travel. He is a regular contributor to Forbes Advisor, MoneyGeek, CreditCards.com, Credit Karma, Money Under 30, and Student Loan Planner.