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Millions of people visit Universal Studios Orlando every year, and for good reason. It’s one of the greatest theme parks in the world. Honestly, it’s more than a theme park. It’s an experience, and it’s one of our family’s favorite places to visit.
If you’re planning a Universal Studios vacation soon, there’s something you should know.
Planning a trip to Universal Orlando is relatively easy. That’s because there are so many flights available to Orlando and endless hotel options and other accommodations. That doesn’t mean it won’t cost you significant money to take your family to the popular theme park.
We’ve been able to plan nearly-free trips to Universal Orlando using rewards points and miles. I consider myself an intermediate-level travel hacker. I know enough to save considerable money when traveling, especially to the places we love, like Walt Disney World and Universal Studios.
There are several ways you to save money on an Orlando trip, including airfare, accommodations, rental cars, and even Universal Studios tickets. The amount you can save may depend on the credit cards you use, how many credit cards you’re willing to open up, and your spending habits.
Below is a look at how to plan a trip to Universal Orlando using travel rewards. It’s not the only way to do it, but it has served us well.
Planning A Universal Orlando Vacation
One of the first things you should do when planning a trip to Universal Orlando is to determine what you want to get out of the experience. A nice, relaxing family vacation? Spending as much time at the parks as possible? What’s the end goal for your trip?
It’s also important to decide what’s important to you and what isn’t. For example, we have a family of 6. We value space to spread out wherever we stay so that we’re not on top of each other. As the trip winds along, your family may need time alone to decompress after spending several days together at Universal.
So for us, we value space, which means we don’t stay in standard hotel rooms. We often rent a vacation home or find hotels with extra space and amenities like a kitchen and separate bedrooms. I’d rather spend more money on our accommodations than on flying first class, especially since it’s only a two-hour flight from Cleveland to Orlando. Figure out what’s important to you on your Universal trip, and then you can determine where to splurge and where to save.
Airfare to Universal Orlando
Our family is Team Southwest when it comes to flying. Southwest offers affordable flights, which are crucial when traveling as a family of 6. Some people don’t like the fact that you can’t choose specific seats. We’ve never had issues finding seats together as a family. If you really want to ensure you’re all together, you can pay a little more for Early Bird boarding. It’s worth it, and you can just build it into your trip cost.
The number of points needed to fly Southwest to Orlando depends on your departure airport and the time of year you’re traveling. Our kids attend public school, and my wife is a public school teacher, so our only chances to travel end up being the most popular travel times — spring break, holidays, and summer.
The easiest way to earn enough Southwest points for flights is through Southwest credit cards. Both the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card and Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card earn bonus points you can redeem for Southwest flights. Getting Southwest credit cards is also a great way to get you closer to the coveted Southwest companion pass. With an SW companion pass, you can designate one person to fly for free as your companion whenever you fly. The only costs on a companion pass flight are
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You can earn a companion pass by flying 100 qualifying one-way flights or earn 135,000 points in a calendar year. Getting a Southwest credit card and earning the sign-up bonus is the easiest way to boost your points balance quickly and get you closer to the companion pass. If you own a business, you can also open a Southwest business credit card along with a personal card to get you even closer. Timing is everything when trying to earn a companion pass. Earning it early in the year could mean having the pass for nearly two full years.
If you prefer another airline, a cobranded airline credit card could earn you enough points for free airfare for your family. If two adults are traveling, you both can open a credit card to double your efforts. Again, earning credit card sign-up bonuses is the easiest way to earn points quickly.
Universal Orlando Accommodations
There are literally hundreds of hotels and resorts within driving distance of Universal Orlando. The first thing you need to decide is whether you want to stay on-property or off-property. Universal has a few resorts on the property. Staying at Universal hotels has its advantages, including some exclusive Universal perks. The downside is that options are limited, especially if you plan to use rewards to pay for accommodations on your trip.
What do you get if you stay at a Univeral Orlando? Most of the properties are either within walking distance of Universal Citywalk and the parks or offer free shuttles or water taxis. Universal hotel guests also get early entry into the parks before the general public. You can charge park purchases to your hotel room key. There’s also free merchandise delivery from the parks to your room if you don’t want to carry souvenirs around all day.
Perhaps the best perk is that if you stay at a Premier Universal hotel, you get free Universal Express Unlimited passes which allow you to skip the regular lines on select attractions at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. You can purchase Universal Express Unlimited passes, but they are extremely expensive. If you are planning on getting the passes, it’s worth considering staying at a Universal resort. The resorts that earn free Express Unlimited passes are:
- Loews Royal Pacific Resort
- Hard Rock Hotel
- Loews Portofino Bay Hotel
It’s easier to book Universal hotels using points than Disney World hotels. The following loyalty rewards programs allow you to book Universal hotels through their travel portals:
- Chase Ultimate Rewards
- Citi ThankYou
- Bilt Rewards
If you have the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card or the Capital One® Venture X Rewards Credit Card, you can pay for a Universal hotel with your card and use miles to cover the charge.
Loews Portofino Bay is part of the Amex Fine Hotels and Resorts collection. If you have the Platinum Card® from American Express, you could book your stay using Amex Membership Rewards through the program. You can probably get more value for Membership Rewards points through other redemptions, but it’s an option.
If you’re staying off-property, options are wide open to use points for hotels and resorts. Almost all of the major hotel brands have property within driving distance of Universal Studios. Options range from value hotels to luxury resorts. Obviously, the more expensive the resort, the more points you’ll probably need to book award stays. Hotel credit cards are a great way to not only earn sign-up bonuses and earn points redeemable for stays, but they usually come with exclusive benefits within the hotel brand. Some hotel credit cards come with automatic hotel status or a free anniversary night each year. Some of our favorite hotel credit cards include:
Staying at a vacation rental
If you have a larger family, it might make more sense to get a rental home for your vacation. That’s what we usually do these days. There are thousands of quality rental properties in and around Orlando. We’ve used sites like Airbnb and VRBO to find rental homes for our past few Universal and Disney World vacations.
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If you have the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card or Capital One® Venture X Rewards Credit Card, you can use it to book a rental home. As long as it codes as travel, you can cover the purchase with points. Generally, sites like Airbnb and VRBO code as travel for these cards, but other rental sites or rentals booked directly through a management company or real estate agent may not. Always check before you make a plan to use points for a stay.
If your credit card has its own portal for booking travel, like Chase Ultimate Rewards, you can sometimes find deals on condos and other rental properties with a little searching. Many popular hotel brands operate vacation clubs and timeshare properties that are bookable with points, including:
- Hilton Grand Vacations
- Homes and Villas by Marriott
- Hyatt Residence Club
- Marriott Vacation Club
- Wyndham Resorts & Hotels
You don’t have to be a member to book stays at these properties. Credit cards that earn points redeemable through a travel portal include:
- Bilt Mastercard®
- Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card
- Capital One® Venture X Rewards Credit Card
- Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card
- Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
- Chase Sapphire Reserve
- Citi Premier® Card
- Citi Prestige® Card
- The Platinum Card® from American Express
Renting a Car in Orlando
Similar to hotels and other accommodations, you can book rental cars using points through travel portals. We’ve rented vehicles through Chase Ultimate Rewards and Capital One Travel before without any issues. If you have the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card or Capital One® Venture X Rewards Credit Card, you can also book directly with rental companies using your card and erase the charges using points. With the Venture X card, you also receive a $300 travel credit annually that you could apply towards the cost of a rental vehicle on your Universal vacation.
Many travel rewards credit cards provide rental car insurance as a perk. To receive coverage, you have to decline the rental car company’s optional coverage and use the card to pay for the rental. Typically, it’s secondary coverage, so your personal kicks in first. Some cards, like Chase Sapphire Preferred, provide primary coverage on rental cars for cardholders.
Universal Studios Tickets
It used to be harder to pay for Universal Studios tickets with points, but times have changed. There are several ways to redeem credit card rewards for Universal tickets.
One of the easiest ways is to buy them directly through credit card travel portals. You can purchase Universal Orlando tickets through Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards or the Bilt Rewards travel portal.
Another way to use rewards for Universal Orlando tickets is to purchase them through a third-party site like Undercover Tourist. The park tickets may not code as travel when you buy them directly, but they do when you buy them through Undercover Tourist. Sometimes you can find deals through Undercover Tourist that make the tickets cheaper than buying them directly. You can use one of the Capital One Venture cards to pay for your tickets and use points to erase the purchase.
There’s always a risk when not buying tickets directly from the source (Universal Studios in this case). But Undercover Tourist is an authorized retailer and has been helping families save money through discount park tickets for over two decades.
Find Discount Tickets to the Universal Orlando Resort
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Take advantage of card spending
We’ve covered the primary expenses involved with a Universal Studios family vacation, but they aren’t the only costs you’ll incur. Other expenses you’ll face during your travels include:
- Gas (if you rent a car)
While you may not be able to use points and miles to cover these types of expenses, you can maximize your points-earning potential by paying with credit cards that reward you with bonus rates in these categories. Many travel rewards cards reward you handsomely for dining charges. Take advantage of bonus rates whenever possible by using the right credit card.
Bonus Tip: Always sign up for loyalty rewards programs
It’s free to sign up, and they can help you score additional benefits whether you booked travel using points and miles or not. I scored a free room upgrade on a stay during one of our kids’ out-of-town sports tournaments. The hotel brand was one I had never stayed with before. I literally signed up for their loyalty program while sitting in my car in the hotel’s parking lot minutes before checking in. I bypassed the line of angry sports parents waiting for their room and headed up to our suite (I booked a standard room).
Regardless of the hotel, airline, car rental or other travel brands, signing up for their loyalty rewards program can help you gain access to valuable perks like free wifi, upgrades, early check-in, late checkout, and special member rates on bookings.
A Note On Using Credit Cards To Earn Rewards
A quick internet search will lead you to several travel experts who know far more about travel rewards than I’ll probably ever know. But something I do know is that earning credit card rewards isn’t worth it if:
- You can’t pay your monthly credit card balance in full each month.
- You spend more than you make to earn rewards
- You have to stray away from your normal spending habits to earn sign-up bonuses
Credit card rewards are a great tool, but they don’t hold much value if you have to carry debt to earn enough to cover travel expenses. Credit card companies are betting that you’ll screw up and overspend on your cards. They make money when you fail. They wouldn’t offer rewards if it weren’t worth it on their end.
If you follow travel influencers and other “experts,” they may argue about point values and what redemptions offer the most value. I don’t listen to that noise for the most part. For us, the best value is whatever provides a great travel experience for our family. While there are certain redemption options, like gift cards, that hold much less value than travel, as long as you get the redemption you want, it’s a good value.
We don’t rely on points and miles for all of our travel. We use a sinking fund to save money all year for travel. It’s one of our family’s priorities, so we put our money where our mouth is. Rewards often help us save money on part of our trip, allowing us to spend less overall on vacations.
How does your family save money at Universal Studios Orlando? Let us know in the comments below.
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, Bankrate, Fox Business, Credible, CreditCards.com, and Student Loan Planner.