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Maximizing Purchases and Redeeming Awards at Disney Resorts

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Disney World is known for many things, and being inexpensive isn’t one of them. In this post, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele explains the best ways to use points and miles toward a Disney vacation, and ways to maximize purchases while you’re there.

For Disney fans, there’s no resisting the lure of Disney theme parks. Yet for award travel enthusiasts, a trip to Disney World (Orlando) or Disney Land (Anaheim) poses some unique and perplexing challenges.

Case in point, TPG himself recently took a family vacation to Walt Disney World and was stunned to learn that the Barclaycard Arrival Plus did not consider the park to be a “tourist attraction,” so it wasn’t eligible for a mileage redemption. Furthermore, the tickets he purchased did not count as “travel purchases” to receive 2x on his Chase Sapphire Preferred. Huh?

Today, I want to look at strategies for earning and redeeming awards for Disney vacations so you can travel to the Magic Kingdom and maximize rewards while you’re there.

Earning rewards with the Disney card from Chase

The first, and most logical place you might look to find rewards for a Disney vacation would be the Disney Premier Visa Card from Chase. Despite the name brand recognition, I can’t really recommend this product. Cardholders earn a measly 1% return on most purchases, and a ho-hum 2% return for purchases at gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants, and most Disney locations. Rewards are offered in the form of Disney Dollars (credit for purchases from Disney), or airline statement credits. The sign-up bonus is a mere $100 statement credit (after spending $500 within three months), or a net $51 after paying the $49 annual fee that is not waived the first year.

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A co-branded Disney credit card might seem like an obvious choice, eant you can do better.

Other benefits of this card include a 10% savings on select merchandise purchases of $50 or more at the Disney Store and DisneyStore.com, and select dining locations in the parks. Finally, there are some exclusive cardholder Meet ‘N’ Greet events in the park, where cardmembers (or presumably their children) can get a complimentary 5×7 photo with Disney characters.

These perks may be nice to have, but don’t justify the annual fee, let alone the opportunity cost of not getting a more competitive product. Credit card rewards enthusiasts will find this rate of return lacking compared to some of the cards that offer cash back and statement credits.

Credit cards to consider when making Disney purchases

When TPG used his Chase Sapphire Preferred to purchase Disney World Park tickets, the transaction was categorized as “Amusement Parks, Circuses, Carnivals, Fortune Tellers,” so it wasn’t eligible for the 2x rewards for travel. It makes sense that Disney World is categorized as an amusement park, but can we all take a moment to relish the fact that there’s actually a merchant code for fortune tellers?

Thankfully, there are other travel rewards credit cards that offer bonuses specifically for amusement parks:

Citi ThankYou Preferred Card
This card offers 2x ThankYou points per Dollar spent on purchases for dining at restaurants and entertainment, and the terms specifically include amusement parks. Other purchases earn one point per dollar spent. ThankYou points are generally worth about one cent each toward gift cards, merchandise, and travel reservations, although holders of the premium Citi ThankYou Rewards cards can transfer points to travel partners. There is no annual fee for this card.

Citi ThankYou Premier Card
Like the Citi ThankYou Preferred, the Premier version offers bonuses for entertainment purchases. This card currently offers 3x rewards on entertainment until April 18, 2015. Starting on April 19, that bonus declines to 2x for dining and entertainment, although travel and gas purchases increase to 3x. ThankYou Premier cardholders can transfer points to miles with 11 airline partners plus Hilton HHonors. There is a $95 annual fee for this card that is waived the first year.

Barclaycard Arrival
The standard Barlcycard Arrival with no annual fee offers double miles on travel and entertainment, so this is a good choice if you want to use a no-fee card for earning rewards at Disney. New applicants receive 20,000 bonus miles after spending $1,000 on the card within 90 days. Check out this comparison between the no-fee Arrival and the Arrival Plus for more info.

Citi ThankYou Prestige
Like the Citi ThankYou Premier, this card offers 2x rewards for dining and entertainment purchases, but also offers 3x rewards on air travel and hotels. This card also comes with numerous travel benefits, including airport lounge access and an annual $250 air travel credit. This card also enables transfers to travel partners. Overall Citi Prestige packs the biggest punch of the cards mentioned here, but it also has a hefty $450 annual fee.

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Getting to Orlando isn’t difficult. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Getting to Disney World

Nearly every major airline offers service to Orlando International, and Allegiant offers extensive service to the more distant Orlando Sanford International Airport.

For pure value, I would have to recommend the Southwest Rapid Rewards program and the Southwest Companion Pass. The advantages are that the Companion Pass can be used for award bookings (with no change or cancellation fees), and Southwest offers frequent service to Orlando. For more information see my post on the Southwest Companion Pass: 16 Things Every Flyer Should Know.

You can earn Rapid Rewards with co-branded cards from Chase (like the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier), or since Southwest is a Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner, you can transfer points earned on the Sapphire Preferred or the Ink Plus Business Card.

Other tips for buying park tickets

You may have heard the news that Disney announced ticket price increases at both Disney World and Disney Land, which are now $105 and $99, respectively. At those rates, it’s easy to see how tickets can be the largest single expense of a Disney vacation.

I wish I could share a way to efficiently redeem points or miles for park tickets, but it just doesn’t exist as far as I can tell. The best I can do is to offer you some advice on getting discounts.

1. Purchase multi-day tickets in advance. Disney offers progressively larger discounts as you purchase more tickets in advance. While a single day at Walt Disney World is $105, a two day pass is $96 per day, three days are $91.67 per day, and so on. It’s not life-changing, but it’s something.

2. Try a reputable ticket broker. These include Official Ticket CenterUndercover Tourist, and ParkSavers. Stay away from tickets sold on eBay, Craigslist, and other sites, as there are plenty of scammers out there.

3. Look for discounts. Disney often discounts tickets for Florida residents, AAA members, and members of the military. There are also some discounts available to employees of the government and some corporations. Finally, there are reports that local Walmarts in the Lake Buena Vista area sometimes sell discounted tickets.

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You can use Starpoints to stay at the Walt Disney World Dolphin and Swan.

Staying near the parks

Like airfare, you’ll will plenty of award options for lodging. While I couldn’t list every one of the dozens of nearby properties available with points, here are a few that seem to present the best deals for award travelers:

Starwood

Walt Disney World Dolphin and SwanThese two properties are not only Walt Disney hotels, but also they can be reserved as awards from the Starwood Preferred Guest program. Rooms cost 10,000 points per night, although there’s a $23/day resort fee. Staying at one of these properties does offer some significant savings and benefits, such as free parking, extra Magic Hours in theme parks, FastPass+, complimentary transportation, and on-site character dining.

Sheraton Lake Buena Vista ResortGuests at this nearby Starwood property forgo many of the benefits of staying in a Disney resort, but will need far fewer points. As a Starwood Category 2 property, award nights are 4,000 points on weeknights, and 3,000 points on weekends. The hotel provides complimentary transportation to the park, but you’ll still encounter a resort fee of $19.95 per night.

Sheraton Suites Orlando AirportThis might be a good choice to stay your first or last night, since it offers complimentary 24-hour shuttle service to and from Orlando Airport (just one mile away). As a Starwood Category 2 property, award nights again cost just 4,000 points on weeknights, and 3,000 points on weekends, but there’s no resort fee at this property.

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Hyatt also has several properties in the area, including the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress.

Hyatt

Hyatt Regency Grand CypressThis property offers free scheduled transportation to Disney, Universal Studios, and SeaWorld, but it does charge a $25 a night hotel fee and a $17 per night parking charge. Award nights are 15,000 points.

Hyatt Regency OrlandoLocated near Disney and several other theme parks, this hotel is 15,000 points per night, plus a $20 resort fee, plus a $20 per night parking charge. The property is across the street from SeaWorld and a short drive from the Disney parks.

Hyatt Place Orlando/UniversalNot only is this property just 8,000 points per night, but also there are no parking or resort fees, so you can escape an award stay with a bill of $0.00. The hotel is across the street from Universal Studios, and close to Disney and other theme parks.

Hyatt Regency Orlando International AirportThis hotel is located inside the airport terminal, which is ideal for late evening arrivals or early morning departures  My family stayed here recently after a late night arrival, and we were in bed within a few minutes after getting off the plane. We paid for it using the annual free night benefit from the Hyatt Credit Card from Chase, but otherwise it’s 12,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points per night.

Hyatt Place Orlando AirportAt 5,000 points per night, this airport property is only a fraction of the cost of an award at the hotel inside the terminal, and it offers a free shuttle to the airport.

Hilton
The Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista isn’t the cheapest award redemption, but the location is good.

Hilton

Hilton Orlando Lake Buena VistaThis is the only Hilton hotel that’s on Disney property, so guests receive complimentary transportation to and from Disney Theme Parks, and extended theme park hours benefits. It’s also within walking distance of the Downtown Disney shopping and entertainment center. As a Category 6 property, it costs 30,000 to 50,000 points per night. There’s a $24 per night resort charge and a $15 per night parking charge.

Embassy Suites Orlando – Lake Buena Vista ResortThis property features a complimentary theme park shuttle service to EPCOT, where you can then travel to other Disney parks. It’s a category 5 property, requiring 30,000 to 40,000 points per night. There’s a resort fee of $24 (which is not disclosed on the website) and a parking charge of $15.

IHG

Holiday Inn Orlando – Lake Buena VistaThis hotel is on Disney property, so guests receive complimentary transportation to all of the Disney parks, and it somehow manages to do so without charging a resort fee, although parking is $12 per day. Award stays are 30,000 points per night.

Holiday Inn Express & Suites Orlando-Lake Buena Vista EastThis hotel offers free full hot breakfast, a free scheduled shuttle to all three major theme parks, with no resort fees or even parking charges, for just 20,000 points per night.

Marriott

There’s a collection of three hotels in a complex called Marriott Village, each of which includes free breakfast and free transportation to the parks. There are no resort fees, and parking is just $6 per night at each property.

Club Carlson

Radisson Hotel Orlando – Lake Buena VistaWithin walking distance of Walt Disney World, this property requires 38,000 points per night. It’s also refreshing to note that guests face no resort fees, parking charges, or Internet service fees.

Country Inn & Suites by Carlson, Orlando UniversalFor just 28,000 points per night, this hotel offers a complimentary breakfast buffet as well as scheduled shuttle service to Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, and SeaWorld theme parks. There is no parking charge or resort fee for this hotel.

What are your strategies for earning and redeeming points on a Disney vacation?
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