Maximizing Purchases and Redeeming Awards at Universal Orlando Resorts
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With Universal Orlando continuing to expand its Harry Potter attractions, more and more fans are planning visits to the theme park, either as a standalone trip or tacked on to a visit to Disneyworld. In this post, TPG Contributor Whitney Magnuson explains the best ways to use points and miles toward a Universal Studios vacation.
Accio! Alohamora! Petrificus Totalis! If you not only know where those made-up words come from, but also their intended effects, then chances are that like me, you're a big Harry Potter fan. Even four years after the release of the final Harry Potter film, the series remains popular with both children and adults, which has pushed a trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando to the top of many people's travel bucket lists. Even if you aren't into J.K. Rowling's beloved series, there's plenty to see at the theme park, from the E.T. Adventure to the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit rollercoaster.
Although there's certainly no shortage of hotel options in the tourist mecca of Orlando, choosing the right place to stay can make a huge difference in your overall experience. In the spirit of Jason Steele's post on Maximizing Purchases and Redeeming Awards at Disney Resorts, today I'll share some tips on booking a trip to Orlando's other big theme park — Universal.
The first question you need to consider when planning a trip to Universal is whether or not to stay in a hotel affiliated with the theme park. These properties include the Universal Cabana Bay Beach Resort, the Loews Royal Pacific Resort, the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel and the Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando. A fifth affiliated resort, the Loews Sapphire Falls, is scheduled to open in 2016.
Although you'll pay more for the privilege to stay at one of these properties, Universal does sweeten the deal: All registered guests receive complimentary early admission to one Universal park each day — either Universal Studios, home to the new Diagon Alley or Islands of Adventure, home to the original Hogsmeade Village. Given the extreme popularity of these attractions, as well as the vast wait times that can come with that, this is a HUGE advantage, especially if you're trying to fit in all of Universal in just one or two days.
Guests at both Loews properties and the Hard Rock also receive an additional bonus: Universal Express Unlimited passes, which allow you to skip the line at many of the park's attractions. The passes can also be purchased as an add-on to a regular ticket, with the price based on popularity. Prices for 2-Park Unlimited Express Passes vary by date and popularity; at their cheapest they cost about $80, and at peak times they hover around $150. For a family of four, that means each night spent in an affiliated hotel can save you as much as $600 on Express Passes alone.
Unfortunately, although the Loews brand does offer a loyalty program, the benefits are somewhat lackluster compared with points-based programs that allow you to redeem for free nights. Similarly, neither the Loews chain nor Universal offer a co-branded credit card as a pathway to free nights. However, a savvy traveler can still come by a free room at any of the above properties through the use of travel portals.
Booking Through a Travel Portal
But wait, you say! Isn't booking hotels through a portal as bad of an idea as repotting magical mandrakes without ear protection? It's true that you can usually find better redemption value by transferring bank reward points to a hotel or airline loyalty program. However, because of the added value perks you get for staying at a Universal-affiliated hotel, this is one of the exceptions to the rule.
Let's say we're looking for a room at a Universal-affiliated hotel for December 11-13 so we can visit the parks on that weekend. If we book through the Universal or Loews websites, there's availability at the Royal Pacific for $254 a night, or $286 if we include taxes and fees.
Similarly, the Citi ThankYou portal shows a room for $256 a night before taxes and fees. If we choose instead to pay in ThankYou Points, we'd need 25,637 points for a 1 cent:1 point redemption rate. However, Citi Prestige and Citi Premier cardmembers receive an upgraded redemption rate of 1.25 cents per point on travel, meaning they'd only need 20,510 points per night to book that same room. Citi Prestige Card holders wanting to take their time at Universal could also decide to pay for a three-night stay and then make use of the fourth-night-free benefit that is applicable to any hotel booked using their card through the ThankYou portal. This option would drop their nightly rate for a four-night stay to just $192 per night.
The Chase Ultimate Rewards portal also offers a redemption rate of 1.25 cents per point, but Chase takes 20% off the total price of the room (taxes included) if you book through the portal, bringing the nightly rate to only $242 or 19,372 points. The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card currently offers 50,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in the first three months of card issue, making a weekend at the resort with all the included added perks a real possibility.
Finally, it's worth mentioning the American Express Membership Rewards portal. Although Membership Rewards are certainly valuable as a transfer option, they have one of the worst redemption rates on their own travel portal, at only 0.7-0.85 cents per point. This means that The Platinum Card from American Express cardholders, for example, would pay 36,000+ points per night for the same room that Chase and Citi cardholders can get for much less.
One last note regarding booking via portals. It makes sense to check in periodically post-booking to see whether room rates have dropped at your particular property. Because these portal bookings are generally treated as fully refundable, if the price/points rate of a room goes down, you can often just cancel and rebook under the new rate without penalty.
If spending your points through a portal just isn't your cup of pumpkin juice, though, there are plenty of other nearby hotels that provide a good jumping-off point for exploring Universal.
The Hyatt Place Orlando/Universal, for example, features an outdoor pool, a complimentary daily breakfast and free scheduled transportation to the Universal theme parks, making it a very convenient option for families. Rooms can be had for about $82 or 8,000 Hyatt points per night. Put another way, Chase Sapphire card members could transfer their Ultimate Reward points to Hyatt at a 1:1 rate and get family-friendly accommodations for a fraction of the points needed for the Loews Royal Pacific.
Also located close to the parks is the Four Points by Sheraton Orlando, which offers an outdoor pool, a free breakfast and shuttles to the parks. This SPG Category 2 hotel has rooms available for about $187 or 3,000-4,000 Starpoints per night. With the current bonus offer of 25,000 points for the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express, a traveler could easily book two nights at the Walt Disney World Swan or Dolphin hotels at 10,000 points per night to check out Disney's parks, tack on a night at the Four Points to see Universal parks and still have a few points leftover — an entire vacation with just one credit card bonus!
Buying Park Tickets
Once you've settled on your hotel, you'll need to buy your tickets to the park. Here again, the bank portals provide an opportunity to use points in place of cash. Under the activities section of the Citi ThankYou portal, one-day Park-to-Park tickets (meaning you can go to both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventures in the same day) are offered for roughly $185 or 18,567 points. You'll note that this is a 1 cent-per-point value — Citi doesn't offer the preferred 1.25 redemption rate on activities, regardless of which card you have. However, Chase Ultimate Rewards does offer the 1.25 redemption rate and has the same tickets for $185 or just 14,853 points.
Alternatively, you can buy the tickets directly through Universal's website for $156, including taxes and fees. Buying through Universal also allows greater flexibility — you can bundle discounted child tickets, multi-day tickets, dining plans and other add-ons, such as character breakfasts and Blue Man Group show tickets. Just avoid the "base tickets" listed on the site, which won't allow you to ride the Hogwarts Express because the train connects the two parks, which requires admission to both. Most of all, don't wait to buy your tickets until you're at the park, as long lines and higher prices at the gate make this a real headache.
If you buy tickets with your card through one of the portals, you'll generally receive points on the purchase. For example, Chase is offering 3x points back on portal purchases through the end of the year. If you're staying at one of the affiliated Universal hotels, you could wait to buy your tickets until you check in and bill them to your room, which will allow you to take advantage of the increased points for travel on a variety of credit cards. Or, the Citi Premier® Card, with its 2x points on entertainment including amusement parks, which is a good option if you decide to book directly with Universal. With this, you'll also earn the 2x bonus for in-park purchases like dining and souvenirs.
One final option would be to look at warehouse clubs like Sam's or Costco, or discount programs like AAA, which occasionally run deals on Universal tickets.
No matter how you get there, you're in store for delightful details and nostalgia scattered throughout the Harry Potter lands that will have you recalling all your favorite parts of the books and movies — no remembrall needed.
Do you have any tips for maximizing a visit to Universal Studios in Orlando? Please share them in the comments below!