Choosing the best Universal Orlando hotel for your trip

Dec 11, 2019

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It’s increasingly common for families to head to Orlando with sole purpose of exploring Universal Orlando. The Universal complex has two theme parks, a waterpark, themed hotels and the CityWalk entertainment and dining complex — with more on the way. Most families will find plenty to keep them busy for several days. Teens and tweens especially love Universal because of its thrill rides and the theming of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

If you’ve decided that a Universal Orlando vacation is right for your family, the next big decision is where to stay. This guide explains the benefits of staying at a hotel right on Universal property and then lays out the case for using points at nearby Hyatt, Marriott, Hilton and IHG hotels.

Related: Best credit cards for Disney and Universal

In This Post

Why stay at a Universal hotel?

There are three compelling reasons to book an on-site hotel at Universal: proximity, perks and theming.

The most obvious pro of staying at a Universal hotel is how close you are to the theme parks — Universal Studios Florida, Universal’s Islands of Adventure and the Volcano Bay waterpark — and the entertainment and dining hub known as CityWalk. You can walk to the parks or CityWalk from several of the on-site properties. Or you can take a complimentary shuttle bus or water taxi — depending on what’s available at the hotel you pick.

(Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Then, there are perks that only guests of certain Universal hotels get: free Unlimited Express Passes for guests of the Premier-level hotels (Loews Portofino Bay, Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Royal Pacific Resort). With this pass, you get to skip the line at participating Universal rides. It’s around a $129 per person, per day value, but you still need to pay for theme park admission to use the pass.

Finally, if your family loves special themes, these hotels can’t be beaten. Enjoy a taste of Italy at Portofino Bay, music at the Hard Rock, the beach at Universal’s Endless Summer Resort, 1950s Florida at Cabana Bay Beach Resort and Polynesian flair at Loews Royal Pacific Resort. And, if you visit Universal during the Christmas holidays, you’ll be treated to extra special decor, entertainment and special events.

Additionally, some rooms in the Premier-level hotels are kitted out with Universal characters. What little kid wouldn’t love staying in the Despicable Me Kids Suites at Portofino Bay? The Jurassic World Kids Suites at Royal Pacific are pretty cool, too.

Despicable Me Suite at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel (Photo courtesy of Booking.com)
Despicable Me Suite at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel (Photo courtesy of Loews Portofino Bay)

Universal’s on-property hotels

Universal’s on-site hotels are divvied up into four categories with pricing from budget to expensive. All Universal hotels offer early admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but some other perks vary by hotel category.

Value hotels

The Value category includes Universal’s Endless Summer Resort, which consists of Surfside Inn and Suites and Dockside Inn and Suites. When I checked availability, I saw prices as low as $85/night. If you’re looking for value, these are solid choices. You still get early admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter but there’s no water taxi to the theme parks. Instead, you’ll need to board a free shuttle bus to the parks and CityWalk.

Surfside Inn & Suites
Surfside Inn & Suites have rooms with a fabulous layout for families. (Photo courtesy of Universal Orlando)

Prime hotels

Universal’s Aventura Hotel and Cabana Bay Beach Hotel are known as Prime Value properties, where pricing scooches up a bit to $120/night. Both are within walking distance of Volcano Bay and you can take a free shuttle bus to the other theme parks and Universal areas. The family rooms in this hotel can be an excellent value for families looking to stick to a budget but have a little more sleeping space.

(Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Preferred hotel

Loews Sapphire Falls Resort is the only hotel that falls into Universal’s Preferred category. It’s a nice option that is within walking distance of Volcano Bay and rooms start around $168. What sets Sapphire Falls apart from the previously mentioned properties? It has both a free water taxi and shuttle buses to the theme parks and CityWalk. However, while this is a nice choice, keep in mind that this hotel won’t have included Express Passes that are reserved for Premier properties.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Premier hotels

For travelers that want the best at Universal, look to the Premier resorts, including Loews Royal Pacific Resort, Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Portofino Bay Hotel. Only guests of Premier resorts get included Universal Express Unlimited passes for each registered guest to skip the lines at participating rides like The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, Revenge of the Mummy and Harry Potter and the Harry Potter Escape from Gringotts. These hotels also have a water taxi and shuttle buses to the parks. Rooms start around $272 per night.

Universal Studios Loews Royal Pacific Jurassic Park Kid Suite (Photo courtesy of Loews Royal Pacific Resort)
The Jurassic Park Kid Suite at  Loews Royal Pacific Resort (Photo courtesy of Loews Royal Pacific Resort)

Best ways to pay for Universal hotel stays

If you’re working toward the minimum spend requirement of a new credit card bonus, it’s a good idea to pay for your Universal accommodations with that card.

Or, you can use a card that awards miles you can use to wipe out the travel charge. Examples include the Discover it Miles, Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card or Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard (not currently accepting new applicants).

Alternatively, if you’re looking to use or earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points or Citi ThankYou points, you can look for the Universal hotel of your choice in the Chase or Citi travel portals. Here’s the pricing — in cash and points — for a Chase Sapphire Reserve customer booking at Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Surfside Inn and Suites. With the Sapphire Reserve, you get 1.5 cents per point spend on travel via the Chase booking portal, so a $107 room costs about 7,100 points for the night.

You can book some Universal hotels at the Chase travel portal using cash or points.
Finally, the best deal of all may be available by booking through the American Express’s Fine Hotels & Resorts. You’ll need a Platinum Card® from American Express to book via Amex FHR ($550 annual fee. See rates & fees). But, if you do that, you’ll receive:
  • a room upgrade, when available
  • daily breakfast for two people
  • guaranteed 4 p.m. late checkout
  • noon check-in, when available
  • free Wi-Fi
  • a $100 food and beverage credit

You’ll also earn 5x Amex Membership Rewards points on prepaid FH&R bookings, if you pay with your eligible Platinum card. That is all on top of the included Express Passes you get for staying at that hotel, making it a great all-around offer if you value time and convenience most of all.

Loews Portofino Bay (courtesy of Booking.com)
Loews Portofino Bay (Photo courtesy of Loews Portofino Bay)

Off-property points hotels near Universal Orlando

On-site Universal hotels are a good bet for some families, but others prefer to stay off-site for budget or other reasons. You can often score terrific cash prices for accommodations near Universal — especially if you’re traveling during an off-season. You can also use traditional hotel points or free night award certificates.

Related: Hotel credit cards that come with an annual free night

If you select a Universal Partner Hotel, you can stay off-property but still enjoy some Universal perks. Divided into Moderate and Value accommodations, some partner hotels offer free transportation to Universal theme parks plus discounts on some park merchandise, as well as discounts on food and nonalcoholic beverages at select venues in the parks and at CityWalk. We’ll note below if a property on this list is a Universal Partner Hotel.

Here are some of our favorite points hotels near Universal Orlando, organized by hotel loyalty program.

World of Hyatt

Both the Hyatt Place Across From Universal Orlando Resort and the Hyatt House Across From Universal Orlando Resort are well located for a trip to Universal. These properties are each just a seven-minute drive to Universal but if you’ve got energy — and about 15 minutes to spare — you can walk to the parks instead. You can also walk to International Drive where you’ll find plenty of restaurants. Plus, both are designated as Universal Partner Hotels that offer free shuttle service to the theme parks. A hot breakfast and Wi-Fi are free at both properties. (Note: You only get the free breakfast at Hyatt Place if you book your room directly with Hyatt.)

Perks we love: Walking distance to Universal and a good — free — hot breakfast to start the day.

Related: The best hotel credit cards

Make time for the extensive hot free breakfast that
Make time for the extensive, free hot breakfast that’s available to all guests each morning. (Photo courtesy of the Hyatt House Across From Universal Orlando Florida)

Although it’s not as close to Universal as the Hyatt Place and Hyatt House, the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress — about 10 miles from the Universal parks — gets rave reviews from travelers. And it’s a good choice if you plan to visit Disney in addition to Universal. The hotel offers shuttle service to all three complexes. Be aware, though, that this hotel charges a $35 per day resort fee on cash stays. Hyatt waives the resort fee on award stays. The lagoon-style pool, complete with slides and waterfalls, is a nice diversion on a hot day. There’s also a lake with water sports, tennis courts and a golf course.

Perks we love: The Regency Club serves breakfast daily as well as evening hors d’oeuvres. World of Hyatt Globalist elites or those spending some extra points can get access to this club lounge.

Related: What is Hyatt elite status worth?

All three Hyatt properties mentioned are Category 3 with redemptions starting from just 12,000 points per night. You can also redeem a Category 1–4 free-night certificate, like the one you earn on the anniversary of the World Of Hyatt Credit Card.

If you don’t yet have the World Of Hyatt card, it might be worth picking it up for the welcome bonus. You’ll earn 25,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first three months and another 25,000 points after spending a total of $6,000 in the first six months. That’s more than enough points for a four-night stay at any of the above-mentioned Hyatt hotels near Universal Orlando.

TPG values World of Hyatt points at 1.7 cents each, so a 50k welcome bonus is worth $850. Be sure to check the cash prices of these properties before using points as there are times when cash is a better deal.

Marriott Bonvoy

If you’re using Marriott Bonvoy points for your stay and all you care about is the distance of your hotel from Universal, pick the Category 4 Fairfield Inn & Suites Orlando Near Universal Orlando Resort. It’s two miles from the parks and it’s a Universal Partner Hotel so you’ll get free shuttle transportation.

But Marriott has some nicer full-service resorts in the area that deserve your consideration, too.

Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld: This is a Category 5 property and a good place to use your 35k free-night certificate that you may have earned from the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card or Marriott Bonvoy Business™ American Express® Card. The hotel is about a 15-minute drive to Universal and you can walk directly across the street to SeaWorld. Parents might appreciate the on-site Starbucks outlet and kids love the hotel’s waterpark.

Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld (Photo courtesy of Booking.com)
Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld (Photo courtesy of Renaissance)

The Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes and JW Marriott Grande Lakes — both Category 6 properties — share some public spaces and each is a lovely resort in its own right.

The Ritz-Carlton has three outdoor heated pools (one is adults-only), fishing excursions and eco-tours of the 40-acre Shingle Pond and Shingle Creek, a full-service spa, gym and 18-hole Greg Norman-designed golf course. There is also a robust Ritz Kids program for children ages 4–12. The program is free for up to three children when staying in a Club Level room or Executive Suite. All other guests get two free hours for up to two children per room, per day. It costs $20 per hour, per child beyond that allotment.

Perks we love: The awesome thing about The Ritz-Carlton is that you can also use the amenities at the JW Marriott Grande Lakes right next door, which has an incredible lazy river-style pool and one of Orlando’s best hotel waterparks.

Carve out some time to enjoy the lazy river and pool at the JW Marriott Grande Lakes Orlando. (Photo courtesy of the hotel)
Carve out some time to enjoy the lazy river and pool at the JW Marriott Grande Lakes Orlando. (Photo courtesy of the JW Marriott)

Both properties offer scheduled shuttle transport to Universal, Walt Disney World and SeaWorld. (The hotels are about a 20-minute drive to Universal.) Room redemptions at both of these hotels cost 40k Marriott points per night on off-peak dates, 50k points on standard dates and 60k points during peak season. If you’re staying during standard dates, you can use the 50k free-night certificate you earn on the anniversary of the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card ($450 annual fee. See rates & fees.).

Related: What is Marriott elite status worth?

Hilton Honors

This year we’ve seen some terrific welcome bonuses on Hilton’s range of cobranded hotel credit cards. Since Hilton has some very nice properties in the Orlando area, picking up a card may make a lot of sense if you’re hoping to visit Universal. Here are the current card options.

Related: What is Hilton Honors status worth?

If you plan to use Hilton Honors points to book a room in the Orlando area, you’ve got lots of options.

Three of the closest Hilton hotels to Universal are the Hampton Inn Closest To Universal Orlando (26k–40k points/night), Hampton Inn Orlando Near Universal (29k–30k points/night) and Homewood Suites by Hilton Orlando-Nearest to Universal Studios (34k–40k points/night). Each offers a hot free breakfast to all guests but only Homewood is an official Universal Partner Hotel.

If you’re looking for a more full-service option, the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel at the Entrance to Universal Orlando is a Universal Partner Hotel (29k–30k points/night). The most compelling thing about the DoubleTree is that it’s within walking distance of the Universal theme parks. Added bonuses are the on-site Starbucks, gelato shop and three restaurants.

The DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel at the Entrance to Universal Orlando is super close to the theme parks. (Photo courtesy of Booking.com)
The DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel at the Entrance to Universal Orlando is super close to the theme parks. (Photo courtesy of Hilton)

But if your family wants a true resort vibe, look at the 1,400-room Hilton Orlando. Redemption rates range from 40k–60k points per night. It’s a Universal Partner Hotel, but it would be a great choice even if it wasn’t.

Perks we love: Just a 10-minute drive to Universal, it’s got two pools, a lazy river, water slide, splash zone, (extra fee) pool cabanas, a fitness center, spa and recreation courts (basketball, tennis, volleyball). A handful of dining options make it easy to end the day conveniently at your hotel.

The extra fees can add up here though, so keep that in mind. You’ll pay to park ($24/day for self-parking or $32/day for valet).There’s also a $35/day resort fee, unless it’s waived because you’re on an award stay.

The Hilton Orlando
The Hilton Orlando’s pool complex is amazing. (Photo courtesy of Hilton)

Note that the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek (40k–60k points per night) and Waldorf Astoria Orlando (63k–80k points per night) are also excellent places to use your Hilton Honors points, but they are farther from Universal, which will double your commute time (even longer if you’re traveling at rush hour). These two resorts are next to each other and share amenities like the lazy river/pool complex. Both are Official Walt Disney World Hotels.

Remember that you can use your Hilton Free Weekend Night Reward (earned through some of the Hilton cobranded credit cards mentioned earlier) at any of the above-mentioned properties.

Related: How to use Hilton points for Disney vacations

IHG Rewards Club

If you’ve got spare IHG Rewards Club points and you’re not looking for a full-service hotel, you’ve got two hotel choices close to Universal Orlando: Holiday Inn Express & Suites Nearest Universal Orlando and Holiday Inn & Suites Across from Universal Orlando. Both properties offer redemptions starting at 30,000 points per night.

Perks we love: The Holiday Inn Express, a Universal Partner Hotel, serves a free daily breakfast to all guests and it’s extensive. The hot entrees rotate between biscuits and gravy (you are in the South), pancakes and the brand’s signature cinnamon rolls. Kids 11 and under can eat free at all meals at the Holiday Inn when staying as a registered guest.

The free breakfast spread at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Nearest Universal Orlando (Photo courtesy of Booking.com)
The free breakfast spread at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Nearest Universal Orlando (Photo courtesy of Holiday Inn)

Wi-Fi is free at both hotels and it’s an easy walk to Universal from both properties. The Holiday Inn also offers a shuttle bus. Which property is right for you depends on the amenities that are more important to your family.

One of my favorite things about IHG is that if you hold the IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card, every fourth night of an award stay is free. That can save a family some serious cash during a Universal trip. (The information for the has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.)

Related: What is IHG Rewards Club status worth?

Bottom line

Whether you decide to book one of Universal’s on-site hotels or use cash or points at any of the nearby chain hotels, you’ll be well-positioned to make the most of out everything Universal Orlando has to offer.

For rates and fees of the Hilton Aspire, please click here.

For rates and fees of the Platinum Card, please click here.

For rates and fees of the Hilton Honors Surpass, please click here.  

For rates and fees of the Bonvoy Brilliant, please click here.

Featured image courtesy of Universal Orlando

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