How to use points to save money at Universal Orlando
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Any first-timer planning a vacation to major U.S. theme parks like Universal or Disney is in for sticker shock. Even in the time of coronavirus, prices have remained steady. Between park tickets, themed hotel rooms, skip-the-line passes and souvenirs, the expenses add up quickly. In the search for savings, families will find it easier right now to use points to save money on trips to Universal Orlando than Walt Disney World.
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Use Chase Ultimate Rewards points
Using Ultimate Rewards points for Universal hotels
The Chase Ultimate Rewards program can be a jack-of-all-trades in covering the costs of a Universal Orlando vacation. Let’s consider your lodging.
Universal Orlando Resort has three Premier-class hotels: Loews Royal Pacific Resort, The Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Portofino Bay Hotel. Reservations at each of these hotels include Express Passes, Universal Orlando’s cut-the-line pass that are valued at up to $279 per person, per day. Yes, you read that right. On the busiest days of the year, Universal Orlando will charge you almost $300 for Express Passes. For a family of four, Express Passes can easily surpass $500 in costs daily, so it’s best to book hotels that confer the passes if you want them. (If you’re visiting during a busy time of year, you may need the pass to avoid lines and see and do more.)
The lower tiers of Universal Orlando hotels don’t include Express Passes but do offer early access to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. That’s great if anyone in your family has their heart set on trying Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, a roller coaster with a notoriously long wait (and no Express Pass line). Some of the Universal hotel options that don’t include Express Passes also can be really family-friendly. For example, the Aventura Hotel has family rooms.
All Universal Orlando hotels are available for booking through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal. The value of your Chase points will vary based on the card you hold. You’ll get the highest value if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve®: Your points are then worth 1.5 cents each toward booking travel.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and Chase Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card both offer slightly less (1.25 cents) in value per Ultimate Rewards point redeemed for travel, while the Chase Freedom Flex card will provide you with a value of just 1 cent per point. However, if you have the Sapphire Reserve, you can transfer the points you have earned on your other Chase Ultimate Rewards cards, like the Freedom, to Sapphire Reserve and then redeem at 1.5 cents each.
One small caveat when booking through the Ultimate Rewards travel portal: The “price” in points that you see displayed in the search results doesn’t include taxes, so it is likely understated a bit. Points prices and cash prices vary by date; on a test date in mid-December, the Universal Orlando hotels ranged from 8,000 to 20,000 Ultimate Rewards points per night.
Buying Universal tickets with Ultimate Rewards points
The Chase Ultimate Rewards portal offers a variety of Universal Orlando park tickets for redemption. (It also sometimes sells Disney tickets — but not always.) Ultimate Rewards previously charge a $10 convenience fee that can be paid in points, though we didn’t find it in our most recent searches. Prices will vary based on what type of ticket you’re searching for. In our most recent searches, the Ultimate Rewards portal was anywhere from $5 to $10 cheaper per day. Some of that is due to differences in taxes, the rest is hard to tell. Universal Orlando typically offers a variety of tickets and some pretty worthwhile promotional opportunities, so it’s worth it to read through each ticket type.
Like Disney World, Universal Orlando charges different prices depending on the day you want to visit. It’s worth looking at the ticket calendar before you book to see if you can target cheaper dates. Even shifting from a Saturday to Friday or Sunday in March or April would save you $5 to $10 per ticket on some weekends.
At the same time, Universal Orlando can sometimes offer ticket deals that may or may not be available in the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. For example, there’s currently a deal where you get three days free when you buy a two-day ticket that gives you access to all three parks. Right now, that deal is in the Chase portal, but that isn’t always the case.
Finally, consider a Universal annual pass if you’re visiting during a peak time. Our family of four found we could save money purchasing annual passes instead of buying two-day park tickets with Express Passes. We sacrificed the all-day Express Pass option for one that starts at 4 p.m. every day and ended up with a year’s worth of Hogwarts for the price of two (times four) days of tickets.
Use Citi ThankYou Points
Just as you can use Chase Ultimate Rewards points at a fixed-value to book an official Universal Orlando hotel room, you can use your Citi ThankYou points to do the same via the ThankYou travel site. Those with a Citi Premier® Card or Citi Prestige® Card can redeem points at a fixed 1 cent per point value toward travel.
The information for the Citi Prestige Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Additionally, Prestige cardholders can book a three-night stay and then use the card’s fourth-night-free benefit that is available for any hotel booked through the ThankYou portal using the card (using points, cash or a combo of the two). (Learn how to redeem Citi ThankYou points for maximum value here.)
However, when it comes to theme park tickets, using ThankYou points isn’t as good a deal as using Chase points, since activities cash out at just 1 cent per point, even with the Prestige or Premier cards.
Using points for off-site Universal hotels
There are several chain hotels located near Universal Orlando Resort, which gives you lots of opportunities to use those hotel points. During our visits last year, I watched a Hyatt House rise out of the ground and it is now open for business. Hyatt House is an excellent choice for families.
Many rooms feature a kitchen and separate bedrooms. Hyatt is a 1:1 transfer partner of Ultimate Rewards, so it’s easy to use your points for a free stay. You can also use points from the World of Hyatt Credit Card, and even the annual Category 1–4 award provided by that card, to book the Hyatt House Across From Universal Orlando Resort or Hyatt Place Across From Universal Orlando Resort. Both are Category 3 properties with nightly redemptions that start at 12,000 Hyatt points per night.
This Hyatt House is a Universal Partner property, which means you’ll get certain discounts in the parks and at CityWalk, Universal’s dining, shopping and entertainment venue. You can walk from the hotel to the parks or enjoy free scheduled shuttle service. Combine this with a ticket deal through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal and you could go from spending thousands of dollars on a Harry Potter-themed vacation to spending cash on your magic wand and Butterbeer.
Other ways to save on Universal Orlando
Discount ticket brokers
If you don’t have a lot of points or miles available at the moment, there are still ways to save on a Universal Orlando vacation. Look for discounted Universal Orlando tickets on Undercover Tourist. Even when there’s a price increase on tickets at the parks, Undercover Tourist will usually have inventory at the older prices for a short time. Make sure to pay with your Chase Sapphire Reserve to earn 3 points per dollar on the travel charge via Undercover Tourist. Getaway Today is another reputable discount ticket agency that can usually save you money on Universal Orlando tickets.
As a side note, not all discount ticket sites are created equal. We trust Undercover Tourist based on experience and its solid reputation. But fake theme park tickets are a real thing and will sting you if you don’t use common sense. If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.
American Express discounts
American Express is the official credit card of Universal Orlando. That means you’re eligible for a handful of benefits, including 10% off certain dining plans and 10% off merchandise when you spend $75 or more. There’s even an American Express lounge in Universal Studios theme park. To access that in-park lounge, you must have purchased a multi-day park ticket or annual pass with an American Express card directly from Universal Orlando. There’s also currently a discount for American Express cardholders where you can save up to $250 on certain packages.
From time to time you’ll also find special targeted Amex Offers that involve Universal — like this past $100 discount when spending $500 on a booking directly with Universal Orlando. Check your account often to see what deals you’re offered.
Amex Fine Hotels & Resort perks
Speaking of American Express, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, one of the three hotels that confer Express Passes, is bookable via the American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts program, available to those with The Platinum Card® from American Express or The Business Platinum Card® from American Express. When booking a stay via FHR, not only do you get Express Passes but you also get complimentary breakfast for two daily, early check-in, late checkout and a $100 food and beverage credit per stay. There is often a two-night minimum.
Daily Getaways discounts
Finally, the annual Daily Getaways sale is another way to save on Universal Orlando. It comes up once a year, usually around the beginning of May. In 2019 you could purchase a certificate for two nights at select Loews hotels, including Loews Royal Pacific, including Express Passes, for a total of $325. There are unpublished blackout dates with these deals, but if you have date flexibility, spending $325 to stay next to the Universal parks for two days and get Express Passes for the whole family is an unbeatable deal. The 2020 version of Daily Getaways has been postponed until further notice.
Fixed value points
Last, but far from least, fixed-value points/miles from credit cards such as the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard (currently closed to new applicants) can make it very easy to book a hotel or even an entire Universal Orlando vacation package and then use points on the card(s) to pay off some or all of the charge. That being said, we’re also a fan of transferring those Venture and Spark rewards to airlines and hotels.
Believe it or not, a Universal Orlando vacation can cost a family more than Disney World if you’re not careful. However, staying at select hotels at Universal offers the opportunity to cut the line on many rides and that’s a huge plus, especially if you can leverage points or discounts to stay there. Beyond that, just having the right credit card in your wallet can make a difference when it comes to discounts and maximizing points for your next vacation. With each cold Butterbeer setting you back about $8, you need all the help you can get.
Featured image courtesy of Summer Hull/The Points Guy
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