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Families with young children tend to get sticker shock the first time they plan a vacation to one of the major US theme parks. Between park tickets, themed hotel rooms, express passes and dinners with princesses, the expenses add up quickly. Believe it or not, as those kids grow older, parents discover that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando can make Disney seem downright affordable. The good news is that right now it is actually easier to use points and save money on trips to Universal than it is to Disney.

(Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

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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 for a Universal Orlando vacation. Universal Orlando Resort has three Premier-class hotels: Universal Studios Loews Royal Pacific, 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. This is huge because those passes bought separately cost $89–$129 per person, per day. For a family of four, Express Passes can add $500 in costs daily, so your better play is to book hotels that confer the passes if you need them.

The “lower tiers” of Universal Orlando hotels don’t include Express Passes, but do offer early access to the parks. That will likely be key to hanging with Hagrid’s new roller coaster without needing to pack a lunch for the wait in line. Some of the Universal hotel options that don’t include Express Passes can be really family friendly, such as the new Aventura Hotel that has family rooms.

The new Universal Studios Aventura Hotel (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)
The new Universal Studios Aventura Hotel (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

The full collection of 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, as 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 when booking travel. Finally, the Chase Freedom 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 is likely understated a bit since it doesn’t include taxes. While points prices and cash prices vary by date, on a test summer date, the Universal Orlando hotels ranged from 13,000 to 30,000 Ultimate Rewards points per night.

Using Ultimate Rewards Points for Universal Tickets

Unlike for Disney World and Disneyland, the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal offers a variety of Universal Orlando park tickets available for redemption. Ultimate Rewards will charge a $10 convenience fee that can be paid in points. The taxes on the Ultimate Rewards portal are less than through Universal Orlando’s own website, so that helps a bit. The actual difference in price is about $4 on a sample one-day ticket for a peak day in July.

Like Disney World, Universal Orlando charges different prices depending on the day you want to visit. It’s also 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 July would save you $10 per ticket.

That said, 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 for two-day Universal Orlando park tickets that come with an additional three free days. Thankfully, that specific 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 it could actually 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 4pm every day and ended up with a year’s worth of Hogwarts for the price of two days of tickets.

Use Citi ThankYou Points

Similar to using 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 1.25 cents per point value toward travel.

Universal Loews Sapphire Falls (Summer Hull / The Points Guy)
Universal Loews Sapphire Falls (Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

Additionally, Prestige card holders also 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, using ThankYou points for theme park tickets isn’t as good of a deal as with 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 a number of chain hotels located near Universal Orlando Resort. This means lots of opportunities to use those hotel points. During our visits over the past year, I’ve 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. As Hyatt is a 1:1 transfer partner of Ultimate Rewards, it’s easy to use your points for a free stay. You can also use points from the World of Hyatt Credit Card, or even the annual Category 1–4 award provided by that card, to book the Hyatt House Universal Studios or Hyatt Place Universal Studios. Both are Category 3 properties that go for 12,000 Hyatt points per night.

(Photo courtesy of Hyatt House Universal Orlando)
(Photo courtesy of Hyatt House Universal Orlando)

This specific 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 just spending cash on your magic wand and butterbeer.

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

Other Ways to Save on Universal Orlando

Discount Ticket Brokers

If you don’t have a lot of points or miles available to you 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 period of time. Make sure to pay with your Chase Sapphire Reserve to earn 3 points per dollar on the travel charge via Undercover Tourist. However, note that if you purchase tickets by themselves directly from Universal, they will likely code as “entertainment” for the purposes of earning or using points. This means earning 2 points per dollar via the Citi Premier Card is a pretty good choice.

Related: The Best Credit Cards for Entertainment Spending

As a side note, not all discount ticket sites are created equally. We trust Undercover Tourist based on past experiences and their 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.

Amex 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 multiday park ticket or annual pass with an American Express card directly from Universal Orlando.

From time to time you’ll also find special Amex Offers that involve Universal. There’s currently a $100 discount when you spend $500 for some card holders who book directly with Universal Orlando. Check your account to see if you were targeted for that deal.

Amex Fine Hotels and Resort Perks

Speaking of American Express, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, one of the three hotels that confers Express Passes, is bookable via the American Express Fine Hotels and 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 will 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 when booking via this method.

Daily Getaways Discounts

Finally, the annual Daily Getaways sale are another way to save on Universal Orlando. They come up once a year, usually around the beginning of May. For 2019, you can purchase a certificate for two-nights at select Loews hotels, including Loews Royal Pacific that includes Express Passes for $325 total. 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 impossible to beat deal. There are also some discounted VIP experiences and an entire Universal Orlando vacation for four (with airfare) up for purchase via the Daily Getaways this year.

Fixed Value Points

Last, but far from least, fixed value points from credit cards such as the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard and  Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card can make it very easy to book the 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. Not sure which one to get? Here’s an article to help you decide. (Or get both and earn over $1,000 in travel credits toward your trip.)

Bottom Line

Believe it or not, a Universal Orlando vacation can cost a family more than Disney World if you’re not careful. The fact that staying at select hotels at Universal offers the opportunity to cut the line on many rides is 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 also make a difference when it comes to discounts and maximizing points for your next vacation. With each cold Butterbeer setting you back about $7, you need all the help you can get!

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

Looking for more help to plan that Universal Orlando vacation? We’ve got you covered:

Featured image courtesy of Summer Hull / The Points Guy

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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