Three years ago, when I took my kids to Disney, I thought I was doing well with a free $50 gift card from a travel agent and a few hundred Disney Reward Dollars from my credit card spending. Boy, was I wrong!
I had no idea back then that with a little strategic planning, we could have traveled for free. Yes, free! Fast forward to today. I just returned from a six-night trip to Disney World that cost me nothing out-of-pocket. Zero. The retail value of this trip was $3553.90. It was completely paid for with points, miles, and cash earned through credit cards and rewards programs. If I can do it, you can too!
Please don’t attempt to duplicate my strategy exactly. The plan that I created was specific to my trip and I made several decisions early on that I regretted later. For reference, it took me approximately one year, spacing out credit card applications every few months. If you coordinate your plan with another person, such as a spouse, you can easily “pay” for a trip in half that time.
Make sure to do your research. What does that mean? It means read every recent article that you can find about rewards travel and join some discussion groups. Program rules change often and offers can vary. Deals come and go all the time.
If you decide to take advantage of credit card rewards and sign-on bonuses, make sure you are organized and fully informed. A sign-on bonus is an incentive that companies offer to get people to apply for cards. Usually, these offers involve the customer meeting a minimum spending requirement within a set time period. If the terms are met, the bonus is awarded.
Don’t just go out and apply for a bunch of cards that sound good. Do your research and make a strategic plan. Think about some long-term travel goals as well as short-term goals. Certain cards have application restrictions. Chase, for instance, will not approve your application if you have opened five or more credit cards from any issuer within the past twenty-four months. I did not fully understand this when I started and missed some opportunities that would have helped me.
Credit cards are not for everyone. If you are not able to handle credit cards responsibly, then don’t apply for them and focus on other rewards programs like those I mention below. Be honest with yourself. You need to have a decent credit score, pay your bills in full each month, and meet spending requirements in set periods of time. Sign-on bonuses do not make up for late payment fees or interest.
If you do decide to apply for some new credit cards, make sure that you are getting the very best offer available and that you are getting the right card for your needs. For instance, a friend of mine applied for a Chase Disney Visa because she remembered that I mentioned having the card. She applied online using a link that offered a bonus of $100. Had she used my referral link instead of the other one, she would have received a $200 bonus. Unfortunately, she didn’t know.
Did I mention that you should do your research? Not all application links are the same. Sometimes referral links show offers that are higher than other offers, sometimes they are lower, and sometimes they are exactly the same. Always check to make sure that you are getting the very best offer available before you apply. At the very least, research the current public offer on the bank’s website before using another link.
Referrals can be especially helpful if you and another person are planning together. You can refer each other to cards and earn additional bonuses. Not all cards offer referrals, but those that do can greatly benefit your plan. I was planning alone, but I was still able to achieve my goal. (Some of the links I have included on this page are referrals.)
My original plan was for an eight-day Disney World/Universal Studios/Sea World vacation for three people. We would stay near Sea World for the first part of our stay and on Disney property for the remainder. This plan later morphed into a RunDisney vacation for myself and a friend when my two teens decided that they didn’t want to go on vacation. Since this change happened late in the process, I ended up with more points, miles, and cash than I needed for my revised trip plan. I’m saving those points and miles for a future trip. For this trip, I was able to “pay” for train fare to the airport, four one-way airline tickets, hotel accommodations for six nights, two five-day ParkHopper tickets, race registration fees, meals for myself, and souvenirs. Here is a breakdown of the rewards programs that I used to pay for the trip.
- American Express Delta Business Gold – I used the miles earned to pay for our departing flight.
- Barclay Jet Blue Plus Card – I used the miles earned to pay for our return flight.
- American Express Marriot Bonvoy – I used Marriot points to pay for our stay at the Dolphin Resort. This is a deluxe resort on Disney property, but is not considered a Disney Resort. Guests do receive some Disney perks and the location is within walking distance to Epcot and Hollywood Studios. Fortunately, I was able to book our room before the room costs increased. It costs more points to stay here now. One benefit of staying here is the 5th night free option. If you are staying for five nights, you only pay for four.
- IHG Rewards Club Card – I had planned to use the bonus points from this card for the first part of my original trip. I could have skipped this card since my plans changed. However, I did use the free night certificate that I earned from this card to stay at Staybridge Suites Lake Buena Vista on our arrival night.
- Swagbucks, TopCashBack, Ebates/Rakuten, Ibotta, Achievement – I used some of the cash back from these rewards programs toward purchasing discounted Disney Gift Cards from Sam’s Club and Raise. I used the Disney Gift Cards for park tickets, race registration, souvenirs, and most of my meals.
- Chase Sapphire Preferred (CSP) Card – I had planned to use the bonus from this card toward Universal Studios and Sea World tickets and possibly airfare. I could have cashed out my points when my plans changed, but I decided to keep them for a future trip. Chase offers cards that earn Ultimate Reward Points (URs) that can be redeemed for travel or cash. Redeeming for travel through their travel portal with a CSP allows for a better redemption (1.25x).
- Chase Freedom Card – This card earns URs. I probably should have waited on this card since it didn’t have a high bonus, but I liked that it offered 5% cash back on certain purchases each quarter with no annual fee, and seemed like a good card to keep long-term.
- Capital One Spark Business Cash Card – This card had a $500 cash bonus and a waived annual fee. However, I could have applied for the Chase Ink Preferred Business Card (CIP) instead. I was initially scared off because of the CIP’s annual fee, and at the time I didn’t realize that I could have cashed-out the bonus. Even with paying the fee, the bonus would have been higher than the Spark card.
- Barclay Arrival+ Card – I used the bonus miles from this card to fund a Disney Savings Account. Sadly, this program ended. My funds were converted into a Disney Gift Card. Bonus miles earned from this card can be used toward park tickets if they are purchased from certain travel agencies. Or, they can be used for other travel expenses. Update: This card is no longer available for new applications.
I hope that I’ve inspired you to start planning your own free trip. First, identify where you want to go, the options for getting there, where you will stay, and how much cash you will need for meals and incidentals. Then, research which rewards programs can pay for your trip. Finally, create a plan for how you will get the points, miles, and cash you need. Whether it is signing up for new credit cards or spending hours doing surveys online, there are ways to pay for your trip. Enjoy!