My First Travel Hack: Disney World on a Budget

saving money travel hacking

We spent a ridiculous amount of money visiting Disney World last year, so I knew if I wanted to go again this year (of course I do!), I would need to figure out how to do it on a budget. Am I turning into a Disney adult? Maybe just a little. 😉

I would compare Disney spending to wedding planning. You can go all out, stay at a Disney resort, and spend thousands of dollars there. Or, you can spend some extra time planning, DIYing, and getting creative to do everything within a reasonable budget.

It takes some planning, but sticking to your budget on your Disney World trip is possible. I even managed to get our flights for 5 people totally FREE! 

Travel hacking is a bit of a sidestep from what I normally talk about, but I am a true blue fan of making and saving money! (Little known fact: When I was in my 20s, I was an extreme couponer with a giant binder of coupons. I once rang up $600 in groceries and paid only $200!)

Maybe you can take your first Disney World trip fully funded by your side hustle AND on a budget. What a win!

Disney on a Budget Tip #1: "Travel Hack" Your Airline Tickets to Disney World

Ok, this part is my biggest brag. I was hesitant about using credit card bonus points for travel, but I'm hooked after seeing the $0.00 total at checkout. (As we speak, I'm working on my next fully travel-hacked trip to the Bahamas!) 

This can be confusing and overwhelming, so let me explain this.

What is travel hacking?

Travel hacking is a term used to describe many strategies, tools, and resources to maximize travel rewards, discounts, and savings. You use loyalty programs, credit card rewards, and other travel-related perks to reduce the cost of flights, hotels, and other travel expenses. It's not as easy to use rewards to purchase anything on Disney (like the resorts, tickets, gift cards, etc.), so I decided to "travel hack" my airfare.

Here are the simplest steps to travel hacking:

1. Open a credit card (stick with me... we are NOT about to ruin your credit).

2. Strategically shift your spending to optimize the bonus offer(s).

3. Strategically spend your bonus offers to maximize the value.

4. Repeat! 

If you've ever cashed in your credit card rewards for a $60.00 Amazon gift card... you dipped your toe in the waters of credit card rewards. But there are ways to maximize this so that you get way more rewards (mine could've been worth $600 but ended up being worth about $1500 with a little planning).

This is NOT the same as racking up the regular rewards points on your credit card. With this strategy, we leverage the welcome bonuses to meet our travel goals, then rinse and repeat.

For me, it's easiest to start the travel hacking process with a destination in mind. Others may work to get as many points as possible and decide where to go. I have to start with the end in mind. (Probably a teacher thing!)

I researched the cheapest flights once I knew I wanted to go to Disney. I used Google Flights for a basic search and the Hopper app for tracking low-fare calendars. (You'll get 10% off your first hotel stay with that link!) The app allows you to set an alert and be notified when it's the best time to grab your flights. This would be trickier if you were planning a vacation on a school break, but it's do-able!

I live near a small airport, so I was also open to traveling to a nearby "hub" for a cheaper flight. Luckily, Jetblue had a cheap, nonstop flight to Orlando, and I was flexible on dates. We traveled on weekdays to get the cheapest rate. 

How to Earn Travel Rewards on Your Chase Card

I started with the Chase Sapphire Rewards card because it had the largest welcome reward offer with the best "return on rewards" rate.

This is generally a great card to begin your travel hacking journey because Chase has a 5/24 rule where you cannot open a Chase card if you've opened 5 credit cards in the past 24 months. (I found this to be really confusing and overwhelming before I started this travel hacking journey, but it's simple to track with a simple note in your phone.) The idea is that if you start with a Chase card, you'll be able to take advantage of their awesome rewards before you ever hit that 5/24 mark.

This is even easier if you can travel hack with a bestie. It could be your spouse, your mom, or your BFF... but it's easier to hit your goals with a buddy involved. In this case, we opened this card in my husband's name. It's important NOT to add your buddy as an authorized user... that will count toward your 5/24.

Currently, the rewards for this card are 60k points for $4000 spent over 3 months. To hit the minimum spend, we changed as many of our bills/autopay over to this card as possible and made a few of our larger household purchases. We used the card for groceries and dining because they offered 3x the points.

Thinking of getting this card? Pretty please use my referral link so I can get some extra bonus points!

Switching over our autopay accounts was the most time-consuming part of the process, but it only took an hour or so to switch things over. We have a lovely AirTable spreadsheet in place to track all of our cards, bills, and autopays, which makes travel hacking that much easier!

When you sign up for the card, be sure to check out the other benefits! We were able to grab a 6-month Instacart membership with $15 cash back on purchases each quarter and a complimentary Dashpass membership.

How to Redeem Your Credit Card Rewards for Airfare

Remember... I had been tracking those cheap(ish) Jetblue flights, so as soon as the reward points hit our account, I watched the Hopper calendar to figure out when to book. Be sure to book through the Chase travel portal on their site to take advantage of the 25% increase in value when you use your rewards on travel.

You don't have to use your rewards for flights- you could use your rewards to book a hotel near Disney instead. (The key is to book through the Chase travel portal.)

We could pay for our entire roundtrip flights to Orlando with reward points alone! It made all the extra planning and using this credit card totally worth it.

 The rest of the trip was a bit more challenging to "hack," but I'll give you all my best money-saving tips!

Disney on a Budget Tip #2: Stay Offsite

Booking a resort at Disney World is tricky with a family of 6 (we brought Grandma along, too!). Disney wasn't running any promotions to make staying on the resort worthwhile, so we looked for something cheaper off-property... and I'm so glad we did!

(Be sure to check the current Disney deals before you book!)

We stayed at the Sheraton Vistana Resort in a 2 bedroom condo with a full kitchen and 2 full bathrooms. It was steps from one of their 7 beautiful pools with daily activities, nightly entertainment, a poolside bar, hot tub, waterfall, arcade... this place was a blast! And because it was MUCH cheaper, we could extend our vacation and spend half our days by the pool. (We are NOT a family who can do Disney parks one after the other...)

(This hotel is part of the Marriott Bonvoy chain, so you could also transfer your Chase points at a 1:1 ratio to use on the hotel! Here's how.)

The resort had a direct shuttle to Disney World and was maybe a 5-10 minute drive from the parks. We were commenting about how this was practically on the resort! There are other resorts on Disney Springs (like this one) that have great reviews and are even closer. This resort starts at around $190/night for a one-bedroom- don't forget to check Hopper for a deal OR use your Marriott Bonvoy points if you're a cardholder.

Disney on a Budget Tip #3: Don't Rent a Car for Your Disney World Trip!

My one regret for this trip? Renting a car. Looking back, I would've saved the money and stuck with shuttles. I didn't realize how close our offsite hotel would be to the resorts!

Staying onsite? You can utilize Disney World's transportation, including Disney's Lyft service to get around the Disney compound!

Staying offsite? Lyft has larger vehicles for big families. Select your vehicle type in the app when ordering your ride. You can also check to see if your offsite hotel has a shuttle to Disney- many do! 

For groceries, Instacart makes it easy to skip the rental car! You can even order in advance and have everything delivered to your hotel room fridge. Don't forget to grab essentials for the park, like sunscreen and band-aids, so you don't have to spend extra buying in the park! If you run out of something on your trip (we ran out of diapers, of course)... DoorDash is the best!

Transportation from the Airport: You can stick with Uber or Lyft or use a shuttle service like Mears Connect! (Kids under 3 ride free!)

If you do rent a car, I highly recommend Turo. This "Airbnb style" car rental service often offers the option to rent car seats! We were even able to rent a double stroller this time. (A MUST for Disney, even with older kids!) They deliver the car right to airport parking, which makes the whole process a breeze. 

Disney on a Budget Tip #4: Bring Your Own Food to Disney World 

This is the hardest part of travel hacking your trip. (Aside from the Disney tickets!) It's easy to grab most of your food on the go while you're on vacation, but we promised ourselves we'd cook at home whenever we weren't in the parks. We also packed snacks, drinks, and lots of Uncrustables for Disney days.

Don't forget to pack the reusable water bottles! We used these and attached them to the stroller with this hook in this drink holder!

Disney on a Budget Tip #5: Plan Your Food Purchases

You can't totally skip Disney dining... the food is too good! I knew we'd have to grab some Dole Whips, Mickey pretzels, and a popcorn bucket. We also wanted reservations at Cinderella's Royal Table and Bibbity Boppity Boutique on our MK day, which cost a pretty penny. (And it was worth every penny, by the way!)

The Souvineer Popcorn Bucket ($13) was a great purchase because refills cost just $2.25. The popcorn was a hit with our kids. (And me!) We purchased one bucket and asked for 2 cups to split between the kids, and we always refilled the bucket on our way out of the park to keep the kids happy at the hotel, too!

The best way to "hack" your Disney food costs is with gift cards. 

You can grab Disney gift cards at a discount in a few ways:

1. Use your credit card to purchase Disney gift cards from a place with 2-5x the reward points. Check your credit cards to see if anyone offers double (or more) the rewards points for purchases at places like Staples, OfficeMax, etc.

2. Purchase Disney gift cards at a discounted rate. BJ's and Costco typically offer up to 5% off on Disney gift cards. If you already have a membership, this is worth the purchase. Be sure to shop around for that 5% offer. Anything less isn't the best deal.

3. Purchase Disney gift cards with your Target Red Card. (Thanks for the discount, Target!)

It's not much, but it's one of the only ways to discount those Disney purchases, and with girl math by my side, everything purchased with our Disney cards felt totally free. 😆

If possible, plan your Disney dining carefully ahead of time. We did one sit-down dinner each park day with lunch and most snacks on our own. We budgeted for a few drinks, and one snack stop each day, and we stuck to the plan! The gift card budget helped us because we did NOT want to put anything on a credit card while we were there.

Oh, and as a bonus... I returned to all the credit cards we've ever used and cashed in the reward points for Walmart gift cards. We were able to cash in on enough Walmart gift cards to cover our groceries for the vacation! (More girl math, but it felt like a hack!)

Disney on a Budget Tip #6: Find Discounted Disney Tickets

I saved over $50 per ticket using a discounted Disney ticket site! Check out Get Away Today for your discounted tickets.

We also saved money by sticking to one park per day, which is cheaper than a hopper ticket and much easier with 3 little kids in my opinion!

Disney on a Budget Tip #7: Spend a Free Day at Disney!

There are PLENTY of free activities to do around Disney on an off-park day that still feel very "Disney". We spent a day visiting the Disney resorts and riding the Skyliner, which was completely free and totally entertaining. 

We started by parking at Disney Springs (for free) and walked around the different shops for a bit before taking a Disney bus to The Art of Animation Resort. (The bus itself was very entertaining for our kids!) At the resort, we checked out the arcade (of course) and took a stroll through Radiator Springs to take pictures with the Cars characters.

From there, we hopped on the Skyliner for a nice ride over to Disney's Boardwalk. We walked over to let the kids play in the sand along the Boardwalk before grabbing ice cream to go at Beaches & Cream. We took the bus back to Disney Springs to wrap up the trip.

Disney on a Budget Tip #8: Buy Your Souvineers Ahead

You can purchase Disney goods anywhere! Kohl's Jumping Beans collection is my favorite, and you'll spend a tiny fraction of what you'd spend in the parks. I wrapped a bunch of souvenirs and packed them in my suitcase to give to the kids throughout the trip.

My favorite souvenir hack is to give your kids a bunch of dollar bills to use at the various penny stamp machines. They have one in almost every gift shop, and my kids loved collecting them all! (It also distracted them from everything to buy in the gift shop.) We used these adorable lanyards to keep their "dollar bucks" and pennies.

It is possible to plan your dream Disney World trip on a budget! With some planning and prep, you can DIY and "hack" your way to thousands of dollars in savings. It's also a great lesson for your kids to stick to your budget during the trip by getting them involved in some of the planning. 

Stay tuned for more on my travel hacking method for the Bahamas!

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Disclaimer: I am not associated with Disney World or The Walt Disney Company. This blog post is based on my personal experiences and research, and any opinions expressed are my own. I do not represent or speak on behalf of Disney World or The Walt Disney Company.