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I’ve never been to Disneyland, but that is going to change this year. I recently finalized reservations for a 7-day / 6-night trip to LA with 5-day Disney passes.
I figure… the only thing better than a family trip to Disneyland… is a deeply discounted family trip to Disneyland.
This is how we are planning a “Once in a Lifetime” trip for 2 adults and 2 children for less than $100/day, including meals.
Disneyland for Free (or mostly)
Growing up, a trip to Disney was something my family could never afford. It is not typically a budget vacation.
So let’s make it one. With the main goal of minimizing out of pocket expenses, we need to cover the 4 main parts of any big trip – flights, hotels or Airbnb, entertainment, and food.
In this case it is flights to Los Angeles (LAX or SNA), a hotel near Disneyland, Disney tickets, and meals for the entire trip.
To get our “free” flights we are going to get a credit card or two, either for a major airline or one that offers transferrable points.
The welcome bonus will provide miles that we can redeem for flights. Which flights provide the best value will depend on where you live. If you are in Denver, United may be the best. Atlanta? Delta. West coast? Southwest or Alaska. Etc…
Your typical roundtrip domestic economy class award ticket requires 25,000 miles. For a family of four, that is 100,000 miles.
The most flexible way to get these miles is to employ 2 Player Mode and have each parent apply for their own Chase Sapphire Preferred(R) Card.
Great welcome bonus
The combined welcome bonuses will provide well over 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points which can be transferred to numerous airlines.
You now have 4 roundtrip tickets for just the cost of the credit card annual fees, $95 each.)
Now… it can be much much better, schedule permitting.
Domestic US reward redemptions can cost much less than 25,000 points roundtrip. At this exact moment I see options 2 months out from Sacramento on Southwest for 12,258 points, United for 15,200 miles, and Delta for 30k miles. That same flight on Delta is only $187.20 so it could be had for just 14,976 Ultimate Rewards points… (with 25% redemption bonus with the Sapphire Preferred card.) It is important to comparison shop and plan in advance – sometimes it is cheaper to book with the airline directly and sometimes it is cheaper to buy through the Ultimate Rewards travel portal.
For this trip, I choose Southwest. It requires the fewest points and and checked bags are free. Traveling with 2 kids, checked bags are almost mandatory. Plus, this will also allow us to bring some basic food preparation equipment (e.g. a small skillet, a hot plate, etc…)
The beauty of this redemption is it requires only ~50,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards points, which can be obtained in a couple of different ways.
Option 1 – Airline card – Apply for the Southwest Rapid Rewards(R) Plus Credit Card. This earns 50,000 Rapid Rewards points after spending $1k in the 1st 3 months ($69 annual fee.)
Option 2 – Transferrable points – Apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred(R) Card. This earns 60,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4k in 3 months ($95 annual fee.) (Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred to Southwest for redemption.)
Option 1 looks great here, with a low fee and enough points to do the deed. But… I am actually going to go with Option 2 (with 2 player mode) – the reasons will become more apparent shortly.
We need up to 6 nights in the area with rooms large enough for 2 adults and 2 kids. Shorter trips are also possible, of course, but I am targeting that “Once in a Lifetime” experience.
There are several great redemption options for hotels within walking distance of Disneyland with Marriott, IHG, Hilton, and Hyatt. Walking distance is important so we can avoid rental cars and parking fees, but also to provide easy access for occasional meals and rest breaks.
To get 6 free hotel nights we need to again employ 2 player mode, with each parent applying for a hotel credit card.
The Marriott Bonvoy Boundless(R) Credit Card gets each card member / parent 3 free nights after spending $3k in 3 months. There is a $95 annual fee which provides a free night certificate each card anniversary, so we are also on our way to providing for next years’ vacation.
The Fairfield Anaheim Resort and the Four Points by Sheraton Anaheim are 2 examples of hotels that can be booked with the Marriott Bonvoy free night certificates. Both hotels are within 10 minutes walking distance, have rooms with 2 queen beds and a microwave / mini-fridge, and a pool and hot tub for soaking a tired body at the end of the day.
With his/her copies of the IHG(R) Rewards Premier Credit Card we can also book at least 6 nights in several IHG hotels.
The Holiday Inn Express and Suites Anaheim Resort Area provides a free breakfast. The Staybridge Suites: Anaheim At the Park has a full kitchen.
There are many more redeemable options, look around and see what you like best… but these are the hotels that I had on my short list. I tend to favor Marriott options because I have status and can often get a room upgrade, late checkout, and maybe even free meals, but the IHG options were really tempting (especially with that kitchen!)
Entertainment aka Disney tickets
Disneyland and California Adventure parks are the primary entertainment on this trip (and the biggest single expense.) A single day is over $100/person but can drop to ~$75/day/person if you buy 5 days in one go. For a family of 4 that is ~$1500. More if you want the option to go to both parks on a single day or the ability to skip lines with Genie+. Ouch.
Fortunately, by employing 2 player mode with the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card we can get a full $1,500 worth of travel credit.
The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card currently offers a 75,000 point welcome bonus (worth $750) after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months. ($95 annual fee.)
These points can be used to offset any purchases that code as Travel. I’ve seen some examples of purchases directly through Disneyland not meeting this requirement, but that is OK… we can buy tickets from Get Away Today or Undercover Tourist (which routinely offer additional savings, e.g. $100 off 4 tickets.)
Feeding a physically active family of 4 is not cheap, particularly at a place with a semi-captive clientele like Disneyland.
We can save some money here by buying basic groceries and preparing our own meals back at the hotel. Sandwiches are quick and easy, and cost is no more than eating a sandwich at home.
Hotels with “free breakfast” also help, providing the most important meal of the day at no additional cost.
But, we are on vacation… we are going to be eating at restaurants both in and out of the parks.
For those expenses, we can turn to gift cards.
Earlier both parents applied for Chase Sapphire Preferred cards and earned the welcome bonus for a total of 120,000 Ultimate Rewards Points. We then spent 50,000 of these on flights.
The remaining 70,000 points can be exchanged for $700+ worth of gift cards.
Prefer making all of your own meals in the hotel kitchen? Get grocery store gift cards
Have your preferred big box dining experience? There are gift cards for every mainstream restaurant you can imagine.
Don’t feel like going to a restaurant after a big day in the sun? There are gift cards for Uber Eats, DoorDash, and Grubhub (currently 10% off.)
There will be a few Uber rides involved as well – trips to and from the airport and hotel.
These can also be paid for with gift cards, often bought at a discount through a site like Raise.com ($5 off first purchase with that link.)
Summary / TLDR
Let’s bring a family of 4 to Disneyland for about a week for less than $100/day, meals included. That is less than $25/person/day.
Parent 1 applies for the Chase Sapphire Preferred(R) Card
Transfer points to airline or purchase directly through Chase Travel, whichever is cheapest
Parent 1 applies for the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless(R) Credit Card
Parent 2 applies for the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless(R) Credit Card
Use free night certificates to reserve 6 nights at Disney area hotel
Parent 1 applies for the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Parent 2 applies for the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Buy Disney tickets so they code as travel. Use points to offset purchases.
Parent 2 applies for the Chase Sapphire Preferred(R) Card
Exchange for grocery store and restaurant gift cards
$95 annual fee * 6 = $570
Have a great time at Disneyland!
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We don’t have kids yet, but bookmarking this one! I was already dreading blowing tons of cash at Disneyland for that “once in a lifetime trip” as you say. Glad this doesn’t have to be the case. Let’s go!
’tis but a drop in the bucket on kid expenses :)
Ugh! It flabbergasts me how many otherwise financially sensible families buy into the Disney hype. But each to his own. Seriously, have a great time!
Two tips: if you need to buy gift card (beyond the redemptions you mention) Costco offers a slew of cards at a cash discount — typically about 20% – 30%.
For souvenirs I recommend one of two strategies: put each child on a budget and/or buy Disney-themed merch at home and take it with you to hand out judiciously. Your local dollar store is a good source for this stuff.
I like your souvenir and gift card recommendations, thanks!
What is the hype part, just that somebody would go at all? We have season passes at Six Flags which are way cheaper if you pay retail.
Make sure you plan this in advance and watch the necessary spend requirements.
You may need to spread out when you apply for the cards.
For two people you’re looking at a total of $22,000 spend in 3 months
A year in advance is a good time to start
How often can you qualify for chase sapphire sign up bonuses?
Every 48 months
Well played, sir, well played. We took our daughter a number of years when she was younger, and still did it a few years ago with her and her husband. A rite of passage for most parents it would appear.
We are fortunate to have bought in heavily to timeshare points years ago, and we have been reaping the benefits for years, including oftentimes using the place on Disneyworld grounds even when we cruise out of Port Canaveral and don’t go to Disney. Still can view the fireworks nicely at night, and no cost for parking, a biggie if one drives to Disney.
That sounds like a great setup. You mentioned timeshares once before, I’m gonna have to look at them more closely.
I think we will go 2x, once when each kid is around 2nd grade. That seems a good window, when they still think the characters are interesting and before they become jaded and too cool to hang with their parents.
Love the hustle, visiting Disney and the column! What did you spend the $22k for the 6 credit cards in 3-4 months on the get the bonus offers? To me that’s a pretty sizable spend, even if its spaced over the year.
We spend about $75k/year in a normal year but we moved into a house 13 months ago and that provided plenty of spending opportunities.
$22k is just 4 months’ normal spending.
I will often meet the minimum spend requirement with just one transaction, making some estimated tax payments or paying property taxes, for example.
Related: Award Travel Series: Meeting Minimum Spend Requirements
We went last January and going back next January. We also travel hack and got hotel and flights paid for. Tickets are from undercover tourist for 5 days. For food, we brought a rice cooker and instacart groceries. We rented a double stroller and used Lansky for airport pickup and drop off. Lansky have the car seats installed and I just have to inspect it. Our cost is about 2k but that’s because I didn’t cash out about $1300 worth of points. Disney cost can be manageable if plan well :) Have a great trip!!
Do you already have some of these cards mentioned? If so, and you end up with multiples of Chase Saphire for example, do you keep them all once the miles or points are earned?
You can’t have multiple Sapphire cards and can only earn the welcome bonus once every 48 months on each card. With the Venture card it is every 24 months afair.
There is a strategy behind How and When to Close Credit Cards also.
Points are exchangeable for cash basically–gift cards to Amazon, for example. And you are even honest about this in several places in the post, such as where you say that 70,000 points equals $700 for food.
So I don’t know why you would consider this trip to cost less than $100/day. It is more like $500 + $1000 + $700 + $1500 + $570 = $4250. ($1000 is for the two Bonvoy cards, considering that a typical reward for a $3k spend $100 annual fee card would be ~50,000 points aka $500 each.)
You trip has an actual cost more like $700/day.
Cool, I saved $600/day
I really don’t understand how you are saving. You increased your income by $4200 ($600 per day if you think the 7 day time frame of your trip is relevant) and chose to spend ~$5000 on a trip.
You do. You just don’t like it.
Aaron, it’s the word game. He is “saving” because he chose not to cash in the $4200 rewards and put them in the pocket first.
If I were to open all those cards, cash in the rewards, go later on a Disney trip and pay $5000 out of pocket, I would be “paying” $5000 for the trip.
In the end it would the same out of pocket cost for both of us. It’s just a psychology trick to make one feel better about the spending the other 800$(?) to go on the trip. :)
Real savings in this case (if any) are made by converting the reward points at the higher value that one would be able to cash them in. And in that case the real savings would only be the difference in value received vs. their cash value, not the total amount of value received. Unfortunately it is not clear from the article what that would be.
Terrific post. Thank you for sharing your whole strategy. I’m curious to know if you’ve already gone or are still in the planning? If you went already how much did you end up spending beyond the gift cards for restaurants? Do you have any hacks for paying for on-site Disney restaurants? How was the hotel?
We went in November 2022. We stayed at the 4 Points which was alright… the remodel was well done although I think the mattresses may have been original…
The walk was quick and easy except the one time we had 2 sleeping kids and I had to carry one of them the whole way back.
We actually ended up driving down since we have friends in the area and decided to do some non-Disney stuff for a few days. A 6 hour drive isn’t so bad compared to a 1-hour drive to airport, 2 hour airport hassle, 1.5 hour flight, and hour drive to hotel. We get free charging for the next year+ so the price was right too.
I’m not really sure how much we spent on food. We brought in snacks for the kids and ate in the park a couple times, which you just have to pay for.