It’s great travel hacking together with friends, especially when it comes to workshopping ideas. For ideas on how to save money on Disney, I always find myself working with Robert Dwyer, who put me onto the idea of using Thank You Points to book a Disney cruise. We’ve been chatting about upcoming trips and wanted to figure out whether you can use points for Disney tickets and hotels. Turns out, you can, sometimes for a big savings.
Before I get to my research, let me answer some questions or comments I know I’ll get. First of all, you definitely can get more “value” out of your points. If you use your Ultimate Rewards points to book Lufthansa first class, you can come out ahead in terms of raw cent per point value.
But as Bob constantly reminds me (and I think he stole it from Milenomics), book the trips you want to take. Or in the case of families, book the trip your family wants to take. “Value” is a spectrum that takes into account monetary value and entertainment value by the end user (i.e., your kids and loved ones).
Secondly, I may hear comments that transferable point currencies have “better” uses. They most certainly do. But some people sit on seven figures worth of miles and points (like business road warriors). Sometimes you just want to burn points. And, most importantly, using points for Disney tickets and hotels saves you from using cash – which theoretically should help your financial future in the long run (see my discussion with Noah from Money Metagame on the podcast).
Alright, let’s take a look at how to use points for your Disney vacation. TL;DR – Chase Sapphire Reserve gets you the best value.
The basics: book through travel concierge
So before I get to brass tacks and numbers, let’s take a look at the basics in theory. There are three major transferable currencies: American Express Membership Rewards (MR), Citi Thank You Points (TYP), and Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR). Each currency can be transferred to airline partners for the aforementioned “better value.”
However, you can also use each currency to book travel. When booking airfare, you get a minimum of 1 cent per point with all these currencies. So a $200 plane ticket costs 20,000 points.
In addition to booking airfare, which can be done online, you can also call the number on the back of your card and ask to book a vacation package using points (or cash if you prefer). This gets you transferred to a department that can put together a Disney vacation for you. As long as you have the right type of credit card, you can pay for part or all of this vacation with points. The devil is in the details: depending on your card you can get different value for your points.
So let’s take a look at which card issuer gets you the most value for your points when redeeming for Disney hotel and ticket packages. I’ll first go through a case study, what the vacation package costs in cash from Disney, and then I’ll show how much it costs in each of the three point currencies.
Case study – Family Suite at Disney’s Art of Animation with 4 day base tickets (2 adults, 2 kids)
For my case study, I picked a random 5 night family suite stay in August at Disney’s Art of Animation for two adults and two children (3-9). I added 4 day base tickets to that (no park hopper). Here’s the breakdown in costs.
As a package: $3199.11
A la carte: $1745.15 (room) + $1448.40 (tickets) = $3193.55 <= tricky Disney!
A la carte: $1745.15 (room) + $1303.56 (4 day tickets but must visit each of the four parks once) = $3048.71
$3000+ is a lot of cash to lay out for a five night vacation, even if it’s a family suite at Art of Animation. So let’s take a look at what it’d cost if booked in points, starting from “worst” value and ending with the “best”. (In quotes because you need to factor in how many of each currency you have, opportunity cost, etc. etc.
Buy Disney tickets and hotel packages using AMEX Membership Rewards (OK)
All American Express Membership Rewards cards, even the no annual fee ones, allow you to use points to pay for your travel. The problem is, the most you can get is 1 cent per point when redeeming for airfare (plus the 50% rebate with the Business Platinum). Making things worse, you get even less than that when booking for other types of travel, like Disney.
To book a Disney vacation package, call the number of the back of your card and say you want to redeem points for travel. If asked, specifically try to get transferred over to cruises and vacation packages (they generally go together). Then feed the agent your dates and type of ticket desired. They will quote you a price in dollars and in points (if you ask for the latter).
I poked around this page from AMEX and found that the most you can get for points redeemed towards vacation packages is 0.7 cents per point.
AMEX wanted to charge $3199.11 in cash. A rate of 0.7 cents per point means the vacation costs ~450,000 Membership Rewards points. If you compare that with the ability to cash out your Membership Rewards as gift cards for one cent per point or for airfare, you might consider calling that $4500. Unless you’re swimming in MR, I prefer the other options.
Buy Disney tickets and hotel packages using Citi Thank You Points (Better)
Since I only have the Citi Prestige and Preferred, I can only get 1 cent per point for non-air travel at the most. Like AMEX, I called the number on the back of my card and said I wanted to book a hotel vacation package with points. If you hold the Citi Prestige, make sure you say “with points”, otherwise they’ll send you to the cash booking agents (incorrectly assuming you want to use your fourth night free).
Citi also quoted me $3199.11 (the same as the Disney package and AMEX), so using Thank You Points would cost me 319,911 points. Better, since you’re getting the same value you could get for gift cards. But you’d still get less value than you could get for airfare (about $4000).
Now I couldn’t confirm this because I no longer hold the card, but I’m guessing like with my cruise deposit, Thank You Premier holders can get 1.25 cents per point. That means if you hold a Premier card, you can book this hotel room and ticket package for 255,929 points. Now we’re talking, since the equivalent in airfare would only be $3199.11.
Buy Disney tickets and hotel packages using Chase Ultimate Rewards (Best)
So I went through the same song and dance with the Chase phone agent, though I should note I spent the least time on hold with them. Chase offered the same Art of Animation room/ticket package for $3251.31 (sorta weird that it’s a shade more).
However, if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you get to apply the 1.5 cents per point valuation when booking this package. That means that Reserve cardholders would only need to pay 216,754 points for this package. That could get you the same value in airfare, but if you redeemed for cash, that many points would only get you $2167.54. So in that sense you can “save” the most this way.
I also checked Port Orleans: Riverside. Again, Chase charged slightly more ($2875 vs. $2867 that Disney wanted), but again you could get the 1.5 cents per point with the Reserve so it would cost 191,667 points.
If you are an Ink or Sapphire Preferred holder, you can get 1.25 cents per point when booking these packages.
Can you buy tickets without the hotel?
One thing to note: you can save a lot (cash OR points) by staying off Disney property. So if it were possible to use points to buy tickets alone, that would be huge.
AMEX and Citi flat out told me this was impossible, but it seems like Chase is a YMMV situation. A phone agent told both Robert and myself that we had to book hotel and tickets together. However, one of the CSR agents I have been e-mailing with quoted me $1450 for tickets (same as Disney a la carte) OR 99,666 points. Two other people have told me they’ve been successful buying tickets using points from Chase, so it seems like a YMMV situation but one worth checking out.
How to decide whether to pay with points or cash
Like I said at the top, I’m sure some people say they would never use their points for this purpose. I can see how people might see this as an extreme version of buying magazines with your miles. Let me offer a couple of counterpoints to this logic.
First of all, when people rave about how transferable point currencies are great because they are so flexible, this is that flexibility in action. Points are not cash. While MR, TYP, and UR all can be redeemed for cash or cash equivalents, in many instances you can likely get more value out of using points this way.
Secondly, these points currencies are valuable but that doesn’t mean using them this way is a waste. Take Chase Sapphire Reserve as an example. Yes, you could use 200K points to book $3000 worth of flights. But, um, what’s the difference between that and using it to book $3000 worth of Disney? Take the trips you want to take!
You could also use those 200K points to more or less book one round trip seat in Lufthansa first class. That indeed would cost like $10,000, but you’d be flying alone without your family. I’m not saying that’s not a good use of your points, all I’m pointing out is that value is in the eye of the beholder. With Chase Ultimate Rewards, there’s so much value to be had that sometimes it’s tough to decide how to use your points. Just make sure you use them!
To me, it comes down to this. Cash can be used for other things. You’ve earned these points to (most likely) save money on your travel. If you use them this way, you’re fulfilling that goal.
Membership Rewards, Thank You Points, and Ultimate Rewards points can all be used to book your Disney vacation. They give you the chance to save cash by leveraging your point balances to pay Disney’s prices. These redemptions won’t be for everyone. Still, consider them if you’re trying to cut down cash costs on your Disney trips. And in many cases, Chase Ultimate Rewards comes out as the clear winner.
I still need to try a few things out. Does adding airfare to an AMEX or Citi booking unlock the 50% rebate (AMEX business platinum) or the 1.25 cpp (Citi Prestige)? Or does the airfare get added separately? Also, can you use this for packages in other Disney properties, like Hong Kong or Paris?
What are your experiences with booking Disney vacations using points? Hit up the comments and share your stories.