How We Got a Free Family Vacation to Disney World

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I write a lot about credit card rewards and signup bonuses at Vital Dollar, and this article covers one of the reasons why I love this “free money”. See all the details of my family’s Disney World vacation that was completely covered with cashback and rewards.

Last week, my wife and I took our two kids (ages 8 and 5) to Orlando, Florida for our first Disney World vacation together. Although we normally take a few vacations per year, we don’t usually spend a lot of money. Our typical vacations involve cheap entertainment, like hiking.

This trip to Disney World was easily our most expensive vacation as a family, but we were able to cover the costs (flight, hotel, park tickets, and food) with credit card rewards and cashback, signup bonuses from credit cards and bank accounts, and a small amount of money made through some simple apps.

The vacation was originally planned for April of 2020 but was postponed because Disney World was closed due to the pandemic. In late 2019, my wife and I started saving credit card rewards and cashback especially for the trip. I also opened up a few bank accounts and an investment account to get signup bonuses to use for the trip. Within about six months, we had enough money from rewards and signup bonuses to completely pay for the trip.

After the vacation was postponed, we continued putting our ongoing cashback and rewards from credit cards into a savings account for the trip, but I didn’t do much else to continue to add to the account (like bank account bonuses). As a result, we’ve added some money to the account during the past year, but the majority of it was saved during the previous six months.

I’ll share a breakdown of the expenses from the trip as well as the sources of the money that covered these costs for anyone who may be interested in trying something similar.

Expenses for the Trip

  • 4 round trip airline tickets from Baltimore to Orlando – $1,099.84 (purchased in 2020, pre-pandemic)
  • 6 nights at a Disney resort + park tickets for 5 days – $2,570.40
  • Grocery order from Walmart – $127.78
  • Meals and snacks from restaurants and in the parks – $247.95
  • Souvenirs – $80
  • Tips – $70
  • Off-site parking near the airport – $49
  • Total cost – $4,244.97

Money That Paid for the Trip

Here’s an overview of how we covered the expenses of the trip. More details and specifics for each of these categories is included below.

  • Credit card signup bonuses – $1,600
  • Ongoing credit card rewards and cashback – $3,000+
  • Bank account signup bonuses – $2,800
  • Apps and websites – $967
  • Total – $8,367

As you can see, that’s much more money than what we needed for this trip. When the vacation was postponed for a year, we kept adding to the account. By being more aggressive at pursuing signup bonuses, I think we could take this type of vacation every year and have the expenses covered by rewards and bonuses. We’ve already got a great start for our next trip.

Note: We could have also maximized the impact of our rewards by making better use of our travel points. We’ve used cashback credit cards for years, but I’ve only been active with travel rewards for about a year (our airline tickets were purchased 18 months ago and changed at no cost). If I were planning a similar trip today, I would use the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal to save 25% on travel thanks to the Chase Sapphire Preferred card.

Credit Card Sign Up Bonuses

My wife and I both have several cashback and travel rewards credit cards, but we’ve had most of those cards for a few years or more. We’ve each signed up for one new card since we started planning this trip, the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

The reason we chose this card is simple – it has an amazing signup bonus. Currently, the bonus is 80,000 points, which equals $800 in cash back or $1,000 in travel, if booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards. I haven’t actually redeemed my points yet and I’ll be using them to book an upcoming trip, but for simplicity, I’m listing the cash value here, $800 for each of us.

If you want to earn some easy cashback or travel rewards quickly, there’s no better option than signing up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

Total from credit card signup bonuses: $1,600

Ongoing Credit Card Rewards and Cash Back

We use credit cards for everything to maximize the rewards we’re able to earn. While this doesn’t accumulate as fast as a good signup bonus, it does add up to a very significant amount of money over the course of a year if you use the right cards.

Here are the cards we use and the cashback they earn:

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred – Used to qualify for the large signup bonus and used for travel expenses
  • Chase Freedom Flex – Earns 5% cashback on purchases in categories that rotate each quarter, and 1% cashback on all other purchases. We use this card only for purchases in the current 5% category. When you’re getting 5% cashback in categories like gas and groceries, this adds up quickly.
  • Discover it – Another card with 5% cashback in categories that rotate each quarter and 1% on everything else. Again, we use this only for purchases in the current 5% category.
  • Amazon Prime card – Earns 5% cashback on all Amazon purchases. It is the default card in our Amazon account and we use it only for those purchases.
  • Citi Double Cash – Earns 2% cashback on every purchase (as long as you make at least the minimum payment on time). We use this card for every purchase that doesn’t fall into one of the categories above.
  • Chase Ink Business Cash – I’m self-employed and I use this card for all of my business expenses. The cashback from business expenses makes up a very small percentage of the money used for this trip (just a few hundred dollars), so don’t worry if you’re not self-employed. You can still use this approach.

About once every six months, I redeem the cashback from these cards and transfer it to a savings account. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep specific records to see how much cashback was earned from each card, but the total from these ongoing rewards over the two years we saved for the trip is more than $3,000.

Total from ongoing cashback and rewards: $3,000+

Bank Account Signup Bonuses

When we first started planning the trip, I was looking for ways to save extra money to cover the expenses. One of the easiest options I could find was bank account signup bonuses. I signed up for 5 different accounts in order to get bonuses. These were all done within about six months of each other, from late 2019 to early 2020. Once we had enough for the trip I stopped pursuing these bonuses. Now that I’m looking back over the details of the trip, I’m motivated to find some new options. (See this list of current bank account bonus offers.)

Bank account signup bonuses are always out there, although the specific offers rotate frequently. This is something you could easily do on a regular basis and make a nice side income from it.

Here are the bonuses I earned.

  • Discover savings account ($200)
  • CIT savings account ($300)
  • Citi savings account ($400)
  • CIBC savings account ($400)
  • E*TRADE retirement accounts ($1,500)

Total from bank account signup bonuses: $2,800

Apps and Websites

I also used a few passive income apps and simple websites to make some extra money for the trip. These apps and sites offer low-effort ways to make a small amount of money, but it all adds up.

I also use several other cashback apps, but these are the ones I used and tracked specifically for this trip.

Some of the money earned from these websites and apps came in the form of Amazon gift cards. We make a lot of purchases from Amazon, so an Amazon gift card is almost as good as cash for us.

Whenever I received a gift card from one of these apps or sites, I would redeem it with Amazon and then transfer the same amount of cash into our travel savings account. For example, if I got a $10 Amazon gift card from MobileXpression, I’d add it to my Amazon account and transfer $10 to our travel savings account.

Total from apps and websites: $967

Other Notes and Details

Here are some details about the trip and how we made it affordable:

  • Disney specials are often available, but the deals change frequently. Offers may involve discounts on park tickets, rooms, meal plans, or a package. We got 5 days of park tickets for the price of 3.
  • We spent 2 days at Magic Kingdom and 1 day each at Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and Epcot. We did not get park hopper passes, which would have been more expensive.
  • We ordered groceries from Walmart (including a $10 delivery fee) and had them delivered to our resort a few hours before we arrived. This delivery covered our breakfast and lunch for each day, plus some snacks. It was extremely convenient and saved a lot of money compared to buying every meal at a restaurant or in the parks.
  • We bought one meal each day from a restaurant, either inside the park or at our resort. We also bought a few snacks in the parks.
  • We didn’t rent a car. We took a Disney shuttle to and from the airport. Free shuttles were also available from the resort to all of the parks, so we used Disney transportation exclusively for the entire week. The Disney transportation was also very convenient and allowed us to come and go whenever we wanted. We considered staying at a non-Disney resort, but the Disney transportation pushed us to pay a little more for the resort, and we’re glad we made that decision.
  • Disney offers several different levels of resorts. We stayed at the All-Star Movies resort, which is the cheapest type of resort they offer. The room was pretty small but very clean and comfortable (and renovated somewhat recently). Although it was small, there was plenty of storage. We weren’t in the room that much, so the size didn’t really matter. The resort had two big pools, a gift shop, and a food court. Currently, the food court is operating differently due to Covid. Instead of having several distinct restaurants, it was basically just one restaurant with a single menu. We ate dinner here most evenings. The mobile app makes it easy to order. We would order our dinner on the shuttle ride as we were returning from the park. The prices were higher than what you would pay for the same food at a typical restaurant but not as high as I would have expected for a Disney property.
  • I’m not addressing taxes in this article because that would be complicated, but some of this money, like a bank account signup bonus, is taxed. Please keep taxes in mind.

Overall, I was surprised by how much we were able to rack up in cashback and rewards for this trip, and even for a future trip since we have a lot left over. It didn’t take that much time or effort to earn the money. If you’d like to take a free vacation with your family, I’d definitely recommend this approach. Getting a huge signup bonus from the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card is a great start.

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