Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we usually answer your real-world money questions.

This week we’re running an episode from our financial dream series, where we talk with Nerds who have accomplished their financial dreams and interview outside guests about what they want to do with their money in 2022.

Check out this episode on any of these platforms:

Our take

To book your dream Disney vacation for cheap, know how to use the right credit cards — and be smart about cutting costs. If you have a bunch of credit card points on an airline that’s going to your destination, use them to book flights and lodging, or maybe even tickets to the theme park. This can save you hundreds of dollars, depending on how many points you have and what you’re booking. Know that a sign-up bonus is typically your best way to get a boatload of points, fast.

While on your Disney vacation, think about ways to save money each step of the way. For example, consider skipping the expensive souvenirs from the park itself and picking something up at a nearby store. Also, stock up on snacks. Getting food at a grocery store can be more affordable than the snacks for sale at the park. You might be able to choose a more nutritious option, too.

Beyond Disney-specific tips, think about other ways to make travel and vacationing easier for you. TSA Pre-Check, for example, can save you time at the airport. While it usually costs $85, some credit cards will cover the cost for you. And some credit cards give you airport lounge access, which can make enduring a delayed flight a little easier.

Our tips

  • Leverage credit card rewards: Credit cards with annual fees aren’t for everyone, but they can certainly help you save money if you play your cards right.
  • Bring snacks: Disney lets you bring food and drinks into the parks.
  • Buy souvenirs in advance: If you have kids, you can save money by purchasing mementos at retail stores rather than in the park.

Have a money question? Text or call us at 901-730-6373. Or you can email us at podcast@nerdwallet.com. To hear previous episodes, go to the podcast homepage.

Episode transcript

Liz Weston: Welcome to the NerdWallet Smart Money podcast, where we usually answer your personal finance questions and help you feel a little smarter about what you do with your money. I’m Liz Weston.

Sean Pyles: And I’m Sean Pyles. To send the Nerds your money questions, call or text us on the Nerd hotline at 901-730-6373. That’s 901-730-NERD. Or email us at podcast@nerdwallet.com. Hit that subscribe button to get new episodes delivered to your devices every Monday. And if you like what you hear, leave us a review and tell a friend.

Liz Weston: This week we’re wrapping up our series by talking with travel Nerd Sally French about how she booked her dream vacation for way less than what most people would pay.

Sean Pyles: And since we’re NerdWallet, we will also discuss the steps you can take to accomplish your own financial dreams, whatever they are. And with that, welcome onto the podcast, Sally.

Sally French: Thanks so much for having me. I’m excited to talk about my two favorite topics: cheap travel and Disney.

Sean Pyles: Yeah, well, let’s dive into it. Tell us about your vacation.

Sally French: For this trip, I did four full days and then five nights. It was me and my boyfriend. We went to all four of the parks at Walt Disney World in Florida. Honestly, it was an amazing vacation, waking up early, trying to go on every single ride. In fact, at Magic Kingdom, we went on every single ride that was open. The caveat being Hall of Presidents, which is one of the longest attractions, was not open because it was closed to get the new President Joe Biden animatronic, which you can see now.

Liz Weston: OK. Now, the question is, did you get on the Resistance?

Sally French: We did, and that is wild. The process to get on Rise of the Resistance is truly like winning the lottery. You have to log onto your phone early in the morning. At 7 a.m., we were ready and we were clicking, and already it was gone. We didn’t get the 7 a.m. morning pass. They go up in two seconds, they go away. But they opened another series of boarding passes at 1 p.m., and at that point we were in the parks and so we were on our phone trying to get the second batch of boarding passes. And what’s so weird is that, like 12:55, the park goes silent because everyone is staring at their phones.

Liz Weston: Yes.

Sally French: Starting to refresh. It was wild. And everyone just looking down at their phones and then exactly at 1 p.m. it hit and people start cheering. It’s also sad because the people who are cheering obviously got the boarding pass to Rise of the Resistance, but then you have to imagine some people didn’t.

Liz Weston: Yes.

Sean Pyles: Oh, man.

Sally French: Luckily, we did get the boarding pass. It was totally worth the high blood pressure to try to get on it. The ride itself was amazing.

Liz Weston: Yeah. If you don’t know what’s going on, that must be so strange that the whole park just goes dead silent and then all of a sudden, out of nowhere.

Sally French: It was truly bizarre. But it was team mentality. We were all in it, all rooting for each other to get the boarding passes, as long as you yourself get one.

Sean Pyles: Oh, that is so cool. And then you finally got it. So that’s awesome. I’d love to hear about what made this trip your dream vacation?

Sally French: This was our first big trip since the pandemic. This trip happened in June 2021. It was just really, really nice to get out, do something completely different. Of course, Disney is always this feeling of getting away from the real world, but I think especially in 2021, we really needed that.

Sean Pyles: Yeah. Man, I still remember the first trip I had post the beginning of the pandemic and what a relief it was to be able to go somewhere new and see people I hadn’t seen in a long time and feel like I could get out into the world a little bit.

Sally French: It felt so good to know that I have my vaccine. I could go to Disney and feel great and get lost in this magical world.

Sean Pyles: All right. I do have another question for you about being around Disneyland and Disney World. How to avoid crowds? And this is something top of mind for me, because with my partner’s family, his nephew goes to Disneyland every year that they’ve been able to for his birthday, barring the pandemic and all of that. And so far, I’ve had an out because I don’t really like crowds and also his nephew was young enough that I figured he won’t remember it anyway, if I’m not there. Now he’s getting older and that’s going to be less and less of an excuse. I think sooner or later, I’m going to have to suck it up and go to Disneyland. But again, I would like to avoid as many people as possible. So, what are your tips for that?

Sally French: Definitely, always try to avoid going during times when schools are out. So summer and Christmas and spring break. Those times are always going to be crowded. We did go in June. The caveat was we had to go to Florida for something else, was a powerlifting meet. We were sort of tied to the June date. If I could do it again, I would not like to go in June.

Sean Pyles: His birthday’s in February. So I’m guessing that’s offseason.

Sally French: February’s amazing. And you know what? If you’re going to Disney World in Florida, that is the best time because the weather is nice, but not extremely hot. So I think you’re picking the best time.

Sean Pyles: Yeah. I usually go out to Florida for my mom’s birthday in February, but this is in California. They’re going to Disneyland.

Sally French: Even California is so nice in February. My other advice is, people think, “I’m on vacation, so I want to sleep in, let’s go to the parks at 10.” That is not good advice when it comes to Disney. You should go as soon as it opens. We went on every single ride at Magic Kingdom. I will say, probably in the first hour, we went on about 10 to 12 rides. And then in that 9 to 11 window, we really only went on two or three because everyone’s coming then. You got to go as soon as it opens and that’s how you maximize rides.

Liz Weston: My niece and her family were just at Disneyland and they took that advice. They were there at what’s called rope drop. That meant getting to the park half an hour, an hour before the time it supposedly opens — they got to ride every ride that they wanted to go on. That makes a big difference.

Sean Pyles: Wow. What I’m gathering is that, between the Rise of the Resistance, ticketing approach and getting there at rope drop, you really have to have a game plan for how to approach these parks.

Sally French: You have to have a game plan, for sure. But luckily Disney does make it easier to get in early. If you stay at the Disney-owned hotels, at least in Walt Disney World, and then as well as what they call good neighbor hotels, which are bigger branded hotels that they don’t necessarily own and operate but they partner closely with — those hotels typically allow you to get into the parks about a half an hour, sometimes an hour early, depending on when you’re going. So even if a Disney hotel is more expensive than the Motel 6, if your priority is to get on rides and not wait in line, it can be worth it paying for the upgrade to get into the Disney hotels and then be able to get into the parks earlier.

Liz Weston: I’ve also noticed that the app is really helpful now. It’s giving you wait times for all the rides and that can help you navigate the park and make sure that you’re not standing in one 60-minute line after another.

Sally French: Liz, that’s such a good tip because it’s even wild how the lines fluctuate. Often, if a show just gets out, then the ride next to the show suddenly has a giant line and you might not be cognizant of that, but the app can show you. At some point this one ride has a 20-minute line and then all of a sudden it has an hour line and you’re like, “Wait. What?” The app better explains that to you.

Liz Weston: Sally, how did you wind up saving so much money on your last trip?

Sally French: So we calculated what the cash value of this trip would’ve been, and it would’ve been about $4,000. That’s what a Disney trip can easily cost, by the time you pay for food, flights, tickets, hotel rooms. But for all those things, we paid $1,600 in cash. And then the rest was all covered by credit card points, other benefits that come out of having a credit card. Honestly, the $1,600 in cash, a huge chunk of that was just the theme park tickets, which are about $500 each — that was $1,000 for the two of us. And then $600 for other things. But thank you so much to credit card benefits and points. We spent very little money actually on the big portions of this trip.

Sean Pyles: So before you even made your game plan for the theme park, you had a game plan for how you were going to deploy all of your various points to cover this vacation.

Sally French: Sean, I’ll tell you how I did it. First thing is, people want to know about flights. We flew on Southwest. I have a Southwest credit card and as a thank you for signing up and spending a bunch of money on the card at the beginning. So that sign-up bonus gives you a whole bunch of points, which I was able to book my flight through. And then Southwest offers this thing called a Companion Pass, which is basically a buy one, get one free airfare. Your companion only has to pay the taxes and fees, which are $5.60, 5 dollars and 60 cents. And then your companion, which was my boyfriend, gets to fly with you. The way you earn that Companion Pass is, when you hit a certain threshold of points with Southwest. We use that Companion Pass for all my trips that I take.

Liz Weston: Well, that’s very cool. How did you cover the hotel? Did you stay at a Disney property?

Sally French: So we opted not to stay at a Disney property. The reason being is because I have a Hilton credit card on top of my Southwest credit card and that card offers all sorts of benefits. So we stayed at the Hilton Lake Buena Vista, which I love staying at because it’s in walking distance of Disney Springs, which is their shopping and dining district. And that hotel normally has a cash rate of $1,700 for the five nights we would’ve stayed. However, I also did not pay $1,700. I did have to fork over 140,000 Hilton Honors Points. However, NerdWallet on our website has a calculator of what your points are worth and those points that would book $1,700 worth of a room, only cost me about $700 in value, according to NerdWallet’s valuations.

Liz Weston: That sounds like a really good deal because Hilton points tend not to be worth as much as a lot of other programs. So you have to throw a bunch of them at any room that you want. So you said you got five nights for 140,000 points. That is a bargain.

Sally French: Exactly. What’s awesome is, when you book a room with Hilton on points, they actually waive the resort fees, and I think they were $50 a night. So you figure that’s huge savings right there. Another really awesome thing is, if you are a Hilton Honors member — which is free to become a base level Hilton Honors member — and you pay with points, you get your fifth night free. So that’s basically a 20% discount right there.

Liz Weston: And I think you mentioned that you were a Diamond level member, is that right?

Sally French: I have one of the Hilton credit cards that gives you automatic Diamond elite status. And that is so great to have. You’re eligible for room upgrades. But one of the best benefits is, if you have Diamond level status, they give you a daily food and beverage credit. That’s actually new since coronavirus and the price varies based on your hotel. For us, it was a $30 daily credit. The night before we went to the hotel cafe and we used our $30 credits just to get sandwiches to go, little yogurts and muffins and things, so that way we could get straight to the parks and eat our croissant in line.

Liz Weston: Very good. Oh, that’s a great tip. I’ll bet you have some other good tips for saving money on food.

Sally French: Food is always going to be expensive at Disney, and there’s no getting around that. When you’re at Disney, get the Mickey bar, get the churro. You’re on vacation, you should definitely splurge.

Liz Weston: Yes.

Sally French: My best tip is be OK sharing food. Do you need to eat a whole churro, or are you just as satisfied eating half a churro and sharing that with your travel buddies? That is one of my best tips. Get the food, but see if you can just split some of it. Another tip that I have is that Disney actually does let you bring in your own food to both their California and their Florida parks. They explicitly say that’s allowed. If you do find yourself just buying food, simply because you’re hungry — and you should be hungry, you’re walking around the parks all day — I recommend packing your own snacks. Bring jerky, nuts, protein bars, so that way you avoid buying that overpriced popcorn bucket.

Liz Weston: Well, now wait a minute. I love the overpriced popcorn buckets.

Sally French: And some of them are cute, but get the popcorn bucket if you want it, for sure.

Liz Weston: I know people that have a side business selling those because this was for Halloween, and there was a Mickey that was dressed up like a mummy and those went instantly. And I saw them afterwards, $150 online.

Sally French: Oh my gosh.

Liz Weston: Yeah. These are buckets that cost $20, $25.

Sally French: I think your next podcast topic should be interviewing the popcorn bucket side hustlers.

Sean Pyles: Yeah.

Sally French: I want to know about them.

Liz Weston: Great idea.

Sean Pyles: I also want to talk about souvenirs a little bit because that is my weakness. Whenever I go anywhere, I am a big sucker and I will happily spend more than I should for anything. The one time I did go to Disneyland, I bought myself a nice Mickey Mouse wristwatch, which I adored. But I spent, I think, $40 on it, which is embarrassing. So how can people save money on souvenirs when they’re at places like Disneyland or Disney World?

Sally French: See if you can buy your souvenirs in advance, online or at your local toy store. As long as you’re not buying the $150 popcorn bucket online, you can find great Disney stuff online. The Mickey Mouse plush that they sell in the theme parks is probably very similar to the Mickey Mouse plush that they sell at Target or Walmart. The difference being at Target or Walmart, it’s probably a lot cheaper. So if you’re trying to buy souvenirs for your kids, I recommend just get it ahead of time. Stash it in your suitcase. Don’t let the kids see it. Pretend you got it and surprise them in the hotel room that night. They will not know whether it came from Tomorrowland or Target.

Sean Pyles: That’s smart.

Liz Weston: Another thing you might try is to look online for a big bag of Disney pins, because pin trading is this huge deal. This is like elementary school kids. I don’t know that your nephew is old enough to get into it, but the bag online will be a lot cheaper than spending $8 or $10 per pin.

Sean Pyles: OK.

Liz Weston: And then there are sites where the kids can trade with Disney cast members. They can take a pin that costs you pennies, essentially, and trade it for one that they really want from one of the cast members. And it’s a way to interact with the park that’s really fun.

Sean Pyles: It reminds me of Beanie Babies in a way.

Liz Weston: Yeah. It’s a little bit like Beanie Babies.

Sally French: Pins are better than Beanie Babies, Sean.

Sean Pyles: Giving kids pointy things, better than a Beanie Baby?

Sally French: True.

Sean Pyles: I may have to disagree with you on that.

Sally French: How many pins do you think have been made, thousands? Maybe …

Liz Weston: Oh, got to be. Yeah.

Sally French: And they have them for every single character, every movie, every holiday. You could drill down on a theme and say, “I’m only collecting Baby Yoda pins,” and you could totally make that your mission. It’s so fun.

Liz Weston: Absolutely.

Sean Pyles: Well, thank you so much for sharing your vacation story with us. And at this point, usually Liz and I will give our takeaway tips, but since this was your dream vacation that you achieved, can you tell us your takeaway tips for anyone who’s looking to do the same?

Sally French: Yes, definitely. My first tip would be to acknowledge credit cards with annual fees aren’t for everyone, but they can certainly help you save money if you play your cards right, like I did. Number two, brings snacks. Disney lets you bring food and drinks into the park, so definitely do it to save money there. Finally, buy those souvenirs in advance. If you have kids, you can save money by purchasing mementos at the retail stores rather than in the park.

Sean Pyles: All right. Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

Sally French: Thank you. This was fun.

Liz Weston: And that’s all we have for this episode. If you want your money questions answered on a future episode, turn to the Nerds and call or text us your questions at 901-730-6373. That’s 901-730-NERD. You can also email us at podcast@nerdwall.com. Visit nerdwallet.com/podcast for more information on this episode. And remember to subscribe, rate and review us wherever you’re getting this podcast.

Sean Pyles: And here is our brief disclaimer, thoughtfully crafted by NerdWallet’s legal team. Your questions are answered by knowledgeable and talented finance writers, but we are not financial or investment advisors. This nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes and may not apply to your specific circumstances.

Liz Weston: And with that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.