How to stay in Disney World for free (2018)

How to get a free 6 night hotel stay in Disney World

Note: Some offers mentioned in this post are no longer available. Click here for an updated list of current credit card sign up bonuses. 

Update August 1, 2018:  Marriott has released the new category assignments.  The Disney Swan and Dolphin will both be category 6 properties in the new award chart.    This means 50,000 Marriott points per night.  50,000 Marriott points per night is equal to ~16,667 SPG points per night (SPG points earned prior to August).  As of today, August 1, the sign up bonus on both the business and personal versions of the SPG Amex is back.  But after August 18, the SPG Amex sign up bonus will not be enough to cover a 5-6 night stay. Even if it was, 50,000 points per night is probably a little too steep for these hotels.  So my Disney strategy is going to change.  I’m currently re-writing this post, so check back for updates!

Update June 2018:  The SPG credit card is still available, but the sign up bonus has changed. Currently, the offer is not good, but I anticipate a better offer as we get closer to August 1.  This post will need to be updated once we know what category Disney will be assigned in the new SPG/Marriott program that goes live August 1, 2018.

Update 4/17/18: SPG and Marriott Rewards will be integrated into one loyalty program beginning August 1, 2018.  At that time, any existing SPG points will become points in the new program at a ratio of 1:3 (1 Starpoint=3 points in the new program).  Current SPG and Marriott redemption charts will be eliminated and one award chart will be implemented.  The chart has been released, but we do not yet know which properties are assigned to each category.  I will update this post once we know the new category.  In the meantime, you have until August 1 to book with current SPG rates.

Update 2/11/18: Last week SPG released its list of properties that will be changing categories after 3/6/18.  Unfortunately, the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort will be moving up from a category 4 property to a category 5 property.  This isn’t a huge deal as far as the amount of points required.  Everything discussed below will still work to get you a free stay when the rooms are at the lower end of the category 5 cost, but you may only be able to get 5 nights instead of 6 out of the sign-up bonuses.  You have until 3/6/18 to book at the current rate.

  • In the SPG program, properties category 5 and above have ranges (12,000-16,000 Starpoints per night.  5th night is still free!).  Each property sets its dates for high and low season.  Obviously, high season will likely cost 16,000 rather than 12,000.  But their definition of peak dates may be different from yours, so you still could score a good deal!
  • The other point to mention is that by moving from a category 4 to a category 5 property, the Disney Dolphin is no longer eligible for SPG’s Nights & Flights program.  Again, not a deal breaker, but N & F is a great way to save on category 3 and 4 properties if you’re planning to use Starpoints to book both hotel and plane tickets.

Here is part 2 of how to save big money (thousands!) on a trip to Disney World.  This part will focus on earning your free hotel stay.  If you haven’t read the introduction post, please read that first!

Disney World on points

The girls weren’t too sure about the characters on the first day!

Earn an almost free hotel stay in Disney World

I have to say almost because there is a resort fee which is $25 per night.  Super annoying, but that is kind of the norm with many resorts whether they’re paid stays or booked on points.

Disney World on points

The resort fee includes the use of paddle boats at the Disney Dolphin. My parents took the girls for ride!

If you’re willing to stay in a hotel that is off Disney property, there are many options managed by several different loyalty programs in the Orlando area including Hilton, Hyatt, and Marriott.  These are definitely options to look into if you already have points in a program.  But if you want to stay on Disney property, Starwood Preferred Guest is the program that can make this happen.

In this post, I will discuss the SPG resorts that are on Disney property and assume that you are starting from zero miles and points (in any program)

Starwood Preferred Guest in Disney World

There’s only one hotel loyalty program that will get you a free stay at a hotel that is considered an official Disney hotel.  That program is Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG).  SPG points are called Starpoints.  Besides hotel stays at Starwood properties, Starpoints can be earned from the sign up bonus from the SPG card from Amex as well as everyday spending on the SPG card.

See alsoIntroduction to Starwood Preferred Guest

In an interesting twist, SPG points can also be earned from the Chase Marriott Rewards credit card.  Marriott has acquired SPG and as a result of the merger, points can be transferred back and forth between a person’s Marriott and SPG accounts.  The current transfer ratio is 3 Marriott Rewards points for every Starpoint.  For example:

  • 10,000 Starpoints=30,000 Marriott Rewards points
  • 30,000 Marriott Rewards points=10,000 Starpoints

You can click here to read more details about the merger.

Disney World on points

Hanging out at the Boardwalk

Disney Swan and Dolphin Hotels

The Swan and Dolphin hotels are located in Epcot.  You can walk to Epcot or take the boat.  You can also take the boat to Hollywood Studios.  The Swan and Dolphin are situated in close walking distance to the Boardwalk, which gives you lots of dining and entertainment options.   These properties also offer bus service to and from all Disney parks.  I love the location of these properties.

disney dolphin on points

We left the kids with our parents and drank champagne and watched fireworks in Epcot Paris. Disney World isn’t just for kids.

disney dolphin on points

Take me out to the Dance Hall

Disney Dolphin is a Sheraton property and Disney Swan is a Westin property.  Although owned by SPG rather than Disney, the Swan and Dolphin resorts are considered official Disney “deluxe” properties and give you most of the same benefits as other Disney resorts.   These benefits include:

  • Ability to book Fastpass+ 60 days in advance (this is 30 days if not staying at a Disney hotel).  This is huge because if you want some of the popular rides such as the Frozen ride or the new Avatar ride, you can pretty much guarantee you won’t be able to find Fastpasses once the 30 day window opens up for non-Disney Resort guests.
  • Extra Magic Hours Benefit.  Each day Disney opens one park an hour early or keeps one park open up to two hours later than normal.  Only guests of official Disney hotels (including the Swan and Dolphin) receive this benefit, so it’s a great way to enjoy the parks without long lines!
  • See more below:
SPG Disney World

Disney World Benefits for Dolphin and Swan guests

disney dolphin on points

The Dolphin left balloons and a voucher for ice cream in our room on Jack’s birthday! There is a great ice cream shop in the Dolphin!

Redeem Starpoints for free nights at the Swan or Dolphin

  • A 5 night stay at the Swan would cost 48,000 points.
  • A 6 night stay at the Dolphin would cost 50,000 points.
Disney World on points

Stay at the Disney Dolphin hotel for free with only 2 credit card sign up bonuses!

The Disney Dolphin is an SPG category 4 hotel which costs 10,000 points per night.  The Disney Swan is an SPG category 5 hotel which costs 12,000 points.  SPG gives a free 5th night on category 3-7 properties, so 6 nights at the Dolphin is 50,000 Starpoints and at the Swan 48,000 points will get you 5 nights.

Using SPG points to book either of these hotels can be a very good value, especially during peak times and holidays when rooms tend to be more expensive.  We went last year for our son’s 4th birthday and again this year for his 5th birthday.  Since his birthday falls around Thanksgiving, hotels tend to be more expensive.  Both the Swan and Dolphin were available for this year and for last year’s trips.

Epcot Walt Disney World

This is from Jack’s 4th birthday last year in Disney World

For dates around Thanksgiving this year, rates at the Swan were at least 310$ per night.  A free night at the Swan is 12,000 Starpoints but since the 5th night is free it averages to 9,600 Starpoints per night.

Disney world SPG points
Rates at the Dolphin were at least 351$ per night.  A free night at the Dolphin is 10,000 Starpoints which averages to 8,000 per night since the 5th night is free.

Disney world on points

Keep in mind that rates may be higher or lower depending on your desired dates, but the amount of points required will not change.  That’s why it’s such a good value to use points if you’re visiting during dates when rates are higher!  By the way, these rates do not include the extra $25 per night resort fee.

Based on the numbers above, here are the cents per point values.

Swan:
  • 310/9600=0.032
  • 0.032 X 100= 3.2
  • 3.2 cents per point is a good value
Dolphin:
  • 351/8000=0.044
  • 0.044 X 100=4.4
  • 4.4 cents per dollar is an even better value!

For a 6 night stay at the Dolphin during these dates, using points saves over $2,000!

How can I earn the Starpoints needed for a free stay at the Disney Dolphin or Swan?

I know 50,000 Starpoints sounds like a lot, but it’s actually much easier to earn those points than you may realize.  All it takes is 2 credit card sign up bonuses (1 from each parent).

Starwood Preferred Guest credit card from American Express is key to a free hotel stay in Disney World

http://refer.amex.us/LAURAMhBHz?XLINK=MYCP

The signup bonus alone is enough for 6 nights at the Dolphin or 5 nights at the Swan if you and your partner open a Starwood Preferred Guest credit card from American Express.

If each parent opens an SPG credit card from American Express and meets the minimum spend, they will each earn 28,000 Starpoints.

There is no annual fee for the first year, so this costs you nothing!  Yes, you can cancel before the end of the first year to avoid paying the annual fee if you do not want to keep the card.  And, if you cancel the Amex SPG credit card, you WILL NOT lose your Starpoints!

The minimum spending requirement to earn the bonus is $3,000 within the first 3 months of opening the card.  So that would be $6,000 total in minimum spending for 2 cards.  If you’re worried about being able to put $6,000 in spend across the two cards in 3 months, do this one at a time.  In other words, one parent can apply and then the other parent can wait until the first $3,000 requirement is met before applying for the other card.

If you’re worried about being able to meet minimum spending requirements, read this post.

disney dolphin on points

Have you already earned the Amex Starwood sign up bonus?  Good news and bad news…

The bad news is, American Express limits a sign-up bonus to one per lifetime per product.  So if you’ve had an SPG Amex card before, you’re not going to be able to get the bonus again.

The good news is there’s another option that’s almost as good.  The Chase Marriott Rewards credit card will yield just as many Starpoints.  Confused? Read about the Starwood and Marriott merger here.

Also, if you qualify for a business card, there is a business SPG credit card from Amex.  Since it is considered a different product from the personal version, you can still get the sign up bonus from the business credit card even if you’ve already received a bonus on the personal SPG card.

If you want a longer stay or if you want to book a Nights & Flights package, you or your partner should get the Marriott Rewards card from Chase in addition to the Amex SPG cards

There is an $85 annual fee on this card that is NOT waived the first year.  But $85 for over 27,000 Starpoints is nothing!

  • The sign up bonus for a Marriott Rewards credit card from Chase is 80,000 Marriott Rewards points after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months.
  • 1 person opening a Chase Marriott Rewards card and meeting the minimum spending requirement yields 83,000 Marriott Rewards points.  You can transfer those 83,000 Marriott Rewards points to your SPG account.  83,000 Marriott Rewards points will get you ~27,600 Starpoints.
  • 2 people opening SPG cards and 1 person opening a Chase Marriott card yields 83,600 Starpoints!
    • 56,000 Starpoints
    • 83,000 Marriott Rewards which is ~27,600 Starpoints when transferred to your SPG account (83,000/3=27,667)
    • 56,000 + 27,600=83,600
83,600 Starpoints is more than enough for a Nights & Flights package

SPG has a great option called “Nights & Flights” available on category 3 and 4 properties.  You can read more about the Nights & Flights program here.  Basically,  you can save points by doing this package if you’re already planning on using Starpoints for both flights* and hotels.   Since the Dolphin is a category 4 hotel, Nights & Flights is an option.

*Remember that SPG is a unique hotel program because you can transfer Starpoints to several different airline partners at a 1:1 ratio.  

For 70,000 Starpoints, you can get a 5 night stay at the Dolphin and 50,000 airline miles.  The 50,000 airline miles are deposited to an airline of your choice, as long as it is one of SPG’s transfer partners with a 1:1 ratio.   I’ll go into more detail about Nights & Flights for Disney in another post.

Summary

5 steps to a 6 night stay in a Disney World hotel for free (well, besides that annoying resort fee):

  1. Open 2 SPG cards from Amex (Yourself and your partner).  If you can spend a total of $6,000 in 3 months, you can open the cards at the same time.  If you’re more comfortable with $3,000 in 3 months, open the second card after completing the minimum spend for the first.
  2. Spend $3,000 on each in the first three months.
  3. After meeting the minimum spend your signup bonus points will post.
  4. Pool your points together.  To do this, transfer your points to your spouse’s SPG account or vice versa.
  5. Find dates on SPG.com that work for you.  You may want to go ahead and book even if you aren’t 100% sure your dates work for flights.  Pay attention to the cancellation policy, but it’s usually pretty lenient.  Usually if you cancel a stay at the Swan or Dolphin a week before the arrival date, you can get your points back with no penalty.

The Starwood cards (or Marriott) are a must, but the other credit cards will depend on the best airlines for your flights to Orlando and how many tickets you need to book.  I’ll help you decide in part 3.


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3 thoughts on “How to stay in Disney World for free (2018)

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