I saved over $1,600 on a family trip to Florida with 3 travel hacks to get cheap airfare, a free hotel room, and a discounted rental car

woman and two children in front of globe with the word Universal on it
The author and her kids outside Universal Studios.Katie Oelker
  • I took a 4-night trip with my husband and daughters to Universal Studios and Magic Kingdom in Orlando.

  • We saved over $1,600 by using credit card reward points, travel companion tickets, and a hotel deal.

  • Saving on airfare, hotel, and car allowed us to splurge on nice meals and fun days in the parks.

Years ago, I started getting serious about travel rewards. Now that I've made it a habit, I was able to save over $1,600 on a family trip to Universal Studios and Disney's Magic Kingdom in Florida.

family in front of Magic Kingdom Orlando Florida
The author with her family at Magic Kingdom.Katie Oelker

A few years ago, I made it a point to start using travel-friendly credit cards so I could start building up rewards.

At the time, I was familiar with cashback credit cards, but I wanted to learn how to use credit cards to travel for free, or at a seriously discounted price.

So in 2018, I started to follow podcasts like ChooseFI that discussed how to use credit card rewards to pay for vacations.

I was hooked. I applied for my first travel rewards credit card, hit the minimum spend to earn the sign-on bonus, and then moved on to another card.

While I learned that there are restrictions to how many cards you can open during a certain timeframe, and I'm still learning how to best utilize credit card rewards, my husband and I haven't paid full price for airfare or car rentals since.

Most recently, we took a 4-night trip from Minneapolis to Orlando, Florida, with our two girls to visit Universal Studios and Disney's Magic Kingdom for their early Christmas gift.

By maximizing credit card travel rewards, Delta Platinum credit card companion passes, as well as a hotel timeshare promotion, we saved over $1,600. Here's how we did it.

Our Delta platinum credit cards come with companion passes that we used to get two free tickets.

view outside of plane window of the sunset
The author saved $696 on plane tickets.Katie Oelker

We're a loyal-to-Delta family, and a few years ago, my husband signed up for the Delta platinum credit card.

While the platinum card has a higher annual fee than the gold card, which is one tier below it —$250 annually vs. $99 respectively — he upgraded to platinum because it comes with a yearly free companion pass for main cabin tickets within the continental U.S.

This meant that once a year, when one of us books a Delta flight, a companion can fly on the same trip for free, as long as the routes are available. The only cost for the additional person are taxes or fees.

Last year, I decided it made sense for me to get one too. Since our daughters are now three and five years old, and the youngest one no longer flies for free as a lap child, I thought that each of us paying the annual fee would still be cheaper than purchasing four full-price tickets.

This way, each of us could bring one child as our companion for a yearly family vacation.

For our Florida trip, one ticket for a direct flight from Minneapolis to Orlando cost $377 and the fee for the companion was $29. We booked our tickets in August well ahead of our December trip, and the total for all four of us to fly on Delta was $812. This saved us $696 compared to four full-price tickets, which would have cost $1,508.

We got four free nights at a Hilton hotel in Orlando by agreeing to attend a timeshare sales pitch.

view of hotel lobby decorated for Christmas with inflatable snowman and Christmas tree
The hotel lobby in Orlando decorated for Christmas.Katie Oelker

When we travel as a family, we normally prefer to stay in Airbnbs. That way, we have access to a living room and kitchen, which allows us to purchase groceries and cook some of our own meals to save money. We also love the variety of Airbnb and feel more immersed in a community when we stay at someone's home.

When we book hotel rooms instead, we prefer the Hilton brand as my husband and I are both silver status members.

But when it came to our Orlando trip, I knew we'd be staying in a hotel — because it wouldn't cost anything.

Last winter, I was offered a deal for three nights free in Las Vegas through Hilton Grand Vacations. The only caveat was that my husband and I would be required to attend a timeshare sales presentation while we were there.

I decided to go for it, and we spent a fun long weekend in Vegas with friends. The presentation was painless, and we actually learned a lot about how Hilton's timeshare program works compared to others, and enjoyed our conversation with our sales representative. It was only an hour long and we were able to pick a time slot that worked for us.

It was after that presentation that I received a certificate for another free room to use within the next year at a Hilton hotel.

When I called to ask about using the certificate, I was asked again if I wanted to hear an offer for another hotel deal. Knowing that the offer included a timeshare sales pitch, I agreed. This time, Hilton Grand Vacations offered four free nights in Orlando in exchange for attending the sales presentation, plus another free night certificate to use in the next year. I booked the deal.

By accepting the timeshare deal, we saved nearly $800 and also enjoyed hotel perks like free use of the pool at another Hilton hotel nearby.

view of pool orlando florida
The author and her family enjoying the pool.Katie Oelker

We were given the option to stay at several Hilton Grand Vacations resorts, but decided on Home2Suites by Hilton Orlando Near Universal.

By taking this offer, we saved an additional $760 on accommodations based on the advertised room price.

We stayed in a standard hotel room with two full beds that came with a kitchen that had a full set of dishes, a microwave, and a refrigerator. The hotel also gave free breakfast, which not only saved money but was a great way to quickly grab food before we headed out for that day's adventures.

Before our sales presentation at another Hilton Grand Vacations resort, we had the entire first morning in Orlando to use the pool.

We thought the pool at our hotel was small and on the cooler side, but staff informed us that as part of our stay, we had access to use the pool at the Hilton Garden Inn (Orlando International Drive North) property across the parking lot.

I was glad we spoke to staff about it as we wouldn't have known about this perk otherwise, and thought the other pool was much larger and warmer, with a big hot tub our kids loved.

However, the presentation was difficult to attend with two young children, and I felt more pressured by the pitch than last time.

woman smiling with two children
The author and her two daughters.Katie Oelker

When it was time to attend the mandatory sales presentation, I definitely found it to be more of a hassle with two kids in tow.

Without childcare, we needed to bring things to entertain them and keep them quiet during the presentation. I brought games and coloring activities, and they also watched TV on my phone.

I also thought the presentation was longer and more intense than our first experience.

It started with a video, and this time, we had two sales people chatting with us instead of one. The person presenting the video was entertaining and engaging, and everyone we encountered was very nice. But they were trying quite hard to get us to sign up for a timeshare, which we weren't ready to do.

We told them we would need to financially run the numbers at home before making a decision, but knew it wasn't really an option for us.

And while sitting through the presentation got us four free nights in Orlando, plus another free night to use in the next year, it felt more uncomfortable to say no this time while face-to-face with two people who were pitching us hard.

The presentation also took up a full afternoon during our trip. I'm not sure if we would go this route again if we received another offer due to the pressure we felt, and having to keep our kids entertained during the presentation.

We also used Capital One reward points to book a discounted car rental.

car shuttle bus orlando florida
The discount car rental company shuttle.Katie Oelker

With flight and hotel taken care of, the only other big travel expense, aside from theme park tickets to consider, was a rental car.

I recently opened up the Capital One Venture X credit card for the point bonus and annual rewards, and used some of the sign-up bonus points to book a car rental for our trip to Orlando.

I looked on the Capital One rewards portal and used a little over 18,000 miles to book a car rental, worth $185. Though, I later realized we would also have to pay $117 out-of-pocket in extra insurance.

In my experience, renting a car using credit card points is typically pretty smooth, as you have a confirmation number you give when you go to pick up your car, but moving forward, we may save the points to use on flights or hotels instead, where I think we would have received more value for the redemption.

Saving on airfare, hotel, and car rental allowed us to splurge elsewhere.

a woman with two children in front of a restaurant orlando florida
The author and her children in front of The Ravenous Pig.Katie Oelker.

Since we saved by combining credit card reward points, travel companion tickets, and the hotel deal, we felt comfortable splurging elsewhere.

We paid to go to the theme parks for two days, which was plenty of time for us given our kids' ages.

We also felt like we had enough money left over to enjoy dinners out each night without feeling guilty about how much money we spent on dining.

We also allowed ourselves to buy treats like ice cream, and lunch in the parks without worrying too much about the cost.

Supporting local restaurants that use local ingredients is also always one of our top priorities when we travel, and this trip was no exception. One of our favorite restaurants in Orlando was The Ravenous Pig.

Although we experienced a few hiccups, the savings outweighed them. I'll continue to use these tips and tricks to save money when traveling.

woman smiling with two children
The author and her daughters.Katie Oelker

While the sales presentation was a bit uncomfortable, and the car rental didn't end up saving us as much as we initially thought, I'm overall happy with the choices we made. We had a great trip.

Our entire vacation was made possible by the free hotel room offer and it worked for us this time, but for our next vacation, I think we may skip the sales presentation to avoid any pressure, and use points on a hotel to get a better value than a car rental.

That being said, these choices allowed us to have a relatively inexpensive trip to Orlando for our family of four, and one that we won't soon forget.

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