Universal Studios for {basically} FREE!

Universal Studios
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How I planned a trip to Universal Studios for {almost} no money out of pocket. . .

Let’s face it, traveling isn’t free or even cheap most times.  Especially if your destination is any of our nation’s widely known theme park attractions like Disney or Universal Studios. It’s hard to look at all of the estimated costs once you’ve added them up and decide if a frugal budget can handle it.  It’s SO easy to get into the planning and things start to add up and the budget just spins out of control.  It’s even easier to get there and get caught up in the fun & magic and forget you even have a budget!  However, that hasn’t stopped us from experiencing these attractions.  It has just taken me a little more patience and planning to make it happen in a way that fits with our budget.

I’m especially excited about the trip that we just got back from this week.  Mr. FVF & Big T. had been wanting to go to Universal Studios (Orlando) for the last couple of years and we hadn’t been able to make it happen.  We were considering trying to go on the tail end of a cruse that we took last year but just couldn’t stomach the additional cost and extra time away from work and home at the time. Allianz Travel Insurance With Mr. FVF turning the big 4-0 this year, I wanted to do something big and exciting for him but couldn’t come up with anything that was going to really hit the mark.  He loves to be around friends and hang out but we do that a lot so throwing a party didn’t seem like the right idea.  Plus, his birthday is in January so the idea of an outdoors party felt crazy and our house isn’t entirely suitable for holding a bunch of people comfortably.  Party idea busted.  I thought about buying him something big — he’s had his eye on a certain kind of gun for hunting for awhile — but the problem was I didn’t know exactly what gun and a guy friend of mine told me that was dangerous territory unless I knew exactly what gun it was.  So, that was out.  There wasn’t anything else “big” that I knew he wanted since we typically buy what we need (and sometimes want) as we actually. . .well . . .need it.

Then, the idea came in like a wrecking ball (queue Miley Cyrus. . no?  Also a bad idea?  Mmmkay.) one night while I was sitting at Big T’s football practice — a trip to Universal Studios!  At the time, it just felt right.  Immediately, I knew it would be the perfect gift for Mr. FVF’s birthday.  It would be big, it would be unexpected, and it would put us in warm weather (Florida!) in the winter.  Perfect!

That’s when reality struck.  Universal Studios (or, really, insert any of the attractions in Orlando here as they would all fit!) can be really pricey.  That’s when I started looking into it a bit deeper and realized it can be realllllly pricey.  Initially, I was seeing trip packages upwards of four-to-five thousand dollars.  Yeah um. . .no.  Back to the drawing board it was.

Orrrrr was it?  I pretty much decided then that I was going to turn this trip into the biggest budget trip planning challenge I’ve ever done and I’m pretty much always up for a budget challenge.  However, I had one additional challenge ahead of me.  I had to figure out how to plan this trip on a seriously majorly small budget and make it not feel like we were on a seriously majorly small budget.  I had these scary visions of “Happy Birthday, Honey – we’re going to Universal Studios for your birthday but we each get only one meal a day and don’t even ask for a souvenir!”

Ya’ll, I won’t lie.  This was one of the biggest challenges that I’ve put on myself from a trip planning standpoint in a long time.  Or, ever.  I was essentially committing to trying to scrape together enough funds to bring my sweet little family of 3 on a big trip in a relatively short amount of time.  The idea came to me in August and the trip essentially need to be planned and mostly paid for by the November – December-ish timeframe.  Did I mention that this was also a surprise for hubby’s birthday?  Yeah, so I was also going to have to scrape said funds together incognito.  Not so easy-squeezy.  But it can be done, my friends. . .it can!  

Alas, behold how I managed to pull off a trip for my family to Universal Studios (and Islands of Adventure!) for 5 days and spent basically nothing out of my own pocket.  I reached deep, folks.  I. Reached. Deep.

*DISCLAIMER – This post may contain affiliate or referral links. You purchasing from or joining any of these partners may earn me a small commission to help keep the lights on, food on the table & wood in the fireplace but in no way costs you anything extra. I will never recommend anything that I do not use or would not use in the Frugal Farmhouse myself. That’s a hand over the heart pinky promise!  


Expenses

Some of these expenses were initially budgeted and I then went back and calculated the actual costs once we returned earlier this week.

  • Hotel (DoubleTree by Hilton @ Universal City Walk): $1,006.88 for 5 nights in a Universal View Room
  • Airline Tickets: $692.88 via JetBlue
  • Theme Park Tickets: $790.86 through Undercover Tourist — these are the only folks I use for theme park tickets and have used them several times for tickets to Disney and now Universal Studios.  Sign up for their newsletter to be notified of any special deals or sales!
  • Food (to include breakfasts, lunches, dinners, snacks & Starbucks runs (which we did several times a day!): $576.90
  • Souvenirs: $106.40 (this is an utterly optional cost and can easily be controlled!)
  • Other various expenses to include baggage fees, parking @ airport, & Lyft rides to and from airport in Orlando: $148.40

Total Expenses: $3361.82

Now, if you’re having heart palpitations at that number, you aren’t alone.  I was too when I started calculating budgetary numbers during the planning stages of the trip.  In fact, I almost backed out several times because I was SO worried that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off and would put out money that I couldn’t recoup easily (like airline tickets).  I had actually come up with a number that was much higher than this but found tips and tricks along the way that significantly reduced the food and transportation aspects of the trip.  For example, at first, I thought we were going to need to rent a car while we were there.  A car rental for 5 days was going to run us between $200-$300 for the week plus $20 per DAY to park at the hotel plus additional parking fees to park at Universal Studios which were going to be around $20/day, as well.

Before you just scrap your idea of taking your family on a fun-filled trip to Universal Studios, keep reading. I promise I’m going to share how I managed to plan this trip for extremely little money out of my pocket!

How I funded necessary expenses


Some of these tips may not necessarily apply to your situation or be a fit for your family.  I’m sharing how I planned our trip so that you may hopefully benefit from some (maybe all!) of these tips, as well.

When I was in planning mode, I broke the expenses down into the biggest “chunks” to figure out how I could cover those before I went further into “nitty gritty” details (like transportation or souvenirs).  I classified those “chunks” into costs for hotel, airline tickets, and then theme park tickets.

  • Hotel: I travel a fair amount for the company that I currently work for.  I learned a long time ago that it’s better to have a lot of loyalty points built up with one vendor (hotel, airline, rental car, etc.) than a handful of vendors all with smaller loyalty reward balances.  I’m a Hilton girl because their brand covers a large range of hotel types and there is usually always a Hilton close to whatever destination that I’m traveling to.  When I started planning this trip, I almost gave up when I saw how much just the hotels were going to cost.  Staying on-site at a Universal property has so many advantages but it’s also very costly.  I remembered that I had a bunch of Hilton Honors points stored up so I thought maybe I’d check to see if there was a Hilton property close enough to Universal to be within reasonable distance.  Luckily, there is a DoubleTree (which is one of Hilton’s brands) right at the entrance to Universal City Walk which is the area leading up to the entrances to Universal’s two parks: Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.  I was able to cash in 120,000 Hilton Honors points to cover the entire 5 nights that we were there.

$$ out of pocket: ZERO!

  • Airline Tickets: With the hotel expenses out of the way, I had to focus on the next big expense and that was how to cover the airline tickets.  About 2 years ago, I started using credit cards that earn rewards to pay for everything.  Well, almost everything.  My philosophy is that if it’s an expense that we have to pay anyways (food, gas, some utilities, medical bills, etc.) and it can be charged to a card, it is.  I put those regular expenses to work for me earning rewards and then I pay those cards off every month.  Non-negotiable. . .every month.  To avoid going into debt, I treat my credit card as a debit card and only use it for expenses where the money is already in hand.  Funny thing is, I suck at redeeming my credit card rewards and have just let them build up over the last 2 years.  When I checked my rewards balance, I had $869.87 just sitting there in cashback rewards.  So, I cashed in and bought some airline tickets!  Actually, I bought the airline tickets with my credit card, earned the rewards for that purchase, then cashed in my rewards points for a statement credit which technically means I earned rewards on the purchase that I used my rewards to pay for.  But, shhh. . .we don’t need to tell my credit card company that! 😉  I am a loyal Capital One card holder and I use the new Savor card for all dining & grocery purchases (to earn 3% and 2% cash back rewards respectively) and the Quicksilver Rewards card for 1.5% cashback on all other purchases, in case anyone was wondering.  Plus, both of those cards have additional new member bonuses of $150 cashback when you spend $500 in the first three months which is a pretty quick way to build up some rewards credit for buying things you buy anyways!  I am NOT being compensated by Capital One in any way by mentioning their name. . .I just use the cards and love the rewards programs due to how easy they are.  And Capital One has been a very very good company to me so, there’s that.

$$ out of pocket: ZERO!! 

In fact, after getting the statement credit of $869.87 to cover the airline tickets which were only $692.88, I had some leftover (to roll to the next big expense. . .

  • Universal Tickets: I bought 4-day Park-to-Park passes through Undercover Tourist which covered both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.  Because they were Park-to-Park passes, we could bounce back and forth between the two parks all day long, if we wanted.  The new Hogwarts Express Train is a ride that carries passengers between the Diagon Alley area of Universal Studios to the Hogsmeade area of Islands of Adventure and you can only utilize the train if you have park-to-park tickets.  In total, the tickets cost $790.74.  I had 179.99 leftover from my credit cards reward statement credit which left me with $613.75 that I needed to cover.  This is where it gets a little more complex and detailed. . .but not hard.  I just had to start looking around and cashing in on other rewards programs that I am a part of.

  In total, the other rewards programs where I had funds that I was able to cash included:

Ibotta: $162.00

Checkout 51: $53.75

SavingStar: $54.27

Field Agent: $46.47

OnGo Surveys: $23.70

Opinion Outpost Surveys: $132.70

PayPal balance: $20.25 (leftover from some mystery shopping payouts that I never apparently moved over into my bank account)

Cash from VarageSale sales: $265.00

Total: $758.11 which was more than enough to cover the cost of the tickets.

$$ out of pocket: ZERO!! 

With a surplus of $144.36 still left, I then realized that I might actually be able to pull this thing off!  There were still some pretty large expenses (hello, we have to EAT!) left to consider so I knew I wasn’t in the clear just yet.

Other areas that I found to help cover the cost of the trip. . .

Universal Studios Gift Cards ($100)

Since my husband and son didn’t know about the trip, I bought them each a $50 gift card to Universal Studios for Christmas and put it in their stockings.  I ended up breaking down and telling my husband about the trip before Christmas because we were in Florida the second week of December and he was really pushing to go to Universal at the tail end of that trip so I kind of had to go ahead and tell him.  However, Big T. didn’t know about the trip so we told him about it on Christmas morning.  Each of them ended up using those gift cards in the park to buy Harry Potter wands from Ollivanders.  Big T did the wand experience and had a wand choose him so of course we had to buy one.  Given that I’m not “in the know” when it comes to Harry Potter (I’ve never read the books or seen the movies. . . .collective gasps all around, apparently.), I just had to trust him on this one that he had to have that wand.  Instead of me coming out of pocket for it, I reminded him that he had a gift card he could use to get it.

Restaurant Gift Cards Received from Wellness Rewards @ Work ($350)

I participate in a wellness rewards program at work.  These rewards programs are pretty common in many companies but it’s absolutely shocking to me how many people either don’t know about them or don’t take advantage of them.  All I literally had to do was spend a few minutes each week either completing very easy tasks (answering a few questions about my health or watching a short video) or tracking my physical activity (which I track via my Fitbit) for the week and I earned enough points to cash in for all sorts of items, gift cards being one.  When I realized that gift cards were an option, I just did a little bit of research to see if any of the gift cards offered in the program matched up with restaurants in the immediate area around the hotel or parks.  I was thrilled to find out that there was Hard Rock Cafe, Bubba Gump Shrimp (a brand that falls under the Landry’s umbrella) and several Starbucks all on Universal property and gift cards from each of those places were available through the wellness program at work.

Visa Gift Cards Received as Holiday gifts ($150)

I usually ask for gift cards for Holiday gifts since I am generally always in the planning stages of either a project in the Farmhouse or I have my heart set on saving enough for a trip somewhere so my family is very acquainted to just gifting us gift cards to go towards whatever happens to be on our wish list.  This year, we got a few Visa gift cards which really helped to go a long way in paying for some of the expenses that weren’t necessarily covered in the three main “buckets” of expenses.

Grocery Budget Overflow ($342.47)


Undercover TouristI think we actually ended up not even using this money but I had so much comfort just knowing it was there, if I needed it.  We budget $100 – $125/week for groceries. Most weeks we don’t use our full budget so it just stays in the account and continues to help build until I transfer it over into our savings account.  Beginning the first week of September last year (once I was pretty hopeful that I could pull off this trip), whatever I didn’t use of the budget for that week, I immediately transferred over into a different savings account that we had opened awhile back and weren’t really actively using.  I knew that hubs wouldn’t notice if small amounts were being deposited in that account so it was a relatively safe place to stash those funds short-term and build up a little bit of a cushion in case we needed it on the trip.  Since I charged the baggage fees for the suitcase that we checked ($50), parking at the airport ($35) and the Lyft ride to & from the airport in Orlando ($63 total), I may be able to use this to pay off those charges.

Overall, we had an UH-MAY-ZING time!!!  While my family knew we were on a budget, they didn’t know all the ins and outs of how I was able to pull it together and afford the trip.  That part can stay my (well, I guess now I’m sharing it with all of you!) little secret. 🙂  It certainly didn’t feel like it was a budget trip as we still experienced all of the fun that Universal had to offer and definitely still sampled the different unique treats that Universal has.

Butterbeer anyone?

If you are currently planning a trip to Universal Studios (or really, anywhere), I hope some of these tips may help you to either cut costs or find other avenues that will help to pay those necessary expenses.

If you have any other travel budgeting tips, please feel free to share!  We’re always looking for ways to save on our next trip and the more we can save, the more trips we can take.  Right?

 

2 thoughts on “Universal Studios for {basically} FREE!

    1. Thanks!! It wasn’t super easy trying to pull all of the resources together and I thought it was going to fall apart several times! However, once we got there, it was all totally worth it!

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