The Theme Park Capital of the World is home to Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld Orlando and Legoland Florida Resort. It also has numerous water parks, shopping malls and theatrical dinner shows.
Beyond the tourist attractions, Orlando is a world-class city with excellent food, culture and nightlife. Plus, there’s the natural beauty of the Central Florida Everglades beyond the city’s more developed areas.
Figuring out how to get to Orlando with points and miles is a different ballgame than in years past, but it’s still entirely possible.
Getting to Orlando
Orlando International Airport, MCO, is the city’s primary airport and ranks as the 10th busiest in the country in terms of passenger traffic with more than 50 million travelers in 2019. It’s located east of the city’s main attractions and in easy reach of all. Downtown is about 12 miles northwest, and Universal Resort is around 15 miles west.
Since Orlando is quite spread out geographically and there’s so much to see and do, most visitors choose to rent a car. However, if you plan on sticking to just one resort area (e.g., Walt Disney World Resort or Universal Orlando Resort), there’s often free, intra-resort transportation between theme parks, hotels and resort restaurants. In this case, it might make sense to use rideshare services, which are readily available at MCO, for getting from the airport to your hotel.
Major airlines flying to MCO
Most major domestic carriers fly to and from MCO, but Southwest Airlines transports the most passengers annually. The airport is a focus city for JetBlue Airways and Frontier Airlines, and also serves as a hub for small, Florida-based carrier Silver Airways.
It’s possible to fly domestically into Orlando on:
Silver Airways (codeshare partner with United).
Sun Country Airlines.
There are also more than 20 international carriers that service the airport, including Virgin Atlantic, Aer Lingus and Emirates.
Flying to Orlando on points and miles
The best use of points and miles for cheap flights to Orlando is usually found via Southwest or JetBlue.
Southwest Airlines flies nonstop to Orlando from more than 50 domestic destinations and offers many good redemption opportunities using Rapid Rewards points. Since these points are pegged to the cash price of the ticket (valued at 1.4 cents per point in our most recent calculations), the best time to redeem is during Southwest’s fare sales, as well as during off-peak dates and times.
For travel in May 2021, for example, we were able to find fares to Orlando for as low as 2,510 Rapid Rewards points from Detroit and 3,815 points from New York-LaGuardia. If you’re flexible on travel dates, consult Southwest’s low fare calendar to search for dates with the lowest points fares.
JetBlue flies directly to Orlando from 20 domestic destinations and also pegs its TrueBlue points redemptions to the dollar cost of the ticket (estimated value of 1.5 cents per point according to recent analysis). Since the lowest fare class bookable with TrueBlue points is “Blue” (one level above the airline's economy basic ticket), flyers get to choose their seat free of charge. This added perk is unavailable on Southwest, though the tradeoff is that you won’t get two free checked bags like on Southwest.
For flights in May 2021, we found many dates with one-way fares at 4,500 TrueBlue points per passenger, even on long flights between Los Angeles and Orlando.
Though most legacy carriers no longer publish official award charts, pricing tickets in miles is easy due to award calendars on their respective websites. We found economy tickets on American Airlines for as low as 10,000 miles for every single day in May 2021 for flights from New York-LaGuardia to Orlando. On Delta, we found tickets as low as 4,500 in basic economy and 6,000 in main cabin for flights between New York (either JFK or LGA) to Orlando.
Planning your Orlando trip with points and miles starts with flights, and hotels follow.
Hotels on points in Orlando
In the past, an Orlando trip booked with travel rewards required tremendous pre-planning, especially where hotels were concerned. Nowadays, due to capacity limitations at theme parks, restrictions on international travel and standard precautions in the COVID-19 pandemic, Orlando hotels are far less busy — and prices often reflect that. Meanwhile, redemption rates for points bookings tend to equate to the pre-COVID pricing of hotels, generally speaking, with some properties like the Walt Disney World Dolphin commanding a pricey 50,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night for a room that now costs $143/night.
However, we still found decent points-redemption opportunities for travelers. Among Orlando’s plethora of hotels, a downtown location is best for city pursuits, while theme park enthusiasts will want a property close to their desired resort destination especially to take advantage of built-in perks like free shuttles to and from the parks.
Hilton has 62 properties across greater Orlando, many of which fall under the value-friendly Home Suites and Hampton Inn brands. The portfolio also includes several upscale options, even ones that come with extra perks as official Walt Disney World hotels.
Surrounded by Walt Disney World Resort, this stylish 502-room property is part of Orlando’s hotel elite. Amenities include 12 restaurants and lounges, a full-service spa and fitness center, an 18-hole golf course, and plenty of lounger-lined swimming pools for basking in the Florida sun. As an official Walt Disney World hotel, a stay here includes continuous transportation to and from theme parks and the Disney Springs retail center. Soon, a stay will also come with new special Disney benefits, like early theme park entry.
Cost to book in points: Hilton doesn’t have a set award chart, but a standard room here costs 80,000 points per night. NerdWallet values Hilton points at 0.5 cent per point. When paying cash, this property charges $45/night for a resort fee and $47.63/night in taxes. The cheapest rate for a night in May 2021 we found was $336, totaling $428.63 after taxes and fees.
Hilton typically waives the resort fees on award stays (in this case, both taxes and fees are waived), making the value of booking on points that much more lucrative.
How to earn Hilton Honors points
Quickly add to your Hilton Honors points balance by applying for a Hilton-branded credit card. Some currently come with large welcome bonuses of 150,000 points, others with free night certificates, others with both. Some even fast-track you to Hilton’s top elite status.
If you want status or the ability to book on points but don’t want to commit to a Hilton-branded credit card, consider The Platinum Card® from American Express, which is currently offering this welcome bonus: Earn 100,000 Membership Rewards® Points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on the Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership. Terms Apply. It also comes with automatic Hilton Gold Status (enrollment required). Those points can typically be transferred to the Hilton Honors program at a 1:2 ratio, which means 1 American Express point can be turned into 2 Hilton points. Terms apply.
With just 10 hotels in its portfolio, Hyatt’s footprint may be small in the Orlando area, but its presence is still strong. In particular, the brand has a solid, value-friendly option that’s a Universal partner hotel and an ideal choice for groups coming to explore and enjoy Universal Orlando Resort. As a partner hotel, bonus benefits include complimentary transportation to/from Universal Orlando Resort and discounted park purchases.
This comfortable, 150-room property is less than a mile from the action of Universal’s theme parks. Standout features beyond resort-related perks include a sofa-sleeper in every room, free breakfast daily and free Wi-Fi. The sofa-sleeper means accommodating families of four is not a problem in king rooms or families of six in rooms with two doubles, a tremendous value for those with larger families.
Cost to book in points: This property is a Category 3 Hyatt property (rooms start at 12,000 points per night). NerdWallet values Hyatt points at 1.9 cents per point. There are no resort fees at this property and prices are currently hovering around $150, including tax. While this may not be the best value for a points redemption right now, it’s worth keeping in your back pocket if prices rise once again.
How to earn Hyatt points
You can up your World of Hyatt points balance by applying for World of Hyatt Credit Card. The current sign-up bonus is: Earn 30,000 Bonus Points after you spend $3,000 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening. Plus, up to 30,000 More Bonus Points by earning 2 Bonus Points total per $1 spent in the first 6 months from account opening on purchases that normally earn 1 Bonus Point, on up to $15,000 spent.
Hyatt is also a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate RewardsⓇ. If you want the ability to book on points, but don’t want to commit to a Hyatt credit card, consider the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. It is currently offering this sign-up bonus: Earn 100,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,250 when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
Those points can typically be transferred to the World of Hyatt program at a 1:1 ratio, which means 1 Ultimate RewardsⓇ point can be turned into 1 Hyatt point.
Marriott has the largest number of hotels of the major hotel groups in Orlando, with 110 nearby properties under its umbrella. Unlike Hyatt and Hilton, Marriott has numerous properties in the downtown area, in addition to those near theme park areas.
NerdWallet values Marriott Bonvoy points at 0.7 cent each, and disappointingly, our current searches reveal redemptions that bear far less value per point. However, there’s still one smart redemption opportunity out there, and it’s a splurge.
This 582-room hotel, which was completely renovated in 2019, asks one of the highest price tags in Orlando. Its collection of show-stopping amenities justify it, like a 40,000-square-foot spa, an 18-hole Greg Norman-designed golf course, 11 food and beverage options, a colossal swimming pool, and even a lazy river.
The cheapest rate found during low season in May for a 1 King Bed Lake View Room is $493 (including taxes), plus a $40 per night resort fee, which includes bicycles, Wi-Fi, pool floats and two welcome drinks.
Cost to book in points: The property is a Category 6 in the Marriott Bonvoy program. Rooms start at 50,000 points per night for standard rates, 40,000 during off-peak nights and 60,000 during peak nights. Marriott doesn't waive the nightly resort fee on award stays, but it does waive the taxes. Redeeming a King Bed Lake View Room at 50,000 points per night puts our current valuation per Marriott point right on target.
How to earn Marriott Bonvoy points
It’s possible to rack up enough points for free nights with the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless™ Credit Card. The current sign up bonus offering is: Earn 3 Free Nights (each night valued up to 50,000 points) after spending $3,000 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening + 10X total points per $1 spent on up to $2,500 in combined purchases at gas stations, restaurants, and grocery stores within 6 months from account opening with the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless™ Credit Card. If a travel partner, spouse or friend does the same, you're looking at up to four free nights together.
If you don't want to commit to a Marriott Bonvoy-branded credit card but you still want to collect points for a Marriott stay, consider The Platinum Card® from American Express. Those points can typically be transferred to the Marriott program at a 1:1 ratio, which means 1 American Express point can be turned into 1 Marriott point. Terms apply.
The bottom line
Current strategies for traveling to Orlando are definitely different in the pandemic, but there are still plenty of interesting redemption opportunities on flights and hotel stays.
To get the most from your points in Orlando, consider booking a flight on Southwest Airlines during a fare sale and booking a stay at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, Hyatt Place from Across Universal Orlando Resort or The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grand Lakes.
To view rates and fees of The Platinum Card® from American Express, see this page.
How to Maximize Your Rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card