Frequent Disney travelers have long been frustrated by the lack of a frequent-Guest loyalty program. But if you're willing to stay off-site and forgo a few luxuries, it's possible to use other companies' loyalty programs to your advantage, saving money on your Disney travel.
Airfare is a big part of most travel budgets, so let's start there. There's no single best frequent flier program, but choosing one and sticking to it can significantly increase your benefits. The Smarter Traveler web site has a guide to picking the program that best suits your needs. And don't go thinking that you don't fly enough to benefit: All the major programs also allow you to earn miles through other types of purchases. The FlyerTalk forums are a great place to pick up tips on both earning and redeeming miles.
My favorite mile redemption tip? If you can plan in advance, check your mileage redemption flight availability 330 days before travel. That's when most airlines release their schedules, so seat availability for "saver" awards is usually as good as it will ever get. I've always been able to find a reasonable itinerary at the "saver" level when I checked that far in advance.
In recent years, hotel loyalty points have become almost as important a part of the travel economy as airline miles. While none of the Disney-owned hotels offer hotel loyalty points, there are a few hotels on Disney campus which do, including some of the Downtown Disney hotels, and the Swan and Dolphin. Hotel loyalty programs sometimes offer special perks to their members, such as free internet access or breakfast, especially if one has earned enough points in the program to earn "elite" status. And like airline miles, many hotel loyalty programs have partnerships which allow you to earn points for everyday purchases and bill-paying.
Many Disney fans carry the Disney Visa card, which doesn't earn much in the way of rewards points (more on that in a minute), but does carry nice perks when you're in the parks. This card often gives its bearer early access to certain Disney promotions (such as Free Dining), and discounts on shopping and guided tours. There's also usually a nice bonus for signing up for the card, and I must say I do enjoy that special character meet-and-greet at Epcot for Disney Visa holders, and the free Photopass print that comes with it.
But I must offer a note of caution on this card, and on rewards-bearing credit cards: If you're not paying your balance in full each month, chances are you're paying more for those benefits than they're worth. For example, the Disney Rewards Visa usually offers only a 1% Disney Dollars bonus, so if you're paying more than 1% interest on your card you're not really getting any bonus at all. Also, if your rewards-bearing credit card has an annual fee, be sure to do the math to figure out whether the benefits you gain are worth the cost. If the reward is airline miles, this article at Smarter Travel can help you quantify the cost/benefit. If the rewards are less tangible, such as concierge level at certain hotels, I'd suggest considering how many nights you're likely to take advantage of those benefits, dividing the fee by the number of nights, and considering whether the benefits are worth that cost.
Let's also remember that for most people the benefits of rewards programs aren't likely to add up quickly unless they're traveling very frequently, and/or consolidating their points in a small number of rewards programs. If you have a choice about which airlines to fly, or which hotels to stay in, consider whether it's in your best interests to, well, show a little loyalty to your loyalty programs. In some cases it won't be: It probably doesn't make much sense to pay an extra $100/night for your hotel room just to earn the points. But do the math, as it might be worth it to you to stay in that slightly-less-convenient hotel on your next business trip in order to earn points, especially if the hotel chain is running one of their bonus-points promotions.
Many people also participate in invitation-only internet survey programs such as e-Miles and e-Rewards, which earn points that can be converted into airline miles, hotel points, or other bonuses. These surveys can be time-consuming, and earn only relatively small numbers of points, so consider the cost/benefit here as well. If you've got the time, and enjoy taking the surveys, you may as well earn the points.
Loyalty points programs aren't the only way to save money on travel. And yes indeed, using them effectively requires both a bit of research, and a bit of math. If you're interested in learning more, MouseSavers has a very helpful page.