Royal Caribbean’s Monarch of the Seas arriving in Nassau harbor, Bahamas
There is plenty of content both on this site and throughout the travel blogosphere about airline and hotel loyalty programs, but there is a noticeable dearth of information regarding loyalty programs for my favorite mode of international travel, cruising. With summer vacations, and with them, the peak season for cruising, right around the corner, I’ve put together a (hopefully) helpful introduction to how cruise line loyalty programs work, and how they can benefit you if cruise frequently.
NOTE: all of the major cruise lines have their own loyalty programs, but for the sake of brevity, and since most major programs are very similar in terms of earnings structure and rewards, I will concentrate this post on the two programs I use the most since I also patronize these cruise lines the most – Princess Cruises’ Captain’s Circle and Royal Caribbean’s Crown & Anchor Society. If you belong to a different loyalty program and wish to point out things that make those programs more valuable, please chime in in the comments!
The Basics of Cruise Loyalty Programs
The basic structure of cruise loyalty programs is relatively straightforward:
- Earn points generally equal to one point per cruise night
- Attain status levels by completing a fixed number of cruises or a set number of nights, or a combination of the two
- Earn an escalating collection of perks as you move up the status ladder, just like with airline or hotel reward programs
Like airline and hotel programs, joining a cruise loyalty program is free. However, all lines I have sailed with (Princess, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, and Celebrity) require that you complete at least one cruise before being allowed to sign up for the program. Generally, you’ll be automatically assigned a loyalty program number once you complete one cruise; you can find your number on the direct mailers or marketing e-mails that you will inevitably receive from the cruise line once they’ve reeled you on to the boat one time.
Note that both Princess and Royal Caribbean provide two points per day for booking a suite (NOT a mini-suite or junior suite) category and/or sailing as a single passenger but paying the double fare for the entire stateroom. Another line I have used, Norwegian, periodically advertises specials where they award bonus tier points for booking selected cruises during flash sales.
All programs contain escalating elite tiers, just like airline and hotel programs. However, cruise lines tend to have more elite tiers than the airlines and hotels. Princess and Royal Caribbean define elite tiers as follows (I’ve created my own chart for Princess since they don’t have an easy to use one on their website):
Both programs are similar, though RCL has six elite tiers to Princess’ four. Princess also allows you to qualify by number of cruises or number of cruise days, whereas Royal Caribbean exclusively uses cruise days. In either program, you automatically enter the program at “Gold” with one cruise (the shortest RCCL cruise is three days, thus you reach the minimum after one cruise).
One very important difference with airline and hotel programs – tier qualification is based on CUMULATIVE activity, not year-by-year. In other words, five lifetime cruises on Princess earns you Platinum status for life. You don’t have to requalify over a set period of time. In addition, except for double points if you book a suite, there are no point bonuses for selecting a higher stateroom class. A 7-night cruise in an el cheapo interior stateroom earns the same points as 7 nights in a mini-suite with a balcony.
Elite Status Benefits
Once again, the basic elite benefits are similar between programs:
- Reduced deposits and preferred pricing on future cruises
- Special “elite only” events on board, usually a welcome party on the first day of the cruise
- Free trinkets like a lapel pin or collectible stamp
- Priority embarkation and disembarkation
- Onboard merchandise discounts
- Free onboard internet minutes and laundry for higher tiers
The links to the two programs at the top of this post take you to comprehensive descriptions of elite benefits by tier. In summary, though, while I find Princess to be the better cruise experience overall, the loyalty program is pretty lame. The only benefits of real value are the free internet, free laundry, and free minibar setup, but those, along with priority boarding, only become available at the Platinum level (admittedly, not that hard to reach). Royal Caribbean, on the other hand, allows you to earn extra stateroom discounts at Platinum (30 points), and vouchers for free 7-day cruises once you reach 700 points (admittedly, a very high bar to reach). In other words – don’t expect to receive the free upgrades and trips that you do with the airlines.
Unlike the airlines, cruise lines don’t have “alliances”, so benefits are usually restricted to the line whose program you belong to. The exception is Royal Caribbean, which provides matching status on sister cruise lines Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises (owned by Royal Caribbean International).
One other benefit you earn, though not directly because of the loyalty programs, is the opportunity to earn free onboard credits on future cruises if you put down a deposit for another on board. On my last Princess cruise, the offer was a $25 onboard credit for a 7-night cruise (increasing to as much as $100 for longer cruises) in exchange for the deposit of $100; all lines run similar promotions on board. Most even allow you to designate it as an “open-ended” deposit if you aren’t ready to pick a specific cruise, as long as you actually book another cruise within 2-4 years. Cruise credits are normally combinable with other offers, so if a sale or your travel agent includes additional onboard credits, you can tack these on. If you cruise frequently, you might as well take advantage of these offers, as the onboard credit is essentially free money.
Other Ways to Earn Benefits
Just like the airlnes and hotels, the major cruise lines offer branded credit cards, Princess through Barclay’s Bank, and Royal Caribbean through Bank of America. NOTE: I do not carry nor do I receive referral fees from either of these cards; these links are presented for informational purposes only. Unlike airline and hotel cards, cruise line affinity cards don’t earn you a wheelbarrow full of “redeemable” miles or points. You do earn points, replete with the obligatory sign-up bonus, but the redemption opportunities for these points is somewhat limited. Trying to find comprehensive award charts on the card websites proved to be exceedingly difficult, but I found a decent summary for Princess’ card here and Royal Caribbean’s here. Both offer 2 points per dollar spent with the cruise line, and 1 point elsewhere. RCCL’s card effectively offers a 1% rebate on onboard purchases, with redemptions starting at 5,000 points for a $50 onboard credit. Pretty lame if you ask me; you’d be better off using something like Chase Ultimate Rewards, where you can at least earn 5% back on rotating categories, and taking a statement credit. Princess is a little better, offering up to a 2% rebate on cruise fare. The catch? You have to redeem a ton of points in order to get that rate, 375,000 points in exchange for a $7,500 cruise credit. Rebates are a flat 1% up to 20,000 points, with an escalating rate thereafter.
One other nontraditional way to earn cruise benefits – being a shareholder of the cruise company. Both Carnival Corporation (owner of Princess Cruises) and Royal Caribbean International offer on-board credits for persons owning 100 or more shares of stock in the company. I own 100 shares of CCL, and qualified for a $100 onboard credit for our summer cruise through the Mediterranean. Carnival doesn’t put many restrictions on its shareholder benefit, but beware that Royal Caribbean does; based on the terms and conditions, it appears the credit can’t be combined with other onboard credit offers.
Cruise line loyalty programs aren’t anywhere near as lucrative as airline or hotel programs, even with the recent devaluations. Some programs don’t offer any way of earning free cruises, while those that do require such a high number of points (RCCL’s 700 points equates to one hundred 7-day cruises) that they’re effectively impossible to earn. About all you get are priority boarding and a few useful perks like free internet and future cruise credits. I sail with Princess and Royal Caribbean because I like the service and the ships, but I certainly wouldn’t stay with one exclusively because of the loyalty program. But, since the programs are free, you might as well sign up. I wouldn’t bother with cruise line credit cards; you can earn better value, even for a cruise, through programs like Ultimate Rewards or Membership Rewards.