Frequent fliers are not the only ones who can score benefits when hitting the road. Cruise companies also encourage loyalty for repeat sailings by offering a boatload of benefits on board. As thousands of travelers plan their spring and summer cruises, it's worth taking a few minutes to look at the wonderful world of cruise loyalty programs.
Frequent flier versus frequent cruiser
The most important thing to know about cruise loyalty programs is that they do not operate the same way that airline and hotel programs do. Instead of giving you points based on how much you spend or how many miles you fly, cruise programs mostly focus on the frequency of your trips—the number of nights you’ve spent on board or the overall number of cruises you’ve taken. And instead of redeeming points for free trips, you use them to reach elite status.
There are plenty of benefits that come once you earn elite status, and, once earned, you keep that status for life. This can pay off big if you want to sail frequently with the same cruise line. It’s also worth noting that it doesn’t take much to start earning perks. Many lines amp up the benefits after only your second sailing in the hopes that you will continue to book with them.
What does status get me?
Repeat travelers get perks like priority check-in and disembarkation, preferential restaurant reservations, onboard receptions with free-flowing booze, in-room goodies like champagne and vouchers for free Internet or laundry, and branded merchandise. Carnival (which cheekily named its loyalty program Very Important Fun Person or VIFP), also gives its most loyal members preferential access to special sailings like Carnival LIVE, which feature shows by top comedians and musicians.
Then there are the little things: Celebrity makes sure that all members get a free scoop of gelato. Crystal gives all members at least one hour of free Internet per person, per day after their first cruise. (That’s a valuable perk when you consider how much cruise ship Internet can cost.) Sail enough with luxury-focused Seabourn, and they’ll gift you a Tiffany pendant.
Many programs also offer reservation discounts. These range from the five percent discount MSC Cruises club members get when they book early to the fully comped weeklong cruise that Silversea gives to members who rack up a total of 350 days on their ships.
And there are even some perks that benefit more than just the travelers: Carnival makes a $100 donation to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital for each member that achieves Diamond status.
Bonuses on the river
It’s not just sailing the high seas that counts; river cruising companies have loyalty programs too. Repeat sailors are pampered with many of the same amenities that you get on larger ships, including cocktail receptions and cabin upgrades.
Since river cruise lines operate on smaller volume, they can also afford to be more generous with their rewards without adversely affecting their bottom lines. Ama Waterways even offers free roundtrip airport transportation for guests on their third cruise. And another generous perk that you don't find at ocean cruise lines: many river cruises offer referral programs that can actually earn a free cruise. Viking’s Referral Rewards, for instance, pays a $100 shipboard credit for each person referred; (the referred travelers get it, too). Those who manage to refer 13 people in a calendar year receive a free cruise. (This is much better than the seafaring Princess cruises, which only offers $25 per person in their referral program).
Like airline and hotel companies, cruises have industry partners with whom travelers can share some reciprocal benefits. Royal Caribbean, for instance, partners with sibling companies Celebrity and Azamara Club Cruises; elite members of any of these lines can enjoy a few of the same bonuses when traveling with the others.
Still want those airline miles?
You can actually double dip if you book a cruise through an airline’s cruise travel agency. Yes, airlines also sell cruises through special partnerships with travel agencies, and they also award miles based upon the cabin type you select. United Cruises even offers bonus miles for people who pay for a cruise with a United-affiliated credit card. For example, if you book a suite with a United credit card, you could earn 8 miles per dollar spent, (and that can really add up if you’re taking the family on vacation). And travelers can simultaneously earn airline miles through the travel agency and points from the cruise line’s own program. Delta and American offer similar programs.
Ramsey Qubein wings his way to every corner of the globe covering the hotel, cruise, and airline industry, scooping up points and miles along the way. He has visited 164 countries and flies nearly 350,000 miles per year. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at DailyTravelTips or on his website RamseyQ.com.