Taking a page from the highly successful frequent flyer programs that are ubiquitous within the airline industry, cruise lines large and small know that one way to your heart is by offering incentives for your loyalty. We love the idea that we might be rewarded for finding—and sticking with—a cruise line that best caters to our interests. But do these plans really offer enough to make it worth tying the knot with just one brand?
Our research shows most cruise line loyalty programs to be of marginal value, except for the most die-hard cruisers—that is, the ones who sail multiple times a year, with one line. Benefits are meager for those with only a few cruises under their belt, especially compared to airline programs. While five coast-to-coast round trips on a given airline might earn 25,000 miles—the equivalent of a free coach ticket—don’t think five cruises will get you much more than a free drink.
In fact, most of the bennies coming out of pledging our undying loyalty to a cruise line seem to have more in common with spending incentives—like very modest discounts on spa treatments, wine tastings, and the like. Even the much-lauded “members-only” bargains on future cruises aren’t necessarily the best deal in the market. Meanwhile, on many lines, repeaters can look forward to a souvenir pin that announces their ranking. While this equates to status for some, we think it’s a pretty cheap tchotchke.
If you’re looking for a free cruise down the road, you’re going to have to work at it, and it’s a perk we found offered only by a few lines—mainly upscale brands like Oceania, Crystal and Seabourn—and only after quite a few days at sea (think 20 cruises or more).
Maybe this is as it should be. The differences between the major domestic airline carriers are fairly thin these days. Between on-time rates and seat pitch, pretzels and soft drinks, our travels in the sky don’t vary much from one airline brand to the next.
But the various cruise lines offer fairly distinct experiences: The happy customer at Carnival might find a voyage with Holland America to be a dirge, and vice versa. So the best loyalty programs in the cruise industry are those that begin with identifying and satisfying specific segments of the cruise audience, and then allowing a memorable vacation experience to become the real catalyst for the next booking. It’s called repeat business.
Meanwhile, we suspect our next souvenir pin is just around the corner.
Loyalty Programs for the Major Cruise Lines
Carnival Cruise Lines — For the VIFP Club—that’s “Very Important Fun Person” in Carnivalese—guests are automatically enrolled during their first cruise, graduating to the entry level, Red, with their second Carnival sailing. What does one get for that level of loyalty? A complimentary drink—but only at breakfast or lunch in the main dining room. We’re guessing that drinking early begets drinking later (and more money spent on drinks overall), so this arrangement strikes us as somewhat more advantageous for Carnival than for the guest.
Thereafter, each cruise day you sail is worth 1 point, and at 25 points—that’s 25 sailing days—you’ll be upgraded to Gold level. Here you’ll be awarded a VIFP pin and receive an invite to a cocktail reception. At 75 points, guests reach Platinum, and here a few worthwhile benefits start to kick in: Each sailing includes two bags worth of free wash-and-fold laundry (three bags on a seven-day cruise), a $5 arcade credit, two-for-one entries on casino tournaments, a Carnival logo gift, a chocolate treat delivered to your cabin, and priority check-in, boarding, and restaurant and spa reservations. At 200 points you’ll be at the Diamond level and the add-ons include unlimited wash-and-fold laundry, an invite from the captain to an unspecified function, a one-time specialty dining meal, and a one-time cabin upgrade or third/fourth guests free.
Celebrity Cruises — Restructured in 2013, the Captain’s Club awards points based on the number of nights sailed and the cabin category. An inside or ocean view cabin earns 2 points per night, veranda cabins earn 3 points, etc. Solo cruisers paying the full single supplement (200%) receive double the points. Guests are automatically enrolled in the Classic level, and on the next cruise this includes a member event and a booklet with discount coupons for coffee, internet, shops, and spa services (it’s worth a few bucks, but don’t get too excited). The best perk is a one-category upgrade—that is, book an inside cabin, and you’ll be upgraded to a better inside cabin, closer to midship or a deck higher (roughly the equivalent of a $30 or $40 discount for the typical Celebrity cruise).
After 150 club points, guests are upped to Select status, and extras include an invite to the Senior Officer’s Cocktail Party, a wine-tasting seminar, priority embarkation, and increased discounts on laundry, internet, etc. At 300 points, guests become Elite members, and added bennies include a complimentary bag of laundry, a dry cleaning, 90 minutes of internet access, one admission to the Persian Garden spa facility (while the ship is in port), an Elegant Tea Service, and priority status for embarkation, tenders, etc. At 750 points there’s an Elite Plus level, followed by Zenith, for those who attain 3,000 points.
Celebrity offers reciprocal perks for cruisers of parent company Royal Caribbean. For those who’ve never sailed with Celebrity previously and hold Platinum status with Royal Caribbean there’s a one-time match to Celebrity’s Select tier; Royal Caribbean’s Diamond level transfers to Celebrity’s Elite status. Similar reciprocity is available with Azamara Club Cruises, another Royal Caribbean subsidiary. Otherwise, credits earned on one brand are not combinable with those from another brand.
Cunard Line — Cruisers are automatically enrolled in Cunard World Club after their first voyage. At the entry level, Silver, members receive up to 5 percent off early bookings on select voyages and special offers on others (starting with their second cruise). After that second cruise (or 20 nights), members attain Gold status, availing two hours of complimentary internet access, a cocktail party, “preferred” reservations in the specialty restaurants, and a gold membership pin.
After seven cruises (or 70 nights) members are elevated to Platinum status, which adds an additional two hours of complimentary internet, a 20-percent discount on laundry and dry cleaning, priority check-in in New York and Southampton, and a complimentary wine tasting and Senior Officers’ Party. With 15 voyages (or 150 nights) comes Diamond status, with an additional four hours of internet time, a comp meal at one of the specialty restaurants, and priority disembarkation and luggage pickup.
Disney Cruise Line — Mickey’s frequent cruiser program is the Castaway Club. Guests become Silver members automatically after their first cruise, and the benefits include separate cruise terminal check-in area, separate booking line and a cabin gift (ours was a nifty logo daypack). Repeat guests also get access to online booking for the spa, nursery, specialty restaurants and shore excursions 90 days before the cruise.
Guests are elevated to Gold status after the fifth completed cruise, which provides early booking opportunities ahead of the general public, a reception with the officers, and access to “onboard shopping opportunities.” After the tenth cruise, guests are elevated to the Platinum level, which adds in priority check-in, a comp dinner at Palo, and an “Exclusive Platinum Experience.”
Holland America Line — Guests are automatically enrolled in the Mariner Society after their first cruise. Each day on board (or on an Alaskan land cruise tour) earns Cruise Day Credits, so a seven-night cruise earns seven credits. Double credits are awarded for guests in suites—two per day. And onboard purchases earn credits—one per $300 in spending for spa treatments, specialty restaurant dining, shore excursions, etc.
As cruisers accumulate credits, the higher their “star” level rises. Starting with the second cruise, guests can attend a private embarkation lunch and a champagne brunch, receive a collectible gift (a tile with the name of the ship), and a 50-percent discount on 3rd and 4th guests on select sailings. After 30 cruise days, guests attain a 2-Star Mariner status and the benefits include a photo of the ship, a 10-percent discount on logo clothing onboard, a 15-percent discount for purchases from Holland America’s online store, and an annual cruise planner. With 75 days, 3-star status is reached and additional bonuses include a 25-percent discount on specialty restaurant surcharges, wine packages and some drinks, discounts on certain spa treatments, advance details on new itineraries, and a waiver on air deviation fees.
The 4-Star Mariners, reached at 200 days, receive comp laundry and pressing services, priority check-in, tendering and disembarkation, a 50-percent discount on specialty restaurant surcharges, wine packages and some drinks, a wine tasting event, and comp cruise fare for 3rd and 4th guests on select sailings. The highest level, 5-Star Mariner, is reached after 500 days and added benefits include discounted internet, two comp dinners at Pinnacle Grill, a cooking class, and a day pass to the Greenhouse Spa Thermal Suite.
Norwegian Cruise Line — Divided into four tiers, the Latitudes Rewards program awards guests one point for each night sailed, with double points for suite bookings, for select itineraries, or for bookings made more than nine months in advance (it’s possible to earn as many as three or possibly four points per cruise night). Guests are enrolled in the Bronze level following their first cruise, availing priority check-in, discounts at the gift shop and on internet access, and an invitation to the member’s-only cocktail party (except—curiously—aboard Norwegian Sky, Epic, Breakaway, or Getaway).
With 20 points guests attain the Silver level and added perks include an gathering with the officers, chocolates at turn-down, and discounts on photo purchases and spa treatments on port days. With 48 points guests reach the Gold level, with a welcome gift and priority disembarkation and tender tickets. The big benefits roll in at the Platinum level, at 76 points, including complimentary dinner and wine at Le Bistro, behind-the-scenes ship tour, free laundry, and so on. There are also unlisted milestone gifts for guests who hit 250, 500, 700 and 1,000 points.
Princess Cruises — The Captain’s Circle program has a big following among Princess regulars and, of the mainstream lines, we find it to offer some of the most tangible benefits at an earlier stage of cruising—especially for those sailing itineraries of seven days or less, or traveling solo. Guests are awarded a cruise credit for each completed cruise, or two credits when sailing in a full suite. Solo cruisers paying a single supplement receive a credit for the empty half of the bed (one cruise counts as two); single passengers staying in a suite earn three credits per cruise.
Guests are established as Gold-level members after the first completed cruise. At this level passengers get preferential pricing, a members-only cocktail reception and a gold member pin. Starting with the fourth cruise (or 31 cruise days, whichever comes first), passengers are awarded Medallion status, which primarily adds in upgraded vacation protection (travel insurance, for those who buy it). With the sixth cruise (or 51 cruise days), Platinum status avails preferred check-in and an onboard internet credit (150 minutes for a cruise of seven days or less). With the 16th cruise (or 151 days), Elite Level benefits kick in, including free laundry, 10-percent boutique discount, complimentary wine tasting, upgraded cabin amenities, complimentary minibar setup, deluxe canapés on formal nights, and traditional afternoon tea in cabin on request.
Royal Caribbean International — A free cruise is attainable through Royal Caribbean’s Crown & Anchor Society—but you’ll need to aim for 700 days at sea, or 350 days in a suite. One point is awarded for each day sailed (two for those booking suites). Guests become Gold, entry-level members after attaining 3 points; benefits include an invite to the welcome-back party, priority check-in and quarterly saving certificates. At 30 points, Platinum level is attained and perks include bathrobes for use onboard, a lapel pin, an “exclusive top-tier event” and discounts on balcony cabins and suites. At Emerald level (55 points), members receive a welcome gift and beverage.
The next threshold is Diamond level (80 points), which includes priority wait-list seating request in the main dining room, the spa and for shore excursions, a “chef’s choice” gift/amenity, a nightly “Diamond event,” and an entertainment tour. At the Diamond Plus level (175 points) members can request table size and location for the main dining room, use priority seating at entertainment offerings and are invited on behind-the-scenes tours. Finally, Pinnacle Club, for those with 700 points, avails a free seven-night cruise in a Balcony cabin, another at 1,050 points, a free cruise in a Junior Suite at 1,400 points and another for every 350 points thereafter.
We like the reciprocity available to sibling Celebrity Cruises’ past guests. For guests who’ve never sailed with Royal Caribbean but have achieved the Select tier with Celebrity, Royal will bump them to Platinum status on their first cruise, a one-time match; Celebrity’s Elite status transfers to Royal Caribbean’s Diamond level. (A similar deal is available for those sailing with Azamara Club Cruises, another Royal Caribbean subsidiary.) Otherwise, credits earned on one RCI brand are not combinable with those from another brand.