Brand loyalty among cruisers is a funny thing. Each enjoyable cruise you take on one cruise line entrenches you more firmly in your comfort zone. You feel good about your vacation choice, knowing in advance what you are getting. You love that it feels like home when you step onboard. You practically have the menus memorized. What if you switch and Brand X doesn’t have that soufflé you love? Or the right pillows? Once you settle in, it feels like you could sail to the ends of the earth fearlessly with your chosen cruise line.
But you want recognition, too! The cruise line should treat you like royalty for all that loyalty. In some cases they do. Yahoo Travel went in search of the best cruise perks available on the major lines, digging deep into the muddled fine print to find what each loyalty program is best at. Which cruise lines have the best plans for new cruisers looking to begin the loyalty game? And which cater more to serious cruisers whose crowns need a little polishing?
Loyalty programs often make big deals out of things that do not matter for most cruisers, so we attempted to cut through the clutter of “perks” like newsletters and magazines. Those are not benefits; that’s marketing. The same holds true for password-protected areas of websites. We also see limited benefit in dedicated help desks, a single soft drink or bottle of water, or tiny discounts on already high-priced things like minibars and spa treatments.
If a line can make you feel better about giving them all of your vacay money by handing out color-coded key cards and lapel pins, that’s great, but what we were looking for were perks with real value — in other words, free stuff! Onboard credits, free laundry, free Internet, cabin upgrades (that are easily attainable), and yes, even free cruises.
Here is what we found.
Frequent cruisers will love the bonuses from they rack up from all their Carnival rides. (Photo: Carnival Cruises)
The Lowdown: Even though you can join the VIFP Club (that stands for “Very Important Fun Person”) before your first cruise begins, the benefits are less than spectacular until you have cruised 75 nights and reach the platinum level. At that point (roughly 10-15 cruises), you start getting things like cabin upgrades and free laundry. Hit 200 nights (25-30 cruises average) and you can add a free specialty dining opportunity.
A separate Milestone Cruise Program adds a bonus: an onboard credit on your 25th, 50th, and 75th cruises and a free eight-day cruise after your 100th booking.
Best for: Frequent cruisers.
Like upgrades? Celebrity will swap your standard veranda room for a better veranda room just for being a repeat cruiser. (Photo: Celebrity Cruises/Facebook)
The Lowdown: Most cruises have the standard array of inside, outside, veranda, and suite classes. Celebrity excels by offering higher cabin classes like Concierge and AquaClass, which include experiences and special cabin locations. Celebrity’s Captain’s Club loyalty program dolls out free one-category upgrades within a “superclass” to even the lowest tier of past guests. So book a veranda class cabin and you’ll get upgraded to a better veranda cabin just for having cruised with Celebrity in the past.
The rewards gradually escalate to include access to special lounges, Persian Garden access, and priority theater seating. See the experience trend?
An added bonus is that anyone who has achieved platinum level or higher with Royal Caribbean’s Crown and Anchor club enter Celebrity’s Captain’s Club with the same status.
Best For: Upgrade lovers, particularly those who frequently opt for upgraded cabin classes.
Ten Disney cruises will earn you a free dinner at onboard specialty restaurant Palo. (Photo: Disney)
The Lowdown: Castaway Club members receive recognition, a tote bag or backpack, and not much more. Of course, if you love Disney, having a tote bag that not everyone else can get is cool.
After 10 cruises, members receive a complimentary dinner at the onboard specialty restaurant Palo.
Best For: Disney lovers.
Cruise Holland or any of its sister lines for discounts and special treats. (Photo: Holland America Cruises/Facebook)
The Lowdown: You can join Holland America Line’s Mariner Society following just one cruise with HAL or one of its sister lines (Carnival, Princess, Cunard, Seaborne, or Costa). Points accrue on nights sailed, with double points for sailing in a suite, plus you earn one bonus point for every $300 you spend on most things onboard.
Special treats like a Mariner Brunch and embarkation lunch in the dining room (as opposed to the buffet with the masses) begin in the first tier. The discounts and free stuff begin after 30 cruise points.
Best For: Previous guests of other Carnival Corporation cruise lines and those who spend extra onboard.
MSC Voyagers Club will hook you up with great perks and benefits simply for being a loyal member of another cruise line. (Photo: MSC Cruise USA)
The Lowdown: MSC’s new reciprocal status program, MSC Voyagers Club, is perfect for anyone with accumulated status in any other travel loyalty program, particularly when it comes to moderately priced European lines. But it’s not just cruising: that airline membership will also qualify you.
To take advantage of the program you must fill out a form providing the details of your status with another program and wait for MSC’s determination of your reciprocal status. The program is too new to have much feedback at this point, but it certainly has potential, as this European giant is setting its sights on attracting North American cruisers.
Best For: Travelers with existing upper-level status in any travel loyalty program — including non-cruise programs.
Start earning points automatically and working your way toward cool perks like a members-only cocktail party and great discounts. (Photo: Norwegian Cruise Line)
The Lowdown: After completing just one NCL cruise, members of the Latitudes loyalty program are eligible for bonus points on select cruises, as well as the usual assortment of discounts on Internet minutes and onboard purchases. The best thing: it is automatic. You never need to sign up to start receiving insider specials. Free stuff doesn’t begin until you have sailed 75 nights with NCL, and unfortunately never goes beyond complimentary dinners and tours.
Best For: New cruisers just testing the waters.
Get great discounts simply by sharing your love of cruising with others. (Photo: Princess Cruises)
The Lowdown: As soon as you complete your first cruise you are eligible for Captain’s Circle, a referral program that lets you earn discounts when you refer (or bring) friends. You are also eligible immediately for both early and late booking discounts. With your fourth cruise, you become eligible for an upgrade on your purchase of Princess’ vacation insurance program. Free stuff starts with Internet access on your sixth cruise and laundry on your sixteenth.
Best For: Brand ambassadors and discount lovers.
Balcony lovers, rejoice! The Royal Caribbean loyalty program gets you great discounts on balcony rooms and suites. (Photo: Royal Caribbean Cruises)
The Lowdown: The massive Crown & Anchor Society has five tiers, beginning after your first cruise. There are small perks that start with the first tier, but good stuff like discounts on balcony cabins and suites begin at just 30 points, or roughly five cruises. No discounts to unravel, just a flat $75-225 per stateroom knocked off your final booking, depending on the length of cruise and how far in advance you reserve your cabin. Royal Caribbean is good at doling out feel-good perks and discounts onboard as members progress through the tiers, and if you stick it out with them for 700 nights, the reward is that ever-elusive free seven-night cruise.
Best For: Balcony and suite lovers.
By Melinda Crow