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Family Travel Series: How To Choose A Cruise Based On Points?

by on May 4, 2012 · 29 comments

in American Express, British Airways, Chase, Family Travel, Guest Blog Posts, United

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This is part of the Family Travel Series on Choosing a Cruise by TPG Director of Operations, Danielle. Other posts include: Choosing a Cruise While Maximizing PointsIs the Disney Credit Card Worth It For A Cruise?How to Choose a Cruise Based on PointsUsing Frequent Flyer Miles for Cruise FlightsHow to Get a Passport for Your Child.

After much deliberation, we finally decided on and booked our family cruise! As many of you predicted, a lot of the options we’d seen just two short weeks ago were no longer available (at least for our cabin preference) when we sat down over the weekend to do our final research, so the choice ended up being easier than we thought.

But without further ado (and totally against our preconceived notions about this cruise line) we will be traveling aboard the Carnival Destiny in an Ocean Suite (fridge, minibar, private verandah, VIP check-in, and whirlpool tub) for 5 nights, departing out of Port Miami on May 19. This cruise sails to Grand Cayman Island and Ocho Rios, Jamaica – both places we are curious to visit (Mike’s family vacationed in the Caymans for years, and next year my cousin will be having a destination wedding in Jamaica).

Choosing Cruising

After seeing many veteran cruisers recommend CruiseCritic.com, we checked reviews before making our final decision. Overall, even though the Carnival Destiny does receive a decent CruiseCritic reader satisfaction rating of 76% we know this is an older ship and we aren’t expecting our first cruise experience to rock our world. However, the ship did earn solids ratings (by the site and readers) with their children’s program, family-friendly activities, dining options, courteous staff (especially recommended by readers), value for your money, and cabins (including the tubs in the suites – a must for our little ones), which were the amenities that were personally important to us for this trip. Disney cruise? We will see you next time!

Getting The Most Points For Our Purchase

Our next step was deciding just how to book it in order to earn the most points. Below is a list of all of the earning opportunities we researched for accruing points and miles based on our cruise fare spending. Since offerings are different on each website, we found our cruise first and then looked for the best way to book to provide a side-by-side comparison.

Our total spend was $2943 (including taxes) and I included what the points earned would have been when purchasing the cruise on a Chase Sapphire Preferred (2x points per dollar spent on travel), BA Visa (1.25 Avios per dollar spent), and Amex Premier Rewards Gold (1 point per dollar spent). 

Note: the price for our cruise and cabin was nearly EXACTLY the same on each website, including Expedia.com and CheapCaribbean.com.

United Cruises: 1,500 United MileagePlus miles (and possible additional bonus for booking a suite – does anyone have experience with this? I got all the way to where you enter credit card info and it still wouldn’t confirm if I’d actually received any additional bonuses!) plus any points accrued by using a points-earning credit card of your choice.

Haul: 1,500 UA miles plus 3,678 Avios or  2,943 Amex MR points or 5,886 Chase Ultimate Rewards points, and since Ultimate Rewards is a transfer partner of United, that equals out to 7,386 MileagePlus points if you were to transfer. No onboard credits.

CruiseCompete.com: Best offer received from one of their affiliated agents was a $225 onboard cruise credit plus any points accrued by using a points-earning credit card of your choice.

Haul: $225 credit towards activities on deck plus 3,678 Avios or 2,943 Amex MR points or 5,886 Chase UR points.

Ultimate Rewards Shopping Mall: 2 points per dollar spent via CruiseDirect plus $25 onboard credit plus 2 points per dollar spent on travel using Sapphire Preferred (since you must use a Chase Ultimate Rewards card to book through this portal).

Haul: $25 credit towards activities on deck plus 11,772 Chase UR points.

American Airlines Cruises: 1 AAdvantage mile per dollar spent (note: a $100 onboard credit was offered on Monday, but not at time of booking) plus any points accrued by using a points-earning credit card of your choice.

Haul: 2,943 AA miles plus 3,678 Avios or 2,943 Amex MR points or 5,886 Chase UR points

Amex Membership Rewards Portal: 2 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent if you book the cruise through the MR portal.

Haul: 5,886 Amex MR points.

Important to note: even though we actually do not have an Amex card, for the sake of research we did speak with the Platinum concierge desk to see what “perks” might be offered. Unfortunately Carnival is not a preferred Amex vendor so for this cruise there was nothing additional that being a Platinum cardholder would have garnered, as confirmed by many of the readers. However, I think it is worth mentioning that the cruise counselor was incredibly nice and had personally been on the Carnival Destiny and spoke to its credit.

We went for the big Chase Ultimate Rewards haul of nearly 12,000 points for this particular redemption. Not only do we feel it’s important to diversify our points portfolio, and are fans of the flexibility of transferable points, but we love Avios (as we will elaborate on in the next post) since our travels pretty much exclusively revolve around short domestic hops.

So by booking through CruiseDirect on the Ultimate Rewards website with the Chase Sapphire Preferred card we will earn 11,772 Ultimate Rewards points which can be transferred to 11,772 Avios since British Airways is a 1:1 Ultimate Rewards transfer partner. This is more than triple what we would have earned by putting the spend on our BA Visa at 1.25 points per dollar (3,678 Avios) alone.

Of course, the other options would have yielded some AA and UA miles, but since we don’t have any significant balances in those reward programs we weren’t as drawn to those choices. It also occurred to us that we might use those Ultimate Rewards points towards our airport hotel stay the night before the cruise, for instance at a Priority Club property, but after we did some preliminary pricing we are finding costs so low ($105 for Holiday Inn – $160 for a Crown Plaza) that I’m fairly certain we will just pay out of pocket for that night. Plus, CruiseDirect also gave us a $25 onboard credit to sweeten the deal—cocktails for the adults after the kids are asleep!

The other deal that most tempted us was from CruiseCompete, but we pulled the trigger slightly too early – literally the next morning was when the offer came in from an agent offering us $225 in onboard credits. To us, $200 (subtracting out $25 since CruiseDirect was already throwing that in), might have been too significant to pass by. Bird in the hand, and all! So we could have booked through CruiseCompete on our BA Visa and received $225 and had 3,678 Avios (or 5,886 Chase UR points if we used the Chase Sapphire Preferred), though I’m certain we’ll reap just as much value on short-haul flights from all those extra Avios we will have from transferring Ultimate Rewards points.

Now that you’ve read all the way through our situation – what would you have done (given our lack of status and experience)? Lessons learned? What did we miss?

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Jane

    I had not thought of booking through the credit card Ultimate Rewards. I have booked with one of the advertisers on Cruise Critic (CruCon) and found that for my upcoming cruise they offered me a huge OBC (on board credit) that no other line could match. We are going to New Zealand and it appears that many of the excursions are controlled by the cruise line. 98% of the time we organize our excursions through our Roll Call on Cruise Critic but for New Zealand, in some ports with certain activities, that is not possible. Example is that there is a great train ride through gorges – the train is booked exclusively to the cruise line so I can not go to the station and book my own trip. That OBC will come in handy then. Please don’t let Carnival damper your enthusiasm for cruising. If you like hairy man bellyflop contests, drunken adults, garish decor – then you;ll love Carnival.

  • Mark

    I booked a cruise through AMEX Platinum Travel yesterday and they were great to work with. On our RCCL 7-night cruise (Mediterranean) they offered $100 on board credit, a comp spa treatment ($100 value), comp dinner at one of the specialty restaurants ($50 value), and a bottle of champagne. The fare for our balcony room was only $699/pp so the credits are worth about 15% discount.

  • http://twitter.com/TheDealMommy The Deal Mommy

    I wouldn’t worry about the reviews and Carnival vs. other cruise lines. We’ve done two Carnival Cruises with kids and loved them both. For the price of a regular cabin on another line, you got the suite on Carnival, with all the service perks that provides. Most people who review aren’t in a suite and don’t get the top level service. And as you know, with kids space trumps amenities a lot of the time. Enjoy!

  • Jmw2323

    “Please don’t let Carnival damper your enthusiasm for cruising. If you like hairy man bellyflop contests, drunken adults, garish decor – then you;ll love Carnival.”

    not necessarily the norm and can just as easily happen on other cruise lines as well.

    we were very happy with our carnival cruise. did not see any of this

  • T Anderson112

    We just booked a cruise through Ultimate Rewards and received 6 points per $1. I received an email a few weeks ago that read. Through June 30 book a cruise through Ultimate Rewards and earn 4 bonus points on top of the 2 points per $1 you already earn on travel. This has to be charged on the Chase Sapphire Preferred. This would get you 17,658 Ultimate Rewards points.

  • Danielle

    You’re right – I just logged into the Ultimate Rewards portal and there is a deal right now for (apparently now open to everyone) for 6 points per dollar spent on cruises booked through the UR cruise counselors from now until June 30. When we booked a few days ago the best we could find was 5 points per dollar spent, but it was only featured cruises. Thanks for the tip even though we weren’t able to take advantage!

  • Anne

    I really hope our experience was atypical, but our one trip on a Carnival ship, admittedly an older one, was so hideous to the eye that we’ll never go again.

    It looked like a really cheesy attempt to imitate Las Vegas. One of the dining rooms was actually painted black with blue neon. I winced every time we entered it.

    The rooms were also depressing.

  • Danielle

    If that’s on our ship at least the kids will like it!! haha

  • Jubin25

    I am trying to book a cruise also but I dont see the extra 4 points that was mentioned by T Anderson, do we have to call and book it through their dept ?

  • http://www.facebook.com/stufalk Stuart Falk

    My first thought is that I would not trust Cruise Critic for objective reviews: their editors and management are more interested in pleasing advertisers or potential advertisers, so not all user reviews are posted and those that are are pre-approved (just as their bulletin boards are zealously monitored). In addition, editors and management of Cruise Critic accept free/heavily discounted cruises (along with special treatment) and would not want those freebies to stop.

    While there are many cruise reviewers out there, my first choice would be the Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships by Douglas Ward (updated annually). Another excellent cruise ship review site is http://www.vacationcruisesinfo.com/ edited by Gene Sloan which, unlike Cruise Critic, has published a strict ethics policy which includes never accepting free or discounted cruises or basing reviews on press junkets.

    In terms of points, I would agree that in your research the Ultimate Rewards option is best, though as reflected in previous posts, this can change from day-to-day. In regards to perks, I’d first call the cruise line directly and if they offer the same other offers from travel agents, I’d book direct (in terms of customer service or knowledge, the big online cruise agencies are usually worthless and should a problem arise I rather deal directly with the cruise line). After that, just to check on competitive prices as well as onboard credit or specialty restaurant comps, I’d check out the online pricing on CruiseQuick.com (while I’ve never booked with them, they offer some excellent prices – and where legal, commission rebating – that serves as a useful guide and leverage with other suppliers.

  • Sean

    The interior of the Destiny is interesting — very… glitzy with a good bit of neon. It’s a fun ship, there’s a lot to look at, a lot to do, and you guys should enjoy it!

  • Danielle

    Today, for me, it was the first thing that came up when I entered the Ultimate Rewards portal, but it wasn’t there before now. Not sure that it shows up for everyone or if it’s targeted/temporary?

  • T Anderson112

    On the Ultimate Rewards portal go to browse cruises and vacations then your current offers, it should say book now by calling an ultimate rewards travel agent 1-866-951-6592. The cruise has to be paid in full by June 30. We have booked cruises before through Ultimate Rewards Travel and have always been very satisfied. Did a lot of research and this was the best offer I could find. If you can’t find it through the portal just call the number, it is open to everyone.

  • ksh

    I generally book my cruises through Costco, because they give the best OBC or Costco Cash Card, but they stopped partnering with Carnival a few years back, so I think you got a great deal.

    Getting a suite is key, if you want space. Cabins are small, and we knew that spending all day on deck would not work.

    Pack a power strip, outlets are extremely limited (generally one), and a nightlight. The cabins are really dark once you pull the balcony curtains.

    Have a great cruise!

  • Asdfasdfasdasd

    booking through Ultimate Rewards you would have received 4 bonus points (+2 normal travel for 6 points per $ total.)

    No matter who you went with you can still get the 2 travel points for spending on the cc, so it’s really just 4 bonus points.

    4 x $2943 = 11772 Ultimate Rewards Points = $350 in value at 3 cpp

    (Many 9k redemptions on BA are worth at least $275 which is basically 3 cpp)

  • Asdfasdfasdasd

    You guys should go to the forums on cruisecritic, and tell everyone you will be on their cruise by posting on the ROLL CALL (your cruise date) in the Destiny forum

  • Colonelretwes

    Believe you got a good deal as maxing your points was a priority. We book 2/3 cruises per year over the last eight years and
    have used some of the best agencies that provide generous discounts (some over10% cash back)–now, our priority is most cash back vs points. (We generate at least 20-30K miles per month via credit card churning, bank accounts so our focus for booking cruises is cash back vs points)We have used Global cruises (over 10% back), Goldring Travel (10% cash back), Cruise Compete (about 10% cash back), Cruise professionals (about 7.5% cash back some SBC), Luxury Cruise Connections (about 10% cash back plus SBC). We now use Pavlus Travel (guarantee they will beat any offer) we got near 14% cash (about $2700 and $1300 SBC) on our last booking with them and will get 13% cash back on our next voyage this November. Danielle, think your strategy above for maxing points is on point, however if you want the most cash back (luxury or mass market cruise booking) consider a Travel Agent that offers a generous cash discount (rebate) and SBC (some belong to Travel Consortiums (Signature, Ensemble, Virtuoso) that also provided bennies (SBC, excursions, etc)

  • Paul Thomas

    I can vouch for getting the miles through AA cruse reseller. I’m currently pending miles through United cruise reseller (doubling the miles for booking with United Visa) so we’ll see how that works out for us. It’s the same reseller that does the bookings for both AA & United so I expect everything will be just fine.

    Also, if you have 100 shares of Carnival stock you will get various levels on onboard credit so it may be worth considering if you’re thinking about becoming an investor.

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  • Milezjunkie

    CruCon has always (with my experience) blown every other company out of the water with huge OBC deals! I just booked a special with them for a 14-night Asia cruise on Celebrity for $1,479 per person plus $250 OBC when Celebrity offered $1,699 and no OBC. Plus I still get bonus points to pay with my Sapphire card.

  • JimFerri

    It’s interesting how thorough you were in doing your homework. Good job! And running the risk of sounding like a tout for Amex, which I’m not, I found that the perks their Platinum card gives can be quite valuable — including a 20% point kickback when you redeem points with them. And they’ve become very aggressive in pricing during the past few years, so at times you can find some good deals with them. Don’t know about cruises though. Bob voyage!

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  • Bohemiana

    What is “CruCon?” Is that short for something?

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