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Maximizing Points and Miles With Cruises

by on April 14, 2014 · 6 comments

in Cruises, Maximize Monday

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With the summer cruising season almost upon us, a lot of readers have been writing in with questions about how to maximize their points with cruises – both on the earning and redemption side – so I thought I’d write up a few strategies to help them make the most of their next voyage.

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Earning Points/Miles With Credit Cards

Like airlines and hotels (and Amtrak), many cruise lines actually have co-branded credit cards. However, they are generally not the best earning propositions. They tend to be targeted at travelers who don’t do their homework and think that these cards are best for cruises because they are associated with one cruise line or another. However, upon closer examination, there are better options out there.

The main reason for that is cruise points tend to have a fixed value of one cent per point, and you can usually just redeem them for statement credits on your cruise purchases rather than for free cruise rewards/nights at higher values. The sign-up bonuses tend to be lower than on other travel credit cards, and some cruise credit cards even charge annual fees – meaning it’s even harder to get a decent value out of them.

Some do offer category spending bonuses of 2 points per dollar on cruise purchases, but even that’s not worth it most times. Especially when you consider that other credit cards like the Barclaycard Arrival offer 2 miles per $1 on all purchases and then you can redeem them at 1 cent apiece and get a 10% miles refund on travel redemptions, giving you a much better rate of return. Another great example is the Sapphire Preferred, which offers 2X points on all travel, including cruises, but also airlines, hotels, car rentals, etc., and whose points you can redeem for specific cruises at 1 cent apiece.

For a quick contrast, take the Carnival Cruise card and the Princess Cruises Rewards Visa from Barclaycard. Each has a sign-up bonus of just 5,000-10,000 points usually (Carnival is currently at 10,000, Princess at 5,000) with first purchase, worth $50-100 towards cruise expenses. They earn 2 points per $1 on Carnival and Princess purchases respectively, and 1 point per $1 on everything else. Neither has an annual fee. Sounds okay, right?

However, you could instead get the version of the Barclaycard Arrival with an $89 annual fee waived the first year and score the bonus of 40,000 miles worth $440 toward travel redemptions – including cruises – when you spend $3,000 in 3 months. Even the Barclaycard Arrival with no annual fee offers a bonus of 20,000 Arrival miles when you spend $1,000 in 3 months, worth $220 towards travel expenses not limited to cruises – or one particular cruise line – as well as other travel expenses even on board that you can’t generally use cruise points for, and which earns 2X points on all travel and dining – a much better earning and redeeming prospect all around.

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If you book your cruise through Amex Cruises and pay with an American Express Platinum card, you get Cruise Privilege perks, which include stateroom credits, upgrades and on-board amenities.

A lot of people ask specifically about the Disney Premier Visa. It currently offers a bonus of just $100 Disney Gift Card when you spend $500 in 3 months. In the past, that bonus has been as high as $200. You also earn 2% back in Reward Dollars at gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants and most Disney locations; 1% back in Disney Reward dollars on other purchases; and 10% back in Disney Reward Dollars on select merchandise purchases of $50 or more at DisneyStore.com and Disney Store locations. Disney Dream Dollars are designed for cardmembers to redeem for Disney merchandise like DVD’s and collectibles, though you can also use them for statement credits on travel booked through Disney, including cruises. The card has an annual fee of $49. While Disney fanatics might be able to max out these benefits, if you’re considering this card, in my opinion, you’re still better off choosing a points-earning card that gives you bonuses on more categories and allows you to redeem your points for a more diverse range of travel and other rewards.

Many airlines also offer bonus miles for booking cruises through their own cruise partner portals.

Aeroplan: Expedia Cruise Ship Centers: Up to 1 mile per $1 spent- better ratios for Expedia elite members.

American AAdvantage Cruises: Up 1 mile per dollar spent, plus package and onboard discounts.

SkyMiles Cruises: Up to 15,000 miles per cruise and special bonuses.

United Cruises: Up to 30,000 miles per cruise, book with your United credit card to earn double miles.

US Airways Cruises: Earn up to 30,000 bonus miles and onboard discounts.

Airlines like United also offer bonus miles and other perks on cruises.

Airlines like United also offer bonus miles and other perks on cruises.

One other thing to note – though the major online travel agencies like Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity sell cruises, you cannot earn their own loyalty program points on these packages or redeem for cruises, so that’s something to keep in mind.

Redeeming Points/Miles

When it comes to using points and miles for cruises, you’ve got a lot of options.

Cruise Line-Specific Points: As I mentioned, many cruise lines have co-branded credit cards through partners like Barclaycard. You usually earn 2 points per $1 on cruise purchases and you can then usually redeem those points as statement credits at the rate of 1 cent each on cruise purchases, so your rate of return on cruise purchases is 2%, and on all other purchases is 1% when redeemed for cruise expenses.

American Express Pay With Points: Each Membership Rewards point = 1 cent towards the cruise so a $1,000 cruise = 100,000 points. If you have a Business Platinum card, each point = 1.25 cents, so that $1,000 cruise would be 80,000 points. Book in full or partial payment with points. With a card like the Business Platinum, where you’re earning 1 point per $1 on purchases, your rate of return on these redemptions is 1.25%, while it can be higher with other cards like the new Amex EveryDay Preferred, and the Premier Rewards Gold, which have both category spending bonuses and monthly/annual calendar year bonus thresholds.

Barclycard Arrival Miles: You can redeem Barclaycard Arrival miles at the rate of 1 cent apiece plus a 10% mileage refund toward cruise purchases – both packages and onboard expenses. With the Arrival with an $89 annual fee (waived the first year), you earn 2X miles per $1 on all purchases, so you are getting 2.2% back on your spending with cruise redemptions.

Capital One: Each miles is worth 1 cent towards a cruise. Depending on the program, you may need to use a minimum of 15,000 points per redemption (which shouldn’t be an issue booking a cruise). This also makes the Capital One Venture card a better bet than many cruise credit cards since your rate of return is 2%.

Chase: Each Ultimate Rewards point are worth 1 cent apiece towards cruises, so a $1,000 cruise = 100,000 points. If you have a Sapphire Preferred card, each point = 1.25 cents, so that $1,000 cruise would be 80,000 points. If you prefer to book directly with the cruise line you can get $200 Carnival and Royal Carribbean gift certificates for 20,000 points each. Book in full or partial payment with points.

Citi: ThankYou points are worth 1 cent each towards travel, including cruises.

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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  • djrobsd

    Here’s a better idea. With all the viral outbreaks and broken down cruise ships these days, skip the cruise altogether and book a trip to the beach, i.e. Hawaii, South Beach, or beautiful sunny San Diego, and save yourself the possible hassle and grief, not to mention the exorbitant costs of buying a cocktail and using the internet if you can’t do without it for a week.

  • http://www.LiveSmartNotHard.com/ Steve Bierfeldt

    Brian, GREAT post and exceptionally timely. If you’ll excuse the plug, I posted on my blog this morning about a, “Free Cruise Challenge” I’m embarking on with the goal of getting a 100% free cruise from start to finish. I’m planning on using the Barclay Arrival, (and gave you a shout out for your past review of it.) http://wp.me/p4aZr8-cu

    Do you have any experience redeeming Barclay Arrival miles for onboard expenses? My goal is a completely free cruise, from first booking to stepping off the ship.

  • Brian

    IHG also has awesome point earnings for reserving cruises through them.

  • Joel

    The best way to save $$ on cruises is to book with a discount travel agent like Pavlus Travel that rebates 10% on cruises and then pay with the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. The Sapphire card will give you not only double miles but also trip cancellation insurance worth at least 7% of the cruise fare.

  • Wandering Sheppard

    After reading about Barclays through your posts, I think Arrival is best for earn and redeem. The cruise co-branded cards only earn quickly on cruise purchases and you have to hit levels to redeem for stuff. Why not be flexible and use an Arrival card for any travel (and earn double on dining – which should include that workday, fast food lunch!) Wish the rebate was instaneous though, similar to redeeming UR for flights.

    Though my strategy has been a co-branded United card and booking through United Cruises and using Sapphire on-board (2.14x for Onboard spent). I was able to use miles to fly Envoy back from San Juan (there were no economy savers, but I’ll pay 5k to nap).

  • Matt

    Just a quick not about Amex privileges with the platinum card. You do not need to book with amex cruises to get the benefits. You can book with any travel agent and as long as they get the tracking number and call in and you pay for the whole cruise on you platinum you will get the perks which are unique for each cruise line. I just got about $500 worth of perks on top of what my travel agent was already giving me on a cruise.

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