These are the credit cards to use to maximize your next cruise vacation

Jan 21, 2021

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Editor’s note: This guide has been updated with the latest information. 

There is one common question we get from TPG readers who are cruise enthusiasts. How can I maximize earning and redemptions on cruises?

The truth is, the options are pretty limited. Most cruise line cobranded credit cards don’t offer decent value, leaving it up to travelers to get creative with the flexible-points currencies or fixed-value cards already in their wallets. Today, we’ll take a look at the best ways to earn and redeem points for cruises, including which credit cards are best for cruises.

When cruises start to set sail again, you’ll be equipped with everything to make the most of your purchase.

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In This Post

Young couple is jogging around the shipdeck of a cruise ship, Mediterranean Sea Westend61 / Getty Images.
(Photo by Westend61/Getty Images)

Earning points and miles on cruises

As mentioned above, cobranded cruise line credit cards are generally not a good option. The Royal Caribbean Visa Signature Card, for example, offers a sign-up bonus equivalent to — wait for it — $100 in onboard credit after making your first purchase. You can do much, much better than that.

Your best bet for earning points on cruise bookings is a credit card with a broadly defined bonus category for travel spending, or a fixed-value card that offsets travel spending (more on that later).

Here are the cards with some of the best travel bonus categories for cruises.

Card Bonus Percent return (based on TPG’s latest valuations)
Chase Sapphire Reserve 3x Ultimate Rewards points on travel (excluding $300 travel credit) and dining 6%
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card 2x Ultimate Rewards points on travel and dining 4%
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card 2x Venture Rewards miles 2% if used for fixed-value redemptions

Besides the question of which card to use, is the question of which website or portal to use for booking your cruises. American Airlines, Delta and United each offer their own cruise-booking websites (operated by third-party travel agencies) that give you the potential to earn tens of thousands of bonus miles.

If you go to United’s cruise-booking site, for example, you can see the current offers, which range from 2 to 7 miles per dollar, depending on what type of cabin you book and whether or not you pay with a United card such as the United Explorer Card.

(Screenshot courtesy of United)

United Premier elites can even enjoy bonus offers on select cruises, such as free dinner or wine.

American’s site has similar offers, allowing you to earn 1 AAdvantage mile per dollar spent or 2x miles on eligible purchases if you pay with an American Airlines AAdvantage credit card like the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®. The information for the Citi AAdvantage Platinum card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.   

(Screenshot courtesy of American)

Delta’s offers are structured slightly differently. As you can see from the chart below, you’ll earn based on the length of the trip (and cabin type) — not on the amount you spend. A one- to five-night cruise, for example, will earn up to 1,500 SkyMiles in an interior or oceanview cabin.

(Screenshot courtesy of Delta)

Readers in the TPG Lounge correctly pointed out that you won’t earn 2x miles for booking these cruises with a cobranded airline credit card.

Instead, your entire bonus from the cruise booking will likely appear as a lump sum on your frequent flyer account, not on your credit card statement.

In addition, each airline cruise portal also offers individual promotions for specific cruise lines and departure dates that can potentially let you earn up to 100,000 miles (or several hundred dollars) in onboard credit. These promotions can give you a huge return on your booking in addition to the credit card points you’ll earn, but always make sure you price-compare and check TPG’s monthly valuations to make sure the offer you’re booking — in terms of money and miles — is the best one you can get.

If you have The Platinum Card® from American Express ($550 annual fee; see rates and fees), you can also enjoy special benefits when booking through the American Express Cruise Privileges Program. You’ll receive an onboard credit of up to $100 to $300 per each room booked, 1 extra Membership Rewards point per dollar spent and additional amenities unique to each cruise line.

Amex cardholders should also watch for Amex Offers that can save additional money on select cruise bookings, though they often require you to book through a specific channel.

(Screenshot courtesy of Amex)

How to find the best deal on cruises

Considering how expensive cruises can be, you might also consider forgoing the bonus miles (yes, I did just say that!) and looking for the largest cash discount or onboard credit possible when booking. Warehouse clubs such as Sam’s Club and Costco frequently offer package deals and even large cash-back or onboard credit incentives for members.

Another great trick is to book your next cruise even as you’re taking one; many cruise lines offer reduced rates and lower discounts onboard to entice you to return. You don’t always even have to know exactly what sailing you want — you can simply put down a placeholder valid for a set period of time. And don’t worry if you usually work with a travel agent. Any cruise booking made onboard can be “transferred” to your travel agent so you won’t miss out on any perks the agency usually offers in exchange for your business.

CruiseCompete can be an easy resource for getting competitive quotes (including onboard credits) from a variety of travel companies all in one location. You can then make an informed decision about the best course of action for booking, factoring in points, price and perks.

Redeeming points for cruises

Options are just as limited on the redemption side, and can be split into two categories: fixed-value eraser credit cards and cards that allow you to pay with points.

Related: How to book a cruise using points and miles

(Photo by Wyatt Smith / The Points Guy)
(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)

Points from a fixed-value card, such as the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, can be used on travel purchases at a rate of 1 cent each. Not only will you earn 2x rewards by paying for the cruise, but you can also use your miles to erase some or all of the charge from your billing statement.

Given Capital One’s addition of airline transfer partners to the Venture and Spark card families, it carries a higher opportunity cost.

Alternatively, cruisers can pay with points through the Citi ThankYou Travel or Chase Ultimate Rewards portals. Although we generally recommend transferring these points to airline and hotel partners to maximize their value, direct redemptions can make sense here, given the limited high-value options for booking cruises.

Note that with Chase, you need to call to redeem points for cruises (1-855-234-2542) and Disney Cruise Line is not an eligible redemption through Ultimate Rewards at this time. While you can view some cruise information on Citi’s travel site, you also have to call to book using your points (1-800-842-6596).

Disney Dream (Summer Hull / The Points Guy)
Disney Dream. (Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

You’ll also be able to take advantage of pay-with-points travel bonuses here, such as the 50% bonus on the Chase Sapphire Reserve that makes your points worth 1.5 cents each toward travel, or the similar 25% bonus on the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and Ink Business Preferred Credit Card that give you 1.25 cents per point.

Amex Membership Rewards points can be redeemed through Amex’s Travel site for cruises, but at a paltry rate of 0.7 cents per point.

United’s cruise portal also gives you the option to redeem your MileagePlus miles for a cruise instead of paying cash, though the rates are atrocious. This may be viable if you’re sitting on a massive stash of United miles and feeling burned by the carrier’s string of recent devaluations, but otherwise, I’d recommend against this route.

Take, for example, a three-night Bahamas cruise with Norwegian Cruise Line with prices starting at just $149.

If you were to redeem your miles, you’d need to pay 25,690 miles for the same base cabin, which works out to a redemption rate of .57 cents per mile, well below TPG’s valuation of United miles at 1.3 cents each. Unlike some other programs, you can’t even score a higher redemption value by booking a fancier cabin; you’re locked into this low value for all cabins across all cruise lines.

Factor in trip protections

You can (and perhaps should) purchase insurance for your cruise, using the right credit card for your cruise can at least get you some built-in protections. Certain premium credit cards offer trip protections that apply to cruises since the cruise line is your “common carrier.” These protections work basically the same as they would with airlines.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve, for example, offers trip delay reimbursement, trip cancellation insurance and even emergency medical coverage and medical evacuation coverage if you charge the cruise to that card (or use points from the card to book the cruise).

Related: The best credit cards with travel insurance

(Photo by The Points Guy)

The Sapphire Reserve card would provide you up to $10,000 per covered trip (with a maximum limit of $20,000 per occurrence and $40,000 every 12 months) against incidents such as sickness, severe weather or financial insolvency of the travel provider (read: the cruise line).

If you think you’re going to rely on a credit card like the Sapphire Reserve for travel insurance, just carefully recheck your card’s benefits and limits against regular travel insurance. And remember, you must pay for at least part — and sometimes all — of the trip with that credit card to take advantage of its protections.

Related: When to buy travel insurance vs. when to rely on credit card protections

In terms of medical evacuation coverage, the Amex Platinum is the top dog. If you’re on a trip of fewer than 90 days and are traveling at least 100 miles from home, this card has your back if you need medical evacuation (you don’t even have to use the card to pay for the trip). Note that getting COVID-19 will likely not qualify you for coverage.  A Premium Global Assist (PGA) administrator must coordinate everything for you to avoid any cost, but there is no coverage maximum.

The benefit will also pay economy airfare for a minor under 16 to be returned home if left unattended; pay for an escort to accompany that minor if required to get them home; and get a family member to the place of treatment if hospitalization of more than 10 consecutive days is expected.

Related: A guide to travel insurance for cruises

Bottom line

Choosing the best credit card to pay for your cruise is a multilayered process. Are you looking to maximize the dollars spent, or access card benefits, or use points? Do you need built-in card protections? But, regardless of those factors, the best card to use is typically not a cobranded cruise-line credit card, but a solid all-around travel rewards credit card.

Additional reporting by Chris Dong. 

Featured photo by Rawpixel/Getty Images

For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum card, click here.

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