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Here at TPG we spend most of our time discussing the ins and outs of credit card rewards, frequent flyer miles and hotel redemptions. But one common question we get from readers is about another highly relevant travel topic: How can you maximize earning and redemptions on cruises?

The truth is, the options are pretty limited. Most cruise line cobranded credit cards don’t offer anything approaching a decent value, leaving travelers to get creative with the flexible points currencies already in their arsenal. 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.

Earning Points 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. We can do better than that!

(Though if you need time to pay for your big cruise, then a card that offers 0% APR for a period of time on those expenses, like the Disney Visa on the Disney Cruise Line may be worth investigating.) A variable APR of 18.24% applies after the six-month introductory APR period.

But generally, your best bet for earning points on cruise bookings is a credit card with a broadly defined travel bonus category, or a fixed-value “eraser” card (but more on that later).

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

Card Bonus % Return (based on TPG’s latest valuations)
Chase Sapphire Reserve 3x Ultimate Rewards points on travel (excluding $300 travel credit) (and dining) 6%
Citi Premier Card 3x ThankYou oints on travel, including gas stations 5.1%
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)

**Fixed-value rewards cards offer a unique redemption advantage even if their earning isn’t as strong — keep reading to see why.

Separate from the question of which card to use is the question of which website or portal to book your cruises through. 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 cruises.mileageplus.com, you can see the current offers, which range from 2–7 miles per dollar, depending on what type of room you book and whether or not you pay with a United card like the United Explorer Card.

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

 

American’s site, aa.cruises.com, has similar offers, allowing you to earn 1 AAdvantage mile per dollar spent or 2 if you pay with an American Airlines AAdvantage credit card like the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard.

Delta’s offers, which can be found at skymilescruises.com, are structured slightly differently. As you can see from the chart below, you’ll earn based on the length of the trip (and room type), not based on the amount you spend.

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.

The Platinum Card® from American Express card holders can also enjoy unique benefits when booking through the Amex Travel Cruise Privileges Program. You’ll enjoy a $100–$300 onboard credit per room booked, 1 extra Membership Reward point per dollar spent and additional amenities unique to each cruise line. Amex card holders should also keep their eyes peeled for Amex Offers that can help save money on select cruise bookings, though they often require you to book through a specific channel.

Given how expensive cruises can be, you might also consider forgoing the bonus miles (*gasp* no, he didn’t just say that!) and looking for the largest cash discount or onboard credit possible when booking. Warehouse clubs like Sam’s Club and Costco frequently offer package deals and even large cash back/onboard credit incentives for their members.

Another great trick can be to book your next cruise while on board a current one, as many cruise lines offer reduced rates and lower discounts on board to entice you to return. You don’t always even have to know exactly what sailing you want next time, but 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 on board 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.com 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 paying with points.

Points from a fixed-value card, like the Capital One Venture Rewards Card can be used to “erase” travel purchases at a rate of 1 cent each. Not only will you earn 2x rewards (2%) by paying for the cruise, but you can use your miles to erase some or all of the charge from your billing statement. Given Capital One’s recent addition of airline transfer partners to the Venture and Spark card families, this option now carries a higher opportunity cost. You might want to shift your cruise booking to another top fixed-value card like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard instead.

The Barclaycard Arrival Plus offers a 70,000-mile welcome bonus after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 90 days — that’s enough to redeem for a $700 travel statement credit toward a cruise charged to the card.

The other option involves paying with points through Citi ThankYou Travel or Chase Ultimate Rewards. While we generally recommend transferring these points to airline and hotel partners to maximize their value, given the limited high-value options for booking cruises, direct redemptions can make sense here. Note that with Chase, you need to call to redeem points for cruises (1-855-234-2542) and the Disney Cruise Line is not an eligible redemption via Ultimate Rewards at this time. While you can view some cruise info 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 gives you 1.25 cents per point.

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

Factor in Trip Protections

While 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. Select 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, among other benefits, if you charge the cruise to that card (or use points from the card to book the cruise).

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

If you think you’re going to rely on a credit card like the Sapphire Reserve for travel insurance, just be sure to 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.

In terms of medical evacuation coverage, the Amex Platinum is pretty much top dog. If you are on a trip less than 90 days long and at least 100 miles away from home, then your Amex Platinum has your back if you need medical evacuation (you don’t even have to use the card to pay for the trip). A Premium Global Assist (PGA) administrator must coordinate everything in order to not incur 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.

Bottom Line

Choosing the best credit card to pay for your cruise is a multilayered process. It will depend if you are looking to maximize the dollars spent, access card benefits, use points and whether you need some 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.

Know before you go.

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