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The best cruise booking perks – and which ones are actually free

Feb. 17, 2022
11 min read
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These days, if you book a cruise and don’t get drinks, tips or other perks thrown in for free, you’re leaving money on the table.

In order to incentivize travelers to book a cruise in advance, and to choose them over a competitor, many cruise lines run promotions that allow you to pick a perk – or sometimes get a whole host of included freebies. Especially during "wave season," the booking-heavy period between January and March, you want to maximize the free stuff you get when you reserve a cabin.

Norwegian Cruise Line’s long-running "Free at Sea" promotion, Holland America’s seasonal upgrade event and Princess Cruises’ "Best. Sale. Ever." are among the perks-promising promotions you’re likely to see. But before you choose your favorite freebie or happily take them all, you will want to read the fine print and make sure your "free" bonus is actually worth what you'll be paying for it.

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You read that right – some supposedly free cruise booking perks come with associated fees. Other times, what you get for free isn’t exactly what you were led to expect by the promotional copy on a cruise line’s homepage. By accepting the offer, you might actually be out more money than you intended.

Don’t have time – or strong enough reading glasses – to search through all that fine print? Below, we list the most common "free" cruise booking perks you’ll encounter and alert you to what you are actually getting and paying when you take that bonus offer.

Open bar packages

Be aware of the package you get — because you might not get all the drinks you want. (Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line)

Open bar on a cruise ship is not like your college friend’s debauched wedding. You don’t get all the drinks for free; instead, you’re gifted a beverage package.

For heavy drinkers, that’s still a huge perk, but be aware of what you’re actually getting. For example, Norwegian offers a Premium Beverage Package as a free cruise booking perk (with a soda package subbed in for all cruisers under 21). The package only covers select spirits, cocktails, wines by the glass, beer, soda and juice valued at up to $15 per drink. Exclusions include Starbucks, room service, bottled water, minibar drinks, energy drinks and “super premium brands.”

And here’s the kicker. Passengers who say yes to Norwegian’s "free" bar package are required to pay gratuities of 20% of the package’s retail value. Currently, that comes to $19.80 per person, per day. For a weeklong cruise, your "free" beverage package will cost $138.60 per person. For most vacationers, that’s far less than their normal bar bill and still a good deal. For occasional drinkers, however, it may be more than you want to spend on alcohol.

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Free cruise Wi-Fi

Free onboard internet access is another cruiser favorite because cruise Wi-Fi can be amazingly expensive. Lines such as Norwegian, Princess and Holland America have been known to lure cruisers from time to time with the option of free Wi-Fi. You can stay in touch with family, flaunt your vacation photos on social media and even check your stocks without worrying about paying sky-high satellite connectivity rates.

The good news is that free Wi-Fi is actually free. The less stellar news is that access may be limited. Princess offers free Wi-Fi on one device at a time per passenger (on up to four devices per cabin); Holland America offers comped Internet to only two cruisers per room and Norwegian limits its bonus to one device per cabin.

Holland America offers its mid-tier Surf Wi-Fi package as a free booking perk. While you can access most websites this way (including email and social media sites), audio/video calling and streaming are generally not available unless you upgrade to (and pay for) the line's most comprehensive Wi-Fi plan.

Norwegian only gives a limited number of free minutes (250 minutes per cabin on weeklong cruises, for example). And if a mountain is blocking your ship’s line of sight with the satellite, no one is getting any Wi-Fi – no matter what they paid.

Onboard credit

Onboard credit is essentially a cruise ship gift certificate that you can spend in multiple ways onboard: at the spa, booking tours, buying drinks, shopping for souvenirs, etc. It’s truly free – no taxes or tips involved. You can hit the shops worry-free.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t caveats you should consider. Carnival Cruise Line’s "Funderstruck" sale offers up to $50 in onboard credit for booking select cruises. In reality, the promotion is $12.50 per person, up to $25 per cabin, on 2- to 5-night cruises and $25 per person, maximum $50 per room, on longer sailings.

If you fail to spend the credit, you will not get it back in cash. And let’s be honest: You are unlikely to spend exactly $50. More likely, you’ll be tempted into buying something more expensive onboard and using the credit as a discount. (Such as the time I used a $50 credit to book a $129 spa treatment that I wasn’t planning to treat myself to … until I got the credit. Which means that the cruise line’s $50 offer convinced me to spend $79 I wasn’t intending to give it.)

Free specialty dining

You can spend a ton of dough checking out all the cool specialty restaurants on modern cruise ships, so it’s a great booking bonus when cruise lines offer a couple of meals on the house. Choose the priciest restaurant you can to get the most value from this perk. For example, Holland America offers cruise travelers a free dinner at either Pinnacle Grill (normally a $39-per-person cover) or Tamarind ($29). You'll get greater value out of your freebie if you choose the more expensive Pinnacle Grill.

Norwegian cruisers should be aware that, as with its “free” beverage packages, Norwegian charges passengers a 20% gratuity on their complimentary dining perk. A weeklong cruise comes with two free meals (only applicable to the first two passengers in a cabin) and a charge of $15.80 per person in tips for wait staff. Also, note that additional main courses and select premium dishes will incur an additional fee. This isn’t an all-you-can-eat-free deal.

Free shore excursions

An artist's drawing of a Viking expedition ship in Antarctica. (Image courtesy of Viking Cruises)

If you don’t sail a high-end line, such as Regent Seven Seas Cruises or Viking, you will pay for all your tours in port – unless you select a booking promotion that includes free tours. Many tours can top $100 per adult, so a freebie sounds like an amazing money-saver.

On a line such as Oceania Cruises, that’s certainly true. Its OLife Choice promotion offers four free shore excursions on cruises up to nine days long. However, Norwegian and Holland America might be better off calling their promotions “shore excursion credit” instead of “free shore excursions.”

On a weeklong cruise, Holland America offers just one free tour per passenger at up to a $100 value or $100 off a more expensive tour. Norwegian offers the first person on a reservation $50 in shore excursion credit per port; however, that person cannot use the credit to book tours for another person or to purchase equipment rentals on private islands. As you won’t find many tours priced under $50, you’ll likely be paying extra to take advantage of this offer.

Free kids or third and fourth passenger fares

Cruise fares are priced based on double occupancy (assuming two passengers in a cabin), so third and fourth passengers sharing the room and sleeping in bunk beds or pullout sofas are bonus revenue for cruise lines. Therefore, third and fourth passenger fares are typically lower than the first two passengers and often thrown in for free as a booking bonus. (From the cruise line's point of view, it’s worth it to comp that extra person, who will then spend money on food, drinks and tours on board.)

When cruise lines offer “kids sail free” promotions, they’re not offering a free adjoining cabin to house your sullen teenagers with their own bathroom. No, these promos only apply to kids sailing as third and fourth passengers in your room. It’s still a fabulous deal if you were planning on sharing accommodations anyway.

Do note that whether you're cruising with kids, grandma or your best friends as the third and fourth passengers in your room, you will likely still have to pay taxes and port fees for their “free” cruise.

Prepaid gratuities

Many cruisers don’t realize that cruise lines put automatic gratuity charges on their final bill, which can add $100+ to each passenger’s cruise fare. You could request to have the charges removed, but as they’re factored into crew paychecks, I strongly urge you to not to do that. However, it’s definitely a bonus when cruise lines offer free prepaid gratuities and take care of the tips so you save the money.

Princess’s "Best. Sale. Ever." will cover tips for up to four passengers in a cabin – a true freebie to you. Other lines may only prepay gratuities for the first two passengers. Either way, it’s a win-win if the crew gets paid but it’s not out of your pocket.

Free cabin upgrade

A suite can be an amazing experience on a cruise, but don't expect a surprise upgrade. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean)

Everyone dreams of paying for an inside cabin and getting bumped to a suite, gratis. Keep dreaming, folks. I’ve yet to see a free upgrade promotion that is so generous. But you can get an arguably better room without paying extra when cruise lines run free upgrade promotions.

In general, cruise cabin upgrades fall into two types, upgrades within cabin types (from a cheaper balcony cabin to a more expensive one) or from one cabin type to the next (from an oceanview cabin to a balcony). Occasionally, you will see this presented as “book a balcony cabin for the price of an oceanview.”

You’ll definitely need to dig into the terms and conditions to figure out what exactly a given upgrade offer will get you. If you are upgrading within a cabin class, you’re essentially getting a more desirable location as decided by the cruise line (usually on a higher floor and more centrally located). Sometimes you can pick the location of the upgraded room; other times, you book the lower-priced cabin and the cruise line moves you where it sees fit. If you are picky about location, don’t accept a free upgrade that doesn’t allow you to pick your cabin number.

Also, know that upgrades are not guaranteed. If the higher-category rooms have sold out, you will forfeit that aspect of your perk package.

Bottom line

Even if certain free cruise booking bonuses are actually just discounts, they can still represent significant savings on your final vacation price. It’s wise to time your cruise booking to coincide with a generous promotion. Just watch out for supposed freebies that result in you paying more than you would have without the perk. If the bonus offer isn’t worth it to you, cruise lines will generally let you opt out of unwanted perks.

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Featured image by (Photo courtesy of Danny Lehman/Norwegian Cruise Line)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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    The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.

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  • Annual Fee

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  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
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Why We Chose It

It's hard to find a card that competes with the mile-long list of benefits that come with the Amex Business Platinum. While it's certainly not the card for the average consumer, a business owner with tons of expenses -- especially related to travel -- will find this card incredibly valuable. This card is similar to the consumer version that Amex offers, but with more business-oriented perks around statement credits and earning rates that are a better fit for business owners.

Pros

  • An up to $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee every four to five years
  • Up to $400 annual credit for eligible U.S. Dell purchases (enrollment required)
  • Gold status at Marriott and Hilton hotels (enrollment required)
  • Access to the Fine Hotels & Resorts program and Hotel Collection
  • Extended warranty protection
  • International Airline Program and Cruise Privileges Program

Cons

  • Steep annual fee
  • Difficulty meeting $15,000 welcome offer for smaller businesses
  • Limited high-bonus categories outside of travel
  • The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.
  • Get 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com, and 1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
  • Earn 1.5X points (that’s an extra half point per dollar) on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year.
  • Unlock over $1,000 in annual statement credits on a curation of business purchases, including select purchases made with Dell Technologies, Indeed, Adobe, and U.S. wireless service providers.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year for checked baggage fees, lounge day passes, and more at one selected airline.
  • $189 CLEAR® Credit: Use your Card and get up to $189 back per year on your CLEAR® membership. CLEAR® is available at more than 50 U.S. airports and stadiums.
  • The American Express Global Lounge Collection® can provide an escape at the airport. With more than 1,400 airport lounges across 140 countries and counting, you have more lounge location options than any other credit card on the market as of 9/2021.
  • $695 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.