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How to earn free cruises and perks with casino loyalty programs on land and at sea

July 09, 2022
15 min read
Launch of Royal Caribbean International's Allure of the Seas.
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Casino loyalty programs offer a variety of benefits to augment your experience both on and off the gaming floor, but you don’t have to be on solid ground to earn rewards when you gamble. Much like cruise line loyalty programs reward you for sailing, cruise casinos offer additional perks for your shipboard gaming activity.

Each of the three largest cruise lines has its own casino rewards programs. Royal Caribbean has Club Royale, Norwegian Cruise Line has Casinos at Sea and Carnival Cruise Line has Players Club. You’ll need a players card with each program to earn status and rewards, which is either your cruise card or a separate card you get once you sign up.

If you’d like to nab everything from free drinks to free cruises from your casino play, you’ll want to sign up for these cruise line casino rewards programs the next time you sail. For even greater benefits, discover how to leverage onboard benefits from your elite status elsewhere and follow these tips to get the most out of your time on the gaming floor at sea.

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Basics of cruise casino loyalty programs

The Bliss Casino on Norwegian Bliss. (Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line)

Cruise-based casino programs operate similarly to their land-based counterparts, but with a few crucial differences. You can earn rewards and status for your gaming activity on board a cruise ship, and the more you wager, the more you’ll accrue of both. Like most loyalty programs, you’ll only earn rewards if your qualifying activity is tracked, so remember to use your players card whenever you gamble.

Earning rates vary and aren’t always disclosed, but the industry standard is for players to earn 1 redeemable point and tier credit for every $5 wagered on reel slots and every $10 wagered on video poker machines. These rates are explicit on both Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line cruises.

Earning rates for table games depend on what you’re playing, how much you bet and how long you play, but since the house edge is lower, you can expect to earn less per dollar wagered than you would playing slots. Note that some games (like Texas Hold ‘em and coin pushers) aren’t eligible to earn rewards.

One major difference from many land-based casinos is that cruise ship casino programs reward you exclusively for gameplay; you won’t earn points or benefits from dining, shopping or any other onboard activities. Cruise lines instead offer separate loyalty programs that reward guests for sailing activity, though some benefits overlap between the two programs.

You can typically redeem earned points for free play or credits to your onboard bill; specifics and minimum redemptions vary by loyalty program. The cruise lines are not transparent about the points-to-dollars conversion rate for credit.

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Royal Caribbean Club Royale

(Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean International)

Club Royale membership is open to guests 18 years or older on most sailings; you must be 21 or older to play on Alaska voyages. You can enroll by using your SeaPass card at an eligible slot machine or presenting it to casino management at a gaming table. You can also enroll before sailing by calling a casino representative at 888-561-2234, or (if you have sailed previously with Royal Caribbean) through the Crown & Anchor Society.

Club Royale offers four status tiers based on gaming activity during the program year, which starts April 1 and ends March 31 of the following calendar year.

  • Choice (1 tier credit).
  • Prime (2,500 tier credits).
  • Signature (25,000 tier credits).
  • Masters (100,000 tier credits).

Choice status lets you redeem points as free play, or as credits to your onboard expense account (with a minimum redemption of 5,000 points). You’ll also begin earning Instant Cruise Rewards Certificates, which range from a $100 discount to a complimentary cruise (minus port taxes and fees).

Prime status waives convenience fees up to 5%, and gets you complimentary drinks in the casino. At this level, you’ll also get an annual complimentary cruise in an interior cabin on select sailings (again minus taxes and fees). Signature status gets you complimentary Wi-Fi for one device, and upgrades the annual complimentary cruise to a balcony cabin.

Finally, the top-tier Masters status adds a slew of perks like priority entertainment access and dining reservations, an onboard credit of up to $100, luggage delivery, access to exclusive events and a further upgrade to a grand suite on your annual complimentary cruise. You can view a full list of benefits with more details on the Club Royale site.

While you can accrue tier credits for the duration of the program year, Royal Caribbean does not carry over redeemable points from one cruise to the next. Unredeemed points expire at the end of each voyage, so don’t miss the deadline to cash out (typically the night before debarkation).

Norwegian Cruise Line Casinos at Sea

Casinos at Sea is separate from Norwegian’s Latitude Rewards program, and is open to guests 18 years or older. You can enroll at the casino host desk (which is worth a visit anyway, as I’ll discuss later). Casinos at Sea offers five status tiers based on gaming activity during the program year, which again runs from April 1 to March 31 of the following year.

  • Jade (0 points) .
  • Pearl (5,000 points).
  • Sapphire (15,000 points).
  • Ruby (35,000 points).
  • Elite (100,000 points).

Jade status allows you to redeem points as free play or toward onboard expenses like spa treatments, specialty dinners and credits to your final bill. The minimum redemption is just 1,000 points on sailings of four days or fewer, and 2,500 points on sailings of five days or more.

At the Pearl level, you get a $100 onboard credit, complimentary house drinks in the casino, free play when sailing in your birth month, and stateroom amenities like complimentary candies or dessert delivered to your cabin. At this level, you’ll start earning discounts on staterooms.

Mid-tier Sapphire status gets you waived convenience fees and priority disembarkation, on top of a bump up to complimentary premium drinks, a $200 onboard credit and better stateroom discounts. Ruby status adds another step up to larger stateroom discounts and complimentary Ultra drinks, along with waived cash advance fees and a complimentary internet package of 400 minutes or 1,250MB.

You’ll find the high-end benefits when you earn top-tier Elite status, which further augments some of the benefits already mentioned and adds a complimentary shore excursion (up to $300 per person for two guests), private transfers and waived service charges.

Note that while Casinos at Sea operates on Norwegian Cruise Line as well as sister cruise lines Oceania and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, the benefits described above are specific to Norwegian only. Check the full list of benefits to see which ones apply to your trip.

One feature that sets Casinos at Sea apart from Club Royale is the option to carry points over from one cruise to the next. Points expire 18 months after they’re earned rather than at the end of your trip, so regular cruisers can build up a sizable balance over time. However, if you’d like to redeem points for credit to your onboard bill, Norwegian specifies a weirdly tight redemption window, which is 6 to 9 p.m. on the last day of your cruise.

Carnival Cruise Line Players Club

Casino on Mardi Gras. (Photo by Matthew Barnes/Carnival Cruise Line)

The Players Club is available to guests 18 years or older. You can enroll when using your Sail & Sign card in the casino, either by inserting it in a slot machine or presenting it to a dealer at a table game.

Unlike with Royal Caribbean and Norwegian (and even Carnival’s own VIFP loyalty program), status tiers in the Carnival Players Club are not well defined. Carnival doesn’t publish details of how casino perks are earned or redeemed, specifying only that “comps are extended on board based on your level of play.”

However, Carnival does advertise four tiers of invitation-only cruise packages with rewards similar to what you’ll find in other cruise casino programs, so you can get a sense of the available benefits even if the threshold to unlock them is unclear.

At the lower end, Getaway cruise packages offer extras like complimentary drinks in the casino, premier boarding and special treats or gifts delivered to your room. The mid-tier Premier and Ultra packages come with added perks such as invitations to special events and priority debarkation, while the top-tier Elite packages add luxury benefits like a complimentary airport transfer and shore excursion, as well as VIFP Club Platinum status for the duration of your cruise.

Ultimately, Carnival’s path to status is less straightforward than in the other programs, but the perks of playing are comparable.

How to leverage casino status for cruise benefits

Your existing status with land-based casino and hotel programs may also qualify you for perks on your next cruise.

The MGM Rewards program offers members a variety of benefits on Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises. These range from discount offers and welcome amenities for Sapphire and Pearl members to onboard credits of up to $300 and annual complimentary cruises for Platinum and Noir members. You’ll need to validate your MGM Rewards status and request these benefits at the time of cruise booking (at least 10 days before departure).

This creates an opportunity to parlay your World of Hyatt elite status into benefits with both MGM and these two cruise lines with its status match offer. However, note that the MGM Platinum and Noir cruise benefits are exclusive to members who earned their tier based on gameplay and other eligible spending; status earned by matching from another program won’t cut it.

Caesars Rewards doesn’t offer onboard benefits to its elite members, but it does offer stateroom discounts as high as 30% on Norwegian, Oceania and Regent Seven Seas cruises. Like with MGM and Hyatt, you can match your Wyndham Rewards status to Caesars to access these savings.

Finally, Carnival offers a chance to earn complimentary cruises and benefits when you show proof of loyalty status with other casinos via the Players Club Fun Match program. One cool aspect of this program is that Carnival considers status from any casino, not just the big names, so status you’ve earned at smaller, local venues is worth entering.

I tested this myself by submitting proof of my Caesars Rewards Diamond and MGM Rewards Gold status. Within a few days, I got an offer for a complimentary interior room with free drinks in the casino and onboard credit.

Screenshot of a Carnival Fun Match free cruise offer. (Screenshot by Peter Rothbart)

4 tips to help you play the game

Whatever your status level, these suggestions can make your casino experience more rewarding.

Make friends with the casino host

If you plan to spend a lot of time on the gaming floor, get acquainted with the casino host early on. While comps and tier benefits are generally prescribed based on your gameplay, the casino host has some autonomy to offer perks at their discretion.

They may be able to comp select onboard purchases like meals and shopping expenses, and they can always answer questions, help you navigate the program and explain which benefits you have and haven’t earned. Being on good terms with the host certainly won’t hurt.

Look for enrollment and promotional bonuses

Cruise casinos frequently offer incentives to get you in the door, such as free bets or matched play; inquire at the host desk if you don’t see them advertised elsewhere.

Another common promotion is to load free slot credits to guests’ accounts at the start of a trip, but these typically expire after the first day or two, so use them quickly or lose them.

Finally, check whether your cruise offers a "learn to play" session, which may come with complimentary drinks and casino chips for both novice and experienced gamblers.

You can play with credit — for a fee

Cash is king at the casino, but if you’re wary of traveling with a big stack of bills, you may be able to play by charging your linked onboard account instead. That account settles at the end of your trip along with the rest of your folio using whatever credit card you have on file, which means you can effectively earn credit card rewards for casino gaming.

Using a card that earns bonus points on travel purchases is a nice cherry on top of your wins if you come out ahead, or it can at least lessen the sting of your losses if you don’t. However, the cruise line may add a convenience fee for such charges, so confirm you’re not paying extra before you complete the transaction.

Understand that the odds are against you (even more than usual)

Cruise ship casinos routinely offer game variants that favor the house more than is customary. After all, you’re a captive audience; it’s not like you can go gamble next door instead!

Expect to see rules like blackjack that pays 6 to 5 (instead of 3 to 2), roulette with triple zeros, and reduced payouts on slots and video poker machines. The bright side of this is that you’ll generally encounter lower minimum bets than you would at brick-and-mortar casinos, especially compared to the Las Vegas Strip.

Bottom line

While it’s fun to earn perks, casino play is not an efficient path to earning elite status. If you’re earning 1 tier credit per $5 wagered on reel slots, you’d need to bet $12,500 or $25,000 to reach first-tier status with Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, respectively, and a whopping $500,000 to reach top-tier status in either program. Those figures refer to the amount wagered and not the amount won or lost, but if you (generously) assume a payout rate of 90%, then you can expect to lose about $50,000 reaching the top tier. With that in mind, the perks of status seem a lot less perky.

You could beat the odds and end up a winner with status to boot, but ultimately, playing in the casino solely to earn elite benefits is a losing proposition. Instead, think of these programs as a way to get some extra rewards out of whatever gaming you already planned to do.

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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.