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Cruise onboard credit: What it is, where to get it and how best to use it

June 22 2022
14 min read
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Spend any time shopping for cruises online and you’ll likely come across the term "onboard credit," also known as OBC. Cruise lines and online travel agencies often promote it as a booking bonus. They might offer as little as $25 cruise onboard credit for booking an inside cabin on a short sailing or as much as hundreds of dollars for booking suites on longer cruises.

But what exactly are you getting and what can you do with it once you have it? Find out here if cruise onboard credit is a perk you can use on your next cruise.

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What is onboard credit?

Onboard credit is free money you can use to buy things on your cruise ship. It’s a financial credit to your shipboard account; the amount of your onboard credit will be deducted from your final bill of purchases made on board during your cruise.

If you’ve never cruised, know that a cruise ship is a cashless society. You don’t use credit cards either. Instead, the cruise line opens a charge account for every passenger on embarkation day. You will either connect the account to a credit or debit card or pre-load it with a cash payment.

Your onboard account is how you pay for almost everything you need that isn't included in your cruise fare or wasn't paid for in advance. That includes store purchases, bar drinks, spa and salon treatments, fitness classes and shore excursions. The same cruise key card that opens your cabin door also functions as a shipboard credit card. Hand it over to the bartender or salesperson to bill a purchase to your onboard account.

Related: 11 extra charges on cruise ships that will drive you nuts — and what to do about them

Most cruise lines place no restrictions on the use of onboard credit; if you can bill it to your account, you can cover the cost with your cruise onboard credit. A few don’t allow OBC use in the casino or to pay for crew gratuities. Some cruise lines, such as Norwegian Cruise Line, offer specific onboard credits, limited to one type of purchase. For example, NCL’s “shore excursion credits” can only be used to purchase tours.

In most cases, onboard credit is nonrefundable. If you don’t use it up on your current cruise, you neither get paid out in cash nor can roll it over to your next cruise.

(Photo courtesy of Danny Lehman/Norwegian Cruise Line)

How do you get onboard credit?

Cruise travelers have several ways to acquire onboard credit, some easier than others.

Booking bonuses

Onboard credit is a popular booking bonus, offered during a cruise sale instead of (or in conjunction with) price drops, reduced deposits and other free perks. Cruise lines that regularly post booking bonus offers of onboard credit include most of the popular big ship lines: Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Holland America, Princess, MSC Cruises and Celebrity, plus even more luxurious lines such as Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas and Oceania. Some lines offer extra onboard credit for first responders and members of the military.

Travel agents, both online and in person, often have onboard credits at their disposal to use as booking bonuses as well — sometimes the amounts they hand out are larger than what the cruise lines are offering. I booked an Alaska cruise recently through United Cruises and got $50 OBC; the cruise line was offering $25 for the same stateroom.

The sales agents on board your cruise also have onboard credit booking bonuses to hand out, almost always in amounts larger than you’ll find elsewhere. If you are loving the cruise you’re on, it pays to book the next one while you are still on board.

Price drops

Once you've paid for your cruise in full, some lines will offer you a refund in the form of onboard credit if you notify them that the price of your cabin category dropped. This isn't quite the same as free spending money since you already spent it on your cruise. But it's fun to have a little of that money back to use for extras instead of the base fare. It happens more often than you might think. Your travel agent may already be watching those fares for you; if not, you should be doing it yourself.

Related: 6 ways to get a deal on a cruise

Referrals

For some cruise lines, having you share your enthusiasm for their brand with your friends is reason enough to send a bit of OBC your way. Windstar Cruises, for example, offers both you and friends you refer $100 each in onboard credit once they pay in full for a cruise.

Credit cards

If your favorite cruise line has a co-branded credit card, check to see if it offers onboard credit either as a sign-up bonus or as one of the points redemption options. Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises branded Bank of America Visa Signature cards both feature My Cruise Points redemptions for onboard credit. Sign-up bonus points are frequently advertised on the cruise line websites. The cards have no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees.

When things go wrong on board

Cruise lines don’t always get everything right. Maybe your air-conditioning wasn't working for a few days during your cruise. Maybe you were supposed to have an unobstructed view, but your stateroom faced a lifeboat. If you can document the problem and politely inform guest services, chances are good they'll offer you compensation in the form of onboard credit — either for the current cruise or a future one.

Stockholder onboard credit offers

If you have done your research and decided to purchase cruise line stock, know that some lines offer onboard credit to shareholders each time they cruise, with certain restrictions. One of those restrictions is usually a minimum number of shares, another is that you may not be allowed to earn both your stockholder OBC and booking bonuses on the same cruise, only the option with the highest value. (For full disclosure, I am a stockholder of Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd.)

What’s the best way to use onboard credit?

Now that you have the basics, let's dig into some uses of onboard credit and how to squeeze the most out of those transactions.

But first a note: Carnival Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean allow passengers to use onboard credit to pay for pre-cruise purchases, though typically only promotional credit directly from the cruise line, not bonus credit issued by third parties like travel agents. MSC Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Holland America and Norwegian Cruise Line do not accept OBC for most pre-cruise purchases.

If your cruise line only accepts OBC once you’re onboard a ship, you may need to decide between paying cash for discounted pre-cruise purchases and saving your OBC for other onboard spending, or skipping the discount and advance purchase to use your credit on a specific package or tour once you board.

Additional restrictions may apply to the use of onboard credit, so always read the terms of any onboard credit offer before you accept it.

(Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises)

Related: 7 extra-charge items on cruise ships that are worth the cost (and 7 that aren’t)

Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi is expensive onboard a cruise compared to your home internet plan. That fact alone makes it a great use for onboard credit. The basic advice for onboard Wi-Fi is that if you know you'll need it for the entire cruise, buy a pre-cruise package when prices are a few dollars lower per day. Apply your onboard credit to the pre-cruise purchase and your savings have multiplied.

Here's an example: Carnival's Premium Wi-Fi for a full-cruise package is $14.45 per person per day if you buy it before midnight the day before your ship sails. Buy it onboard and the cost is $17 per day. On a 4-night cruise, a pre-cruise Wi-Fi package is $57.80. If you happen to have $50 of onboard credit, that's a fantastic use of it. You'll get Wi-Fi for only $7.80 of your own money.

Drinks and beverage packages

Getting the most out of your onboard credit when it comes to drinks depends on what kind of drinker you are. Don’t think only in terms of beer, wine and cocktails. On a cruise, you’ll also have to pay for specialty coffees, sodas, smoothies, nonalcoholic cocktails and bottled water.

If you don’t plan on purchasing many drinks, consider using your onboard credit for a fun splurge like an occasional poolside beverage, a bottle of wine at dinner, or a mixology class or cocktail tasting.

Cruisers who plan on buying multiple drinks a day will save by purchasing an inclusive beverage package. If you’ve got onboard credit and your cruise line allows it, use the OBC to buy the package pre-cruise when it’s on sale.

Related: Best drinks to order with a cruise ship beverage package (and 3 to avoid)

Spa and salon treatments

Relaxing treatments at a cruise ship spa are tops on many cruisers’ splurge lists, which makes them worthy of onboard credit use. Sometimes adding a massage, facial or manicure to your cruise plans makes the whole trip even more special. If your cruise allows pre-cruise spa purchases, the prices may be slightly lower. Also look for first-day and port-day specials to stretch your OBC further. These will usually be posted in each day’s ship highlights or you can always call the spa to ask for specials.

(Photo courtesy of the All Inclusive Project/Celebrity Cruises)

Specialty restaurant meals and dining packages

On some ships, the paid specialty restaurants are what add the wow factor to the overall food experience on board. That fact alone makes them a good way to spend onboard credit.

If a multi-night package is available, that might lower your cost, as would a pre-cruise purchase where available. Otherwise, book your specialty meals as soon as possible after boarding. Primo times disappear quickly. You can do this via the cruise line’s app if there is one, at the restaurants of your choice or at stations set up on embarkation day specifically so you can make dining reservations throughout the ship.

When you reserve individual restaurants on board, your onboard account is usually not charged at the time you make the reservation. Instead, you will be charged at the conclusion of your meal, an important thing to know, so you can budget your OBC accordingly.

Related: The ultimate guide to cruise ship food and dining

Shore excursions and activities

Shore excursions offered by the cruise line are a primo use of onboard credit. In some ports, you’ll have plenty of options, even after you board the ship. I’ve seen people in line at the shore excursion desk booking tours as the ship arrives in port.

The best use of your onboard credit would be an advance purchase at a discounted price on cruise lines that offer that option. Where that’s not possible, it’s best to book and pay for the excursions that matter most to you, leaving OBC purchases for the tours you could live without. For instance, if salmon fishing is what you’ve dreamt of doing in Alaska, don’t wait until you can use onboard credit on embarkation day — you probably won’t find any availability, because Alaska excursions like that often fill up months in advance. Save that credit for something else.

In addition to shore excursions, some ships and even some private islands owned by the cruise line have attractions that aren't included in the cruise fare, from private cabanas to escape rooms. Hello, onboard credit. It’s rare to find deals on these kinds of extras, but it never hurts to ask. The strongest possibilities are port day specials for onboard activities like thermal suite passes or thrill rides that come with a charge.

Shopping and souvenirs

Onboard shopping and professional portraits let you bring back tangible mementos from your cruise vacation. If the credit is there and you really want a new scarf, or one of the formal night photos turned out better than any photo you've had taken of you and your partner in years, use that OBC to treat yourself. Check the daily newsletter or even shop signage for special offers to reduce your costs a tiny bit.

Necessities and practicalities

Unless you pay tips in advance, most cruise lines add a daily gratuity amount to your stateroom account during the cruise. It's something you'll pay one way or another, so using OBC to cover the expense makes sense on ships where it’s allowed. Holland America and Norwegian Cruise Line specifically state that onboard credit cannot be used to pay for service charges and gratuities.

I also know people who have used their onboard credit for laundry or dry cleaning. Who cares if cruise line laundry prices are high when you're using free money? It's especially smart to do this if you will end up paying for laundry or dry cleaning once you get home (and if you’re on a ship where drinks or tips are included).

I also know a guy who got his hair cut on board using OBC, saving him the cost of his next haircut at home. Smooth move.

Casino play

You usually can fund your casino play with OBC — but watch out. Some cruise lines put restrictions on using OBC in the casino (Holland America bans it outright) or charge a convenience fee for using your onboard account for funds at the gaming tables.

Slot machines will generally accept a transfer from your account without fees. When you have finished playing, your winnings will be paid out as a credit slip which you take either to a machine or the cashier for actual money.

If you're going to gamble on board, please play responsibly. Here's what I did recently with $50 in onboard credit that did not involve risking any of my own money. I found a slot machine with a minimum play of 25 cents. I was comfortable playing $1.25 at a time, which meant I had 40 plays before my original $50 was used up. Once those 40 plays were done, I was playing with my winnings, not my OBC. I chose to cash out at that point, and happily walked away with $52. Plus, I earned points in the cruise line’s casino loyalty program.

Bottom line

Onboard credit is money in your account to do with almost what you wish. The more you collect in your account, the more you have available to spend or play with. You can think of it as a license to do something you wouldn’t do if you were paying or a way to reduce your anticipated vacation bill by using it to cover costs you already planned to incur. Either way, you should always keep your eye out for onboard credit offers when booking a cruise or ask your travel agent or cruise line if they have OBC to hand out to thank you for your business.

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Featured photo by (Photo courtesy of the All Inclusive Project/Celebrity Cruises)
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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