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Peak cruise season is fast approaching, and while TPG might be best known for our love of aviation (#AvGeeks forever) and hotel deals around the world, we also love a good cruise.
These days, this form of travel is no longer just for your grandma and other retirees. Just look at Richard Branson, who is getting into the industry with the imminent launch of Virgin Voyages’ inaugural vessel, the adults-only Scarlet Lady. We’ve also compiled a list of 16 top cruise lines to help you decide which brand best fits your needs, as 2019 is the year of something for everyone on the high seas.
But we wouldn’t be The Points Guy if we didn’t help you find the best way to pay for a cruise using (or earning) points. To that end, here are some tips and tricks on not only the best credit card to use for your cruise, but also how maximize points and miles for cruises.
How to Book a Cruise Using Points and Miles
For the most part, options are limited when it comes to booking cruises with outsized points and miles award redemptions. Your best bet to use points for cruises is probably is to use a stash of fixed-value points to “erase” the cost of your cruise booking.
Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Pay with Points and Citi ThankYou are some options in this space. Card members can pay for cruises with a credit card that earns fixed-value points or book via a specific site of phone number to use points toward the total cost. “Fare-erasing” credit cards such as the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard and Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card allow you to book travel however you want and then use point to erase some or all of the charge — which means you can stack discounts and still use points!
Below, we’ll introduce each system and break down the cruise booking process, step by step.
Amex Pay with Points
If you hold an eligible American Express card that earns Membership Rewards points, you can use those toward the cost of your cruise booking by utilizing Pay with Points.
Since Amex sets the redemption value at 0.7 cents per point, paying with Amex Membership Rewards points usually results in a poor redemption value for wiping charges off your statement. TPG values Membership Rewards points at 2 cents each, so you’re losing out on more than half the estimated value. That being said, sometimes it may makes personal sense to avoid spending cash out of pocket, in which case redeeming your points for whatever value they hold could be the right call in fringe cases.
The Amex travel booking portal has great search functionality, allowing you to browse for the cruise of your choice using filters for date, destination, cruise line and trip duration even before you log in.
To book a cruise using Pay with Points through American Express, log in to the travel portal and:
- Select the cruise itinerary and cabin of your choosing.
- Enter your passenger information.
- When it’s time to check out, enter your Membership Rewards-enrolled American Express card information and select “Yes” to find out how many Membership Rewards points are in your account.
- You can opt to pay for the entire cruise using Pay with Points, or just erase a portion of the cost and pay the rest with cash.
Alternatively, you can look up the cruise you want and call (800) 669-4423 to book directly with the American Express travel team over the phone.
Extra Cruise Perks for Amex Platinum Card Holders
If you have The Platinum Card® from American Express, you’re eligible for a number of additional perks and benefits under the Amex Cruise Privileges Program. Even though you could use your Membership Rewards points to defray your cruise expenses, this still counts as a “paid” booking as far as the cruise line is concerned, so you’ll be able to take advantage of a slew of Platinum perks, such as a $100 to $300 stateroom credit on cruise lines such as Norwegian Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean International.
There are additional Amex Platinum perks that vary by cruise line, such as a $200 shore excursion credit on Crystal Cruises or a bottle of premium Champagne or wine on Royal Caribbean.
Chase Ultimate Rewards
The Chase Ultimate Rewards points system is similar to that of American Express Membership Rewards, although the redemption value toward cruises is higher. You can use your points to pay for some of the booking cost at 1.25 cents to 1.5 cents per point, depending on which Ultimate Rewards-earning credit card you hold. For example, points from the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card are worth 1.25 cents for travel and those from the Chase Sapphire Reserve are worth 1.5 cents.
Unfortunately, Chase’s Ultimate Rewards portal doesn’t display cruises online so you can’t just look up the itinerary or availability you want there. This doesn’t mean that you can’t book a cruise through Chase; it just means that you have to call the Ultimate Rewards booking hotline and talk to the cruise department instead of booking through the website.
To book a cruise and pay with Chase Ultimate Rewards points:
- Find the cruise itinerary and availability you want directly on the cruise line’s website. If you have a specific cabin in mind, have that information handy as well.
- Call a Chase travel specialist directly at (855) 234-2542, and be prepared to verbally walk the adviser through the cruise line booking page on their end so they can find and book the cabin and options you want. Cruise advisers can be reached Monday–Friday, 9am–9pm Eastern time, and on Saturday from 9am–5pm Eastern time.
- Your cruise adviser will set up the itinerary for you and, upon checkout, will ask you how many Ultimate Rewards points you want to apply against your final balance.
While this doesn’t exactly count as an “award redemption” tip, don’t forget that the Chase Sapphire Reserve offers an annual $300 statement credit toward any travel, which includes cruises.
The Citi ThankYou portal also allows card holders to use their bank of ThankYou points as credit toward the cost of a cruise booking. Points can be redeemed at a value of 1 cent apiece by some card holders, while Citi Premier Card cardholders can redeem ThankYou points at a value of 1.25 cents each toward travel.
Finding your cruise within the Citi ThankYou portal can be frustrating, since the search functionality isn’t as robust as one would hope. Travelers can only search for cruises by destination or cruise line, not available dates — which presumably is the top consideration for most people when investigating cruise options.
To book a cruise using Citi ThankYou points:
- Log in to the travel portal by navigating through your Citi account (or directly at thankyou.com) and clicking on “Cruises” on the travel booking page.
- You won’t be able to search for cruises by specific date, but you can filter by cruise line or your destination of choice.
- Once you’ve identified the cruise you want to book, call (800) 842-6596 to speak directly with a Citi ThankYou travel specialist, who will allow you to apply Citi ThankYou points toward the final cost at checkout.
Barclaycard Arrival and Capital One Venture Rewards
The Barclaycard Arrival and the Capital One Venture Rewards programs offer more flexibility and a more straightforward redemption process than the trifecta referenced above. With both brands, each mile is worth 1 cent apiece toward travel, and redeeming your points balance doesn’t require booking through a portal, thus freeing you up to book your cruise directly from the company or via a travel agent to get extra perks. This option lets you pursue promotional package rates or discounts that may not be available through the Amex, Chase or Citi portals.
With both cards, the award redemption process is very easy: Simply use the card when paying for your cruise package, then log in to your account and use the “cover your travel purchases” option to apply your mileage balance as a credit toward the total amount you owe on your credit card statement.
Use Airline Miles
You can use United MileagePlus miles, American Airlines miles, etc. to book cruises. But again, like some other options, the value per mile often isn’t great. We priced out a four-night Disney Cruise out of Galveston in the least expensive available stateroom for a family of four and it came to about 424,000 United miles. The cash price directly from Disney for the same booking was about $3,500, meaning the return per United mile is a little over 8/10 of a cent per mile, well below the TPG valuation for United miles.
We also tested pricing on a four-night sailing on Royal Caribbean’s new Symphony of the Seas out of Miami in a balcony stateroom and the cash cost came to $2,978.92 directly from Royal Caribbean. United’s cruise program wanted 354,633 miles (both reflected the current kids sail free promo). Again the return was about 8/10 a cent of value per redeemed mile.
Proprietary Cruise Line Membership Programs
We frequently stress that cruise line cobranded credit cards tend to not be your best option for earning and redeeming points. That being said, there are some cruise-specific credit cards out there. For example, the Royal Caribbean Visa Signature offers a bonus of 10,000 MyCruise Reward points, redeemable on Royal Caribbean or Celebrity Cruises, after making your first purchase. The 10,000 points are worth 1 cent each and can be redeemed for $100 in onboard credit. If you get to 15,000 points, you can redeem for a $150 discount off any Royal Caribbean or Celebrity Cruises ship and itinerary.
Leverage Casino Programs
If you have status in the M Life casino program, you may have access to cruise perks, or even free cruises. While the free cruises on Royal Caribbean or Celebrity Cruises don’t kick in until you hit Platinum status with M Life, there are onboard credits that begin at the Gold level, and perks like departure lounge access start at the relatively low Pearl level.
The terms indicate that if you earn Platinum or Noir status by game play, you can get a free cruise for two on Royal Caribbean or Celebrity. If you matched your way to status or similar (such as via Hyatt), you may not be able to pick up the free cruise, but some of the other perks may apply even if your status wasn’t earned through game play.
Pay for a Cruise in Cash and Earn Points
It’s always fun to earn a “free” trip thanks to points and miles, but there are a few times when it will make more sense to pay cash for a cruise than to splurge your precious travel currency on the ocean. You might wonder, “When is this the case?”
While these factors will vary person to person, the following scenarios may help guide your decision:
- Pay cash when your dates, routes or cruise line are fixed. If you’re traveling with extended family or a larger group, chances are high that most of the other travelers may not have the same access to the points-based portals that you do. Or if you have children whose schedules only allow you to travel between specific dates, it’s much harder to gamble on the possibility that your desired route will be available through those portals. (Or course, factor in that you can use some fixed-value points instead of or in addition to cash at any time.)
- Pay in cash when a really good cash fare comes up. As with airline tickets, there’s zero point (ha) in playing the points-and-miles game if you don’t take full advantage of the truly cheap sales.
- You might only be able to pay with cash when booking a rare itinerary. If you’re hoping to go to Antarctica via Ushuaia, Argentina, or to explore the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, you’re far more likely to find that these destinations are only available to cash-paying cruisers.
- If you anticipate needing to make any changes to your reservation. Award redemptions booked through credit card issuers like Chase and Amex essentially are considered third-party travel bookings, so your cruise line may not be able or inclined to show any flexibility if any changes need to be made to your dates, itinerary or cabin. This is where the Barclaycard Arrival and Capital One Venture Rewards cards truly shine, because utilizing your stash of points doesn’t require booking travel through the issuer’s portal. Instead, you’ll book the trip directly with the cruise line and then simply log in to your account and use your miles balance to “wipe out” the charge.
- If there is an Amex Offers deal available for the cruise line you wish to sail. From time to time, American Express offers special limited-time bonus points deals to card members that book cruises. In the past, through its Amex Offers, the company has let card holders earn 15,000 to 25,000 bonus Membership Rewards points for putting a cruise purchase on their credit card. A 25k bonus points offer is worth $500 at current TPG valuations. In the past, offers have included a variety of cruise lines such as Carnival, Holland America, Princess, Seabourn, Cunard and Crystal Cruises. Amex Offers are targeted and subject to change any time. To see if you’re targeted for a specific offer — and to enroll in the offer — log in to your American Express.com account. Scroll down to “Amex Offers and Benefits” and see what deals are presented.
Our Best Credit Cards for Cruises guide is a really good starting point and covers the logistics in more detail. But the bottom line in travel hacking is this: There’s no point in accumulating miles and points if you don’t know when to use them strategically. If you find a route that makes more sense to purchase in cash, do it and don’t look back.
If you do end up booking in cash, don’t forget to check CashbackMonitor.com for special offers from airlines and other travel partners who may offer increased cash back, miles or points for booking through their online portals.
Book Cruises Via an Airline Portal
If you are paying cash and want to earn miles at the same time, airlines allow you to earn bonus miles by booking cruises via their site. For example, there is United Cruises, American Airlines Cruises, Delta SkyMiles Cruises and more.
The cruises we priced out via United Cruises were the same price as directly with the cruise lines, but you would earn bonus United miles per dollar spent for booking via that site. On our test Royal Caribbean cruise booking, United credit card holders could earn up 7 miles per dollar (max 45,000 miles) for booking via that site.
For this Royal Caribbean sailing for a family of four, that could mean picking up close to 21,000 United miles that are valued by TPG at a total of $294 in miles.
Those with United elite status can also cash in on some perks. For example, United Premier members can get a specialty dinner for two, wine and other bonuses on Norwegian.
Paying for Onboard Cruise Expenses
Once on board, most of your expenses will be covered as part of your cruises booking, as almost all cruise lines include entertainment and buffet/main dining room access as part of the cruise package. But there always will be some splurges including drinks, dining at one of the fancier restaurants on your ship, excursions or spa treatments.
You’ll earn the most points on cruise bookings by paying with a credit card that offers extra incentives for a broad range of travel purchases. Check out TPG‘s best credit cards for cruises for further details. In the meantime, here is a quick reference chart of the best travel bonus credit cards:
|Card||Bonus||% Return (based on TPG’s latest valuations)|
|Chase Sapphire Reserve||3x Ultimate Rewards points on travel and dining (excluding the annual $300 travel credit)||6%|
|Citi Premier Card||3x ThankYou Points on travel, including gas stations||5.1%|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred Card||2x Ultimate Rewards points on travel (and dining)||4%|
Additional Cruise Money Saving Tips and Tricks
As vacations go, most cruises don’t tend to come cheap. The following tips may further help you save money or maximize your points-earning opportunities.
Use Points and Miles for Positioning Hotels and Flights
Flights, rental cars and hotels can add up quite quickly, so don’t forget to look up your best points and miles options for those portions of the trip as well. For instance, you could fly Southwest to a cruise port such as Fort Lauderdale, Orlando or Houston Hobby (near Galveston) on points (and with the Companion Pass!) and then use hotel points to spend the night before the cruise near the port so you don’t have to worry about a delayed flight leading to a missed cruise. For example, at the Hyatt Regency Orlando Airport, you can use 12,000 World of Hyatt points or an annual Category 1–4 award from the World of Hyatt Credit Card before heading to Port Canaveral.
Look into Repositioning Cruises
Most cruise lines offer deeply discounted rates on repositioning routes when the company needs to move a ship from one destination to another. Think of them as one-way cruises. Whether it’s from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean, Texas to Puerto Rico or from Tokyo to Vancouver, these itineraries are out there. Even the family-friendly Disney Cruise Line offers repositioning cruises that cost a bit less than the average sailing.
Websites such as repositioningcruise.com allow you to search for repositioning cruises up to two years in advance, and you can sort your search results by date, discount total, or cost total in addition to standard criteria such as departure and arrival ports, dates, duration and cruise line.
You can then use your airline miles to book a one-way flight back home, instead of potentially paying more for a one-way fare using cash.
In conclusion, it’s not easy to get a great return for your points and miles toward cruise redemptions the way you can for first class flights, but it isn’t impossible. Fixed-value points offer a very solid way of easily shaving hundreds (or thousands) of dollars of the total bill. The sign-up bonus alone for the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard is currently 70,000 miles after $5,000 in spending in the first three months. That translates to $700 to use toward travel charged to the card with that one bonus (and you’ll get 5% of the redeemed miles back).
You could stack that with booking via an airline portal to earn miles, or simply use a site like cruisecompete.com to give you the best deals from travel agents and pick the one with the best bonuses and inclusions. How do you like to earn or use points and miles when booking cruises?
Are you dreaming of a family cruise? Here’s some advice:
- Cruise Line Showdown: Comparing Carnival, Disney and Royal Caribbean for Families
- These Are the Best Cruise Lines for 2019
- Cruising With a Family: Booking Two Staterooms for the Price of One
- Interesting Way to Save Money on a Disney Cruise
- Dreaming on the Seas: A Review of Disney Cruise Line’s Dream
- Are River Cruises Right for Kids?
- An Overview of Cruise Line Loyalty Programs
Featured image by Brandon Nelson/Unsplash
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- Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
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