How to book a cruise using points and miles

Jul 19, 2021

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Here at TPG, we love a good cruise — and so do thousands of our readers. Unfortunately, cruising took a hit during the pandemic and continues to be a popular travel option, albeit one that has had several ups and downs as cruise lines have returned to the seas.

Whether you’re a first-time cruiser or a long-time veteran, traveling solo or with your entire extended family, planning your 50th-anniversary trip of a lifetime or just a quick weekend getaway from reality, there’s a route, experience or destination to suit you.

If you’re ready to start cruising again in the foreseeable future and you have a stash of points saved up, you may not have to pay for your next cruise out of pocket. Here are the best ways to cruise on points and miles.

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How to book a cruise using points and miles

Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas
Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean International)


Here at TPG, we frequently encourage travelers to use their points and miles for outsized award redemptions.
But when it comes to booking cruises on points, outsized redemption opportunities have historically been limited. Transferrable currencies have usually limited redemption value for cruises to 1-1.5 cents per point. While that’s certainly high at face value, it’s a little low compared to what some travelers get for redeeming points for luxury hotels and first-class seats.

Many cruise lines issue their own branded credit cards, although some have begun branching out into co-branded partnerships. For instance, Hyatt partnered up with Lindblad Expeditions in 2019, so World of Hyatt members can earn and redeem Hyatt points when booking Lindblad cruises, and vice versa (more on that below).

However, many of these partner options are limited in scope and may require you to maintain loyalty with a single travel brand.

That being said, you can still use your stash of points to lower your expenses on your next cruise from any cruise line. For instance, you can easily use your American Express Pay with Points, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou points toward airfare, hotel or rental car costs associated with getting to and from your cruise port. And you can also book cruises directly through the issuer’s travel portal.

Below, we’ll introduce each major credit card program and break down the cruise booking process, step by step.

Related: You can book the most exciting new cruise ship of the year on points

Royal Caribbean Symphony of the Seas - Ultimate Family Suite Living Area
Royal Caribbean ultimate family suite living area (Photo by Simon Brooke-Webb/SBW Photo)

Amex Pay with Points

If you hold an eligible American Express card that earns Membership Rewards points, you can use those points toward your cruise booking cost by utilizing the Pay with Points program.

When using Amex Membership Rewards points to cancel out your statement charges, Amex allows you to redeem your points at a value of 0.7 cents per point. While this method works fine, it isn’t the best redemption value for your points. TPG values Membership Rewards points at 2 cents each, so you’re losing out on more than half the estimated value.

But if you’re looking to avoid spending cash out of pocket, it makes sense to redeem your points for whatever value they hold.

The American Express Travel booking portal offers 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.

Amextravel cruise booking dashboard
(screenshot courtesy of amextravel.com)

To book a cruise using Pay with Points through American Express, log in to the travel portal and do the following:

  1. Select the cruise itinerary and cabin of your choosing.
  2. Enter your passenger information.
  3. When it’s time to check out, enter your Membership Rewards-enrolled American Express card information and select “Yes” to determine how many Membership Rewards points are in your account.
  4. You can opt to pay for the entire cruise using Pay with Points or 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 cardholders

If you have The Platinum Card® from American Express, you’re eligible for several additional perks and benefits under the Amex Cruise Privileges Program.

Even if you use your Membership Rewards points to defray your cruise expenses, you’ll be able to take advantage of a slew of Platinum perks, including up to $300 stateroom credit on cruise lines such as Norwegian Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean International and others.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Additional Amex Platinum perks 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 portal is similar to American Express Membership Rewards. However, the redemption value is higher. Points from the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card are worth 1.25 cents toward travel booked through Chase, while points from the Chase Sapphire Reserve are worth 1.5 cents.

Unfortunately, you can’t book cruises through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards portal. You’ll have to call the Ultimate Rewards booking hotline and talk to someone in the cruise reservations department instead.

Ultimate Rewards cruise booking option
(Screenshot courtesy of chase.com)

 

To book a cruise and pay with Chase Ultimate Rewards points:

  1. 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.
  2. 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, 9 a.m.–9 p.m. Eastern Time, and on Saturday from 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Eastern time.
  3. 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. If you hold a Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred card, remember to pay with the card that gets you the best redemption value for your Ultimate Rewards points (1.5 for CSR, 1.25 for CSP).

Exclusive perks for Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholders

While the CSR doesn’t offer cruisers nearly as many perks as the Amex Platinum does, the card does offer an annual $300 statement credit toward any travel-related purchase, including cruise bookings.

(Photo by The Points Guy)

Citi ThankYou

The Citi ThankYou portal allows cardholders to use their ThankYou points as credit toward a cruise booking cost. Points can be redeemed at a value of 1 cent apiece by some cardholders.

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 by available dates.

To book a cruise using Citi ThankYou points:

  1. 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.
  2. You won’t be able to search for cruises by a specific date, but you can filter by cruise line or your destination of choice.
  3. 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.

Note that, unlike with Chase Ultimate Rewards, you can use Citi ThankYou points to book a Disney Cruise, if you so desire.

Note for Citi Prestige® cardholders

Citi Prestige cardholders earn 3 points per dollar spent on cruise travel.

The information for the Citi Prestige card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Fixed-value points

Fixed-value points offer very straightforward redemption possibilities when booking a cruise. The premise is simple: Each of your points is worth a designated value — usually 1 cent off your travel purchase. For instance, the Capital One Venture Rewards program lets you pay for your travel however you want, whether you book online, call the cruise line or go through a travel agent. This means you can stack multiple offers or discounts for further savings, such as using a shopping portal when booking or adding a promo code at checkout.

As long as your purchase falls under the travel category, you can use your stash of points to offset the amount you owe on your statement. If you pay $1,000 for a cruise on a credit card that offers a 1:1 point/cent ratio, you’ll need 100,000 points to cancel out your purchase.

Related: How to triple stack deals to get the ultimate savings on your next cruise

Capital One Venture Rewards

The Capital One Venture Rewards program offers more flexibility and a more straightforward redemption process than the Amex, Chase and Citi trifecta referenced above. Each mile is worth 1 cent apiece toward travel.

Redeeming points 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 also lets you pursue promotional package rates or discounts that may not be available through the Amex, Chase or Citi portals.

The award redemption process is straightforward: 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.

Barclaycard Arrival

Similar to the Capital One Venture Rewards program, you can use Barclaycard Arrival miles to “wipe out” cruise-related charges on your monthly statement. Each mile is worth 1 cent apiece toward travel.

Again, redeeming Arrival miles doesn’t require booking through a specific portal, thus freeing you up to book your cruise directly from the company or via a travel agent to get extra perks. This lets you triple-stack savings by finding the best available rate, booking your cruise through a travel agent who can find you that rate through their system, then using your Barclaycard Arrival miles to offset your cruise expenses.

You can even use your Arrival miles to cover your onboard expenses on board. Just be sure to charge all of your onboard expenses to one bill: You’ll have to use Arrival miles at a minimum spend of 10,000 miles against a $100 charge.

Book using airline miles

You can use airline miles to book cruises. But again, like some other options, the value per mile often isn’t great.

For example, this three-night Disney Cruise out of Port Canaveral costs 128,621 United MileagePlus miles per person for an interior cabin — worth $1,602.07 by TPG’s current valuations for United miles.

(Screenshot courtesy of disneycruise.disney.go.com)

In contrast, the same room and same sailing dates cost just $746 per person when paid in cash — clearly the better value overpaying with United miles.

(Screenshot courtesy of disneycruise.disney.go.com)

Proprietary cruise line membership programs

We frequently stress that cruise line cobranded credit cards may 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 a $100 statement credit plus 10,000 MyCruise Reward points worth $100 in onboard credit to use on your next cruise.

The information for the Royal Caribbean Visa Signature has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.   

If you earn 15,000 MyCruise Reward points, you can redeem them for a $150 discount off any Royal Caribbean or Celebrity Cruises ship and itinerary.

Royal Caribbean Symphony of the Seas - Bionic Bar
Royal Caribbean Symphony of the Seas – Bionic Bar (Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy)

Related: These are the credit cards to use to maximize your next cruise vacation

Book a Lindblad Expeditions cruise with World of Hyatt points

In 2019, World of Hyatt and Lindblad Expeditions announced a partnership where cruisers can earn Hyatt points and qualifying nights that count toward Hyatt elite status.

On the earning side, travelers earn 5 base Hyatt points per $1 spent on Lindblad cruises, as well as standard elite member bonuses. The World of Hyatt Credit Card cardholders will earn 4 points per $1 spent on eligible Lindblad Expeditions purchased directly through the World of Hyatt program. Meanwhile, Hyatt credit cardmembers earn 3 points per $1 spent.

Lindblad is the cruise line that partners with National Geographic on some of its more adventurous sailings, so it’s particularly exciting that some of the world’s most memorable cruise experiences can be booked with points instead of using cold, hard cash.

Related: Why the National Geographic Endurance is one of the most exciting new cruise ships

When you book a Lindblad voyage through Hyatt, you’ll also receive $250 in onboard credit per reservation. To book a paid cruise or redeem your points for a voyage, visit this special website or call (866) 537-5099 (646-969-4997).

TPG priced out a few different cruises for a test run. In each case, a Hyatt point was worth 1.6 cents. For example, take this five-night Wild Alaska Escape expedition cruise from Juneau to Ketchikan in May 2022. The cash price is $4,570 per person or 285,625 Hyatt points.

Lindbladt Alaska cruise Hyatt award
(Screenshot courtesy of Hyatt.com)

Similarly, a six-night Galapagos cruise also priced out at 1.6 cents per point.

Lindblad Galapagos cruise with points
(Screenshot courtesy of Hyatt.com)

TPG values Hyatt points at 1.7 cents each, so redeeming for a Lindblad cruise gets you very close to that mark. These voyages get rave reviews, so if you have tons of Hyatt points, this could be an option that deserves a second look.

Redeem Marriott Bonvoy points

Marriott Bonvoy’s Cruise With Points program allows you to cash in Marriott points for credit towards any cruise that’s bookable on the Cruise With Points website.

You can pay for a cruise with a full or partial points payment, starting at 63,000 Marriott points for a $250 cruise credit.

Royal Caribbean Marriott points
(Screenshot courtesy of marriott.com

Unfortunately, your value per Bonvoy point isn’t great when redeemed for cruises. The value maxes out at 0.4 cents per point, while TPG values Marriott points at 0.8 cents each.

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 you aren’t eligible for free cruises on Royal Caribbean or Celebrity Cruises 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.

(Screenshots courtesy of mgmresorts.com)

The terms indicate that if you earn Platinum or Noir status by gameplay, you can get a free cruise for two on Royal Caribbean or Celebrity.

If you match 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 gameplay.

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 rather than splurge your precious travel currency on the ocean.

You might wonder, “When is this the case?”

While these factors will vary by 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, they may not have the same access to the points-based portals 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. You should also factor in the possibility of using fixed-value points from a program like Capital One to “erase” a portion — or the total cash cost outright — of your trip.

Pay in cash when an excellent cash fare comes up

As with airline tickets, there’s zero point in playing the points-and-miles game if you don’t take full advantage of the truly cheap sales. If you find a cruise booking that costs less in cash than your points’ value, pay for it outright and save your points for another trip. As always, don’t forget to use TPG’s valuations guide to help you calculate what your points are worth.

Related: What are your points and miles worth? TPG’s valuations guide helps you decide

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 you need any changes made to your dates, itinerary or cabin.

This is where the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card 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, then 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

Amex Offers have only gotten better in recent history — to your benefit as a consumer. 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 cardholders 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 various cruise lines such as Carnival, Holland America, Princess, Seabourn, Cunard and Crystal Cruises. Amex Offers are targeted and subject to change at 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 great starting point for newcomers and veterans alike, covering these logistics in more detail.

But the bottom line in miles and points 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.

Related reading: Your ultimate guide to Amex Offers

Book cruises via an airline portal

If you are paying cash and want to earn miles simultaneously, airlines allow you to earn bonus miles by booking cruises via their site. For example, there are United Cruises, American Airlines Cruises, Delta SkyMiles Cruises and more.

The cruises we priced out via United Cruises were the same price as booking directly with the cruise lines; the only difference is that you would earn bonus United miles per dollar spent for booking via the United site.

On our test Royal Caribbean cruise booking, United credit cardholders can earn up to 7 miles per dollar spent on the cruise cabin’s base rate for booking via the airline website. Your earnings are capped at 45,000 MileagePlus miles per purchase.

Keep in mind that these bookings are considered third-party purchases, so cruise lines are not obligated or may not be inclined to allow you to make changes.

(Screenshot courtesy of United.com)

For this Royal Caribbean sailing for a family of four, that could mean picking up 8,372 United miles valued by TPG at a total of $109 in miles.

(Screenshot courtesy of United.com)

Those with United elite status can also cash in on some perks. Bonuses vary per cruise line and are based on your elite status tier, but you could get anything from relaxing spa treatments to complimentary wine, or even up to $300 to spend onboard.

Paying for onboard cruise expenses

Once onboard, most of your expenses will be covered as part of your cruise 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 splurge opportunities, including drinks and dining at one of the fancier restaurants on your ship, excursions or spa treatments. On some cruise lines, you can even pony up to dine at the captain’s table.

Related: How Celebrity Cruise’s Captain Kate decimated an Internet troll

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

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 find the ones that work best for you.

In the meantime, here is a quick reference chart of the current best credit cards for travel-related expenses:

Card Bonus Percent return (based on TPG’s latest valuations)
Chase Sapphire Reserve 3x Ultimate Rewards points on travel (excluding $300 travel credit) and dining 6%
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

Some cruise lines also offer gift cards for sale at retailers such as grocery stores and office supply stores, so it is possible to earn more points per dollar when picking up cruise (or Disney) gift cards at those types of retailers, depending on which credit cards are in your wallet.

Additional cruise money-saving tips and tricks

As vacations go, most cruises typically don’t 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 the Galveston Port on points — and with the Companion Pass! — 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 another example, you can use 12,000 World of Hyatt points or an annual Category 1–4 award from the World of Hyatt Credit Card to pay for a room at the Hyatt Regency Orlando Airport before heading to Port Canaveral the next day.

Hyatt Regency MCO (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Related: What to do if you miss your cruise

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 repositioning cruises as one-way travel. 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.

Related: Your complete guide to using Google Flights for booking airfare

Take a one-way cruise to Puerto Rico (Nick Ellis/The Points Guy)
Take a one-way cruise to Puerto Rico (Nick Ellis/The Points Guy)

Bottom line

It isn’t always easy to get a great return for your points and miles toward cruise redemptions — at least not the way you can for first-class flights. But this guide proves that it isn’t impossible, especially with fixed-value points that offer a solid way of easily shaving hundreds or even thousands of dollars off of your total bill.

You could even stack that bonus for additional savings by booking via an airline portal to earn miles or by using a site like cruisecompete.com to give you the best deals and perks from travel agents.

Are you dreaming of a family cruise? Here’s some advice:

Additional reporting by Ariana Arghandewal

Featured image of The Coral Princess courtesy of Princess Cruises

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