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Cruise vacations enjoy their own unique niche in the travel world. While they were once the purview of the “newlywed and nearly dead,” they now appeal to all kinds of travelers as a way to see more destinations in less time and to get an all-inclusive travel experience.

Still, cruise lines lag behind airline and hotel brands in terms of offering truly enticing loyalty programs and co-branded credit cards. That doesn’t mean the savvy traveler can’t take advantage of miles and points to book a cruise vacation. To that end, I present six tips below.

A Disney Cruise Line ship on the French Riviera.
A Disney Cruise Line ship on the French Riviera. Image courtesy of Disney.

1. Use a Travel Portal to Redeem Points Toward a Cruise

The easiest and most direct way to use points to book a cruise is through a portal, such as Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel. The main bank-affiliated currencies — including Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Points, American Express Membership Rewards and Barclay Arrival miles — can all be redeemed for cruises. However, you’ll usually need to call in to a special number to arrange the booking.

While the redemption rates of such transfers are rather modest (especially when compared to the value you may receive for transferring the points to an airline or hotel partner instead), this can still provide a decent value if you have your heart set on a cruise and prefer not to pay cash.

Chase Ultimate Rewards, for example, offers a 20% “discount” on bookings through its travel portal for Chase Sapphire Preferred cardholders. As of publish time, it showed availability for a 10-night Canary Islands/Morocco cruise with Norwegian Cruise Line for $549 per person, and the booking came with a special bonus of $50 in onboard credit. Based on double occupancy, this cruise would cost you just less than $1,100 if booked in cash through the Chase portal, or roughly 87,840 UR points.

Still, that’s a lot of points to accumulate. Luckily, you could manage it with the bonuses from just two cards: the Ink Business Preferred Credit Card which currently offers 80,000 Ultimate Reward points for spending $5,000 in the first three months of card opening, and the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, which offers 50,000 Ultimate Reward points for spending $4,000 on the first three months of card opening (plus another 5,000 for adding an authorized user). In fact, if you just got the Ink Business card, earned the sign-up bonus and used it extensively for a few months, you might have enough points to book the above-mentioned cruise itinerary. If you completed the minimum spending for each card, you’d earn at least 139,000 UR points, enough to cover the cruise and still have more than 50,000 points left over to use on positioning flights or on pre- or post-cruise hotels.

Alternately, for far fewer points, you can explore the Activities section of the respective cruise portal to find and book shore excursions with points, though they often come at a bit of a markup. For example, I booked an Alaska cruise with Celebrity Cruises. Through my Celebrity account, I can book a “Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour” at the stop in Ketchikan for $180 per adult. Through the Citi Thank You portal, I can book a very similar tour for $196 per adult, or 19,613 points. Chase also lists a nearly identical activity for $196 or (because of the 20% discount for booking through the portal) 15,690 points. As shore excursions often add hundreds or even thousands to a final cruise bill, this can be a great way to cut down your total cost.

The Izumi Japanese Baths aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
The Izumi Japanese Baths aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship. Image courtesy of Princess Cruises.

2. Redeem Points or Miles Through Auctions

Another way to redeem points for a cruise is through online auctions from airline and hotel “experiences” programs. Both Marriott and Delta have offered themed cruises (i.e., the band Train, the Walking Dead) via their websites. TPG contributor Eric Lipkind recently won a Delta auction for a Walking Dead cruise on Norwegian by bidding Delta SkyMiles. The package also included a photo with one of the stars from the show. Eric used 173,000 Delta SkyMiles for a cruise worth $3,790. That’s a lot of miles, but he received a good value of about 2.2 cents per mile — significantly higher than TPG’s valuation of 1.2 cents per SkyMile. It can definitely be worth keeping an eye on these auction sites, as they regularly refresh with new cruises.

3. Win Your Way to a Free Cruise

If you’re a frequent visitor to the blackjack tables and slot machines of Las Vegas, you may be able to get a cruise for free. MLife, the loyalty program for casino resorts, including the Aria, Bellagio and Mandalay Bay (among others), offers its top-tier members a free annual cruise through its partnership with Royal Caribbean.

MLife Platinum members can redeem the benefit for a three- to five-night Caribbean- or Bahamas-bound cruise in an oceanview cabin, while top-level Noir members can earn a seven-night cruise to any location in a balcony cabin. Alternately, these guests can opt for a cruise credit of up to $1,500 and apply it to cruises with other lengths and/or stateroom categories. Unfortunately, this benefit does not apply to members who earned their credit through a partnership, like the one with Hyatt.

If you’re not quite considered a high roller and you have a LOT of free time on your hands, you can still earn some free cruise credits by playing Mlife’s Facebook game, MyVegas Rewards. The animated game and its associated smartphone app encourage users to play slots with virtual credits (which, of course, can be purchased with real cash). As you play, you earn gold “tokens” that can be redeemed for comps at MLife resorts or with Royal Caribbean directly.

As of publish time, the Royal Caribbean rewards start at 50,000 tokens for $25 in free casino play and go all the way up to a free companion cruise fare for 750,000 tokens. Because of the amount of time you’ll need to invest in MyVegas in order to earn the requisite amount of tokens, it’s really only advisable if you already enjoy playing this sort of online game.

4. Consider a “Cabin Run” to Upgrade Your Status in Advance

Many cruise lines offer their own loyalty programs, such as Norwegian Cruise Line’s Latitudes program and Celebrity Cruise Line’s Captains Club. However, most of these programs don’t kick in until you’ve completed your first cruise, meaning a first-timer or a cruiser switching lines is out of luck.

A Sky Suite aboard Celebrity Cruise Lines.
A Sky Suite aboard Celebrity Cruise Lines. Image courtesy of Celebrity.

As such, cruisers who already live near a port city may want to look in to booking a short two- or three-day cruise on their preferred line before booking a longer cruise vacation in order to qualify for the higher category loyalty perks with the line.

For example, with Celebrity, a Classic level Captain’s Club member who’s completed at least one previous cruise with the line is eligible for a free one-category cabin upgrade, among other benefits. Considering that a one-category upgrade could be worth $600 or more on some longer international itineraries — and that two-night Bahamas cruises start as low as $338 — it may be worth booking a short cruise solely for the status benefits before you book your longer cruise vacation. Not to mention, you’d get to spend a weekend in the Bahamas!

5. Use Points to Cover Your Hotels

In addition to booking your cruise accommodations, you’ll generally need transportation to and from your embarkation port, as well as hotels in your embarkation city pre- and/or post-cruise. Therefore, it can make sense to pay for your cruise fare on a newly opened travel rewards credit card in order to earn the bonus quickly and then apply that bonus to another portion of your trip.

The pool area at the Grand Hyatt Singapore. (Photo courtesy Hyatt.)
The pool area at the Grand Hyatt Singapore. Image courtesy of Hyatt.

For example, Royal Caribbean offers a seven-night cruise out of Singapore with stops in Vietnam and Thailand starting at $597 a person. The total cost (plus taxes) for two people would be just more than $1,200. That’s more than half the spending required to earn the sign-up bonus on the Hyatt Credit Card, which is 40,000 points after spending $2,000 in the first three months.

This would allow you to extend your stay in Singapore a couple days on either side of your cruise with two free nights at the Grand Hyatt Singapore (Category 5; 20,000 points per night), saving you roughly $310 a night. This same strategy can be applied to earning positioning flights as well.

6. Earn Points With a Co-Branded Cruise Line Credit Card

As a final fallback, there are several co-branded credit cards specific to cruise lines. They just don’t offer bonuses as valuable as those you routinely see from airline, hotel and transferrable point cards.

The Royal Caribbean Visa Signature and the Celebrity Visa Signature cards, for example, offer a bonus of 10,000 MyCruise Reward points, redeemable on Royal Caribbean, Celebrity or Azamara Cruises, after making your first purchase. The 10,000 points are worth 1 cent each and can be redeemed for $100 in onboard credit — note, however, that you can’t redeem the points to cover the cost of the cruise fare itself.

Redemption options with the WorldPoints credit card from Norwegian Cruise Line.
Redemption options with the WorldPoints credit card from Norwegian Cruise Line.

Similarly, Norwegian Cruise Line offers a 10,000-point bonus after the first purchase on the NCL Worldpoints Visa, and it offers a wider range of redemption options, including cabin upgrades and discounts off your cruise fare, in addition to the option to redeem for onboard credit. The 10,000-point bonus is good for $100 (either in onboard credit or discounted off your fare) or for a 2-category cabin upgrade on any cruise five days or longer.

Carnival, Disney, Holland America and Princess cruise lines also offer their own co-branded credit cards, but come with even more limited bonuses and perks than those mentioned here.

Bottom Line

All told, cruise vacations can be a great break from reality, and while the options for earning a free cruise aren’t as plentiful as those for earning free flights and hotel stays, it’s possible to set sail without forking over a huge bundle of cash.

Additional reporting by Eric Lipkind.

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