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What’s Behind Cruiser’s Cruise Line Loyalty?

Written by: Kuki

These days, in most cases when boarding a ship you’ll find over 60% of the passengers onboard are repeat customers of that cruise line. I had always considered cruisers to be somewhat of an adventurous breed, and this seemingly high percentage of passengers returning over and over to the same cruise line seems to belie that hypothesis.

My Blog last week spoke about the recent reduction of benefits Royal Caribbean has made to their Crown and Anchor Society “loyalists program”. Customer Loyalty Programs are a relatively new phenomena that has invaded a broad spectrum of businesses and industries selling goods and services to consumers.

There’s very few purchases a consumer can make without encountering a loyalty program. Whether you’re putting gasoline in your car, or making purchases at a drug store, or buying groceries or clothing, or purchasing travel, you’re being offered some variation of a loyalty program. Of course there’s the ever popular air line frequent flyer programs, and even credit card companies offering rewards with every purchase made using their cards.

So it should be obvious that the business community has decided that loyalty programs are an effective tool in encouraging repeat business. I think loyalty programs can be looked at from two points of view. They can be looked at a means of trying to reward loyal customers, or attempts to bribe people to be loyal customers. Viewing it as bribes, it’s quite amusing to see how little value the bribe has to have to work on some customers.

In regard to the cruise industry I’m personally somewhat surprised the loyalty of brand customers seems to reach beyond their loyalty programs and rewards. Unbridled dedication to a cruise line seems much more common than customer loyalty or devotion to other products.

Truly, to my mind, none of the cruise line’s loyalty programs offer enough value in their benefits to convince me to not examine all options when choosing a cruise; or more specifically a cruise line. My curiosity to find what they all offer, and to experience as many alternatives as possible over-rides any supreme loyalty. But I am beginning to believe I am in the minority in this regard.

As I read our message boards I see many people taking pride in being able to say it’s their – 3rd, 8th, 15th, 20th, and so on- cruise with a particular line. And I see many people acting as “cheerleaders”; touting their choice of cruise line to be superior to all others, whether they have actually cruised on another line or not…which to my mind is a difficult position to defend.

There’s a bit of an inexplicable desire of people to have their choice of cruise line validated, and that validation seems to partially come by being recognized as members of the cruise line’s loyalty programs.

I witnessed this recently when Carnival announced the introduction of newly designed “Sail and Sign” cards, the Identification cards each passenger is given, which also serve as their cabin door keys, and charge card onboard. The discussions of the reactions to the new designs on the message boards was surprisingly intense. In fact so many past passengers expressed negative opinions on the design that Carnival went back and redesigned the cards. I have to admit I was startled by the fervour of the reaction. I’ve frankly never given the designs any thought, as long as they function. But the recognition that people believe comes to them with a different coloured or designed card, which makes them stand out from others is apparently important to others.

There are those who will argue that once they’ve found a cruise line that they like there’s no reason to look further, and that’s understandable to some degree. However, I still have to ask myself why they wouldn’t be interested in seeing if they can improve their cruise experience by sampling some of the alternatives. Too many people seem willing to accept word of mouth negatives they’ve “heard” – either from friends, message board posts or cruise line marketing-  about other cruise lines, and then actually speak about them in a negative light, rather than relying on their own their own judgement by climbing onboard another cruise line.

I realize that people’s vacation dollars and time is limited, so there might be some hesitation to gamble on something new. But it does seem odd to limit yourself. Just because you know you like carrots, does that mean you should never try peas? I hate zucchini, but I’d never know that if I had never tried it.

Perhaps the fear of spending money to find you don’t like zucchini motivates you to stick to carrots, and just say you heard zucchini is awful. I’d certainly encourage everyone to taste everything… except of course zucchini; it’s awful!

What drives your loyalty? Is it possible to admit your loyalty to a particular cruise brand, without finding it necessary to speak negatively about other brands, or other people’s choice of cruise line?

Do the cruise line’s loyalty programs have a direct and significant impact on your decision when you are booking your next cruise? Or do you simply view them as an extra amenity?

Once onboard a ship is it important to you to be recognized by the ship’s officers and crew as a repeating, loyal customer?

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Comments

Comment from Paul Motter
Time April 14, 2009 at 11:26 pm

You almost make it sound like all loyalty programs are for suckers. I think they are fine if that is the way you want to roll.

Basically, I agree with you, that the ways in which cruise lines vary is so vast that one should try as many as possible and learn to enjoy the nuance.

Sometimes you want a pizza parlor, sometimes a fine French restaurant, sometimes Chinese delivery, sometimes fried chicken & barbacue.

There is no reason to go on the same cruise line over and over – unless you find some things about a certain cruise line that you really like. Then after 5 cruises you realize you have some clout. And soon you are caught up in the loyalty program.

Some of bennies are very cool – free internet time, a free bottle of wine with dinner, etc. You start to feel pretty special after awhile.

And I see nothing wrong with cruise lines rewarding loyal customers, or with these customers getting special attention, They deserve it. It wouldn’t seem right not to distinguish the loyal repeaters in some special kind of way.

So, in the long run, I think it is a personal preference – you get loyal to one cruise line because they do more things they ways you like them to. Why not?

It isn’t my way – but I see nothing wrong with it. By the way, I think most repeat cruisers do go on various cruise lines, only a fraction of repeaters go on just one cruise line all the time.

Comment from MagnoliaBlossom
Time April 15, 2009 at 4:39 am

Kuki, good thoughtful article.
I think it comes down to a basic psychological tennet – everybody wants to be somebody. When you move from being a “carbon” member to “plutonium”, or whatever gets you a little more clout, it feels good. This is especially true for people who maybe like Rodney Dangerfield, don’t get a lot of respect in the day to day grind.

Having said that, I too, have found it silly the way folks defend their line to the death. I fully understanding a preference but jeez Louise, it’s a cruise line, not your first born!

I happen to like NCL because of Freestyle but have sailed them more than other lines because of their credit card (previous) program. We have sailed Carnival 8 times because of being withinn driving distance of two of their ports.

We’ve sailed RCL 5 times to enjoy their ships and whle they are in driving distance to Galveston, we really don’t care for the Jamaica itinerary.

And we’ve only sailed Priness 5 times – although it is our favorite line, because it now requires flying to get to a port – but that certainly hasn’t stopped us from considering and sailing her on trips where we intended to fly anyway (hard to drive to the U.K.)

I think the most fervant loyalists are Carnival’s folks and they probably have the skimpiest rewards program.

What inspires loyalty is about more than
perks (this coming from a N.O. Saints fan)
It’s about finding something you like and becoming a part of it. I mean, have you noticed how many people drive around with the ridiculous cartoon of a little boy urinating on the logo of a car company?

Loyalty programs are about feeling important – being somebody – and that feels good (since we did our first gold level cruise 2 weeks ago and had our first concierge I identify a little better) but what the lines must be careful of is not alienating newbies. I’ve read increasing reports of some lines having roped off pool areas, or speciall reserved seating at shows that may begin to smack of class preference. This could be a dangerous area to wander into. Not to sa”Plutonium” members shouldn’t get great perks, but I believe it should not be in such as way as to make the newbies feel belittled or derived.

How about an article where you do a side by side comparison of the reward programs – would be interesting to see.

Comment from Kuki
Time April 15, 2009 at 8:00 am

Magnolia,

I like your sports team analagoy. That actually may be the most similar type of fervor as cruise line loyalists. They are fans, just because they ARE. And often when they move to other cities, their loyalty normally stays with their “home team”.

I do understand the attraction of some loyalty program perks.. like Princess offering some free internet, or Carnival’s complimentary wash and fold, or RCI’s Concierge Lounges.

I guess I’m of the view that pricing is still the bottom line to me. It’s probably because I see all the mass market lines as delivering similarly satisfactory products, so don’t see the need to pay anyone more for the priviledge of sailing with them.

Once the best price is found, the perks of the loyalty programs are excellent added on amenities.

The Blog was really written to see the view of others in regard to their loyalties, and reasons for them.

Comment from Dave Beers
Time April 15, 2009 at 9:07 am

I “played the field” for most of my cruising life, wanting to try new lines or new ships. Then when RCI came out with the Freedom class I really liked it, and given the nice perks at diamond level I decided to stay with RCI to deliberately build up loyalty points. To me it was a win-win…I was on a nice ship and pleasant cruise line, they were getting my money, and I was also building up points. I have to admit that after I made diamond level I had a bit of buyer’s remorse which only got worse over the past few months with the endless stream of new fees and cuts in perks. A loyalty program can be like a cult in some ways, which can blind people to what the realities are. It is troubling to see some loyalty members who look at their member level as a badge of social status. While many of these people are predisposed to being snobs, having a gold or platinum cruise card only enables them.

So I’ve learned a valuable lesson in not getting sucked in by the cruise line variation of baubles and beads. In the end analysis that is what most of them are. Some perks are very useful to me, some I couldn’t care less about.

I plan to return to my old ways of spreading the wealth among the various lines, and not indulge my obsessive/compulsive nature by fixating on loyalty awards.

Comment from FL_Cruiser64
Time April 15, 2009 at 11:10 am

Most cruisers might subscribe to the loyalty perks and call it loyalty.

I subscribe to the overall product and services, brand and how a company treats a loyal customer.

I started cruising and liking Royal Caribbean way before I knew the full extend of the benefit program. Living close to port I easily could have taken 10 cheap 3-Nighters (with no onboard spending) or 5 JS 3-Nighters to reach the diamond level.

Instead I took a mixture of 3-Nighters, 4-Nighters, 5 Nighters and 7 Nighters. But even on those couple 3 Nighters our onboard spending never dropped below $1700 for the two of us. Why? Because I liked the product and services and I trusted RCI to provide me with such in the future. As much as I care all they had to do is put a letter in my stateroom welcoming me back. I still would have shown loyalty.

Now we enter the weird world of cutting benefits. As someone not caring about benefits (I take them if they are there, but I can live without them) honesty is a big builder of trust. If a company at any time feels the need to cut benefits for financial reason, you may say so. This cruiser would never punish you for that. But pushing forth a reason and then contradicting the very same reason when back tracking breaks my trust in every aspect. If you don’t appreciate me as a loyal customer enough to be honest and forth right with me, how can I believe you that you will be able to provide me with the future product and service I came to accustom to and loving.

There is a saying: once a liar, always a liar.

At this point RCI is moving towards the big family vacation only. It breaks its own tradition and BRAND by being a cruise line for everybody. The ships get bigger, the small ships disappear rather quickly.

I probably could cruise RCI for a few more years but why should I. The company, represented by Mr Goldstein, lied to me. They are phasing my cruise needs out and in preparation for that I will move to other lines. Regardless what RCI says. I just don’t believe them anymore.

Loyalty is not a one way street. You want my honest opinion on my cruises, I want your honest reasoning for decisions you make. You can shove all your benefits where the sun don’t shine, but once you break my trust – it is over.

RCI is not the first company I leave because of broken promises and misleading/dishonest statements.

For over 10 years I was a loyal customer of Direct TV. Never made a service call and paid my bill of $130 every month. 10 Years!

When they offered me an upgrade to DVR for free I took that offer. But they were lying. The installation company lied to me, DirecTV lied to me. So I canceled – over lousy $52. I went to DishNetwork and am as happy as I was before.

Still today, 3 years later, DirecTV is still contacting us trying to get us back.

This cruiser leaving RCI is not his loss. I find another cruise line. It is RCI’s loss.

All I wanted is respect and honesty – which, as a loyal customer, I deserve.

It will cost RCI 6 times as much to gain a new customer rather than keep an existing customer. But to replace this former loyal customer RCI has to spend much more than that. $200-$300/night onboard spending is very hard to replace and to think that all I wanted is some honesty and a welcome back letter.

Comment from Margie
Time April 15, 2009 at 2:45 pm

Good, thought-provoking piece. I’m inclined to always check out all cruises in the area I’m itnterested in travelling. My husband is loyal to RCI and nothing else compares. We were both upset by RCI cutting back on Diamond perks because we just attained Diamond for our Alaska cruise at the end of June, and at least wanted to try the perks. So much for loyalty. I truly think each cruise is a moment in time, and you can’t repeat it by being loyal to a ship or a cruise line. For me, it boils down to how well the ship is run and how happy the crew is to be working on it. On our best cruises, the crew worked as a well oiled machine and they seemed happy in their work. If they’re happy, I’m happy.

Comment from Paul Motter
Time April 15, 2009 at 3:28 pm

FL_Cruiser

I have to say I find you one of the most interesting cruisers I have ever met. I have never met anyone who slices and dices what a company does and makes it as personal as you do as a customer.

I didn’t see the “lying” – as you put it – in the taking away and following reinstating of perks. But I have NO doubts that you would be able to point it out to me.

What I am saying is – I just read it in a different way. I read part one as “we need to scale back for financial reasons.” And I didn’t take it personally. If I were a member of the club I might have been a bit PO’d, but I just know I wouldn’t take it personally.

As a marketing-numbed American I never take anything a $billion corp does personally. I just don’t think they really think about me personally on a daily basis. I am NOT saying my point of view is the correct one and you should think like me. I am just ruminating on what I see as a reality of modern life.

When RCL gave the perks back, and said “we’re sorry, but we didn’t realize how much people would be disappointed” I thought “well, good for them, I admire a company who not only listens but also can be flexible and bend to their customers’ desires. The airlines couldn’t care less what you think.

My dad was old fashioned and thought big banks were like his childhood local neighborhood bank. Even back then I knew they were policy-driven by accountants and lawyers. He never saw it that way – he was one of those people who expected to be greeted by name when he walked in.

We all know the car companies build cars based on risk assessment – not purely for safety. They know a certain number of people will die each year, they just look for a number they can justify. To me, as sad as it may seem, that is how we are treated in modern society.

But, in the end it is because of people like you that RCL listened and reinstated their rewards. And now you can’t forgive them. That is what I mean by how interesting and complex you are. I can’t help thinking – “well, what do you want then? and engraved apology?”

Anyway – the world of cruising is SO diverse that I see far more differences between any two cruise lines that sway my decisions far more than the loyalty programs. As someone said above, Carnival cruisers are adamant and they dont even have as good a loyalty program. But they love Carnival.

Someone else noted above it would be a great article to compare the loyalty programs. I agree and I have been thinking that for a few weeks now. I guess I will have to be the one to do it ;-)

Comment from Thoth
Time April 15, 2009 at 6:41 pm

PRICE !! It always comes down to price.
Just recently I was shopping for a Mexican Riviera cruise and called Princess, Royal Caribbean, and Carnival. The first two quoted around $1300 each, while Carnival told me “We are running a past guest special” for around $700.
I would love the try a different cruise-line, but not for that much extra.

Comment from FL_Cruiser64
Time April 15, 2009 at 6:49 pm

@Paul

Wait until we sail one day together. LOL. I am the most easy going, relaxed and fun loving person you’ll ever meet. LOL.

I take RCI’s words:
The CL was taking away from the diamonds because of over crowding. Nowhere did I read ‘because of financial reason’. Sure we all speculated but nevertheless the official statement was ‘that the CL was not intended for such crowds’.

It was replaced with a one time event.

Then, after people protested they come back and say “OK. We give you room.”

Please bare in mind that they just give you back what was already implemented on most ships when over crowding was an issue – an overflow lounge/place. But this time it is only for the night and diamonds are still ‘banned’ during the daytime from the CLs.

The overcrowding was never an issue during the day time only at night. After taking it all away (because of over crowding) they give back to you what the diamonds already had (overflow lounge/place) but minus free drinks at night – minus access to cappuccino during the day time.

If over crowding was an issue why not give it back to the diamonds with full benefits as they had before. No, over crowding was a scape goat for the real reason: financial.

Thus I said: they are lying.

Paul, there are things in life where I have very strong feelings. I hate corruption, greed and dishonesty. I can not respect someone who displays these traits.

On another note: not too long ago I was called an RCI cheerleader…just about 3 or 4 months ago. LOL. Heck, you remember the discussions we had last year in the ‘Moran’ issue. ;-)

Times have changed.

Comment from FL_Cruiser64
Time April 15, 2009 at 6:52 pm

PS: I am not taking it personal. I just counter with the only power I have: money.

Comment from Kuki
Time April 15, 2009 at 9:41 pm

“<<<>>”

Now that makes sense to me! :)

Comment from Kuki
Time April 15, 2009 at 9:42 pm

Comment from Thoth
Time April 15, 2009 at 6:41 pm

PRICE !!

I meant to say.. Toth, now that makes sense to me .

Comment from kennyg
Time April 16, 2009 at 1:45 pm

Loyalty programs don’t cost the cruise lines anything and have no real value. They mean nothing to me!

Comment from AF1
Time April 16, 2009 at 2:40 pm

I’m the kind of person who likes to have a wonderful time on vacation. If part of my money is being spent on a loyalty program, and the industry pull that program or adjusts it prior to my going on vacation, I have to question their motive. When the airlines started charging for drinks, pillows, etc, it was the skymile and premium passengers who wrote and complained. Their voice was heard. Most people join these programs, cruise, air, hotel, etc, because it may cost them a little more to fly, cruise, or stay in a hotel, but they feel they are being rewarded by extra perks from the loyalty program. My point is; as customers we pay extra to belong to the loyalty programs; we get upset when they change them mid stream. That being said, I still cruise RCI because I like their Voyager and Freedom Class ships; they have lots to do and lots of places to explore. cheeers

Comment from Gordon
Time April 16, 2009 at 2:54 pm

Thoth has it right – money talks and we all know what walks. If you know you like Carnival, and Carnival sails a cruise you’re interested in, and Carnival is $300 cheaper than Princess or RCI (which is often the case), well, that 300 bucks will pay for a lot of tours or onboard treats. And it’s the same ocean for everybody, whether we paid a lot or a little.

I’ve loved every cruise I’ve taken (on Carnival, Princess & NCL), and I will try other cruise lines… but I keep coming back to Carnival for the price/value thing. Sure, Carnival cruises are predictable, but when I’m out on my $600-a-week balcony (it can be even less) with a book and a cocktail and the sun and sea, the ship on the other side of the balcony door might as well be Regent or Silversea.

Comment from Fireba11
Time April 17, 2009 at 2:23 am

I am like you Kuki and think that divesity is the spice of life! However…..My wallet cannot justify paying several hundred dollars more for a cruise with basically the same itinerary.

I would like to experience every cruise line out their for my self. Would love to sail on a luxury cruise line someday, but the truth of the matter is that most of us “regular folks” just can’t afford to do so. I guess, when my rich uncle gets out of the poor house I will be able to but not until then.

Comment from Jaxon
Time April 17, 2009 at 9:09 pm

I agree that part of sticking with one line is the fear that with limited time and/or money, you might NOT have as good of an experience as what you already know. That being said, price and itinerary are hugely important factors for me — loyalty programs are just nice bonuses, but not determinative.

I want to try another line but my recent research shows the ones I want to try with the itinerary I want are twice as expensive, even though they are owned by the often called “cheap” mother line. I just can not justify it.

Lastly, in doing that research, I found how much more educating of myself I have to do to switch –different categories of pricing cabins, learning how to get the best deal, not knowing if booking directly will get me the best base price, learning if they honor price drops and if they have any cut offs for them, wondering if I can get good response on the telephone, or will I be put on hold forever because I am not a repeater using a repeater’s special number. In short, I felt like I had to start all over again researching, and my time has a value. A customer loyal to one or two lines knows all the ins and outs and abouts. I even hate the differences on web pages. With one line if I put in my search data for a cruise, I don’t even get it, but rather I get whatever cruise they are pushing — ick!

Comment from Paul Motter
Time April 17, 2009 at 10:20 pm

Interesting Jaxon. I have never heard fear of switching before but I admit you have good points about exercising good judgement in investigating a new cruise line before you switch. At least you are dealing with a known entity if you stick to the same line.

Naturally, a good travel agent can usually supply the answers you need – if you have a good one.

I have to admit I am not completely up on the state of “price protection” these days. I know Carnival was giving it if you booked a certain amount of months in advance, but other than that most mainstream lines don’t offer it now, do they?

Comment from Jaxon
Time April 18, 2009 at 11:16 am

Paul,
As Kuki said — if you know you like carrots, but aren’t sure you like zuccini —

Has RCI changed policy? I have never had a problem getting a price reduction, even after final payment, if my cabin price has gone down.

Alas, I don’t have a good travel agent.

Comment from BestHelen
Time June 5, 2009 at 5:27 pm

I have found what i was looking for !!! thx )

Comment from Master Chief
Time June 24, 2009 at 7:00 am

The 1st cruise we took was on the Carnival Jubilee (my spelling skills sometime are lacking). It was to Alaska and we wanted to make a return cruise. Since we had enjoyed Jublilee we stayed with Carnival. Cruises 3-6 were with Carnival. Why? We liked what they offered. Loyalty really wasn’t a part of it. Since then and several cruises later with other cruise lines we are returning to Carnival. Again Why? Well, my Dad always said that you don’t fix what isn’t broken. And so we feel Carnival isn’t “broken” for us. Perks and other gratuities really didn’t come into the decision. My humble opinon for what it is worth.

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