Cruise Line Loyalty Reward Programs
by Paul Motter, CruiseMates Editor
Every cruise line has a loyalty rewards program; here we rate and review cruise line repeat passenger benefits.
[NOTE: Loyalty programs change all the time - so we encourage you to participate in these threads and give us updates to any loyalty program you know has changed.]
Every cruise line offers a preferred passenger program, also known as "loyalty rewards," for passengers who sail more than one cruise on the same line. Just like airline frequent flyer clubs, you can join the first time you sail with any line, but it is up to you to sign up and to track your own benefits. Most cruise lines have extensive web sites where loyalty members can log in to manage their current standing. You can see what the benefits are for your current level and what you stand to gain by taking more cruises. But unlike airline frequent flyer clubs, cruise line benefits are about a lot more than free cruises.
Most of the programs have a few things in common. They start after the first cruise and offer a "repeat cruisers club only" onboard reception with free drinks. Every member gets a subscription to the cruise line's magazine and receives inside news and special offers by mail or email.
Beyond that, loyalty programs vary a great deal between cruise lines, especially at the more advanced levels. Carnival has only two tiers and requires 10 cruises to get to the top while direct competitor NCL gets you to level two after five cruises and to the top tier after 15 cruises. The benefits at NCL include everything Carnival promises and much more. Royal Caribbean is similar to NCL, but with more levels and more cruises required to get to the top.
Even though some programs are very rewarding, it doesn't mean that we personally recommend cruising on just one cruise line unless that is your personal style. The onboard experience of every cruise line varies a great deal, even between the three mainstream lines, so picking a favorite cruise line is a highly individual choice. We recommend trying a variety of cruise lines, especially for beginners, to see which one best fits your personal style and including this loyalty programs guide as a part of your "cruise line of choice" process.
Although some programs are ultimately far more rewarding than others, we believe all loyalty programs are worth joining. You get onboard amenities and special offers to save time and money. All of them give some immedate benefits and some give substantial benefits after just five cruises. There is no harm in joining any of these programs, but you have to manage your own accounts and make sure you are credited for every cruise. Once that is done, the better programs have representatives onboard to help you attain and manage your benefits.
It is important to compare apples to apples, and so we compare the three mainstream lines to each other first: Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean. Next we compare the premium cruise lines; Celebrity, Disney, Holland America, Princess and Oceania. We end up comparing five luxury cruise lines -- Crystal, Cunard, Regent, Seabourn and Silversea.
Yes, we recommend reading this entire guide, and when you are done you will have a much better concept of cruise value. We also want to start by clarifying one important detail you will encounter. There are two parent companies that own many cruise brands between them and they try to offer interchangable benefits, but we have some concerns.
Carnival Corp owns Carnival Cruise Lines, Costa, Cunard, Holland America, Princess and Seabourn all under the umbrella of the "World's Leading Cruise Lines (WLCL)."
Some of the cruise lines in this family refer to the WLCL's VIP (Vacation Interchange Privileges) program where some equivalency status is automatically granted between cruise lines -- but the details are too vague for us to recommend relying on this interchangability. For example, Seabourn promises a free 14-day cruise after 140 days of cruising on Seabourn, but nowhere does it say this is exempted from the WLCL VIP program. However, it is exempted. This represents a caveat about the VIP program - do not rely on anything being interchangable unless you specifically check with the cruise line first and get everything in writing.
Royal Caribbean International owns Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, Celebrity and Azamara Cruises. We have more confidence in the Royal Caribbean family method of transferring benefits because it is more clearly defined. The benefits for Celebrity and Azamara are fully transferable. Celebrity cruisers can join the Royal Caribbean program at the same level at any time, and Royal Caribbean cruisers can transfer their rewards to Celebrity/Azamara.
It should be noted, however, that neither World's leading Cruise Lines nor Royal Caribbean International lets you combine points from all your cruises into one master acount, although we think they should. With Royal Caribbean International you must pick whichever cruise line has given you the most points and apply for equal status at the other line. With WLCL the rules are very vague and not even documented anywhere that is publicly available. They told CruiseMates that each cruise line status is separate although some of the benfits are transferrable to other lines. In other words, what they say at the individual cruise line web sites about the Vacation Interchange Privileges adds up to an empty promise where nothing is guaranteed.
There are also other cruise lines that are independent businesses. These cruise lines are NCL, Oceania, Crystal, Regent and Silversea. Each of these has no transferability of loyalty status to any other cruise line.
Every cruise line reserves the right to change the terms of its loyalty program at any time. In fact, Royal Caribbean just announced changes in its Crown and Anchor Society only to re´nstate some of them a few weeks later -- after a passenger backlash on Internet message boards. That event was the impetus for this article.
This overview covers the loyalty programs of all of the major cruise lines primarily servicing the North American market. We show each program in detail so you can see which ones offer a lot and which offer relatively little. We also tell you which programs we think are the best in each category. We cannot claim this is a complete guide to the benefits of each cruise line, but it is an extensive overview. As stated, any of these programs can change at any time.