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Is a Cruise Line Credit Card for You?
Home > Features > Tips & Advice > Is a Cruise Line Credit Card for You?
If you participate in an airline or hotel loyalty program, you probably have one or more credit cards in your wallet that are linked to the programs, allowing you to earn more miles or points toward free travel whenever you charge a purchase to the card. If you're an avid cruiser, you might be looking for a similar card to earn you points toward a free cruise. But do such cards exist?

The answer is: sort of. Very few cruise lines offer affiliated credit cards. Of the 18 major lines surveyed, only five had co-branded credit cards: Carnival Cruise Lines, Disney Cruise Line, NCL, Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean.

Unlike hotel- and airline-affiliated credit cards, cruise credit cards are not linked to the cruise operators' loyalty programs. That's likely because cruise loyalty programs are themselves quite different from the frequent traveler programs run by the airlines and hotel companies. Spending more with your credit card won't bump you up to platinum status, but it could get you a free cruise. Here's how:

How Affiliated Credit Cards Work
The five cards are more alike than they are different. Four out of five award two points per $1 spent on cruise services and products, and one point per $1 for other charges. The outlier, the Disney Visa card, awards two points per $1 for charges at gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants, in addition to Disney services and merchandise.

On the redemption side of the ledger, you can exchange your points for free or discounted cruises, onboard credit, upgrades and cruise line merchandise. Points have a value of 1 cent apiece when cashed in for most awards. So, for example, a $100 credit toward onboard purchases can be had for 10,000 points. If those points were earned at the rate of one point per $1 in charges, as they will be in the great majority of cases, that $100 credit would amount to getting a 1 percent rebate on $10,000 in charges.

Another feature common to all five cards: Points expire after five years. Four of the five carry no annual fee; again, the exception is Disney's ($49).

Should You Choose a Cruise Card?
If you're a frequent cruiser on any of these five lines, you might be tempted to apply for a card. But does it make sense to get a cruise credit card versus a different type of rewards card?

Maybe, maybe not. It depends on your goals.

If you want to get the best return on investment from a credit card, cruise credit cards aren't the way to go. With most charges yielding just a 1 percent effective rebate on a limited catalog of awards, cruise credit cards aren't top-of-the-class in terms of value or rewards flexibility.

For comparison, look at airline credit cards. While the average value of a frequent flyer mile is around 1.2 cents -- which amounts to getting a 1.2 percent rebate when earning one mile per $1 charged -- that per-mile value can be increased considerably by cashing in miles for higher-priced award flights. Some cash-back credit cards rebate 1 to 2 percent or more for select categories. And your reward is cash, which can be used to pay for anything, from a cruise to other travel expenses (pre-cruise air or hotel, for example) or even a new wardrobe for your upcoming sailing.

In other words, if your choice of credit cards is based strictly on bottom-line considerations, cruise cards' value is readily trumped by other types of cards.

On the other hand, maybe a free or discounted cruise is such a high priority that the value and flexibility tradeoffs are incidental. Your eye is on the prize, and you're going to charge, charge, charge until you get that free cruise (or other cruise-related award). In that case, a cruise credit card may suit your goals just fine.

Just make sure you do the math first. Depending on your monthly credit card purchases, the five-year points-expiration policy may mean that some of the most expensive awards will simply remain out of reach. Why? Because your points will expire before you've earned enough to qualify for those rewards. If, realistically, you'll never charge enough to get a free cruise, you may be better off with a different type of rewards card.

Don't forget to factor in the double points for purchases with the cruise line. You'll rack up award points more quickly if you're booking two cruises a year with the same line than if you sail every other year or try out different cruise companies.

If you think a cruise card is right for you, here's a more detailed summary of the cards' features and benefits:

Carnival Cruise Lines
Credit card: Carnival MasterCard, issued by Barclays Bank

Earning points: Cardholders earn two FunPoints for every $1 spent with Carnival and one FunPoint for other charges. You'll receive a signup bonus of 10,000 FunPoints after the first use. There are no maximum earnings, but points expire after five years.

Getting awards: Points may be redeemed for a statement credit toward cruises on the World's Leading Cruise Lines (Carnival Cruise Lines, Costa Cruises, Cunard Line, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises and Seabourn) or an airline or hotel charge, onboard amenities, gift cards, gift certificates or merchandise. For most awards, the point value is around 1 cent apiece, a 1 percent rebate.

Fine print: The card does not carry an annual fee. The annual percentage rate on charges is 13.99 to 20.99 percent, depending on creditworthiness.

Disney Cruise Line
Credit card: Disney Premier Visa, issued by Chase

Earning points: Cardholders earn 2 percent in reward dollars for every $1 spent with Disney, or at gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants, and 1 percent for other charges. You'll receive a signup bonus of a $50 Disney gift card after the first use.

Getting awards: Reward dollars may be redeemed for Disney cruise vacations, merchandise, spa treatments and shore excursions, as well as Disney theme park tickets, other Disney products and a statement credit toward airfare. Reward dollars, as the name implies, are worth $1 apiece and can be redeemed for goods and services at that rate, which amounts to a 1 to 2 percent rebate, depending on how they're earned. There are no maximum earnings, but reward dollars expire after five years.

Fine print: The card carries an annual fee of $49. (There's also a no-fee Disney Rewards Visa available, with a lesser earning rate and fewer award options.) The annual percentage rate on charges is 14.24 percent.

Norwegian Cruise Line
Credit card: Norwegian Cruise Line MasterCard, issued by Bank of America

Earning points: Cardholders earn two WorldPoints for every $1 spent with Norwegian Cruise Line and one WorldPoint for other charges. You'll receive a signup bonus of 10,000 WorldPoints after the first use.

Getting awards: Points may be redeemed for cruises, stateroom upgrades, cruise discounts, onboard credits and onboard experiences, car rentals, hotel stays, merchandise and gift certificates. For most awards, points value hovers around 1 cent apiece, a 1 percent rebate for most charges. There are no maximum earnings, but points expire after five years.

Fine print: The card does not carry an annual fee. The annual percentage rate on charges is 12.99 to 20.99 percent, depending on creditworthiness.

Princess Cruises
Credit card: Princess Cruises Rewards Visa, issued by Barclays Bank

Earning points: Cardholders earn two Princess Points for every $1 spent with Princess Cruises, 1 Princess Point for other charges. You'll receive a signup bonus of 5,000 Princess Points after the first use. There are no maximum earnings, but points expire after five years.

Getting awards: Points may be redeemed for free cruises and cruise discounts, onboard merchandise and services, and airfare discounts. Points are worth 1 cent apiece when redeemed for most awards. However, there's better value to be had when using points for free cruises and discounted cruises. A $2,000 cruise discount, for example, costs 160,000 points, yielding a value of 1.25 cents per point, and 375,000 points may be redeemed for a free cruise worth $7,500, for a value of 2 cents per point.

Fine print: The card does not carry an annual fee. The annual percentage rate on charges is 13.99 to 20.99 percent, depending on creditworthiness.

Royal Caribbean International
Credit card: Royal Caribbean Visa, issued by Bank of America

Earning points: Cardholders earn two Royal Points for every $1 spent with Royal Caribbean, and one Royal Point for other charges. You'll receive a signup bonus of 10,000 points after the first transaction.

Getting awards: Points may be redeemed for onboard amenities, onboard credits, selected merchandise, charitable donations, discounts against the purchase price of any eligible Royal Caribbean International cruise vacation and cabin upgrades. For most awards, points have a value of 1 cent apiece, which amounts to a 1 percent rebate for most charges. There's a maximum earning of 250,000 points per calendar year, and points expire after five years.

Fine print: The card does not carry an annual fee. The annual percentage rate on charges is 12.99 to 20.99 percent, depending on creditworthiness.

--by Tim Winship, Cruise Critic Contributor. Tim Winship is a nationally known expert on travel rewards programs and the founder of FrequentFlier.com.







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