Cruise lines' loyalty programs -- the equivalent of airlines' frequent flyer programs -- are in a state of upheaval. The idea -- which centers on rewarding loyal travelers with extra perks, such as onboard cocktail receptions and exclusive discounts -- originated some 160 years ago with Cunard and continues in a variety of forms today. However, as more people turn to cruising for their vacations and repeat with the same line, loyalty club membership numbers are swelling into the upper echelons. And that can be expensive for cruise lines.
On one end of the spectrum is Azamara, which upset many of its frequent passengers in 2014, when it tried to remove many of the most valuable perks including free laundry and Internet minutes. Uproar over the change forced the line to roll back some of its changes. Carnival, similarly upset many of its loyal passengers in 2012 when it expanded its loyalty program to five tiers from two, making it more difficult to get to a higher tier, while also downgrading some members to a lower membership level and taking away perks loyal cruisers had previously enjoyed.
On the other side are cruise lines that have expanded the perks of their programs or are making it easier for cruise travelers to attain upper-tier status. Crystal Cruises, for instance, announced that as of fall 2014, any member of its Crystal Society program will get 60 minutes of free Internet access every day of his or her cruise.
Princess rewards big spenders (namely suite guests and solo travelers who may have to pay twice the regular rates to get a cabin to themselves) with a faster track up the ranks of its past passenger program. Celebrity added benefits to its program a few years ago, including free or discounted laundry service, complimentary Internet packages and new parties for all Captain's Club members. Oceania has also added a wealth of perks, including a free cruise and $1,000 in onboard credit -- but these benefits are only available to frequent cruisers who have sailed between 21 and 100 times with the cruise line.
If you don't have the vacation time (let alone the money) to cruise multiple times a year and attain those upper-tier perks, is it worth your while to stick with one cruise line over another? Here, we take a look at the tier structures, perks and members-only discounts offered to repeat passengers, so you can decide based on your travel habits.
Still on the fence? We give seven reasons why you should be loyal to your cruise line.
The Program: Le Club Voyage is a five-tiered program that has some reciprocal rewards with the Captain's Club on Celebrity Cruises and the Crown & Anchor Society on Royal Caribbean. Points are earned based on the length of your cruise and category of your stateroom.
Adventurer – up to 149 points
Explorer – 150 to 299 points
Discoverer – 300 to 749 points
Discoverer Plus – 750 to 2,999 points
Discoverer Platinum – 3,000 points and up
Perks: Preferential services such as pre-sailing dining reservations, first crack at shore excursion waitlists and priority tender service give past passengers VIP status. (Perks vary by level.) Lower-level members get perks like access to a dedicated host, free Internet, an invitation to Le Club Voyage parties and spa discounts. As you move up the tiers, perks start to include complimentary laundry, more free Internet, greater discounts and, best of all, free nights. The free nights start immediately upon moving from Adventurer to Explorer level, with two nights awarded. On progressing to Discoverer level, four free nights are awarded. Discoverer Plus members receive a one-time reward of six free nights, plus three more free nights at 1,500 points and three more at 2,250 points. Discoverer Platinum members receive a one-time reward of 10 free nights, plus three more free nights with every 750 points earned, without limit. Free nights can be redeemed on cruises of seven nights or longer; the fare will be prorated based on the per-night price of the cruise.
Members-Only Deals: Le Club Voyage members are offered several special discounted sailings per year through the newsletter and in the members-only section of the website. Based on space available (priority determined by member level), members also may upgrade for $199 per person ($389 for single occupancy passengers). Compare prices to verify the savings.
Drawbacks: Free nights must be booked within 12 months of reaching the new membership tier.
The Program: Carnival's five-tier Very Important Fun Person (VIFP) Club is available to all passengers, whether they've sailed yet or not.
Blue – Never sailed through first sailing
Red – Up to 24 cruise days
Gold – 25 to 74 days
Platinum – 75 to 199 days
Diamond – 200 days and up
Perks: Benefits start with a free bottle of water, and progress to include priority check-in, boarding, debarkation, tender boarding, and restaurant and spa reservations. At higher levels, perks also include VIFP parties, member pins, free laundry, casino discounts, complimentary specialty restaurant meals, and a one-time free cabin upgrade or free fares for third and fourth passengers in one cabin.
Members who sail on "milestone" 25th, 50th and 75th Carnival cruises receive shipboard credits of 25, 50 or 75 percent of the cruise fare paid, respectively. On the 100th milestone, a complimentary Caribbean, Mexican Riviera or Alaska voyage of up to eight days is offered.
Members-Only Deals: Occasional specials are offered to all past passengers, but they're not that great of a bargain. Shopping around can sometimes net a lower rate.
Drawbacks: True benefits don't really kick in until a member has sailed at least 75 days.
The Program: The six-tiered Captain's Club has some reciprocal rewards with Le Club Voyage on Azamara Club Cruises and the Crown & Anchor Society on Royal Caribbean. Points are earned based on the length of your cruise and category of your stateroom.
Preview – 0 points (must sign up prior to first cruise)
Classic – 2 to 149 points
Select – 150 to 299 points
Elite – 300 to 749 points
Elite Plus – 750 to 2,999 points
Zenith – 3,000 points and up
Perks: Celebrity's points system rewards those people who cruise frequently in a lower-level cabin, as well as those who sail less frequently in higher-category cabins. Passengers who enroll in the program before their first cruise are considered Preview members, and receive access to the Captain's Club Loyalty Desk and a Captain's Club newsletter. All levels have access to the loyalty desk and host, upgrade opportunities and limited seating set aside for specialty restaurant reservations. All members also receive an onboard discount booklet, a free scoop of gelato, discounts on Internet packages or free Internet (varies by tier) and an invitation to the Captain's Club Celebration. As members progress through the tiers, perks start to include free pressing, priority embarkation, priority tender service, access to the Captain's Club Lounge, one free port day access to the Persian Garden, free laundry and dry cleaning, private debarkation departure lounge, discounts on specialty dining and beverages, and more parties. At the highest level, members receive access to Michael's Club Lounge, a beverage package, complimentary laundry, upgraded bath amenities, priority seating in the theater, and a 1,600-minute Internet package. Best of all, Zenith members receive a free seven-night Caribbean or Bermuda cruise in a balcony stateroom when they reach that milestone.
Drawback: Some of these benefits are included with a higher-class cabin on Celebrity ships, so they are not completely exclusive to past passengers.
Members-Only Deals: Captain's Club members are offered several special discounted sailings per year, some of which can be a good deal compared to retail rates, especially if they also include an onboard credit or discount certificate. Compare prices to verify the savings.
The Program: Costa Club is a four-tiered system. You get points for days sailed (100 points for each day) and money spent onboard (40 points for every 52 euros spent).
Aquamarine – Up to 2,000 points
Coral – 2,001 to 5,000 points
Pearl – 5,001 to 13,000 points
Gold Pearl – 13,001 points (must have been on three cruises in the past three years)
Perks: All members receive souvenir photos, Captain's Cocktail invitations, in-cabin treats, and discounts on branded items, spa and beauty services, Internet and wine packages, minibar items, laundry services and spa products (discount varies by tier). Higher-tier members receive priority boarding and/or embarkation, free bottle of sparkling wine, in-cabin dinner service, free specialty restaurant meal, casino chips and a VIP waiting room in cruise terminals (where available).
Members-Only Deals: Costa Club members are offered 5 percent off select sailings -- which they can extend to travel companions staying in the same cabin. Throughout the year, they'll be notified of extra discounts on an additional selection of departures.
The Program: Crystal Society members earn credits based on cruises sailed. Credits vary by cruise length: 5- to 15-day sailings earn one credit, while 16-day or longer sailings earn two credits. Basic perks are offered to all members, varying by cabin category, with the most significant perks rewarded for milestone sailings.
Perks: All Crystal Society members receive a Crystal Society tote bag and lapel pin, as well as invitations to exclusive Crystal Society shore excursions and Passport, a quarterly magazine. A Crystal Society host or hostess is available to members on every sailing. Depending on milestone level, members will receive additional perks. For example, you begin with a one-time onboard credit of $150 to $200 (after five cruises), progress to a free upgrade (after 10 cruises), snag a free weeklong cruise (after 30 cruises) and progress to $300 shipboard credit (after 55 cruises). The ultimate prize for the 100-cruise mark: A free cruise up to 12 days long in the Crystal penthouse, with a private dinner in the Vintage Room. Crystal's Society Sailings (there are usually one to two each year) offer special programming, onboard parties and events.
Members-Only Deals: All Crystal Society members are eligible for the Crystal Society savings, available on every cruise.
The Program: The multi-tiered Cunard World Club bases its levels on cruises taken.
Silver – One cruise completed
Gold – Two cruises or minimum 20 nights sailed
Platinum – Seven cruises or minimum 70 nights
Diamond – 15 cruises or minimum 150 nights
Perks: All members enjoy notification of special offers, a dedicated Cunard World Club Desk shoreside for telephone assistance, onboard representatives and a dedicated Cunard World Club website. As members progress through the tiers, they receive tier pins, free Internet, cocktail party invitations, preferred reservations in specialty restaurants, savings on laundry, priority check-in, embarkation and disembarkation in select ports, free wine tastings, priority luggage delivery and a free meal at a specialty restaurant.
Members-Only Deals: Special rates are offered to World Club members on select sailings, which might include upgrades and/or onboard credits.
Drawbacks: You will only get the benefits of the membership level you have reached prior to embarkation. If you reach enough days sailed for a new level while you are on a cruise, you will have to wait until your next cruise to receive any of those benefits. Also, doublecheck the special fares to see if they really are better than the rates you can get on your own.
The Program: The multi-tiered Castaway Club has only three levels, based on number of cruises sailed.
Silver – One to four cruises
Gold – Five to nine cruises
Platinum – Ten or more cruises
Perks: Once you have sailed, you are automatically a member. All members receive special booking offers, in-room amenities not offered for purchase and a lanyard upon check-in at the port. Gold and Platinum members also receive an onboard reception, an earlier booking window, merchandise discounts and, for Platinum members, priority check-in and boarding and a free dinner at Palo.
Members-Only Deals: Disney ships sail full all the time; very few dates are offered at a discount. However, members do receive exclusive discounts on select merchandise.
Drawbacks: Compared to the past-passenger perks of other cruise lines, this program offers very little.
The Program: In the multi-tiered Oceans program, passengers earn one cruise point for every night sailed.
Blue – Up to 30 points
Silver – 31 to 100 points
Gold – 101-plus points
Perks: Perks include discounts on onboard spending and shore tours booked prior to departure, advance notice of next season's cruises, and an invitation to the Oceans Cocktail Party onboard. Top-tier customers (Silver and Gold) receive 5 percent off their onboard account, while Gold passengers also receive 5 percent off pre-booked tours, in addition to priority boarding in U.K. ports, personalized luggage labels, free shuttle bus passes and a welcome gift.
Members-Only Deals: The top tier receive a 5 percent discount when booking at least six months in advance of departure date, while the second tier gets the same discount for booking at least nine months in advance of departure. The third tier must book at least 12 months in advance of departure to get the 5 percent discount.
The Program: As members of the multi-tiered Mariner Society, passengers earn credits based on days sailed, with double points for suite guests and one bonus credit for every $300 spent onboard (limit one credit per day).
One Star – At least one cruise sailed
Two Star – 30-plus credits
Three Star – 75-plus credits
Four Star – 200-plus credits
Five Star – 500-plus credits
Perks: All members receive invites to an exclusive Mariner embarkation lunch and complimentary Champagne brunch during the cruise, a collectible gift and a subscription to Mariner magazine. Among the additional perks members earn as they progress through the tiers are lapel pins; varied discounts on logo clothing, specialty dining charges, Internet packages, Explorations Cafe purchases, wine packages, minibar purchases, and spa treatments; free wine tastings, laundry and pressing; priority disembarkation, tendering and check-in; complimentary day pass to the Greenhouse Spa thermal suite; free dinners at the Pinnacle Grill; and a free cooking class at the onboard Culinary Arts Center.
Members-Only Deals: All Mariner Society members receive special offers on select sailings (typically 5 to 20 percent off), but -- as always -- check the savings against the regular discount rates available. In addition, One-Star, Two-Star and Three-Star members receive a 50 percent discount on third and fourth passengers in a stateroom on select sailings, while Four- and Five-Star members get free third and fourth passengers on select cruises.
The Program: The 1893 Ambassador Program is one size fits all.
Perks: Past-passenger perks include fruit baskets delivered to your cabin, free bicycle rentals and a quarterly newsletter.
Members-Only Deals: Loyalty program members receive cruise discounts, including 5 percent off Norwegian Coastal Voyages and Explorer Voyage sailings. Discounts can be combined with early-booking rates and group discounts. Members are also eligible for a 5 percent discount on select shore excursions during Norwegian Coastal Voyages.
Drawbacks: The 1893 Ambassador program does not have tiers like other lines' programs, so cruising more does not get you additional perks.
The Program: The four MSC Club levels (Classic, Silver, Gold and Black) are based on a points system tied to how many nights passengers have spent onboard.
Classic – 1 to 21 points
Silver – 22 to 42 points
Gold – 43 to 99 points
Black – 100 points and up
Perks: All MSC Club members are invited to an exclusive MSC Club welcome cocktail reception, have a dedicated help desk onboard and can make use of discounted laundry services. Discounts (varying by membership level) are given on minibar items, spa treatments, MSC logo items, specialty restaurant charges and Internet packages. Freebies (varying by membership level) include casino coupons, fruit baskets, bottles of Champagne, dinner with the captain and a pass to the onboard thermal suite.
Members-Only Deals: Members get discounts on early-booking rates -- 5 percent for Classic, 8 percent for Silver, 10 percent for Gold and 20 percent for Black, without seasonal restrictions.
The Program: As part of Norwegian's Latitudes rewards program, members earn one point for each cruise night traveled with extra points earned for booking a suite or Haven accommodations, booking nine months or more in advance, or taking advantage of monthly insider offers.
Bronze – One to 19 points
Silver – 20 to 47 points
Gold – 48 to 75 points
Platinum – 76 points and up
Perks: All members receive monthly offers for onboard credits of up to $250 on select sailings; priority check-in; a complimentary subscription to the Latitudes Rewards online magazine; access to an onboard customer service representative; a ship-specific lapel pin; and onboard discounts (varying by tier level). Most ships also offer members-only cocktail receptions. Additional perks, varying by tier, include in-cabin chocolates, priority disembarkation and tender tickets, concierge service, a free dinner and wine in Le Bistro, an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour and a bottle of sparkling wine.
Members-Only Deals: All members have access to insider offer sailings with onboard credit, as well as exclusive rates offering discounts on select sailings. Members also receive a 10 percent discount on all Norwegian logo merchandise at the duty-free shop and discounts on Internet packages. Silver members and above also receive 15 to 25 percent off photos and spa treatments on port days.
The Program: Once you've taken your first cruise, you are automatically enrolled in the multi-tiered Oceania Club. Passengers earn cruise credits based on the length of each sailing they take, and qualify for tiers based on the total number of credits earned.
Blue – Two to four credits
Bronze – Five to nine credits
Silver – Ten to 14 credits
Gold – 15 to 19 credits
Platinum – 20 to 39 credits
Diamond – 40 or more credits
Perks: All members receive membership pins, invitations to an exclusive cocktail reception, varying discounts on Oceania Cruises logo merchandise and members-only offers. Additional perks, which accumulate as members move through the tiers include discounts on Internet and beverage packages, as well as shore excursions, prepaid tips, free spa treatments, and air deviation fee waivers and a free cruise. Members also get shipboard credit on every cruise they book: $200 for bronze level members, $400 for silver, $500 for gold, $600 for platinum and $1,000 for platinum.
Members-Only Deals: Members receive periodic special offers on select sailings and advance notice of new itineraries. Other offers include onboard savings on future cruises and savings on new bookings made 45 days or less after debarking from your last voyage. Plus, members gain access to the Oceania Club Web page for special announcements and to view past sailings.
The Program: Passengers are automatically enrolled in the multi-tiered Peninsular Club once they have accrued 150 points, with each night spent onboard a P&O Cruises ship worth 10 points.
Pacific – 150 to 500 points
Atlantic – 501 to 1,000 points
Mediterranean – 1,001 to 2,000 points
Caribbean – 2,001 or more points
Baltic – 2,501 points and 80 to 200 nights spent onboard in the three years preceding the start of the next cruise
Ligurian – 2,501 points and more than 201 nights spent onboard in the three years preceding the start of the next cruise
Perks: There are few real benefits at the lower levels; the best benefits kick in at the Caribbean level -- priority specialty dining bookings, an onboard cocktail party, a discount on P&O insurance, and dedicated check-in and priority embarkation on cruises departing from Southampton. Baltic and Ligurian members get even more perks, including early embarkation and priority cabin access with expedited luggage delivery and a 50 percent laundry discount.
Members-Only Deals: Members receive a discount of 5 to 10 percent off drinks, souvenir items, shore excursions and spa and salon treatments, depending on membership tier.
Drawbacks: There are no discounts offered on future cruise purchases. Also, to maintain status in the very highest membership tiers, you have to be cruising with P&O very regularly. Passengers who have the points but drop below the 80-nights-within-three-years' period needed for the two highest levels get kicked back down to the previous level.
The Program: Princess Cruises passengers qualify for the four tiers of the Captain's Circle based on either cruise credits or days cruised (whichever is higher). All passengers receive one credit for each cruise taken, and receive extra credits for each cruise booked in a suite or as a solo traveler occupying a cabin alone.
Gold – After first cruise completed
Ruby – After fourth cruise, or 31 to 50 days
Platinum – After sixth cruise, or 51 to 150 days
Elite – After 16th cruise, or 151-plus days
Perks: Other than a membership pin, monthly newsletter and onboard cocktail party, the program's genuine perks lie with folks who achieve Platinum or Elite status. Princess members in these tiers receive a free Internet credit of 150 to 500 minutes depending on length of sailing. Other high-tier perks include expedited embarkation, an exclusive lounge for disembarkation, free dry cleaning and laundry while onboard, priority tender embarkation, priority disembarkation, complimentary shoe shines, afternoon tea served in-cabin, daily canapes, a free wine tasting event on request and complimentary minibar setup (refills are not included). Elite members also get a 10 percent discount on boutique purchases.
Members-Only Deals: Members get access to special pricing on certain cruises, but check against the regular quoted price to see what kind of "deal" you are getting. Plus, all members of the Captain's Circle may benefit from up to $100 in early-booking discounts.
The Program: The multi-tiered Seven Seas Society is based on nights sailed.
Bronze – Seven to 20 nights
Silver – 21 to 74 nights
Gold – 75 to 199 nights
Platinum – 200 to 399 nights
Titanium – 400-plus nights
Perks: Benefits include Inspirations, a quarterly magazine; special events including a private cocktail reception; and priority booking of online shore excursions and dining reservations. Complimentary garment pressing comes at Silver level and higher; free Wi-Fi and priority disembarkation at select ports for Gold level and higher; Platinum members receive all these perks plus up to nine hours of in-room phone time, unlimited laundry services and free air deviation services; Titanium members receive private transfers to and from the airport (within a 50-mile radius) and free dry cleaning.
Members-Only Deals: Members get special offers on select cruises including early-booking bonuses with up to $5,000 off per person.
The Program: Members of the multi-tiered Crown & Anchor program receive one cruise point for every cruise night sailed. Suite bookings earn double the points.
Gold – Three to 29 points
Platinum – 30 to 54 points
Emerald – 55 to 70 points
Diamond – 8 to 174 points
Diamond Plus – 175 to 699 points
Pinnacle – 700 or more points
Perks: All members receive quarterly e-letters, invitations to onboard welcome back cocktail receptions hosted by the ship's officers and discount booklets. Real benefits do kick in at the lowest level with priority check-in, access to a private departure lounge with breakfast, an invite to a welcome back party, coupons to use onboard and matching status on Celebrity and Azamara. Platinum members and up get invites to top-tier events and lapel pins; Emerald members get welcome gifts. Diamond, Diamond Plus and Pinnacle Club members get priority waitlists for sold-out excursions and spa appointments, priority departure, special breakfasts and entertainment tours (where applicable). Diamond members also get access to a dedicated Diamond Lounge (where available -- not all ships have them) or a nightly event in a designated lounge with some free wine (and discounted drinks). Diamond Plus and Pinnacle Club members also get access to a Concierge Lounge (with free nightly happy hours), a personalized amenity and behind-the-scenes tours.
Members-Only Deals: Royal Caribbean offers special pricing on member sailings, but check to see if the benefits are really there. Platinum members and higher also get balcony and suite discounts on select sailings. Discount certificates worth $100 to $500 are sometimes offered for select cruises. Past passengers get notified first of any special sale fares (called Going, Going, Gone sales) and get a bonus when booking their next cruise while onboard.
Drawback: Points are not applied until after a sailing is completed so if you are graduating from one level to the next on your sailing, you will not receive the benefits of the next level until your next sailing.
The Program: Seabourn Club has five levels with points accrued through days spent cruising, and extra points for sailing in a penthouse or premium suite or on an escorted "Seabourn Journey," as well as for spending over $500 in eligible onboard or pre-cruise online purchases. Extra awards are given during milestone cruises (seven intervals between 100 and 2,500 sailed days).
Entry – One to 19 points
Silver – 20 to 69 points
Gold – 70 to 139 points
Platinum – 140 to 249 points
Diamond – 250-plus points
Perks: Tiffany pins are awarded on milestone number cruises. Members get a free seven-night cruise after 140 days and a 14-night cruise after 250 days. Club perks for all members include Seabourn Club Herald, a magazine published three times a year, and a captain's cocktail party. Plus, they can choose one to three onboard perks based on membership level: discounts on shore excursions or on premium wines and spirits; complimentary Internet packages; complimentary telephone use; a massage; day pass to the Spa Serene Area; or one free bag of laundry. Diamond members get all of the above, plus free laundry and pressing and daily delivery of a preferred newspaper. Frequent cruisers may also receive discounts on luggage shipping, travel magazine subscriptions and special luggage tags, depending on membership level.
Members-Only Deals: Past passengers receive a 5 percent discount for onboard future bookings.
The Program: Venetian Society, multi-tiered.
Entry – One to 99 days
Sapphire – 100 to 249 days
Emerald – 250 to 349 days
Ruby – 350 to 499 days
Diamond – 500+ days
Perks: The program's main perk is the ability to earn free cruises. You'll get a free seven-night cruise after you reach the 350-day milestone, a free 14-night cruise after you reach the 500-day milestone and then another free seven-day trip for each additional 150 days. Other perks include ship visitation privileges for up to two visitors per Venetian Society member (must be requested 21 days in advance); an onboard Venetian Society party; and complimentary laundry (after 100 sailed days). Invite friends or family on certain sailings and receive double cruise credits and $250 in onboard credit on Venetian Society sailing dates, and 5 percent Venetian Society savings for friends and family.
Members-Only Deals: Members can sign up for the Venetian Value Club and receive offers for exclusive savings on sailings departing within 30 days. Plus, members receive a 5 to 10 percent discount, depending on tier level, on cruise bookings; this can be combined with other discounts once a member has passed the 100-day milestone.
Drawbacks: Silversea requires more days spent cruising to reach minimal program levels that offer the "real benefits" than other upper-end lines.
The Program: The Windstar Yacht Club is one size fits all. Passengers are automatically enrolled after their first sailing.
Perks: Members of the Yacht Club, which replaced the previous Foremast Club, receive complimentary one-category cabin upgrades (dependent on availability), a welcome aboard gift, private member cocktail party and dinner with the captain or ship's officers.
Members-Only Deals: Yacht Club members receive a 5 percent savings on standard cruise fares. Plus, for every new friend or family member referred, Yacht Club members and their guests will each receive $100 in onboard credit.
--By Cruise Critic Staff