Most consumers, especially those who travel frequently, are familiar with airline-affiliated credit cards, through which you earn free mileage based on how much you charge to your card. But if you're an avid cruiser, especially one who prefers to drive or take the train to the cruise port, a card that earns you points toward cruise-related awards might be a better fit. So do such cards exist?
They do, but only a few cruise lines offer them. In fact, cruise line-affiliated credit cards are only an option among the biggest names in mainstream cruising. Of the 18 lines surveyed, only six had co-branded credit cards: Carnival Cruise Lines, Disney Cruise Line, NCL, Princess Cruises, Holland America 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 WorkThe cards offered by these six lines are more alike than they are different. Five out of six award two points for every dollar spent on cruise services and products, and one point for every dollar spent on other charges. The outlier, the Disney Premier Visa card, awards two points per dollar 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, onboard amenities and cruise line merchandise. Points have a value of 1 cent apiece when cashed in for most rewards. 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 dollar 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 six cards: Points expire after five years. Five of the six carry no annual fee; again, the exception is Disney's Premier card ($49).
Should You Choose a Cruise Card?If you're a frequent cruiser on any of these six 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 dollar 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, the value of a cruise card is readily trumped by that of 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 might 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 could mean that some of the most expensive awards will simply remain out of reach because you won't be able to earn enough in that time period. If you intend to use your card for all of your day-to-day purchases and pay off the balance each month, you will likely be able to accrue enough points for a free cruise every couple of years. But otherwise, you may not, and those points will go to waste.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.
List of Cruise Line Credit Cards:
Carnival Cruise LinesCredit card: Carnival World MasterCard, issued by Barclays BankEarning points: Cardholders earn two FunPoints for every dollar spent with Carnival and one FunPoint for other charges. You'll receive a signup bonus of 5,000 FunPoints after the first use. There are no maximum earnings, but points expire after five years.Getting rewards: 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 Yachts of Seabourn) or an airline or hotel charge, onboard amenities, gift cards, gift certificates or merchandise. For most rewards, the point value is around 1 cent apiece -- a 1 percent rebate.Fine print: An additional bonus of 5,000 FunPoints is available for balance transfers made within thirty days of opening your account. (Balance transfers each incur a small fee.) 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 LineCredit card: Disney Premier Visa or Disney Rewards Visa, issued by ChaseEarning points: Cardholders earn 2 percent in reward dollars for every dollar spent with Disney or at gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants, and 1 percent for other charges with the Premier card and 1 percent on all purchases with the Rewards card. You'll receive a bonus of a $100 Disney gift card if you charge $500 on the Premier card within the first three months or a $50 Disney gift card after the first use of the Rewards card.Getting rewards: 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 a piece 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. Additional year-round perks are available for all card members, including onboard credit offers and discounts for onboard services and discounts at Disney stores, theme parks and resorts.Fine print: The Rewards card has no annual fee, and the Premier card carries an annual fee of $49. Both cards offer a 0 percent annual percentage rate on charges for the first six months, which will then increase to is 15.24 percent.
Holland America LineCredit card: Holland America Line Rewards Visa, issued by Barclays BankEarning points: Cardholders earn two points for every dollar spent with Holland America and one point for other charges. You'll receive a signup bonus of 5,000 points after the first use.Getting rewards: Points may be redeemed for cruises, cruise discounts, onboard credits, onboard experiences, merchandise and other onboard for-fee amenities. For most awards, the point value is around 1 cent apiece, which amounts to 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 13.99 to 20.99 percent, depending on creditworthiness.
Norwegian Cruise LineCredit card: Norwegian Cruise Line MasterCard, issued by Bank of AmericaEarning points: Cardholders earn two WorldPoints for every dollar spent with Norwegian Cruise Line and one WorldPoint for other charges. You'll receive a signup bonus of 10,000 WorldPoints after the first qualifying purchase.Getting rewards: 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 CruisesCredit card: Princess Cruises Rewards Visa, issued by Barclays BankEarning points: Cardholders earn two Princess Points for every dollar spent with Princess Cruises and 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 rewards: 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 $3,000 cruise discount, for example, costs 200,000 points, yielding a value of 1.5 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 InternationalCredit card: Royal Caribbean Visa Signature, issued by Bank of AmericaEarning points: Cardholders earn two MyCruise Points for every dollar spent with Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara and one MyCruise Point for other charges. You'll receive a signup bonus of 10,000 points after the first transaction. If you charge $3,500 within the first 90 days of membership, you'll receive "buy one, get one free" airfare.Getting rewards: Points can be redeemed for onboard amenities, onboard credits, selected merchandise, charitable donations, discounts against the purchase price of any eligible 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 540,000 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.
Editor's Note: We have a few friends who have lost all of their reward points on cruise line credit cards when the bank/cruise line affiliation was discontinued and the type of card they had ceased to exist. If you do choose a cruise line card, keep in mind that these things sometimes happen with less popular/lucrative credit programs.