1. Home
  2. Planning
  3. Cruise Tips and Advice
  4. Onboard Credit: How to Get It, Where to Spend It
Onboard Credit: How to Get It, Where to Spend It (Photo: Cruise Critic)

Onboard Credit: How to Get It, Where to Spend It

Free. Money. Are there two more beautiful words in the English language? While money doesn't grow on trees, increasingly it can be found somewhere else -- on the high seas. Call it an incentive, call it a bonus; whatever you want to call it, onboard credit lets you spend more freely with less guilt. You've paid your cruise fare, and now you can splurge on those enticing extras -- Swedish massage, specialty restaurant, an excursion to snorkel among shipwrecks -- without busting your budget.

Not many need convincing as to why onboard credit -- money automatically deposited into your onboard account-- rocks, but finding out exactly how to get it and where you can spend it is a bit trickier. We found eight ways to hit the OBC jackpot and offer even more suggestions on how to burn through it, although you probably have your own ideas already.

Updated June 19, 2018

How to Get It

Value-added Deals

If you've subscribed to the email list of any major cruise line, you have undoubtedly received colorful promotions encouraging you to book your next cruise, with a number of incentives. These periodic promotions, which are usually the same ones you can find on the homepage of the cruise line's website, almost always include some form of onboard credit.

You can receive OBC just for booking by a specified deadline. The lowest average we've seen is $25 per cabin, for an inside cabin ($50, per cabin, for an ocean-view cabin), but the amount can range greatly. For a luxury line, onboard credit offers can extend to the $700 to $800 per-cabin range, and beyond -- we've seen deals include as much as $1,000. Pay attention to whether the credit varies by cabin class and whether it's a per-person amount or per cabin. Amounts are often staggered by cabin category.

Booking With Travel Agencies

Whether you work with an individual travel agent or a large online agency, onboard credit is a booking bonus common in the industry. Most third-party sites offer an average of $100 per cabin as a booking bonus, but again, this varies. The larger the agency, the deeper their pockets when it comes to onboard credit. Loyalty is noticed; if you've worked with the same travel agent for every cruise, your OBC amount is likely to build over time.

Finding a Cruise Travel Agent

Future Cruise Sales on Celebrity Eclipse

Booking a Future Cruise While on a Cruise

While they have you onboard, cruise lines will do what they can to ensure you'll sail with them again. To lure cruisers who are on the fence, many lines have designated sales desks onboard their ships, with personnel available to offer you something to make a future cruise worth your while. Many vouch that this is the ultimate way to rack up onboard credit for that next sailing. Celebrity Cruises offers up to $500 per cabin when you book your next cruise onboard. You can also earn up to $500 with Norwegian's CruiseNext program, when you make multiple deposits on future cruises.

Booking a Cruise Onboard: How to Score Extras and Discounts

Loyalty Program Offers

Loyalty is key to cruise lines. While first-timers are a booming market, return cruisers are more than just bodies on a ship; they're brand ambassadors. From a business perspective, treating your loyal passengers well yields return on investment. That's why onboard credit is one of the frequent rewards for continued patronage. The more you sail, the more perks you'll likely be awarded. For example, Oceania has a tiered loyalty program, maxing out at $1,000 OBC per cabin, for its most loyal cruisers (Diamond level). Crystal Cruises also includes onboard credit as one of its loyalty perks, offering up to $600 per cabin depending on the category.

Cruise Line Loyalty Programs

Referrals

Spreading the good word isn't a thankless endeavor. Most cruise lines offer referral bonuses for new cruises booked by first-timers. So don't just book that amazing cruise deal yourself; get your skeptical friends to do the same, and use their bookings to your OBC advantage. The amount tends to be $25 per every referred cabin booked; this is the case onboard Royal Caribbean. Princess Cruises allows you to accrue up to five $25 referral credits -- totaling $125 per person or $250 per cabin -- for each cruise.

Credit Cards

Some cruise line credit cards (but not all) allow you to turn your accrued points into onboard credit, turning cash spent into cash made on your next cruise vacation. The return on investment is relatively low with this method. Royal Caribbean's card requires 10,000 points (or $10,000, one point for every dollar) to equal just $100 in onboard credit.

Editor's Note: Some credit cards are only available to North American residents.

Is a Cruise Line Credit Card for You?

Price Drops

You've booked and paid for your cruise, but you're still in the window of opportunity for the upgrade fairy to come knocking. If you notice that your cruise fare has dropped, many times the line will make up the difference through an onboard credit offer (within the 90-day window). This form of OBC is money back, rather than money gifted, but it still beats paying a higher cruise fare with nothing in return.

Monitor Cruise Fare Reductions with Cruise Critic's Price Drop Tool

Become a Shareholder

If you love your cruise company enough to invest money in the brand, most major cruise lines offer a shareholder benefit in the form of onboard credit. Carnival Corporation (which includes Carnival, Princess, Holland America, Seabourn, Cunard, Costa, Aida and P&O) offers up to $250 per cabin for cruises 14 days or longer, $100 for sailings of seven to 13 days and $50 per cabin for sailings six days or less. Other major cruise line companies offer similar benefits. Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (Royal, Celebrity, Azamara, TUI and Pullmantur) offers $250 per cabin for cruises of 14 nights or longer, $200 per cabin for cruises 10 to 13 nights, $100 on cruises six to nine nights, and $50 for cruises less than five nights. Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (Norwegian, Oceania and Regent) offers $250 per cabin on cruises of 15 nights or longer, $100 per cabin for cruises seven to 14 nights, and $50 per cabin for cruises of six nights or less. Check the fine print to make sure you're eligible (sometimes there are minimum share requirements) and redeem your benefit by contacting the line at least two weeks prior to your sail date.

When Something Goes Wrong

It's not the best way to earn credit, but if something goes wrong on your cruise -- ship is stranded, misses port calls, experiences a significant malfunction, or you're just generally not pleased with the service -- one of the ways you may be compensated is through a future credit offer. The amount will vary depending on the situation.

Solving Cruise Problems: Onboard

Where to Spend It

Think of your onboard credit as virtual cash, as there are very few places onboard where you can't spend it (although these do vary by cruise line). It's always a safe bet to check the fine print or ask a cruise line representative about any OBC restrictions prior to that shopping spree. Here are the ways this credit might come in handy.

Shore Excursions

A pricey but significant part of many cruisers' experiences in port is shore excursions. While it might blow your credit out of the water, applying OBC to an excursion offers a free or discounted way to embark on a special shore experience.

Shore Excursion Reviews

Specialty Restaurants

Many of us don't have the time or money to indulge in a little bit of me-time on a regular basis, but isn't that what a cruise is for? Onboard credit in the spa usually applies to anything on their treatment menu, and that list could be a long one. So wrap yourself in seaweed, paint your nails purple, or get a trim and a hot shave for formal night. OBC means you don't need deep pockets to pamper yourself.

15 Best Cruise Ship Alternative Restaurants

Spa Treatments

Many of us don't have the time or money to indulge in a little bit of me-time on a regular basis, but isn't that what a cruise is for? Onboard credit in the spa usually applies to anything on their treatment menu, and that list could be a long one. So wrap yourself in seaweed, paint your nails purple, or get a trim and a hot shave for formal night. OBC means you don't need deep pockets to pamper yourself.

6 Best Cruise Ship Spas

Royal Caribbean Royal Promenade drinks

Drinks

Unless you're cruising with a river or luxury line, alcoholic beverages are rarely found free of charge (not counting the Champagne during art auctions, of course). Sure, alcohol packages shave spending off your libations, but if you only need a couple of beers or one or two premium cocktails, using OBC is a better way to drink for free (and who doesn't love that?). Trying that cucumber-gin concoction or settling for an entire flight of rum will require fewer apologies to your wallet if you know that money is just the garnish atop your onboard account.

30 Best Cruise Ship Bars

A la Carte Items

Sure there are still plenty of complimentary offerings onboard, but it's always what's not included that calls to us: Sometimes frozen yogurt just isn't as sweet as the gourmet gelato. The availability of unique treats at sea -- a Starbucks latte or cupcakes the size of your head -- is fun but fraught with added fees. Instead of feeling that dreaded nickeled-and-dimed sensation, use OBC as an excuse to forego regular for specialty coffees, or the buffet for Ben & Jerry's.

The 10 Hidden Costs of Cruising

Private Islands

Just because you're on land, doesn't mean your OBC is null and void. If you're making a port call to your cruise line's private island -- for example, Labadee or Cococay with Royal Caribbean -- then your onboard account applies to any purchases made there. This includes the reservation of a private cabana.

6 Cruise Line Private Islands

Souvenirs

Like a gift card, OBC is applicable to most onboard purchases, from a commemorative model ship to that toothbrush you managed to forget. Designer stores are making an appearance at sea, thanks to more brand partnerships. Why wait to buy the iPod or Coach bag you've always wanted? Buy them in the middle of the ocean, and make the purchase memorable.

11 Best (and Worst) Cruise Souvenirs

Professional Photos

A long-held cruise tradition, formal night portraits are a staple in the gallery of every cruising family's home. If you've ever forked over for a family portrait on land, you know the endeavor isn't cheap. Onboard credit can be used to turn the onboard photographer into your own personal paparazzi, immortalizing your airbrushed physique for generations to come.

What to Expect on a Cruise: Photography on Cruise Ships

Cellphone being used at sea

Internet Packages

Some long to be out of touch on vacation, and some are terrified by the idea. If you find the need to connect, internet at sea has long been an expensive and rather difficult undertaking. As speed and bandwidth continue to improve, pricing remains a challenge. Use your nifty onboard credit to share photos of you with pina colada in hand.

What to Expect: Internet Onboard

Casino Play

What could be better than gambling with your own money? Gambling with someone else's money! On some lines, casinos are off-limits when it comes to onboard credit, so check if your line allows it before you hit the slots. That said, the casino could easily double your OBC with the help of Lady Luck -- or lose it all, but at least you had fun, right?

What to Expect on a Cruise: Cruise Ship Casinos

Gratuities

Cruisers must also budget for gratuities, unless they booked an offer that has the service charge already prepaid. Again, using onboard credit for tips isn't allowed on all lines; check before the start of your cruise so you can plan accordingly.

The Ultimate Guide to Cruise Ship Tipping

Find a Cruise

Popular on Cruise Critic

6 Cruise Ship Cabins to Avoid
You might expect loud noises, close quarters and crazy maneuvers in the dance club onboard your cruise ship -- but not in your cabin. Even if you don't plan to spend much time there, it should be a restful and private place so you can maintain that much-needed vacation stamina. To help you do so, we've compiled a list of cabins you'll want to avoid booking if closet-like dimensions or scraping chair sounds overhead aren't appealing to you. Heed our advice, and you might be feeling a bit less claustrophobic and a tad more refreshed come disembarkation.
6 Best Adults-Only Cruise Sun Decks
Cruise ship sun decks offer all the convenience of loungers, hot tubs and beverage service -- and all the headaches of screaming children, rock concerts on poolside screens and live bands playing "Hot Hot Hot" for the 20th time. Adults-only sun decks offer all the former in a much more serene environment. We have nothing against kids, but even on the most family-friendly cruise ships, an area explicitly excluding children gives parents a valuable hour or two of "me time," while maintaining the sanity of fellow cruisers who came on vacation for peace, quiet and minimal crying. Adults-only sun decks come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Many have amenities not available in the main deck areas and nicer loungers or sun beds; some also require an entry fee. We have not included adults-only solariums that are strictly covered pools. If the only "whining" you want comes with dining, then consider the following six sun decks that maintain a strict adults-only ambiance.
Cruise Packing 101
There once was a not-so-savvy seafarer who didn't feel right unless she took two steamer trunks crammed with outfits on every cruise. This, she learned, was not a good idea. Besides incurring the wrath of her male traveling companion, who pointed out that he would have to wrestle with excess baggage through airport terminals and beyond, she quickly tired of cramming her belongings into tiny closets and bureaus. The now savvy seafarer follows her own packing 101 rule: Thou shalt put into one's suitcase only that which will fit neatly in the allocated storage space without hogging every available nook and cranny for thyself. Following that advice is getting easier these days because, for the most part, cruising has become a much more casual vacation -- even on luxury and traditional lines. Plus, with airlines charging to check bags and imposing extra fees for overweight luggage), it's just plain economical to pack light. To do so, you need to have a good sense of what you’re going to wear on a cruise so you don't pack your entire closet. If you're wondering what to bring on your next cruise, here are our guidelines for what you'll need to pack.