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.
How to Get It
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 and offering 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, but the amount can range greatly depending on the particular offer and type of cabin booked. For a luxury line, onboard credit offers can extend to the $700- or $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.
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.
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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.
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.
Spreading the good word isn't a thankless endeavor. Many 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. Princess Cruises allows you to accrue up to five $25 referral credits -- totaling $125 per person or $250 per cabin -- for each cruise. Windstar offers $100 in onboard credit to you and the friend you refer.
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.
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.
If you're an active or retired member of the military, you could be entitled to onboard credit on your next cruise. Although most cruise lines offer discounted fares for servicemen and women, a few offer actual shipboard spending credit. The most notable is Princess, which offers $50 per person for sailings of six nights or fewer, $100 for voyages of seven to 13 days and $250 on sailings of two weeks or longer for qualifying passengers from the U.S. and Canada. Amounts can vary by cruise line and country, so be sure to check when you book. Requests to receive this type of OBC must usually be submitted at least a week or two prior to sailing.
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, $100 on cruises six to 13 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.
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.
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.
Specialty restaurants offer an alternative to the standard main dining room and buffet options included in cruise fares. On most mainstream ships, these alternative eateries come with a price tag -- either a flat cover charge or a la carte fees for each item purchased. Whether you're celebrating a special occasion or just want to switch up your routine, onboard credit is a great way to cover or offset the cost.
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.
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 a couple of 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.
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.
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 might apply to any purchases made there. This includes the reservation of a private cabana.
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.
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.
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 a pina colada in hand.
What could be better than 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, you could easily double your OBC with the help of Lady Luck, or you could lose it all. (But at least you had fun, right?)
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.