A cruise can offer great value when you weigh in all that's included in your cruise fare -- particularly on Carnival Cruise Line, which offers some of the lowest pricing in the industry, particularly on short three- to four-night cruises to the Bahamas and Caribbean.
But as with any cruise line that isn't all-inclusive (and even on those not everything is included), on a Carnival cruise you will still have to pay extra for certain goods and services, including specialty dining venues, drinks, shore excursions, spa visits, retail purchases, and gratuities, to name a few.
That's where three simple but almighty letters can go a long way: OBC, or onboard cruise credit. Essentially free money that's deposited directly into your Carnival Sail & Sign account, an onboard credit can enhance your cruise experience by allowing you to splurge a little bit more onboard, without having to watch your wallet.
So how do you get onboard credit with Carnival? And better yet, where how can you spend it?
There are several ways to get onboard credit, and they all fall into two basic categories: the ones you can control (to a certain extent) and the ones you can't.
For the first category, start by perusing Carnival's sales. You'll usually find these front-and-center on the homepage of the cruise line's website. Special timed-deals and sales often include perks like reduced deposits and free room upgrades, but be on the lookout for the ones that include OBC, usually with the message "Up to $XX onboard credit." Typically, the amount of onboard credit you'll get is tied to the kind of stateroom you book: inside cabins might get $25 or $50, while balconies or suites can run a decent amount, depending on the promotion.
Also, be sure to subscribe to Carnival's VIFP past-passenger club. Not only will this keep you informed of the cruise line's latest deals and promotions, but you also get an instant bonus onboard credit just for signing up.
You can also search Cruise Critic's Deals page to snag the best offers available. Whether you work with an individual travel agent or a large online agency, onboard credit is a standard promotional bonus common in the industry. And 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.
Once onboard, cruise lines will do anything they can to entice you to book again, designating sales desks with personnel available to pitch offers. Carnival is no exception; their Future Cruise Vacation Program offers a series of perks and discounts, including onboard credit. Additionally, their Welcome Home program allows you to book these same offers within four weeks after you return from your cruise. The value of the OBC varies depending on the length of the cruise and the stateroom you book, but can range from $25 to $100 per stateroom.
Another sure-fire way to earn those precious credits is by investing in the company, a common perk among major cruise lines. At Carnival, you're entitled to $50 OBC on cruises of 6 days or less, $100 on cruises of 7-13 days and $250 on longer if you own a minimum of 100 shares.
What you do for a living can also snag you some OBC. Carnival often gives members of the US or Canadian armed forces special promotions that may include onboard credit. Active and retired military members are always eligible for reduced rates, but OBC isn't included in this permanent deal; you'll have to be on the lookout for time-limited promotions in order to snag the credit.
Sometimes, however, you can end up with an onboard credit in more indirect ways.
Carnival's "Lowest Price Guarantee" affirms that if you find a better Carnival-advertised deal within two days of booking your cruise, they will give you 110% of the difference between the two fares in onboard credit. Sure, that means you'll have to monitor their deals for 48 hours, but it'll be worth it if you strike OBC gold.
Similarly, if Carnival is forced to cancel or modify an itinerary for whatever reason, they will typically offer passengers a few options. You can request a full refund, but you'll usually have the choice to receive future cruise credit for the value of the cancelled cruise (or more, depending on the circumstances) and on top of that, you may be offered extra OBC to entice you to sail again.
Finally, if you had a cruise postponed due to the global health pandemic, chances are good that you, too, have some OBC waiting in the wings as part of your cruise line's compensation package.
If you're wondering where to spend your onboard credit on a Carnival cruise, the good news is that you can use it on pretty much whatever floats your boat. But, if you need some inspiration, here are some of the most popular goods and services to spend your onboard credits on a Carnival cruise:
Perhaps the most common out-of-pocket expense for many cruisers are the shore excursions offered by the cruise line in ports of call. Naturally, you always have the option to venture off on your own and forego Carnival's tours. But if you have the OBC to spare, it may be worth considering using it on one of the shore excursions offered by the line.
Note, however, that in order to use your onboard credits to pay (or partially pay) for a shore excursion, you can only book them once onboard, at the Shore Excursion Desk, and not online before boarding the ship. This may mean that you could risk missing out on some of the most popular tours if they're fully booked by the time you embark.
Onboard Specialty Restaurants
Any restaurant onboard that's not included in your cruise fare is a specialty restaurant that will charge a nominal fee. And Carnival ships offer a wide variety of these, including Emeril's Bistro 1396, Guy's Pig & Anchor Smokehouse, Rudi's Seagrill, Chef's Table, Carnival Kitchen, Bonsai Teppanyaki, Cucina del Capitano, Jiji Asian Kitchen, Seafood Shack, Steakhouse, Bonsai Sushi, the special Green Eggs and Ham Breakfast and Chibang! Premium eateries also include some cafes and bars like Coffee Bar, JavaBlue Café and the RedFrog Pub.
As is the case with shore excursions, if you plan on using your OBC to enjoy specialty restaurants, be aware that you can only make reservations once you're on board the ship. That means there's always the chance that your restaurant of choice might fill up by that time, so try to book your reservations as soon as you can.
Gratuities to the shipboard staff are customary on Carnival as well as other cruise lines, and you can cover these using your OBC. If you plan to use onboard credit to pay for these gratuities, be sure not to pre-pay them at the time of booking -- your onboard credit could take care of the rest.
As with most major cruise lines, Carnival offers beverage packages or the option to pay for individual drinks, and you can use your OBC to pay for both choices. Carnival offers two beverage packages: Bottomless Bubbles, which entitles you to unlimited soda for the duration of your cruise; or the Cheers! beverage program, which includes non-alcoholic beverages as well as beer, spirits and wine by the glass.
The one drawback to using your OBC to purchase your Cheers! drink package is that you can only do so once you've boarded the ship instead of before. That means that the package will cost more: typically, Carnival offers a discount if you purchase your beverage package online.
Even if you only have a $25 OBC, that's still two nice martinis on the house!
Opinions are usually divided when it comes to using internet onboard a ship (did you come to disconnect, or will you be glued to the outside world?). If you must have the comfort of an internet-ready device, Carnival offers several connectivity plans that can be paid with OBC once onboard.
A cruise can seem like the perfect place to unwind and splurge in the spa. An OBC can really take the sting out of a day pass to the Cloud 9 Spa Thermal Suite, or treatments booked a la carte, especially on port days, when some spa treatments and packages are already offered at a discount.
If you prefer retail therapy to spa therapy, your onboard credit can be your ticket to paradise. The stores and boutiques on board sell a wide range of merchandise ranging from tchotchkes and souvenirs to jewelry and electronics. And purchases made at sea are tax-free, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they'll be less expensive than what you find ashore. But, you may find a unique, must-have item or find yourself needing to buy toiletries you forgot to pack, and your OBC can really come in handy.
If you enjoy courting Lady Luck, you'll be glad to know that OBC can be used in the onboard casino. However, there is a caveat: you'll only be able to cash out your winnings. Any amount of OBC that you didn't use to gamble or spin the slots, stays in your account as onboard credit. And, of course, whatever amount of OBC you lose gambling is gone.
The choice is yours when deciding how to spend your OBC, but do keep one thing in mind: It's use it or lose it. You won't have the option to carry over any remaining cruise credit, even if you sail again at a later date on another Carnival Cruise. And you will not be able to exchange any remaining credit for cash, either. So, enjoy another cocktail, purchase that additional souvenir, or book one more spa treatment before you disembark. Don't let the rest of your OBC sail away without you!
Updated August 11, 2022