Free money to spend on your cruise on almost anything you want, just for booking a cruise you were already planning on taking? Yes, please. Shipboard credit -- also known as onboard credit or OBC -- is one of the most exciting perks a cruiser can receive. Who doesn't want to be given a few bucks to spend on extra-fee dining or drinks? But unless you're staying in a suite, most cruisers only receive somewhere between $25 and $100 in shipboard credit, with the vast majority getting $50. That might not sound like a lot, but if you do a little research before you cruise, you can make that $50 go farther than you think.
Whether you're interested in dining, drinking, the spa or something else entirely, here are some recommendations of the best ways to spend that $50 onboard.
Want to get to more than one specialty restaurant with your $50 shipboard credit? On Royal Caribbean and Celebrity ships, you can pay less for dinner if you dine on embarkation day, leaving you with enough money to pay for at least part of a second night's dinner. Another option is to do lunch at a specialty restaurant that typically costs more for dinner. Two restaurants at which this is an option are Jamie's Italian and Giovanni's Table, both found on select Royal Caribbean ships. Lunch at Jamie's is $20 per person (a $5 per person savings); the savings are even greater at Giovanni's where lunch is a mere $10 per person, compared to $25 pp for dinner.
Casual a la carte eateries are also a good choice for making the most of your $50 ship credit if you want to use it for specialty dining. You can make a full meal of smaller items from places like Bonsai Sushi (on select Carnival ships) or Johnny Rockets and Sabor (on select Royal Caribbean ships). Another option is to spend the money in a bar where you get a drink and food for the price of just your drink. On select Princess ships, the Vines wine bar offers sushi and tapas with any wine purchase.
Finding ways to get drinks for less is a holy grail mission for many cruisers. If you're going to use your $50 OBC on drinks, you'll want to take advantage of money-saving offers. Cocktail lovers should look for drink of the day specials, while beer fans should take advantage of buckets, which cost less than ordering one bottle at a time. Princess doesn't have a bucket per se, but does have a five-for-four beer package priced from $22 to $27, depending on which brand you want. If you want to try a specialty restaurant and get a bottle of wine, head to Carnival's steakhouse on the first night of your cruise as you'll get a free bottle of wine with dinner. (Dinner is $35 per person, so it'll cost you a tad more than your OBC.)
Fifty dollars will get you one specialty coffee each day (or two depending on your java of choice) on every cruise ship out there. But on Princess you can get two drinks a day for a weeklong sailing and still have some of your shipboard credit left over. How? Purchase the line's coffee card, and for just under $37, you get 15 espresso-based hot or cold coffee drinks with unlimited brewed coffee and premium teas for the duration of your sailing. Disney Cruise Line also offers a way to save with its frequent buyer coffee card; for every five specialty coffees you buy, the sixth is free.
Truth be told, you can't do much at the spa beyond hair and nail salon services for $50, but if you've got your heart set on visiting the spa and want to stretch your OBC, wait for a port day to make your appointment. Just about every cruise line offers port day specials or packages that can save you money or get you three or four mini-treatments for the price of one full treatment. If you prefer the fitness side of the spa, consider using your onboard credit for yoga, Pilates, spin or boot camp classes; $50 will get you through about half a week if you go every day.
There are lots of shopping opportunities on cruise ships, but if you want to make your $50 go farther, shop in the "everything for less than $10" areas of the onboard stores (if available) and keep your eyes open for special sales. Common promotions are the $10 and BOGO sales; they're best for items like scarves, clutches and costume jewelry. Another option is to look for a cruise line or cruise ship-branded item to take home as a souvenir. A printed photo of you and your travel party in your formal night finest also makes a nice souvenir; you can usually get two for about $50.
Half a C-note can go a long way if you want to use your shipboard credit for spending time with the family, whether you use it up in the arcade playing Skee-Ball, pinball or video games, or splurge on something unusual like the Thrill Theater 4D cinema on select Carnival ships. Alternatively, you could ditch the kids for a night (or two) and use the money to pay for cruise line babysitting so you can have some adult time.
If you embrace the "gotta be in it to win it" way of life, you might want to spend your $50 OBC on a bingo package or in the casino (where permitted). There are no guarantees you'll win anything, but if you can make your $50 last at a table game in the casino you could end up getting a drink for free.
As with the spa, $50 ship credit won't get you too far when it comes to buying shore excursions, but every cruise line does typically offer at least one excursion under $50 in most ports. Examples include Norwegian Cruise Line's three-hour Marseille walking tour for $49 or four-hour island beach break in the British Virgin Islands for $39; Carnival's 2.5-hour Ardastra Gardens and city tour of Nassau, the Bahamas, for $49.99; and Celebrity's 3.5-hour coast-to-coast scenic drive out of Bridgetown, Barbados for $42. If you've got a little extra money, we do recommend putting the shipboard credit toward the excursion you want rather than settle for one you might not enjoy as much. A second option would be to use the money on a cruise line-sponsored shuttle (only available in select ports, typically in Europe) and then explore on your own.