(5:30 p.m. EDT) -- Goodbye rumor and conjecture; it's official -- Carnival Cruise Lines has announced its new VIFP (Very Important Fun Person) Loyalty Program. And now Cruise Critic readers who had been worried about losing their prized perks and loyalty status are looking to the cruise line for some 'splaining.
The new program will be introduced on all Carnival ships departing on or after June 25, except on the just-launched Carnival Breeze, where it will be rolled out July 9.
As Cruise Critic reported last week, a leaked document since verified as accurate revealed that the new program expands membership tiers from two (Gold, two cruises, and Platinum, 10) to five (Blue, Red, Gold, Platinum and Diamond); the new levels are determined by days cruised, an industry standard model, rather than number of cruises completed.
Carnival's Most Loyal Cruisers & "Grandfathering"
Most of the program's top tier benefits, previously granted once a member had achieved Platinum after sailing 10 times, are being divided up between the two new upper tiers, Platinum (75-199 cruise days) and Diamond (200-plus days).
For some program members -- but not all -- a grandfather clause offers protection. Past-passengers who have sailed at least 10 times will automatically retain their Platinum status. Furthermore, all Carnival loyalists have until December 31, 2013 to complete 10 cruises and get into the Platinum tier regardless of the number of cruise days/VIFP points they may have accumulated.
But even being grandfathered in to the new Platinum level doesn't mean passengers still have access to the perks they were used to. For instance, guaranteed dining reservations, previously available to Platinum members, is now reserved solely for Diamond members, who will need to have earned at least 200 VIFP points.
What About Passengers in Lower Tiers?
The new program shakes out slightly differently for current Gold members, who've sailed two to nine times with the line.
"Today's Gold members will either be Red [2nd sailing to 24 cruise days] in the new program if they have less than 25 cruise days/VIFP Points or Gold if they have 25 but less than 75 cruise days/VIFP Points," Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen told Cruise Critic.
That leaves many previously Gold-level members in a lower tier with fewer perks. In fact, the only real perk Red-level members have access to is a complimentary alcoholic/specialty beverage at the Punchliner Comedy Brunch, a new feature only available on a few ships. On vessels where the brunch is not available, the complimentary beverage is offered at breakfast or lunch in the main dining room.
The complimentary drink is meant to replace the popular past-passenger party, which was previously available to anyone who had sailed on Carnival at least once.
Why Revamp the Program in the First Place?
In an online Q&A conducted by Carnival's Senior Cruise Director John Heald, Rob Borden, the line's vice president of customer marketing, said the party was eliminated because "the sheer size of the event had made it neither particularly fun nor memorable."
"Moreover, it was proving operationally challenging, often requiring multiple parties on the same sailing," he added.
Similar reasoning was offered by Carnival when explaining many of the other changes made to the loyalty program. The elimination of free unlimited laundry for Platinums was a direct result of the popularity of the loyalty program, Borden said.
"The reality is that we were struggling to keep up with the volume of Platinum laundry on many sailings."
By expanding the number of loyalty tiers, Carnival is again able to control the numbers of passengers with access to various perks -- at least for the time being. (Rival line Royal Caribbean instituted a similar "expansion" in 2011; the changes likewise sparked significant debate.)
"The number of guests at the Platinum level in the VIFP Club will continue to grow year-after-year. That's a great thing, but it does present some capacity challenges from time-to-time," Borden told Heald.
Perhaps that's why the line does not offer bonus points for passengers paying for suites, another sore point for some readers.
Yet vocal Cruise Critic members say it is less about the loss of perks and more about feeling underappreciated that has them upset.
"The worst thing CCL did with demoting current Gold to Red was make newly loyal guests feel devalued," wrote Cruise Critic member Keishashadow on the boards. "The past guest party isn't just about free drinks, but they built sense of loyalty. I lost count of how many times during the party the CD (Cruise Director) addressed the assembled guests as important parts of the Carnival family. Guess I've been dumped."
Keishashadow added she need only take one more cruise to get back to Gold level, but insisted it was the principle of the changes that bothered her.
Another member, Sandpiper10, asked, "How do I tell my girls they have been 'demoted?' They were so proud of their gold cards."
Other members were upset at the sense of being lied to. John Heald, who has become the de facto face and voice of the brand via his popular blog and Facebook page, has been playing up the new program for some time, typically referring to the in-the-works program as "brilliant."
"I am more upset that I feel like we were lied to. Told a brilliant program was in the works, got all excited waiting and waiting some more only to lose," reader Elaine515 wrote in the Carnival Forum. In particular, she cited the loss of the free entry into a slot or blackjack tournament ($20 value), unlimited laundry and guaranteed dining.
Dave85 agreed. "Some of us are more irritated with the way the process went down than anything else," she posted on another thread. "IMHO Carnival was blatantly dishonest about the nature of the changes that would be made to their past guest program and that pisses me off."
Compounding some of the aggravation is the fact that many members are finding their cruise histories have been erased during the transfer to the new program. Affected members are being asked to submit electronic requests to get credit for their previous cruises. (However, Carnival told us the most likely reason this is occurring is because past passengers are enrolling in the new program rather than using their existing past guest number to activate their new profile.)
Still, for every Carnival stalwart who was irked by the changes, there was one who responded with little more than a shrug.
"I think the new loyalty program is as weak as ever," Cruisenanny wrote. "It is a shame after all the hype, promise and delay, for sure, but it certainly will not keep me from cruising CCL if the itinerary, ship and embarkation port and price are right."
Auntdodaa shared a similar sentiment. "I really don't understand all the fussing and stressing over the new VIFP program. I do not cruise so that I can reach a certain level. I cruise because I love cruising."
Now it's your turn: What do you think of the new program? And for the experienced cruisers, tell us, which line has the best loyalty scheme. Join the conversation on the Carnival Forum or let us know below.
--by Dori Saltzman, News Editor