Onboard Credit – What it is and how to get it

Onboard credit is one of those mythical things that new cruisers hear about, but they can never quite grasp how to obtain it. This post is to help solve some of the mystery!

Although cruises are marketed as ‘all-inclusive’, the truth is that there are additional charges onboard. You can see a list of such potential costs in last week’s blog post.

Other than gratuities (which are ‘practically mandatory’) these charges are optional, but they can add up in a hurry. Any charges made go to your ‘onboard account’, which is a running bill maintained by the cruise line, similar to the manner in which a hotel will keep a list of ongoing charges made to your room. Before you board the cruise, you will have to provide a form of payment (usually a credit card, although cash deposits are allowed) for this account.

If you don’t keep an eye on this account, it is easy to be surprised with a large bill at the end of your cruise. Even if you do keep an eye on things, you’ll be surprised how much a few drinks here or there, a photo, a shore excursion, daily gratuities, etc. can quickly add up. One way to alleviate the pain of this onboard account is through the use of onboard credit.

Onboard credit is the term used for money that has been allocated to your account, to be applied against onboard purchases. Such credit can come from many different sources (discussed below) but the short of it is that it will reduce the cost to you when you disembark your cruise. If you have $100 in onboard credit, that is $100 of ‘free spending money’ onboard the ship.

There are many ways to earn onboard credit, with varying degrees of ease. Some of the more popular sources are:

  • Future Cruise Deposit – When you are on a cruise, you will notice that you are strongly encouraged to book your next cruise while still onboard. One of the incentives used to convince you is the offer of onboard credit on that future cruise. On many cruise lines, you do not even have to pick out a specific cruise. Some cruise lines will allow you to make an ‘open booking’ for a minimal amount of money ($100 or $200 per person) and then you can use that open booking to make a deposit on any cruise you would like, within the next few years.
  • Shareholder Cruise Credit – If you take a cruise on a line owned by Carnival Cruise Lines (Carnival, Princess, Holland America, and Cunard, among others) or Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines (Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Azamara) and you own at least 100 shares of the parent company, you can apply for a shareholder onboard credit. The amount can vary from $25 to over $250 per cabin, depending on the length of the cruise. Only one shareholder has to be in a cabin for this onboard credit to apply. Note that if you have 2 cabins, each cabin must house a shareholder, and each shareholder must separately own 100 shares (and if it is a marital joint account, the total must be 200 shares: 100 per person) in order to get the shareholder onboard credit for both cabins.
  • Promotional Cruise Credit – Often cruise lines will offer a promotional onboard credit as part of a sale, and you can receive this credit when you book.
  • Military Cruise Credit – Most cruise lines offer special onboard credit to active and retired/veteran military. Sometimes a similar credit is also offered for plice and firefights.
  • Cruise Line Credit Cards Bonuses – Many cruise lines offer affinity credit cards that allow you to earn points. These points can be traded in for onboard credit. For example, we have a Princess cruises credit card that earns points, and when we are going on a Princess cruise we cash in those points for onboard credit. If you are taking a Disney cruise, booking the cruise on a Disney credit card automatically gives you an onboard credit. In addition, any Disney reward dollars you earn on the card can be redeemed and applied toward your cruise fare or onboard account.
  • Travel Agent Promotions – Many travel agents will offer bonus onboard credit, as a way of encouraging you to book through them, rather than directly with the cruise line.
  • Cruise Line Loyalty Programs – Cruise lines all offer ‘past passenger’ perks, similar to a frequent flier program on an airline. Some of these programs offer additional onboard credit once you have reached a certain number of cruises.

There are other ways to obtain onboard credit, but these are definitely the most common ways it is obtained.

One major caveat is to be sure you can spend all of your onboard credit. While it may seem like a high quality problem, many frequent cruisers accumulate a lot of onboard credit and find they are unable to use it all while onboard. Some onboard credit (usually the credit obtained through travel agent promotions) is considered ‘refundable’, meaning that if you do not use it all, the cruise line will actually refund your credit card at the end of the cruise. However most onboard credit is non-refundable, which means ‘use it or lose it’. Fortunately onboard credit can be applied toward gratuities, which is likely your biggest onboard expense. Ideally, I like to step off a cruise having used all of my onboard credit, and having an ending bill of less than $20. This is certainly a good goal for which to aim!

Another thing to note is that not all onboard credit ‘stacks’. Some cruise lines will allow you to have onboard credit from multiple sources, while others will restrict which types of credit can be combined. If you have multiple sources of onboard credit, make sure you speak with the cruise line and determine which credits can be combined. You don’t want to count on having onboard credit, only to find out that once source eliminates another!

One thing is for certain, no matter how much onboard credit you have, you will certainly enjoy spending it!