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!

What Additional Costs Will I Incur on My Cruise?

Cruises are often marketed as an ‘all-inclusive’ vacation, implying that once you pay your fare and board the ship, there are no further costs. This is not completely true, as I will describe in this post. With an increasing supply of cruise ship berths, cruise lines have an incentive to keep prices down, to attract more customers to their proffered vacations. A cruise today costs roughly what it did 20 to 30 years ago, despite the fact that all of the component elements, most especially fuel, have risen significantly during that time.

So how do cruise ships make up this difference? By charging more for ‘a la carte’ items onboard. Here is a guide as to what is included on a cruise, and what is not.

Included:

  • Stateroom with service. Your cruise fare pays for your room, as well as a steward and assistant(s) to clean it, provide fresh linens, and offer a turndown service.
  • Most meals. This includes 2 to 3 meals a day in the main dining room(s), a (usually 24 hour) buffet, as well as other casual eateries. Most cruise ships at least offer a pizza stand and a grill (hot dogs, hamburgers, veggie burgers, chicken sandwiches) as part of cruise fare. It is also common to have some kind of sandwich/panini shop included as well. You can easily eat entirely from these included venues for your entire cruise.
  • Limited beverages. Water, coffee, hot and iced tea, and milk are generally included in the cruise fare, with juices being provided at breakfast time. Sometimes another soft, non-carbonated beverage, such as lemonade or fruit punch, is offered as well. Disney Cruise line is unique amongst ‘mass market’ cruise lines in providing sodas as part of cruise fare, along with these other choices.
  • Most entertainment and activities. During the day and night, cruises offer an array of activities, and the vast majority of these are included as part of the cruise fare. Nightly shows are offered, which can be Broadway-style productions, comedians, magicians, singers, musicians, hypnotists, jugglers or acrobats. During the day, game shows, trivia, card games (bridge, mahjong, etc.), pool games and crafts are scheduled. Live music is provided all over the ship, and in many venues you can dance to live music as well, or simply ‘shake your booty’ at the disco with a DJ. Some ships provide karaoke, rock climbing, ice skating, or other forms of entertainment included in your cruise fare.
  • Fitness center, pools and hot tubs. There will be a fitness center with workout equipment and weights, pools and hot tubs available for use.
  • Transportation from port to port. The cruise ship will take you from port to port, along your itinerary.

Not Included:

  • Gratuities. It is expected that you will provide gratuities (pay tips) to your stateroom and dining personnel. All mainstream cruise lines now charge an automatic fee, calculated as a set amount (usually $10 to $12 per person per day). Sometimes you are required to pay this fee up front, when you pay for the cruise, and other times it is added per day to your stateroom account. Although these fees are termed ‘gratuities’, and technically they can be removed, it is considered very poor form to do so (just as leaving no tip in a land-based restaurant would be considered very bad form). This may well be the largest charge you pay to the cruise line, after cruise fare.
  • Alcoholic (and some non-alcoholic) beverages. Mainstream cruise lines charge for alcoholic beverages, and (with some exception on Disney Cruise Line) for sodas as well. Bottled water, premium juices (such as fresh-squeezed orange juice) and specialty coffees are often also available for an additional fee, which is usually quite high, and much more than you would pay on land for the same beverage. Prices are similar to buying drinks at a fancy restaurant, an airport lounge, a large theme park, or a sports stadium. Some cruise lines offer ‘beverage packages’, which may, or may not, save you money, if you plan to drink a lot of these ‘additional fee’ drinks.
  • Shore excursions. When the ship docks in port and allows you to walk onshore, it has provided the service it promised. However, if you are willing to pay an additional cost, the cruise line can arrange to have you take on tours in each port, to explore the local sites and attractions. It is not mandatory to take a cruise-line-sponsored excursion; many people simply prefer to walk about on their own, or arrange private tours. This topic will be covered in a future blog post.
  • Photographs. Cruise ship photographers are ubiquitous, particularly on formal nights, when passengers are encouraged to dress up for dinner and the evening activities. Said photographs are not cheap, and usually begin at $20 per picture.
  • Fitness classes and a few other activities. While most activities and entertainment are included in the cruise fare, fitness classes usually incur an extra charge. You can work out for no additional fee, but working out with an instructor, either privately or in a group session, will cost you. Occasionally, there may also be other activities that come with a small charge, such as computer courses or pottery classes.
  • Specialty dining. All cruise ships have at least one ‘specialty dining’ venue that comes with an extra fee, and some cruise ships have many such venues. While many of these eateries are considered ‘high class’ cuisine (French or Italian restaurants, steakhouses, seafood restaurants, creperies, etc.) there are also more casual specialty venues, such as Johnny Rockets burger restaurants or ice cream/gelato parlors. Food at such venues is generally of higher quality, and provided with a higher level of service, hence the additional fee.
  • Spa and salon services. Next to the fitness center you will invariably find the spa, where beauty treatments from haircuts and manicures to massages and facials can be obtained for an additional cost. Generally, spa prices are about 50% more than you would pay on land for similar services.
  • Casino. Other than Disney Cruise Line, cruise ships have casinos. Odds highly favor the house and slots are usually quite ‘tight’.
  • Shopping. Anything you buy in the stores onboard a cruise ship will incur an extra charge.

Other than gratuities, all of these are optional charges, and it is certainly possible to have a wonderful cruise without paying for any of these additional things. Many people eschew the casino, shopping, and photographs, arrange their own shore excursions, bring on their own alcoholic/soft drinks, and only eat at the included dining venues, and still have a wonderful cruise. It is your choice as to how you spend your money. I only want you to be aware of these extra fees, so that you are not surprised once you are onboard, and you are able to budget for such extras in advance.

Naturally, all of these things can lead up to a rather large onboard account (bill) at the end of your cruise. One way to alleviate this nasty surprise is to accumulate onboard credit, which will be the topic of next week’s blog.

What Impacts the Cost of a Cruise?

Like other forms of vacations, the price of a cruise can vary significantly, depending on a number of factors. One of the most important factors in determining the cruise cost is location: the port(s) from which the cruise embarks and disembarks, and the ports in between. Supplies and fuel can vary in cost throughout the world, and such costs are passed along to the traveler, one way or the other. Cruise lines spend an enormous amount on fuel every year, and even a small price variation can make a big difference to their bottom line. Food costs can have similar variations, but with the added complication that a cruise line must ensure that food is of a certain quality, so as to taste good and not make passengers ill. As such, food cannot be purchased anywhere, but only at certain locations, and from certain vendors, approved by the cruise line. Generally, cruises that depart from the US and/or the Caribbean tend to be the least expensive in this regard. Cruises in Europe are more expensive, with northern Europe being more costly than the Mediterranean. Asian and specialty cruises can be even more expensive, however South American cruises are often a bit cheaper.

Another issue with location related to docking and port fees. The cruise line absorbs (and likely passes on through the cruise fare) the docking fees charged by various ports. However the port fees are charged on a per passenger basis, and as such the passengers will pay them directly, as an additional ‘tax’ on top of the cruise fare. Sometimes these fees are minimal (such as in the Caribbean) but they can also be very expensive (such as passing through the Panama Canal).

Of course the biggest factor in determining a cruise fare is demand. If a cruise itinerary is popular, then the cruise lines can (and will) charge more. Even a low cost cruise can suddenly shoot up in cost if the cruise line feels that passengers are willing to pay those prices. For the last couple of years, Alaska has been an extremely popular cruising itinerary, as people are turned away from international travel by terrorism threats and rapidly increasing airfares. As such, Alaskan cruises have become more expensive. On the opposite end of the scale, cruises to Mexico have become less popular, and therefore much cheaper, as hurricanes and drug wars in that country make news headlines.

Travel dates are another important ingredient in the pricing mix. School vacations tend to be the most expensive time to cruise, as the demand for vacation options soars. Summer cruises, spring break cruises and winter holiday cruises all come with a premium. If you are able to cruise in ‘off season’, such as in January/February, late April/May, or September/October, then you will see much lower prices than the other times of year.

Taxes are also added to cruise fares, although usually they are not a significant amount when compared to the overall fare.

So your total cruise cost to board the ship will be the cruise fare itself, plus taxes and port fees. Make sure all three components are included when you are comparing the cost of cruises.

As mentioned in last week’s post, another thing to consider is transportation costs. You will have to make travel arrangements to get to the departure port, and then back home again from the arrival port. I have seen many great fares in Europe, Australia and South America, but when the cost of airfare is factored in, the price of the trip quickly escalates beyond what I am willing to pay. Keep in mind your transportation options and costs when comparing cruises.

Once onboard the ship, there are more costs to consider. In the next couple of weeks I’ll discuss onboard costs, and how to get onboard credit to help alleviate them.

Where Should I Go?

So you’ve decided to take a cruise. But where should you go? Cruises cover the globe, reaching every continent (to be fair, due to new regulations it’s very difficult now to cruise to Antarctica) and going to places you might never have imagined. So which cruise is right for you?

The first thing you should consider is what you want to get out of your vacation. Are you interested in lying on a beach, soaking up the sun, water sports and snorkeling? Are you interested in nature and wildlife, outdoor experiences? Are you interested in visiting cultural landmarks and museums, and seeing UNESCO World Heritage Sites? Are you interested in immersing yourself in a place with a completely different language? These things should be taken into consideration when selecting a cruise itinerary.

If beaches are your primary interest, the Caribbean is popular for those who want to visit a variety of different beaches, or snorkel and swim with marine creatures (such as dolphins and sea turtles). Hawaii and the South Pacific offer similar experiences, but with a more exotic flair that can be difficult to reproduce elsewhere. Hawaii can also add a touch of historical significance to your trip when cruise ships stop at Honolulu; excursions to Pearl Harbor are very popular.

Australia is also known for beautiful beaches, but also offers immersion in a more European-based culture, as well as visits to the world-famous Great Barrier Reef (which really is just as it was depicted in Finding Nemo). New Zealand offers fewer beaches, but much in the way of natural beauty, with a European atmosphere in their cities.

If outdoor experiences are what interest you, then Alaska is a good destination choice. You will have many opportunities to see wildlife close at hand (from whales to salmon to bears, with everything in between) as well as glaciers and nature at its finest. You can have a sedate experience (from inside a bus, boat or train) or increase the excitement with hiking, rock-climbing, and other thrill-seeking excursions. A Canada/New England cruise offers an interesting combination of nature and culture, taking you from colonial centers to national forests and French outposts.

For even more cultural experiences, Europe is an exciting option, with seemingly endless variety in every port, allowing you to visit ancient castles and fascinating museums. For an even more exotic experience, Asian cruises are becoming more popular, visiting countries still relatively new to cruising, yet with a lot to offer. South American cruises can be exotic and cultural, or full of natural beauty (especially if you experience one of the unique Galapagos cruises).

Hopefully this has given you a lot to think about. But once you’ve decided on your interests, reality has to set in. What kind of budget do you have for your vacation? Many things can affect the cost of a cruise itself (more about that in next week’s blog post). But a significant add-on for many cruisers is transportation to the port itself. Depending on where you travel in the world, the cost of ‘getting there’ can be as much, or more, than the cruise fare itself.

Driving to a port close to home is always the cheapest option. In North America, cruises depart regularly from Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego in the West, Houston/Galveston, New Orleans, Tampa, Miami and Fort Lauderdale in the South, and New York, Boston and Baltimore in the East. Occasionally, you will see cruises from other ports as well, such as Montreal or Anchorage. In Europe, Southampton, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Rome, Athens and Istanbul are common departure ports. In Australia, Sydney is the most popular cruise origination point, and in New Zealand it is Auckland. With the recent increase in Asian cruises, more ships are departing from Japan, Singapore, Bangkok and Shanghai. South American cruises leave from Rio and Valparaiso.

If you cannot drive to a port, chances are that you have to fly. Airfares have gone up significantly over the past few years, and while ten years ago a $500 round trip airfare to Europe was the norm, now $1,500 is far more likely. No matter how cheap the cruise, if the airfare is pricey, it can break the entire deal. Like any vacation, the cost of the airfare must be factored in when deciding on a cruise. For this reason, cruises departing from North America have become much more popular over the past few years.

Keep in mind that not all cruises depart from and return to the same port. Such cruises are known as ‘open jaw’ cruises. While a ‘one way’ cruise allows for traveling further distances and visiting more ports, it can also prove to be a transportation headache, as airfares increase in cost when you cannot book a round-trip ticket. Occasionally, you can work around this. For example, once my family took a cruise from Venice to Rome. We booked round-trip airfare to Rome, arriving a few days before the cruise began. We rented a car at the Rome airport and slowly made our way up through Northern Italy, touring along the way, before dropping the car off in Venice and boarding our ship. In this way, we were able to book a much cheaper round-trip airfare. On another European trip, we were sailing from Southampton to Rome. We booked round trip airfare to London, with a separate one-way ticket from Rome to Heathrow at the end of our cruise, which we were fortunately to get at a low price by taking an unpopular Saturday evening flight.

Most cruise lines now offer their own air package that you can add onto your cruise face, but in my experience, the discounts are few, if any. The big advantage to booking airfare with a cruise line is that if for some reason your flight is delayed or canceled, the cruise ship will wait for you, or if they cannot, will pay to fly you to the first port, where you will be able to join the cruise in progress. This is a real concern, as we all know that flights can be delayed or canceled at a moment’s notice. Because of this, if you decide to book airfare on your own (which I would recommend in the majority of cases) then you would be smart to fly into port at least one day early. This extra day of time is a valuable cushion in case something goes wrong. Most of the time you won’t need it, but sometimes you will. Think of it as insurance: if you don’t need it, it’s a luxury, but if you do need it, you will be very glad you have it. In the case of flying a day early, the cost of this ‘insurance’ is one night of hotel close to the cruise port, which isn’t generally a significant cost, and well worth the peace of mind.

In our many cruises, there have been two situations where I have seen the value of flying in early for a cruise. The first was when we took a round trip cruise from Los Angeles to Hawaii, which departed in December. The day before the cruise, a terrible snowstorm hit the east coast. All of the New York area airports (including Newark) were shut down, as were Boston and the airports in Washington, DC. Many of the cruise passengers coming out to the ship found out at the last minute that their flights were canceled, and this caused them to miss the cruise departure. Since the first port was Hilo (four days later) it meant missing a big chunk of the cruise. Fortunately, since we live in California, we were able to drive to the departure port, but I will never forget seeing those bedraggled families waiting to board the ship in Hilo, one third into the cruise.

The other occasion was more serious for us. We were heading to Boston to board a Canada/New England cruise when my son tripped at the airport, banging the back of his head on the metal arm of a chair. The cut was deep, and required stitches. The airline was willing to allow my son and one adult to move their flight to the next day, but not all of us. So my daughter and I flew on to Boston, while my husband and son stayed behind, getting my son stitched up and then taking a red-eye out that night. Fortunately, after being treated, my son bounced back and was ready to go, so I was able to meet my husband in Boston the next morning and we all boarded the cruise together as a family. We ended up having a wonderful cruise, and the onboard doctor was even able to remove the stitches halfway through the trip with no problem. But if we had not been leaving a day early, my son’s accident, whether significant or minor, would have caused us to miss the ship.

So after all of this, what’s the advice I’m giving in this blog post? Figure out what you want to get out of a vacation, and choose a cruise itinerary that meets those needs. Don’t forget to consider the costs of transporting yourself to/from the cruise port. And if you are flying in, always make sure you plan to arrive at least one day before the cruise departs, just in case of any difficulties.

Next week, I’ll talk about the costs of cruises and how to evaluate the price of a cruise.

So what is this all about?

I’ve been researching and writing about cruises for a long time. I was hooked on my first cruise, and by the time I was on my second cruise I realized that I wanted to share information about cruising. I did so by writing my first book: Mommy Cruises: A Guide to Cruising With Kids, but continued to research, and eventually published an updated version of the same title. Since then I have fielded a lot of questions about cruising, but I continue to research and investigate, both for my own interest and to help others.

Cruising is the ultimate vacation. Okay, that’s just my opinion, but this is a blog, and I’m entitled to my opinions, aren’t I? Still, I know that I need to justify a blanket statement like this, so here goes.

A cruise is a luxury vacation. You’re staying in a fancy room with a fabulous view (well, assuming you have a window, that is), you eat at a fancy restaurant every night where your multiple waiters know your name and provide attentive service, and where you go out to see stage shows and other live performers every evening. Your children can come with you, or go off to their own structured activities designed for young people of their ages. Best of all, while in this environment you are transported to multiple destinations: places you might never visit on their own, but as part of a package of touring and travel, each one has its own interests and delights.

I admit it, I’m not really an outdoor girl. In fact, once my husband called me ‘the consummate indoorsman’, and he was right. I was subjected to consecutive months of camping as a child, and I ran out of my lifetime tolerance for such things. Hiking, bugs, muck, and life without the niceties of civilization are not things to which I aspire. In this sense, cruising is the perfect vacation for me. I can relax and be pampered, immerse myself in exotic locales as much or as little as I like, and then return to my cruise ship home to resume my usual indoorsy existence.

So let’s get back to the original question: what’s this all about? I’m a teacher and writer by trade, and a planner by nature. So my husband suggested to me that with all of the time I spend thinking about cruising, maybe a blog was the best outlet for me (in other words, he didn’t want me to natter on about it any longer). And it got me thinking that maybe he was right.

I like to try new things (well, not outdoorsy things 😉 ) and so I figured I’d give this blog a shot.

So that’s it. It’s my first blog entry. That wasn’t so hard.