July 5, 2022

Best Cruise Credit Cards of June 2021

How Do Cruise Credit Cards Work?

When you use your cruise credit card to make purchases, you’ll earn rewards that can be used toward a cruise or cruise-related expenses. You can choose from two types of cruise credit cards: co-branded cruise line credit cards and general travel cards. A co-branded cruise line credit card is tied to a specific cruise line, while general travel cards can be used for travel and everyday spending.

Co-branded cruise line credit cards

Co-branded cruise line cards earn bonus rewards on purchases with a brand. You can receive rewards for all brand purchases: for example, when you use your card to book cruises, to cover onboard expenses and offshore excursions, and to reserve vacation packages with airfare and lodging for before and after you set sail.

Typically, cruise line credit cards earn two points per dollar on cruise line purchases and one point per dollar on all other purchases. Sign-up bonuses are generally about $100, knocking off a bit of the price of your first cruise booking as an incentive to get a card.

Redemption options can be limited. With a co-branded cruise line card, you usually can redeem rewards with only one cruise line and its partners. That might not be a problem if you plan to use all of your rewards for cruises and cruise-related expenses booked through that cruise line, but other cards might offer more flexibility.

Co-branded cruise line cards rarely charge annual fees. You can earn rewards without worrying about whether the rewards offset the cost of carrying the card each year.

But benefits also can be sparse. The ability to earn rewards is typically the best feature of this type of card. Unlike co-branded airline or hotel cards, co-branded cruise line cards do not provide special brand perks. Some offer concierge service or do not charge foreign transaction fees, but automatic room upgrades, priority boarding or cardholder-exclusive excursions are nonexistent.

General travel rewards cards

General travel rewards cards aren’t tied to a specific cruise line, but you can use them to earn and redeem cruise rewards. These credit cards can earn bonus rewards for cruises and other types of travel, and they may pick up bonus rewards on other categories, such as dining.

“Believe it or not, the best credit cards for cruise rewards redemption are actually travel credit cards that earn flexible rewards,” says Stephen Au, credit card points expert at travel rewards website UpgradedPoints.com. “You benefit from better returns on spending and greater flexibility. You can earn lots of points on a variety of categories, and you can use them on any travel-related redemption, including cruises.”

While some general travel rewards cards fetch a top rate of two points per dollar on bonus categories such as travel, other cards can earn more. Some bring in five points per dollar or more on travel categories such as airfare or hotel bookings.

Sign-up bonuses with general travel cards can be generous. Although not all cards offer one, a sign-up bonus of at least $150 is common for this type of card. Some have sign-up bonuses worth $500 or more.

Overall, you can redeem rewards earned on general travel rewards cards flexibly. If you want to book a cruise, depending on the card, you can go through the card issuer’s travel portal or get a statement credit to cover your cruise and other travel expenses. The latter means you can choose the cruise line that works best for your needs rather than the cruise line you have a credit card with.

“For hotels and flights, you can use a generic travel card, or get a card for the hotel or airline that works best for you,” says Dan Miller, founder and managing editor of Points With a Crew, a site that helps families travel inexpensively.

General travel card benefits vary, but some cards provide the best available. While you still shouldn’t expect cruise line perks, a general travel card could offer access to travel credits, airport lounges, hotel room upgrades and travel insurance: features that can make getting to and from your cruise more affordable and comfortable.

However, general travel cards are more likely to have an annual fee than cruise line credit cards. Do the math to make sure that the value you get from a general travel card exceeds any annual fee.

Could You Earn a Free Cruise?

Consider how long you would need to earn enough rewards for a free cruise if you’re using a cruise credit card.

If you spend about $18,000 on noncruise purchases annually with the Carnival World Mastercard, you will earn 18,000 points, or $180, per year. With the 20,000-point sign-up bonus you receive after using this cruise card for the first time, you could have a first-year rewards value of $380 to put toward your next cruise.

If a cruise costs about $1,500, and you continue to earn about $180 in rewards in your second year as a cardholder and beyond, you would need about eight years to accumulate enough rewards to book a cruise.

You could do better if you put your cruises on this card to earn points toward a free cruise. If you add a $1,500 cruise purchase annually on the Carnival World Mastercard, which earns two points per dollar, you’ll earn 3,000 additional points, worth $30 each year. That means you’ll receive $410 in your first year as a cardholder and $210 each year after that. You could earn enough to cruise for free after your seventh year with the card.

When Is Using a Co-Branded Cruise Credit Card a Good Idea?

General travel cards offer flexibility and, depending on your spending, could help you earn a free cruise faster than a cruise line card. They can also be used to earn and redeem rewards for travel expenses before and after your cruise.

But some people may prefer to carry a cruise line credit card. If you’re in no rush to pocket rewards, these cards are low risk because they rarely have annual fees.

One way to use a cruise credit card is to budget specifically for cruises. Dedicate your card exclusively to cruise purchases and receive bonus rewards each time. If you cruise a few times a year or spend significantly more than $1,500 on each cruise, you may be able to earn a free cruise quickly.

When it comes to rewards for other travel costs, a cruise line card usually isn’t your best bet. “Cruise credit cards typically don’t have bonus categories for hotels and flights, which will diminish the return on your spend,” Au says.

Maximizing credit card rewards might not be a priority for you. And your strategy might not be to pay for an entire cruise with your cruise line card. You might be satisfied with earning a modest reward you can use for smaller cruise line expenses.

For example, if you spend $1,500 on a cruise booking, you could get about $30 to spend onboard with a cruise line card that earns two points per dollar. Or a $100 sign-up bonus might be enough to book an excursion for free. However, a general travel card could accomplish the same goal with a statement credit for onboard expenses or excursions.

How Should You Choose a Cruise Credit Card?

If you pick a cruise line credit card, choose one from a cruise line you prefer to travel with, as your points are generally not transferable to other brands. But consider any partners that earn rewards; check the cruise line website. For example, the Bank of America Royal Caribbean Visa Signature Credit Card earns bonus rewards with sister brands Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises, in addition to Royal Caribbean.

When choosing a general travel rewards card, look for one that aligns with how you spend and prefer to redeem your rewards. Consider cards that earn bonus rewards in categories where you spend the most, such as dining or all types of travel. Or you could opt for a card that has a solid flat rate of rewards, such as 2 miles per dollar on all purchases, not just travel.

You might prefer to book your cruise or cruise-related travel directly with the cruise line, but some general travel rewards programs require you to book through the card issuer’s travel portal. A card that issues statement credits for expenses might offer more flexibility.

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