Cruising is a smart way to see more than one destination during a single trip, and it can be easy on your budget. Here’s how you can use points, miles, cash back, gift cards and more to save on your next voyage.
Planning a family vacation can be just as stressful as it is fun.
Sure, you’re excited about the possibility of travel, but since money doesn’t grow on trees, you need to stick within a reasonable budget. When it comes to the financial aspects of your trip, you need to plan for everything and every potential cost — transportation, lodging, food and fun.
But even then, where should you go? And, what should you do while you’re there?
The planning phase is often the hardest part, especially when family members crave different types of experiences. Maybe the kids want adventure, but you and your spouse want to spend lazy days by the pool. Finding a trip that pleases everyone can seem like an impossible feat.
Best ways to cover a cruise with points and miles
See related: Best credit cards for cruises
Cruising makes practical sense
If you find yourself hemming and hawing over the details and can’t find a vacation idea that makes sense for your entire crew, it may be time to consider a cruise. Not only is cruising a smart way to see more than one destination during a single trip, but cruising can be easy on your budget, too.
Discount cruise lines like Carnival and MSC Cruises offer family cruises in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the world for less than you’d pay for a weeklong vacation at a major resort. MSC Cruises specifically lets kids ages 11 and under cruise free on most of their itineraries, and you can often score packages with free internet and drinks included.
You can frequently book a cruise for four (including two children under 11) for less than $1,800 in an interior room with MSC Cruises — or less than $2,500 for a balcony cabin. And remember, the cost of your cruise fare includes not only your lodging but also your food, entertainment and transportation to multiple islands or cruise ports.
These are just a few reasons families flock to cruising, and why this vacation idea is growing in popularity. A 2018 report from the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association noted that 25.8 million people sailed on ocean cruises in 2017 — a new record over the previous year. Annual occupancy also hit 100 percent yet again, proving that consumer interest in cruising is on the rise — and that “demand continues to outpace supply,” as the report notes.
If you’re eager for a budget-family friendly trip that offers something for everyone, give cruising a try. But make sure you’re not paying top dollar. According to the experts, there are plenty of ways to pay less for your cruise — or even get it for free.
Covering your cruise with rewards — how is it done?
Cruise enthusiast and personal finance expert Lance Cothern has taken several cruises with his family for free or at massive discounts thanks to rewards.
This includes a cruise on the Carnival Magic out of Galveston, Texas, in November 2015. This trip cost $1,931 in total, including the cruise itself, the cost of driving to the port and parking — a sum they covered in full with rewards points.
Cothern, who writes about personal finance at MoneyManifesto.com, says he and his wife redeemed points from two Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Cards (one for each of them), a Citi Premier Card, and a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card for this specific trip.
Specifically, they used their Capital One Venture miles to cover part of their cruise at a rate of 1 cent per mile, and they cashed in 30,000 Citi ThankYou points for $300 in Carnival gift cards. They covered the rest of their cruise by redeeming Chase Ultimate Rewards points for statement credits at a rate of one cent per point.
Chonce Maddox Rhea of Chicago did something similar in 2018 when she took a cruise to Mexico and Catalina Island out of Los Angeles. She and her husband signed up for the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard to cover the bulk of their trip.
This card gives you 70,000 miles worth $700 in travel after you spend $5,000 within 90 days of account opening. You also get 2X miles for each dollar you spend, and you can redeem miles for any travel — including cruises — at a rate of 1 cent per mile.
Best ways to cover a cruise with points and miles
When it comes to covering all or part of a cruise with rewards, the most important factor to keep in mind is flexibility. Not all rewards cards let you directly redeem points for cruises, and certain types of cards won’t work for this type of trip at all.
That’s why many consumers flock to rewards cards that offer flexible travel credits to cover the cost of cruising. The Capital One Venture Rewards Card and Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard are popular options since they both offer big sign-up bonuses and let you redeem miles for any type of travel at a rate of 1 cent per mile.
Other ways to leverage rewards for cruises include:
Redeem points for gift cards
Cothern cashed in Citi ThankYou points for Carnival gift cards, but this strategy also works with Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards. Make sure you only redeem points for cruise line gift cards after you have shopped around and decided on a specific cruise. If you jump the gun and redeem points before you’re ready, you’ll be stuck with gift cards for the wrong cruise line.
Focus on earning cash back
Cruise expert Melissa Lagerquist of Cruise Advice 101 says cash back credit cards can also be ideal since they let you redeem points for statement credits to cover your cruise fare as well as other components of your trip. Lagerquist likes using points from her Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card for cruises, since it lets her cash in points for statement credits directly into her Bank of America checking account.
Also, consider a no-annual-fee cash back card like the Wells Fargo Propel from American Express® Card since it offers a big sign-up bonus and 3X points per $1 spent in popular categories like dining out and travel.
Consider getting a premium rewards card
Lagerquist says frequent cruisers can get tremendous value out of premium travel credit cards like The Platinum Card® from American Express.
These benefits can also be stacked with Amex Offers, which are like automatic rebates for cruise fare payments. The blogger says she frequently receives Amex Offers for $100 off purchases of $500 or more with cruise lines like Princess, Holland America, and Carnival.
Cover your airfare with miles
Cruise fare isn’t the only cost involved in cruising since you must get your family to a cruise port somehow. If you need to fly, Nancy Powell of MilesforFamily.com suggests racking up airline miles to get to the port.
The Southwest Rapid Rewards program is popular for families who cruise since the airline flies out of many popular cruise port destinations in Florida, you get two free checked bags per person, and Southwest points are easy to earn and redeem.
Avoid the worst rewards mistakes
No matter how you strategize your rewards to pay for a cruise, don’t make the mistake of paying interest on your credit card balances. Considering the average credit card APR is now over 17 percent, you won’t end up ahead if you wind up in debt. Only pursue rewards for cruises or other travel if you’re free of consumer debt and plan to stay that way.
Other ways to save on cruises
Rewards and travel credit cards can make saving on cruises a breeze, but there are plenty of other ways to pay less for a cruise outside of earning points and miles. Consider these tips as you begin the planning phase of your cruise vacation:
- Use a travel agent. Powell says she always uses professional help when booking her cruises since there are extra perks for doing so. “The cost of the cruise is the same as if you booked directly with the cruise line, but travel agents give you a percentage of their commission back to use as onboard credit,” she said.
- Cruise off-peak. “The biggest savings will always be had from booking your cruise during the low season,” said Lagerquist. Normally, this means September and October in the Caribbean and May or September in Alaska. “Prices are always highest during the summer, holidays and school breaks,” she said.
- Book when kids sail free. Some cruise operators like Norwegian and Royal Caribbean offer occasional promotions that let kids cruise for free. With MSC Cruises, kids ages 11 and under cruise free all year long on select itineraries.
- Shop around for deals. Compare cruises among several cruise lines for your dates and be prepared to look at more than one itinerary. If you are booking a cruise last minute, check out VacationsToGo.com. This website offers up to 82 percent off cruises booked within 90 days of departure.