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 equal parts stressful and fun, which has become even more true during the worldwide pandemic. Not only do you have to find a way to foot the bill, but you also have to figure out which travel options are safe and even feasible.
When it comes to the financial footwork ahead of your trip, you need to plan for every potential cost – transportation, lodging, food and fun. But before that, you have to decide where you’re going and what to do while you’re there.
The planning phase is often the most challenging part, especially when family members crave different experiences. Maybe the kids want adventure, but you and your spouse want to spend lazy days by the pool.
Believe it or not, travel rewards credit cards can both help you select a cruise destination and get there on a budget. In this guide, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about covering your next cruise with credit card rewards.
See related: Best credit cards for cruises
The current state of cruising
While the cruise industry was one of the hardest-hit sectors during the pandemic, cruise lines are in the midst of a comeback. In fact, major cruise lines that depart from North America have resumed many of their operations, although with new health and safety requirements.
For example, cruise lines are requiring guests to be fully vaccinated in some cases or to purchase a specific travel insurance plan if they’re not. At the same time, they’re requiring guests to get tested for COVID-19 and show a negative result within a specific time frame before their departure, such as 48 hours.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has also issued an order that requires face masks to be worn by all travelers while on public transportation at all times, which includes cruise ships. However, cruise passengers can take their masks off when eating, drinking or when they’re in outdoor areas on the ship.
Despite a few new regulations, now is an excellent time to consider a cruise. Not only is cruising a smart way to see more than one destination during a single trip, it can be easy on your budget, too.
Cruising makes practical sense
Discount cruise lines like Carnival and MSC Cruises offer family cruises in the Caribbean and all over the world for less than you’d pay for a weeklong vacation at a major resort. MSC Cruises lets kids ages 11 and younger 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.
Due to the pandemic, you may even find better pricing for some cruises, as well as enticing offers for vacations that include onboard credits, balcony upgrades, free internet access and other perks.
If you’re eager for a budget-friendly trip that offers something for the entire family, 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, several years ago. 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, said 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.
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 enable you to 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 Credit Card that Cothern used is a popular option since it offers a big sign-up bonus with the option to 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 said 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.
Consider getting a premium rewards card
Lagerquist said frequent cruisers can get tremendous value out of premium travel credit cards like The Platinum Card® from American Express.
“Platinum cardholders can take advantage of the American Express Cruise Privileges program to receive onboard credits and other perks such as free specialty dining or wine,” she said.
You can stack these benefits with Amex Offers, which are like automatic rebates for cruise fare payments. Lagerquist said 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 and offers two free checked bags per person. Also, Southwest points are generally 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 more than16%, you won’t come out ahead if you go into 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 said 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. This website offers up to 82% off cruises booked within 90 days of departure.