Most folks who gravitate to cruising are, by nature, wandering homebodies. We want to travel but also want a cocoon of familiar comforts. We are sentimental, too: If we have a good time on a ship, our warm feelings often make us want to come back again and again. Some of us sail the same ship (or at least the same cruise line) year after year after year, sometimes planning reunions with other passengers we've met onboard.
But of course, as the Irish proverb says, "The best way to keep loyalty in a man's heart is to keep money in his purse." And thus were born cruise line loyalty programs, which offer discounts, upgrades, and other inducements to keep passengers coming back for more.
Nearly every cruise line has one, hooking passengers automatically after their first cruise through free subscriptions to glossy past-passengers magazines or members-only sections of their websites. What's inside? Details about new itineraries and new ships, past-passenger discount and upgrade offers, announcements of special cruises available to past passengers only, and other goodies.
The message? "Come back. We miss you ... and your money."
Sure, it's salesmanship, but what the hell. If you had a good time on your first cruise, why not take some freebies for coming back again?
Loyalty programs vary from line to line. Some -- like those at Holland America, Disney, Windstar, and Star Clippers -- offer standard, across-the-board perks for anyone who's sailed before. Most, however, offer tiered incentives that add more value the more you sail. (See the table at the end of this article for a line-by-line breakdown.) Some lines measure loyalty by the number of cruises sailed, sometimes awarding extra points for cruises longer than one week. Others -- Costa, Mediterranean Shipping Cruises (MSC), Cunard, Regent Seven Seas, Princess, Seabourn, and Silversea -- measure past-guest levels by number of days sailed (or sometimes by number of days or number of voyages). Some also offer additional credits to passenger booking high-level suites or making large onboard purchases.
Carnival (tel. 800/CARNIVAL; www.carnival.com) offers two main levels of returnee perks, with discounts, upgrades, and an onboard party for passengers who have sailed 1-9 cruises, and various extra perks -- including in-cabin petit fours or canapés, spa treatment upgrades, and free laundry service -- to passengers who've come back for ten or more trips. A special third level is reserved for passengers who sail on their 25th, 50th, or 75th Carnival cruise -- what the line refers to as "milestone" cruises. These folks receive a shipboard credit representing 25, 50, or 75 percent of their cruise fare, respectively, for that particular voyage. Those sailing on their 100th cruise earn a complimentary Caribbean, Mexican Riviera, or Alaska voyage of up to eight days.
At Norwegian Cruise Line (tel. 800/327-7030; www.ncl.com), the "Latitudes" loyalty program divides passengers into four levels. Bronze members (with 1-4 cruises under their belts) get special past-passenger booking discounts on all sailings, a special check-in desk at the pier, admittance to a cocktail party hosted by the captain, and a pin to identify them as past guests. Silver members (5-8 cruises) also get admission to a second onboard party and free in-cabin treats twice during their cruise. Gold Members (9-13 cruises) get priority boarding and debarkation, a stateroom welcome basket, priority reservations at the onboard restaurants, priority tender tickets, and an invitation to the captain's VIP cocktail party. Past passengers' onboard charge cards are color coded so staff knows to give them extra-special care.
Celebrity, Costa, Cunard, MSC, Princess, Regent, Royal Caribbean, and Silversea all offer similar multi-leveled programs, with incentives varying from line to line. At Princess and Regent, for instance, passengers who have reached the second level of loyalty get free online access at the ship's Internet centers. Regent Seven Seas (tel. 866/284-4079; www.theregentexperience.com) also offers graduated amounts of free satellite phone time to regular guests: one hour for passengers who have sailed 21-74 days, two hours if you've sailed 75-199 days, and four hours if you've racked up 200 days plus. At Cunard (tel. 800/728-6273; www.cunard.com), second-level Gold members (3-7 cruises or 20-69 days on board) get two hours of free Internet time, Platinum members (8-15 cruises or 71-149 days) get four hours, and Diamond members (15 voyages or 150 days) get eight -- plus a free lunch at the Todd English specialty restaurant, a dedicated Diamond Member contact at the Shoreside World Club Desk, priority luggage delivery, and all the perks of the lesser levels.
Crystal, Cunard, and Holland America all offer commemorative pins and/or medallions to passenger who have sailed a certain number of days, often distributing them at special recognition dinners or champagne receptions. Ultra-luxe Silversea Cruises (tel. 877/215-9986; www.silversea.com) does them all one better by being literal: Passengers who have reached Sapphire, Emerald, Ruby, and Diamond loyalty levels get a sterling silver Tiffany pin or other jewelry studded with a stone to match.
The basic loyalty package at Celebrity Cruises (tel. 800/437-3111; www.celebritycruises.com) includes a free cabin upgrade, and its higher levels offer free wine-pairing seminars and an invitation to dine at the captain's or senior officer's table. Celebrity's sister-line, Royal Caribbean (tel. 800/327-6700; www.royalcaribbean.com), gives all past guests a free wine-tasting seminar and coupon booklets that vary by past-guest level, offering discounts at the onboard spa, gift shops, etc. The two lines are also reciprocal: If you've sailed five times or more with Royal Caribbean and decide to try Celebrity, you'll get past-passenger discounts and benefits there as well. Ditto for Celebrity's new sub-brand, Azamara Cruises (tel. 877/999-9553; www.azamaracruises.com), which offers a loyalty program similar to those of its parent companies.
Similarly, the many lines owned by Carnival Corporation -- Carnival, Costa, Cunard, Holland America, Princess, Seabourn, and a few European lines -- all extend reciprocal discounts to passengers who have sailed previously with any other Carnival Corporation brand.
MSC Cruises (tel. 800-666-9333; www.msccruises.com) offers booking discounts that are tiered depending on loyalty: 5% off after your first cruise, 8% off after you've sailed between 22 and 42 nights, and 10% off for those who've sailed more. At Holland America (tel. 877/724-5425; www.hollandamerica.com), past guests' booking discounts also apply to family and friends traveling with them -- up to four cabins' worth. At small-ship line Cruise West (tel. 800/296-8307; www.cruisewest.com), past passengers and their traveling companions all get 5% off their cruise fare. At ultra-luxe small-ship line SeaDream Yacht Club (tel. 800/707-4911; www.seadreamyachtclub.com), returning guests who persuade first-timers to book cabins on the same cruise get $100 off their fare, and the first-timers get a $100-per-cabin break as well.
Free cruises are also a possibility, mostly at the luxury lines. The program at Seabourn (tel. 800/929-9391; www.seabourn.com), the most generous of the lot, gives a free 14-night cruise after guests have sailed a total of 140 days, in addition to past-passenger discounts of up to 50%. Crystal Cruises (tel. 888/799-4625; www.crystalcruises.com) offers a free cruise for those who've racked up thirty trips or more, plus discounts, cabin upgrades, and onboard credits that range from $150 to $300. The free-cruise threshold at Silversea is 350 days. In the mainstream market, Carnival offers a free Caribbean, Mexican Riviera, or Alaska voyage of up to eight days for passengers who've sailed their 100th cruise with the line. In the niche-cruise market, Rhode Island's family-owned American Canadian Caribbean Line (tel. 800/556-7450; www.accl-smallships.com) is in on the free-cruise act too, quietly promoting a free eleventh cruise to anyone who's sailed with the line ten times previously.
It's not like getting something for nothing, but it sure is something.
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