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When it comes to cruise line loyalty programs, it's the small perks that satisfy travelers

Airlines' frequent-flier programs are a topic of much complaint. "It's too hard to claim a free trip," people say, or "Upgrades are almost impossible."

So why do so many people love cruise line loyalty programs, which are the ocean-going equivalent?

"The more you cruise, the more perks you get," said Michael DiGirolamo, a Del Mar resident who, with his wife, Kristina, has gone on 10 Celebrity cruises in the last five years.

One caveat: The perks are nice, but you probably aren't going to get a free around-the-world trip — at least not for a while. The benefits may be as simple as a coupon for a free drink or a free subscription to a travel magazine. Some cruise lines do offer free trips, but the "price" — that is the requirement to earn the award trip — can be high. Seabourn, for instance, requires 140 days at sea to earn a seven-night Caribbean cruise.

But DiGirolamo isn't tempted by a free trip; he just thinks being a devoted member of a loyalty program makes sense.

"As long as you primarily enjoy one line," he said, "you might as well take advantage of its perks."

The couple gets lots of smaller perks, such as free laundry and coupons for cocktails, but they also enjoy some bigger rewards, such as access to a private dining room and invitations to private parties.

"They honor our loyalty to their line," DiGirolamo said. "I like that."

His thinking mirrors that of many cruisers: Why not take advantage of it if it's free?

"Becoming a member of a cruise line loyalty program can absolutely be worth it, particularly as it's free to join if you're already cruising with the cruise line," said Colleen McDaniel, managing editor of CruiseCritic.com.

You can earn points in several ways. Many lines base the points earned on the number of days you spend at sea; others, such as Celebrity, factor in the category of the stateroom you choose. If you're in an inside cabin, you won't earn as many points as those cruisers in the penthouse suite.

Princess Cruises offers Captain's Circle perks to guests based on the number of completed cruises or days sailed, whichever is more beneficial to the passenger, said Wyndie Mills, who manages the Princess loyalty program. Cruisers start as Gold members after one cruise and progress through three more tiers to top out as Elite members after 15 cruises or 150 cruise days.

Aside from the fact that it's free to join, why should you care about loyalty programs? After all, the base price of a cruise already includes meals, lodging and entertainment.

But many things aren't included in that base price: things such as Internet access, alcoholic beverages and dining in alternative restaurants. All often are extra fees that cruisers may incur. But those fees may be waived for loyalty member cruisers.

These perks "vary from added convenience — priority check-in, boarding and reservations — to VIP treatment such as special events, cabin upgrades and discounted or free cruises," said McDaniel of CruiseCritic.

"Becoming a member of a loyalty program can help add extra-special touches to the experience, or even help to save on the overall cost of your cruise."

The rewards, said Charles Sylvia, vice president of Cruise Lines International Assn., "are highly valuable to consumers … by saving them money and enriching their cruise experience."

One thing to keep in mind: Like the airlines, which have alliances, some cruise lines have reciprocal agreements. For instance, the ships owned by Carnival Corp. (Carnival, Princess, Costa, Seabourn, Cunard and Holland America) have some reciprocal benefits. This is also true of Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Azamara.

Here's a sampling of programs:

Azamara Le Club Voyage: Members receive points based on category of stateroom, nights onboard and the number of people the cruiser refers to the line. Benefits include complimentary nights, Internet, private onboard gatherings, an annual cruise and more. Info: www.lat.ms/1KFc1pl

Celebrity Cruises Captain's Club: Awards are based on length of trip and category sailed and include perks such as a special lounge, discounts and a free cruise with 6,000 points. Info: www.lat.ms/24myH46

Costa Cruises CostaClub: Benefit points are calculated based on cruises taken in the last three years, factoring in the type of cabin selected and onboard expenses. Rewards include free access to front-row theater reservations, a spa day, access to the Club Restaurant and other perks. Info: www.lat.ms/1WEHkRI

Cunard World Club: Award benefits increase the more you sail with Cunard. At the highest level, members receive a complimentary meal at one of the ship's alternative dining venues, up to eight hours total of complimentary Internet, priority disembarkation and other perks. Info: www.lat.ms/1QunZOE

MSC Cruises Voyagers Club: Award points are earned according to the type of cruise booked, plus length of stay and includes onboard spending as well as pre-paid services. Privileges include discounts, dining in a specialty restaurant and other perks. There is a match program to lure cruisers who belong to other loyalty programs. Info: www.lat.ms/1T2rXVE

Princess: The four-tiered program includes escalating rewards. Beginning at the Gold level, cruisers receive, for instance, discounts on cruise bookings. At the Ruby level, they get everything from the Gold level and also get, among other things, a free upgrade on trip insurance if they buy it through Princess. Platinum members get all the perks of the first two levels, but benefits also include preferred check-in and their own disembarkation lounge. At the Elite level, you get canapes in your stateroom, a mini-bar setup and a wine-tasting, among other rewards. Info: www.lat.ms/21m0KhM

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Give a ship's specialty restaurant a try on the first night aboard

If you'd like to try a ship's specialty restaurant, think about doing so on your first night. Most people dine in the main dining room or buffet on the first night because they haven't discovered the alternative dining venues yet. Consequently, it's easier to get a reservation at specialty restaurants, and you may even score a discount or get a free bottle of wine.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 28, 2016, in the Features section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "It's the small perks that really add up - CRUISE NEWS" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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