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CRUISE REPORT: Loyalty programs give perks to frequent cruisers
Airlines and hotels long ago recognized the power of loyalty programs to keep customers coming back. Somewhat later to the game, cruise lines also now proffer perks to frequent passengers.
As with other hospitality programs, benefits in seagoing loyalty programs can vary widely but, essentially, they mount as your days at sea accrue.
Italy-based MSC Cruises is typical of most lines: "The more [you] travel on MSC, the more benefits [you] can earn, both on land and on board," says Rick Sasso, the line's president.
On nearly every line, frequent cruisers get discounts on selected sailings, upgrades where available, heads-up on special promotions, periodic newsletters or glossy magazines and invitations to the captain's reception honoring their fidelity.
On some lines, unique advantages come with the territory. For example, on the lines that make up Carnival Corp.'s fleet -- Carnival, Costa, Cunard, Holland America, Princess, Seabourn, Windstar and their subsidiaries -- "sea mileage" accrued with one line reaps rewards on the others.
A few luxury lines reward their well-heeled passengers with free cruises. Tally up 30 vacations with Crystal and earn one voyage on the cruise line's dime.
On Silversea, 250 days sailed nets a free week's cruise; make it 350 days and nab a two-week sojourn. On Seabourn, racking up 140 days earns a complimentary voyage of up to 14 days.
Offerings on most lines aren't quite that generous, but they aren't anything to sneer at, either. You could, for instance, expect to garner complimentary laundry service, Internet access and telephone usage and priority embarkation. So even if you don't choose your line based on its frequent-cruiser program, the perks can turn seawater to honey.
Here's a look at some bonuses from a representative cluster of lines:
Regent Cruise Line's tiered rewards program has categories ranging from bronze, silver, gold and platinum to (gasp!) titanium, when you've accrued more than 400 days aboard a Regent ship. The lesser metals status -- achieved with a minimum of 21 days for bronze and ratcheting up to 399 days for platinum -- entitles passengers to varying degrees of free hours of phone calls from their suites and free Internet access, complimentary pressing of duds on formal nights, invites to exclusive Regent-arranged events on shore, priority disembarkation for excursions, newspaper services from around the world, and spa appointments stamped "high priority."
With more than 200 days accrued, the line allows complimentary air deviation services if, say, you need to revise your flight plans. And Titanium status passengers don't have to worry about getting to an airport or back home again; the line arranges door-to-door transportation for free.
Norwegian Cruise Line's Latitudes program offers typical promotions and discounts and extends invites to the captain's welcome-aboard parties to anyone who has cruised even once on NCL. The VIP benefits kick in after you sail nine times with the line, entitling you to treats delivered to your stateroom twice during your cruise, priority check-in that cuts waiting time at the dock, a welcome basket in your stateroom, priority tender tickets and disembarkation, and -- on NCL's ships with 10 restaurants -- VIP reservations. Complete more than 14 cruises, and earn a free dinner in Le Bistro, the line's plush and popular French specialty restaurant.
SeaDream Yacht Club members get a surprise after their cruise -- a coffee-table book, "The Art of SeaDream," mailed to their homes with a hand-signed letter from the line's owner. They also get priority wait-listed on sold-out voyages, actually a big deal, according to the line's spokesman, since cabins on popular voyages on its intimate ships sell out quickly.
On board, members save an additional 5 percent off any select special offers found on the line's Web site. And on every future booking, members will receive two 15 percent onboard savings vouchers -- one for the boutique, the other for the spa.
Disney Cruise Line's one-tiered Castaway Club members get special treatment at embarkation, a welcome perk in these days of long lines. They also get early booking privileges for shore excursions, the Palo specialty restaurant, the spa and salon and for youth activities and Flounder's Nursery. Disney even will give you a 15-day lead over less-Disneyfied passengers when booking onboard options. And, oh, those collectibles!
Members can receive a custom-designed pin set of Mickey and Minnie lounging on beach chairs (one to keep and one to trade with other Disney fanatics), a mesh beach bag, two children's cups with straws, a journal, flags for sail-away, rubber wristbands, infant play toys and more.
Most lines reward passengers either for how many cruises they've taken or how many days they've sailed. But, according to Princess, its Captain's Circle loyalty program is the only one offered by a major line that qualifies members by either method of accounting. The flexibility recognizes passengers who choose to sail on longer voyages. With three membership levels, awards accrue to passengers who have sailed on at least one prior cruise (Gold status); five cruises or at least 50 days (Platinum); and 15 cruises or 150 days (Elite).
"Among the many perks available to the most loyal Princess passengers," a spokeswoman says, "are a free mini-bar setup, free Internet access, free laundry services, priority tender embarkation, complimentary wine tasting, a boutiques discount, upgraded stateroom amenities, priority embarkation and a new benefit -- priority disembarkation -- which lets Elite passengers choose the time they prefer to leave the ship."
Carnival Cruise Lines' tiered reward benefits match those of other mass-market lines. Its loyalty program features priority embarkation and disembarkation, guaranteed supper club reservations and dining times, personalized stationery and custom-designed Carnival logo items. Platinum cardholders have access to a fully staffed concierge desk on every Carnival ship.
Royal Caribbean International passengers who log just five voyages already will earn access to an exclusive lounge at the ship's terminal to soften the blow of waiting to embark. Double that number of sailings and you'll also get priority wait-listed for sold-out shore excursions and spa services, as well as concierge service on select ships and priority departure from the vessel.
Seabourn Club members get up to 50 percent off on selected cruises, compared to the 10 percent to 20 percent typically offered on many other lines. And when you sail aboard a Seabourn vessel for a total of 140 days or more, you get a complimentary cruise of up to 14 days.
Perhaps best of all, "frequent cruiser miles" don't expire the way your airline miles do!