The First Guest Blog Post EVER on the Noob, and it’s From Mjontravel.
Hey Noobs, I have a special treat for y’all today. A guest post! Yep, this is the first guest post on the NoobTraveler. Kind of a big deal. When I was at the Frequent Traveler University last month, I had the pleasure of hanging out with Marshall Jackson from Mjontravel.com. Marshall is known as a cruise guru, so I thought some Noobers would love to read some of his insights. Plus, he is funny, and you know I like funny. Enjoy.
Cruising 101 – Frequent Floating for the Frequent Flier
Thanks to Noob Traveler for inviting me to write a guest post on cruising. If you’ve read my blog before, you know that cruising is one of my favorite ways to vacation. There are a myriad of reasons why I’ve become such an avid cruiser, and I will get into some of those in the post. Also, NT told me he thought his readers would enjoy a basic overview of cruises and miles. How to book cruises using points, is it worth booking with points, or is it more valuable to buy your cruises and earn miles. So we’ll of course get into that too. Well, let’s sail!!!
What can I say? I like the way the sea breeze feels as it blows through my hair. Someone will get that joke. Seriously, I can’t think of a better way to really detach from everything. Yes, most modern cruise ships are equipped with Wi-Fi and cell phone towers, but there’s no rule requiring their use! Aside from “getting away from it all” there’s no denying that cruising can offer one of the better vacation financial values out there. Unless you go with one of the “up” market lines, cruising is typically not “all inclusive” but it is semi-inclusive, meaning most meals, basic beverages (coffee, tea, and water), and your “hotel” accommodations are included in the price of your cruise.
The value of a cruise can depend on a lot of factors, but I would say that one of the best values is cruising Europe and the Mediterranean. With exchange rates where they are, using a cruise as your meal ticket and hotel room while visiting European locales during the day can literally save you hundreds if not thousands of dollars vs. a land-based vacation. That’s not to say that good values don’t abound in other locations as well. For example, I just checked a low season vacation at a popular hotel in Aruba. For $453 dollars per night, I can book a room for 2 that includes breakfast and lunch as well as cocktails in the evening hours. The total comes to $3,969 dollars. For comparison purposes, I priced a 7-night cruise in a balcony cabin aboard Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas from Port Canaveral, sailing the same dates as the 7-night hotel stay. The total price for the cruise comes to $2,763 dollars. But wait, you say? Doesn’t the hotel include alcohol? It sure did, but the cruise is over $1,200 dollars cheaper. If I step down from a balcony stateroom to an oceanview stateroom for the same cruise, the price comes down to $2,163 dollars. Are you going to drink $1,800 dollars worth of booze in a week? Well, OK….maybe If I’d had a really bad week at work before the cruise. Kidding! This is just one example, and I’m sure if I tried, I could probably find a hotel stay that is cheaper than the cruise….but would I want to stay there?
What About Earning Points?
Most cruise lines offer a loyalty program. The examples I use will be very Royal Caribbean centric because that’s the program I am most invested in, but most of the programs I’ve looked into work quite similarly to RCL’s program known as the Crown & Anchor Society. Cruise line loyalty programs don’t typically work like the airline or hotel points program you might be accustomed to. Typically, you earn 1 point per night at sea, twice that for upper tier staterooms, and perhaps a little bonus for a longer cruise too. As the number of points in your account increase, so does your elite status (now there’s something a typical miles and points junkie can relate to!) With a cruise loyalty program, the more you cruise, the more swag and perks you collect. At the lower tiers that might include invitations to onboard parties or perhaps a small discount on cruises. The higher your elite status, the better your perks. For example, as RCL Diamond Plus members, MrsMJonTravel and I receive a $200 dollar discount off balcony cabin bookings, priority boarding, access to a nightly diamond event or diamond lounge (free drinks), access to the concierge lounge on ships that have them (free drinks and help with just about anything you need), onboard coupon books good for discounts on everything from spa appointments to jewelry, a priority departure lounge, and a whole host of other things that you can read about here.
One thing you won’t find on that list is anything related to redeeming points for a free cruise because it doesn’t exist through the loyalty program. You can earn enough loyalty points to be comped a cruise though. In the case of Royal Caribbean, that happens starting at 340 points.
But The Cruise Lines Offer Credit Card Programs That Allow You to Redeem Points for Cruises, Right?
They sure do. But those programs are among the poorest values in credit card rewards. I’m going to quote heavily from a reader question post that I recently blogged.
The reader wrote “I have cruised 4 times on Norwegian and am a Latitudes member so I would like to stick with them. They currently have a Bank of America Card with a 10,000 point bonus. Do you know if any of my other rewards could be used or of any other better offers. Any suggestions are appreciated.”
And I responded: I think NCL’s credit card issued by BofA is quite similar to the Royal Caribbean card, also issued by BofA, that I recently wrote a post about. It’s OK for a fee-free backup credit card, but in most instances, you would usually be better off concentrating on one of the other points cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Ink Bold card. You can cash in 20,000 Ultimate Rewards points for a $200 dollar gift card on Royal Caribbean or Carnival. In your case of desiring to cruise NCL, you could simply cash out 20,000 points and Chase will give you a $200 dollar statement credit or send you a check for $200 dollars.
With the NCL card, you get a 10,000 point first purchase bonus, which equals $100 dollars in onboard spending money. After that, you’re earning 1 point per dollar for all of your non NCL purchases and 2 points per dollar with NCL. That $100 dollars is free money, but in your day-to-day spending is where the Sapphire or Ink Bold really shine. Sapphire = 2 points per dollar on on dining and travel and the Ink Bold could net you 5 points per dollar in categories like cell phone expenses, landline phone, internet access, and cable tv; 2 points per dollar at gas stations and hotels; and 1 point elsewhere. In other words, you could be earning more points per dollar that are more valuable than those offered by the NCL card and offer better bottom line cash benefits to you that you can use on your cruises.”
In other words, the cruise company credit cards are fine for a basic back up card as long as they aren’t charging you an annual fee, but I really wouldn’t bother for the purpose of racking up awards. There are just too many other more lucrative ways to do so.
OK, I’m Ready to Cruise. How Do I Book It?
A question as old as the sea. Well, not quite, but it is one that I get frequently. I personally use a travel agent for most of my cruises. Not because I’m afraid to book them on my own, because I sometimes still do, but because I like my travel agent. She’s also in the business of selling experiences, so I have used her to book personalized shore excursions that no cruise line shore tour can ever match.
You could also book through one of the airline mileage program cruise booking portals and earn yourself a few extra miles. This is a viable alternative and there’s nothing wrong with doing so. Just remember that the airline is outsourcing the booking of your cruise to an external travel agent who is doing the booking for you. There’s also the Chase Ultimate Rewards program and American Express Membership Rewards. You could book through either of these programs and earn bonus rewards points. In the case of Chase Ultimate Rewards, if you carry the uber-awesome Chase Sapphire Preferred card, you could even earn 6x bonus points if you book by June 30, 2012.
You can also book directly with the cruise line. It’s easy to do, and not totally unlike booking your own airline ticket. It’s pretty much a no muss-no fuss affair, and there’s nothing wrong with just booking direct. You are missing out on bonus points or miles you could earn with booking through an airline or card rewards program though.
Personally, I prefer using a professional travel agent who knows your likes and dislikes. It doesn’t cost extra, and sometimes the benefits you receive can add even more value. Some agents offer extra onboard credit or other gifts for their clients. It pays to shop around and find an agent you enjoy working with. How to book is a personal decision, and only you can know what is best for you.
I’m Booked. Now What?
Sit back, relax, and enjoy your cruise!!!
— Noob Master