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Rewarding loyal passengers

As they plan their trips, folks who vacation at sea sometimes bob from ship to ship, cruise line to cruise line. They may be drawn by price, a quest to sample different styles of food and service, or the tease of hot new vessels.

Many cruisers, however, find a comfort zone on one or two lines and return, year after year, often to a familiar ship, sometimes to the same cabin.

For their passenger loyalty, cruise lines pass out rewards. These are not nearly as lucrative nor as husbanded as frequent flyer mileage. But they can improve your voyage with such perks as free Internet time and onboard discounts.

Current wisdom among frequent cruisers — from conversations and Internet forum sites — is that most people would not switch cruise lines because of loyalty perks. They see them more as added benefits than enticements to choose a particular cruise company.

Passengers are enrolled automatically into most loyalty programs after one cruise.

Cruise lines will enhance the goodies as the number of your vacation voyages increases. Think discounts on future cruises (typically 5-10 percent), private cocktail parties, complimentary Internet minutes, casino vouchers, logo souvenirs, cabin upgrades, shipboard credits in the shops and spa, priority check-in at the cruise terminal, and free laundry.

If you’re looking for a free cruise, don’t start thinking about tomorrow. For that ultimate loyalty prize, you may need to spend more than a year at sea to qualify. For instance, if you cruise 25 times on Carnival ships, you get 25 percent off your next cruise fare. Sail 50 times and get 50 percent, 75 times and get 75 percent off. After 100 cruises, your next cruise is free – which could mean nearly two years of cruising for a free week at sea.

Each line has its own version and program to reward loyalty — among them, Latitudes (Norwegian), Crown & Anchor (Royal Caribbean), Captain’s Club (Celebrity), Oceania (Oceania), Captain’s Circle (Princess), Mariner Society (Holland America), World Club (Cunard) and Very Important Fun Person (new and unusual from Carnival, which calls it VIFP).

Most lines tout their own loyalty program as among the best, because they want your business. After all, the vacation client easiest to find is the one they already know. And, as most cruise passengers say they return home pleased by their vacation, cruise lines know that the client easiest to satisfy is the one who already likes them.

What follows are examples of perks you can expect as a loyal cruise customer. These programs change occasionally (most are detailed on cruise line websites). As a member, you will hear from the cruise lines by email to tout their latest offers, itineraries, and discounts that sometimes are not the lowest price in the market. A reliable travel agent who specializes in cruises may have information about a better deal or lower price.

Royal Caribbean, for instance, uses a point system. Passengers get one cruise point for every night aboard ship, double points in a suite. After your first cruise, other trips include a cocktail party. Book a future cruise while onboard to get a bonus of up to $200. You get an amenity pack, with beverage, after 55 points, a daily breakfast with specialty coffees after 80, use of a concierge lounge after 175. Best perks, free cruise days and upgrades go to members who amass 700 points and are known as Pinnacle.

Norwegian also uses a point system that starts with the second cruise and is one of the easier programs to reach such perks as priority check-in, discounts, onboard credits, some free Internet minutes. The top tier offers a free bistro dinner with a bottle of wine, concierge and laundry service.

Carnival passengers are ushered into the loyalty VIFP program after their first sailing and get a free beverage at brunch during future cruises. An invitation to a cocktail party follows a few weeks of cruising. Additional cruises result in priority check-ins and such extras as free laundry and specialty restaurant privileges.

After one cruise, Princess members are awarded savings on future cruises of about $100. From cruises 6-16, passengers get an atlas, preferred check-in, and some daily free Internet use. Other perks, following additional cruises, include shoe polishing, laundry, priority disembarking, cabin canapés, tea service, opportunities for discounts and cabin upgrades.

Returning passengers on Holland America receive Cruise Day credits as Star Mariner and a champagne brunch. Discounts follow as cruise days increase. With 200 come larger discounts, laundry service, and a free cruise for the third and fourth passengers in a cabin on select sailings.

Celebrity’s credit system is in three tiers. The second tier requires five credits after five cruises or fewer, depending on length and cabin choice, and includes discounted Internet and laundry service. The third tier, after 10 credits, includes free Internet and laundry, as well as access to the Captain’s Club Lounge.

At one end of the cruise line loyalty perks is the traditional private cocktail party that many ships offer to second-time passengers. These days, with big ships and lots of repeat cruisers, the massive, crowded cocktail party is not much of a special perk, and cruise lines are rethinking what to do about it.

At the other end of loyalty perks is free Internet time at sea, much prized these days and not that easy to get, because cruise lines make money on Internet time through contracts with wireless carriers.

While most Internet communications run much slower aboard ship than at home, cruise passengers want to send and receive email and keep up with news.

The Internet perk for loyalty cruisers varies substantially among cruise lines — from no break at all at bottom tiers of the loyalty programs to a pack of free minutes. On Cunard, for example, World Club members need to complete only two voyages or 20 days to get two hours of free Internet time on subsequent sailings. For an Internet discount on Princess, you need cruises totaling at least 51 days at sea (for about 15 free minutes a day). On Oceania you must spend nearly two months at sea for an Internet discount.

David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of