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Cruises can be a great vacation. They often come with all-inclusive packages that cover everything from lodging to entertainment to meals, which can simplify your entire trip and take the hassle out of traveling.
But if you like to save money, you may feel neglected when it comes to rewards credit cards. Credit cards for hotels and airline-branded miles cards frequently shower new customers with massive bonuses and long-term benefits to entice them to sign up and keep spending. Meanwhile, cruise line-specific credit cards typically offer minimal sign-up bonuses and slim rewards. Fortunately, a number of general travel credit cards offer great incentives for those who long to cruise.
If that describes you, one of these four choices could be the best travel-reward credit card for you.
The best credit cards for cruises
Best overall: Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
Chase Sapphire Reserve
Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card
Things to know about credit cards
Most of these cards come with an annual fee. But some cards offer perks each year that are worth more than the fee total. The Chase Sapphire Reserve Card is probably the best example of this.
APR rates and credit limits vary based on your individual credit. Credit limits and interest rates for each card are determined based on each cardholder's personal situation, so we did not take that information into account when evaluating these cards. One thing to remember is that if you pay your card off in full every month, you will not be charged interest.
Banks have the final say on who they accept for a credit card. These recommendations were put together with the assumption that applicants would have average credit or above. That being said, banks decide who they will issue credit cards to using criteria including, but not always limited to, an individual's credit score when evaluating each applicant.
How we evaluated
I’m a travel writer who has been writing about credit cards for the last six years and studying card benefits for many years longer, so I know this space well. To examine cards for cruise travel, I looked at major credit cards that are co-branded with cruises, as well as cards that offer flexible points that can be used for cruises. I chose the best based on the value of rewards (both points and perks), fees, and general accessibility.
Finding a good credit card with perks exclusively for cruise travelers is a bit of a challenge, mainly because the cost structure for cruises is so different than for flights and hotels. Airlines and hotels can afford to offer upgrades to seats and rooms that would otherwise go unsold to incentivize customers to get their co-branded credit card and remain loyal.
While most cruises aren’t more expensive than premium airline seats, cruise lines have much higher fixed costs than airlines—even if a ship isn’t full. You’re typically a guest of an airline for 16 hours at most, consuming about two meals and a snack and possibly visiting a lounge. Meanwhile, cruise passengers will consume three meals a day for days or even weeks. And that’s only the start of it; from housekeeping to entertainment, cruise lines splash out a lot of the cash passengers pay. This is why their frequent-cruiser loyalty programs typically provide shipboard credits versus free travel: given the higher incremental costs, cruise lines can’t afford to give away as much.
When looking for a credit card that is optimized for cruises, it’s best to look for cards that offer a good signup bonus and have a cruise program. This is particularly valuable if the cruise program offers discounts you wouldn’t otherwise be able to receive. Interestingly, we found that the cruise-branded credit cards didn’t offer points or perks that were any better than the general travel-reward cards that ultimately made our cut. In fact, they were a lot worse, especially in terms of the rewards earned. Spending on a cruise card might only earn you 25% of the rewards that cards recommended in the list below would.
Chase Sapphire Preferred
The Chase Sapphire Preferred is one of the best general travel credit cards, and that’s because Chase Ultimate Rewards points are incredibly valuable and flexible—even for cruise travel. This card has a $95 annual fee.
Points: Chase's proprietary reward system is called Ultimate Reward points, and the more money you spend on your card, the more points you’ll receive. The Sapphire Preferred offers 2 points per dollar spent on all travel and dining purchases and 1 point per dollar spent on everything else.
Ultimate Rewards points can be redeemed for cruises through Chase’s travel portal, where each point is worth 1.25 cents ($0.0125). That essentially means that you’re getting 2.5% back on your travel and dining purchases and 1.25% back on all other purchases. While Chase’s travel portal offers booking for most major cruise lines, Disney Cruises is not currently available.
Perks: The Chase Sapphire Preferred has great benefits outside its flexible points. It doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, which is beneficial on international cruises.
It also offers primary car rental insurance coverage, meaning you’ll be able to save money by declining the rental company’s insurance. If you rent a car for an off-ship excursion and something happens, you won’t have to make a claim to your own car insurance policy first.
Chase Sapphire Reserve
The Chase Sapphire Reserve is the big sibling to the Chase Sapphire Preferred. It offers quite a few premium benefits but comes with a much higher price tag—and no additional perks exclusively for cruisers. The annual fee for this card is $450 per year and is a better value than the Chase Sapphire Preferred only for those who spend more than $5,000 annually on travel and dining.
Points: The Sapphire Reserve card offers 3 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent (one more than the Preferred card) on all travel and dining purchases and 1 point per dollar spent on everything else.
When you redeem your Ultimate Rewards through Chase’s travel portal with this card, your points are worth 1.5 cents each ($0.015). That means you are essentially getting 4.5% back on travel and dining purchases and 1.5% back on all other purchases when you redeem your points for cruises on most major lines. (Disney Cruises are not currently available for booking through Chase’s travel portal.)
Perks: The Sapphire Reserve has all of the same perks mentioned about the Sapphire Preferred, but also has a few more premium benefits. It refunds the cost of Global Entry (a $100 value), which expedites re-entry into the US from international cruises. If you pay for your cruise with your card or your points, you’ll also get trip interruption coverage in case something goes wrong with the cruise itself (but replacement flights are not covered by this policy).
You’ll also get a $300 travel credit every year, so the first $300 in travel purchases you make will be refunded to you in the form of a statement credit—you could consider it a $300 coupon for your first cruise of the year—which also effectively reduces the annual fee to $150.
Bank of America Travel Rewards
If you’re not ready to commit to a credit card with an annual fee but still want some rewards that apply to cruises, the Bank of America Travel Rewards card may be the best card for you.
Points: The Bank of America Travel Rewards Card earns 1.5 points per dollar spent on all purchases. When you redeem your points, they are worth 1 cent each ($0.01) so you are effectively earning 1.5% back on all of your purchases when you redeem your points for cruises.
Perks: Even though this is a no annual fee card, you still have the great perk of no foreign transaction fees on purchases made abroad.
Please note: The offers mentioned above are subject to change at any time and some may no longer be available.
Reviewed has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Reviewed and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.
More top credit card options
This article originally appeared on Reviewed: The best credit cards for cruises of 2021: Reviewed