The Onboard Credit Conundrum | TravelResearchOnline


The Onboard Credit Conundrum

Over the last several months the three brands owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd (Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, and Azamara Club Cruises) have rolled out a new program that allows passengers to “spend” their onboard credit before ever stepping foot onboard a ship. As a cruise consumer, I thought this was fantastic. I am one of those cruisers that likes to pre-plan everything. When I walk onboard the ship, I don’t want to have to worry about buying anything, reserving anything, etc. So having onboard credit has been a struggle for me in the past. If I pre-plan and pre-purchase everything, what’s left for me to buy with the onboard credit? If I could use it in the casino then it would be easy. However that’s always a stipulation about promotional onboard credit; it’s not usable in the ship’s casino.

But as a travel agent, I have been more ambivalent about this new feature. Since I tend to be a bit of a skeptic, my gut reaction was that this was a ploy to get clients to use their onboard credit to book shore excursions. By doing so, the cruise lines are (possibly) preventing us from selling commissionable third party shore excursions to our clients. So I did some unscientific research for the past few months, asking cruisers what they pre-purchased with their onboard credit.

Let’s look at Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises as examples. For both cruise lines, cruisers were less likely to pre-purchase spa treatments, knowing that if they waited until boarding the ship they might be able to get some discounted specials. But that is the only similarity between the Royal Caribbean and Celebrity clients.

Starting with Royal Caribbean Cruises, the majority of cruisers questioned were using their onboard credit primarily for specialty dining reservations. This seems to be because the onboard credit offers are smaller, usually enough to cover 2 people at 1 specialty dining restaurant. A few other clients applied the credit towards their WiFi packages, spa treatments, or alcohol beverage packages. In all three of those scenarios, they still had to apply a credit card to pay the difference. In all of these cases, third party shore excursions were not out of the question for these cruisers to consider.

Celebrity Cruises yielded different results. With Celebrity bookings passengers get one to four perks (an alcohol beverage package, unlimited WiFi, pre-paid gratuities, and $300 onboard credit) as part of the Go Big, Go Better, Go Best! promotion. So when someone has all four of the perks, there wasn’t much left that they needed to purchase with their onboard credit. Some did say they used it for specialty dining reservations, but shore excursions were more likely to be booked with the onboard credit. And there is the challenge for travel agents hoping to make commission from shore excursion sales through a third party company.

Ultimately, we have an ethical duty to provide our clients with all of their options. That includes educating them on the ability to spend their onboard credit months before their ship sails. It also includes educating them about their shore excursion options, with the cruise line as well as with third party excursion companies.

After looking into this over the past several months, I’m not as concerned that this is a ploy to move excursion bookings towards the cruise lines. Could some travel agents see a shift in excursion bookings (from third party to cruise line offered excursions)? Of course it is a definite possibility. I’m just not sure that it will be a shift of earth-shattering proportions. With so many options available that can be purchased with onboard credit, I think many cruisers will continue to put their credit towards alcohol, specialty dining, and WiFi packages – more so than with excursions. Have you seen a shift in excursion bookings with your clients? Let us know in the comments below.

Susan SchaeferSusan Schaefer is the owner of Ships ‘N’ Trips Travel located in Tennessee, and specializes in leisure travel with a focus on group travel and charity fundraisers. Through their division Kick Butt Vacations, she focuses on travel for 18 to 23-year-olds. Susan can be reached by email at or by phone at (888) 221-1209.

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