By Simon & Susan Veness
A new set of initials worked its way into the cruise lexicon a few years back and, like Death and Taxes, we’re now stuck with it. For some, it’s a reason to wrinkle the forehead; for others it’s a reason to smile.
You may already have seen it, as it goes right alongside other seemingly baffling entries on your cruise invoice, like NDAs (Non-Discountable Amounts, basically port fees and taxes which continue to be add-ons for some cruise lines) and FS (Fuel Surcharge, happily now on the wane again).
It is not as sexy as SHOREX (okay, it’s not sexy at all as it just means the Shore Excursions desk, but it’s definitely more interesting), but it is more obscure than FCC (Future Cruise Consultant) and MDR (Main Dining Room).
We refer in this instance to OBC, or Onboard Credit, something which was almost unknown little more than 10 years ago, but now crops up often in cruising’s lingo and, just as importantly, on your cruise account.
But what exactly IS Onboard Credit? Is it the same cruise-wide, and how does it affect your voyage? Indeed, what can you do with it, and can you take it with you?
These are all the questions we hear time and again, even from regular cruisers, as the idea of onboard credit has become something of a catch-all for both the cruise lines and travel agents as they look to attract passengers with the lure of something ‘extra.’ If you have friends who want to send you off with a financial gift as you sail away, they can also add to your onboard credit account.
In basic terms, you will see this mysterious amount appear on your shipboard account (or SHAC – no, we’re just kidding!), and that’s nearly always A Good Thing as it is the next best thing to free money. Not money in the conventional sense, you understand, but currency you can actually use while in board.
So let’s start with the basics (we’re assuming you already understand the idea that ships are cash-free societies these days, where you merely add, credit-card-like, to your ‘onboard account’ as you go). What can onboard credit actually pay for?
Quite a lot, as it turns out. Your onboard credit is good for basic things like drinks and shore excursions (see, we’re back to SHOREX again), as well as for use at the Spa, Gift Shop and, in some cases, the Casino. You can assign it for your Internet usage onboard and if there are charges for speciality restaurants. In some cases, you can even put it towards your end-of-cruise gratuities.
In every case, it pays to check what your onboard credit can be put towards. For instance, not everyone allows you to use it in the Casino, while, if you book and pay for your shore excursions before you leave, you lose the chance to pay them with your credit. Be sure to find out before you set sail, especially if you’re planning to use that onboard for your gratuities and suddenly find out it is cash only!
The other thing to watch out for is if you’re sailing on one of the ultra-luxe lines like Regent Seven Seas, who already include most of the things you’re likely to pay for onboard. It’s not much use having £300 of onboard credit if all of your excursions, speciality dining, drinks and gratuities are part of the fare, leaving just ‘extras’ like the Spa to pay for. That £300 will go a LOT further on a line like Cunard, however, so plan accordingly.
Where you get it is another key question. Having said that cruise lines increasingly use it as an incentive these days (with Cunard, for example, you often get more credit according to the stateroom category you buy – a standard Oceanview Britannia stateroom may only yield a £50 OBC bonus, but go up to Queen’s Grill class and that can easily more than double), it is also available as a perk with other purchases.
If you buy shares in a cruise line, you may be in line for OBC on your next voyage. Military or ex-military service people automatically qualify with some lines (notably Cunard and Princess), as do loyalty programmes with others. For those in Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Society, there is $150 OBC at Milestone Five, $250 at Milestone 15 and $300 at Milestone 30.
But however you acquire it, it is definitely something to take full advantage of because, in the words of playwright George Kaufman*, you can’t take it with you.
Sad to say, but OBC has no cash value. It is purely an on-board perk that can be used only in the confines of your stately sea-going vessel. If you still have unused credit on your account at the end of the voyage, it vanishes into the maritime ether, gone, as if it had never existed.
That’s because it is an incentive; (noun), something that incites or has a tendency to incite to determination or action. It is of value only to the cruise company or travel agent (plus you, once you’re onboard), hence it pays to pay attention to this final detail. Use it, or lose it. The choice is up to you (but we’re strongly suggesting use it – you WILL feel the benefit!).
* For those who enjoy their literary references, Kaufman’s 1936 Broadway play, You Can’t Take It With You, was made into a film of the same name two years later starring James Stewart and Jean Arthur. The phrase was also a 1978 song title by the Alan Parsons Project and a Radio 4 comedy series a few years ago written by Angela Barnes!