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What you should know before buying a cruise line gift card

Generic gift card

With the holidays upon us, many people are searching for that perfect gift, often turning to gift cards for an easy, flexible solution. If you have someone who loves cruising, a gift card might a good option.  

Although shipping gift cards at this stage may be risky for delivery before the holidays, most can be purchased online, and a few like Disney and Carnival are sold through retail outlets. A lifesaver for those last minute shoppers.

Before purchasing a cruise line gift card, there are some important points to know. Gift card features and benefits vary among the major cruise lines, so it is a good idea to take a moment to carefully review what is being purchased to determine if it is the right gift.

Gift card terms and conditions are listed on the cruise line’s websites but here are some of the essential points to consider before buying.

Cruise line gift cards - what you should know

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Carnival gift card

Popular cruise lines such as Holland America, Carnival, Norwegian, Princess, Celebrity, and Royal Caribbean all offer gift cards (with the exception of MSC), most starting with denominations of $25.

Gift card basics include:

  • Gift cards are non-refundable and cannot be re-sold or redeemed for cash. This is an important factor, especially if the recipient of the gift decides not to travel
  • They don’t have expiry dates
  • There are no fees beyond the purchase price (no dormancy or transaction fees)
  • Gift cards are not issued in a person’s name.  This is a concern for physical cards as there is no way to get the money back if lost.
  • Most must be purchased before sailing
  • Most are in US dollars only

What can you buy with them?

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Princess gift card

Beyond the cruise fare, there are many ways that cruisers can spend money onboard. Shore excursions, drinks, photos, specialty dining, and spa treatments are some potential extra costs.  However not all gift cards can be used for everything.

Disney gift cards are probably the most flexible, as their cards can be used for cruise related purchases such as onboard spending including shore excursions and spas, or toward the cruise fare itself. Additionally, gift cards can be used for Disney related products and services like park tickets, dining, merchandise, and more.

Norwegian Cruise Line allows gift cards to be used toward onboard spending such as “  a relaxing massage, an adventurous shore excursion or a special night out.” This is similar to Carnival’s benefits as well. Princess gift cards can be used for many products and services but not shore excursions.

Celebrity and Royal Caribbean have the most limitations on what gift cards can be used for. Government fees, taxes, onboard gratuities, games of chance (casino) cannot be paid using gift cards.

How to buy a cruise line gift card

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Princess cruise line gift card

There are a variety of ways to purchase gifts cards including online, in-store, or through travel agents.  Both the traditional plastic gift cards or  e-card options are popular offerings amongst the cruise lines. E-cards in particular, are the quickest way to go, emailing the gift once purchased from the cruise line website.  

Traditional plastic cards can be mailed, although it can take a couple of weeks.  As a note, most cruise lines will not mail gift cards outside of the United States but will allow e-cards for Canadian residents. Shipping costs may apply to traditional cards.

For retail options, Carnival gift cards can be purchased through a number of locations including Price Chopper, Safeway, Lowes, Winn Dixie, Office Max, and Publix. Disney gift cards can be purchased through Target, Sam’s Club as well as Disney resorts and stores.

Sales and Promotions

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AARP logo

Everyone loves a deal, and occasionally there are some promotions on gift cards. Currently, there are no major sales for this upcoming holiday season. In the past, Carnival has had sales, something to keep an eye on. Associations such as AARP have also had discounts on cards, so review current memberships/ associations for any offerings.

Many Disney fans buy Disney gift cards at Target. Their loyalty card “ The Target REDcard” (a debit card) provides an automatic 5% discount on any purchase at Target, including gift cards. There are also Black Friday deals with Sam’s Club, with reductions as high as 10% off Disney gift cards.

Beware of third party or private sales through Facebook or other social media. Users have reported fraud on many occasions. Cruise lines do not permit gift cards to be resold, something buyers need to be aware of. It is best to purchase cards from the cruise lines, travel agents, or authorized retailers.

Important terms and conditions

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Fine print

Most cruise gift certificates are available in US dollars only, although Disney does offer gift cards in Canadian dollars. In addition, the majority are not available for residents outside of Canada and the United States, so not suitable for out of country friends and family.

Princess specifies “Digital gift cards redeemed by Canadian residents can only be used towards cruise passage for bookings made in US Dollars”. Royal Caribbean notes that gift cards must be redeemed ahead of time, especially for payment toward the cruise fare. They also specify that if a reservation is paid in full, then the gift certificate can not be used as payment towards a cruise vacation, and will be applied to onboard credit as long as it is applied 10 business days prior to the sail date.

Shipping for traditional plastic gift cards can be slow and expensive. For example, Norwegian estimates that cards can take up to 14 business days when mailed. Expedited is $15.95 with 6 day shipping, which is pricey if purchasing a $25 gift card.

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