I’ve been researching prices for a cruise later this year and I am astounded to see how much prices have risen since we cruised last year. After speaking with some travel agents, I’ve learned that this is largely due to increases in the prices of fuel and food. The cruise lines have to pass on these costs to customers in order to make money. It’s understandable, but it still doesn’t make a twenty percent increase in fares from one year to the next easy to swallow. I’ve always found ways to save on my cruises and it looks like this year my tips will be getting even more of a workout. So how do I save on cruises? Here are my top twelve strategies.
1. Book early. The advice for cruising used to be to wait until the last minute and then snap up empty cabins at bargain rates. After 9/11, most lines discontinued last minute bookings due to security concerns. Now that passenger lists are checked before sailing, you can’t just show up a the port on departure day and expect to sail. Most lines now use a tiered price schedule with the best discounts going to those who book the earliest. As the ship fills, prices increase. Rarely will prices decrease using the system but if a ship fails to fill, prices may go down closer to sailing. However, you are still better off booking early because most lines will happily give you a price adjustment if your fare drops (you have to call as they won’t do it automatically).
2. Don’t book the cruise line’s airfare. Most lines offer packages in which the airfare to the port is included in the package price. However, you can almost always get cheaper airfare if you book it yourself and take advantage of fare wars, frequent flier miles, or specials. Unless the cruise line is offering a real steal on airfare (and they probably won’t), arrange your air travel yourself or book a cruise on a line that departs from a port that’s within driving distance.
3. Sail in the off season. Off season for most lines sailing the Atlantic and the Caribbean is during August, September, and October, also known as hurricane season. Your risk of having your route or dates changed is greater, but if you can be flexible there are no better deals to be had. Late fall and winter can turn up some good deals on those lines still sailing in Alaska and Europe. Most lines only sail these routes during peak summer season, but those that remain offer some good deals. Play around with your dates and see which ones offer the best fares. Sometimes changing dates by as little as a week can save you hundreds of dollars.
4. Shop around for quotes. Don’t just take the first offer you get from the cruise line. Call some travel agents, look up online cruise agents, and try membership clubs like AAA or Sam’s Club. There are often a variety of prices out there, even for the same dates and cabins. Some agents don’t compete on the base price but do offer rebates or onboard credits which are just as good as getting money off the base fare. Get a handful of offers and pick the best one.
5. Don’t pay for more cabin than you need. Do you need a verandah or a suite, or will an inside cabin do just as well? If you are going to be out exploring the ship and the ports, you may not need much more than a place to crash at night. If you need more than one cabin, do they have to be connecting or adjoining (which is often pricier), or can you book two cheaper cabins that are across the hall or further away from each other? Each line has different cabin tiers and prices, so research your needs before booking.
6. Arrange your own shore excursions. Yes, it is simpler to pick your excursions from the catalog the cruise line sends you but it’s more economical to do it yourself. Most of the tour operators the lines use also take bookings from individuals so call and find out the price if you arrange it yourself. Most ports have easy to use and widely available public transportation to get you where you want to go. You can do your own walking tour of a port with a little help from a map and a guidebook. The bonus to going your own way is that you can spend as long as you like in an area without being herded onward by an excursion director.
7. Track your onboard spending. Most ships use a cashless system where you simply swipe your room key when you want to purchase something. The problem is, this sort of “out of sight out of mind” spending leads to a rude shock when they give you your bill on the last night. It’s very easy to overspend when you aren’t parting with cash. Carry a small notebook or piece of paper and write down each purchase. At the end of the day you can easily see how you’re doing budget wise and see if you need to cut back a bit before it’s too late.
8. Plan and save ahead for tips. A big portion of a cruise’s expense is tipping. Tipping only the recommended amount to your dining team and stateroom host on a 7 night cruise will cost close to $100 per person. On three and four night cruises expect to tip close to $50 per person. Longer itineraries are even more. If you partake of any spa treatments, order room service or drinks from the bar, dine at the alternative restaurants, or use any tour guides or baggage porters, be prepared to tip extra as these positions are tipped separately. Each line usually publishes the recommended amounts in the information they send you. I recommend that you think of tips as part of your cruise fare and save for them ahead of time. This way tips will be one less item on your final bill that could cause you to be upset when the credit card bill arrives after the cruise. Please don’t try to save money by not tipping (unless you receive bad service and then you should speak to someone in Guest Services so they can address the problem). Cruise employees rely on those tips as a significant portion of their income. I’m all for saving money, but not at the expense of someone who is working very hard on my behalf.
9. Make your own special occasion decorations. When you receive your cruise documents, you will find a brochure detailing special decorations or gift baskets you can purchase if you are celebrating a special occasion or just want to decorate your room for fun. These are very nice gifts, but you can do your own much cheaper. Party stores are full of nautical themed streamers, signs, stickers, or party décor that you can use to enliven your room. Note that most cabin doors are metal and many people purchase magnetic printer paper from office supply stores to create their own signs using clipart or photos. In addition to being a fun way to announce your occasion, they also make finding your door that much easier, as all the doors look alike. Just use your imagination. If you want a gift basket but don’t want to make your own, there are independent companies in most port areas that can deliver baskets to the ship for less than the cruise line charges.
10. Don’t eat at the alternative restaurants. Your cruise fare will include all of your meals as long as you eat in the regular dining rooms. However, most of the larger ships now have “alternative” or “premium” restaurants which cost extra. There’s nothing wrong with dining in these restaurants, but if you’re watching your budget be aware of the extra charges and plan accordingly. You’ll also need to plan for an extra tip as the waiters in the alternative restaurants do not share in the tips you give to your regular dining hosts. Chances are you can get more than enough food and variety form the regular dining rooms. If you want to try the alternative offerings, see if they are open for lunch or brunch, which usually costs less than dinner.
11. Don’t drink alcohol. Alcoholic drinks add quite a bit to your bill and it’s easy to rack up a lot of money with just a few drinks. Do this every day for seven days and you’ll feel the pain on the last night when the bill comes. In addition to the cost of the drink, you’re expected to tip the bartender (on some lines the tip is automatically added to your bill). If you must drink, look for the drink of the day which is usually sold at a bargain price.
12. Book your next cruise before you get off the ship. Most cruise lines offer great deals if you book your next cruise before you get off the ship. You’ll have to pay the deposit at the time of booking, but twenty percent discounts and large onboard credits are not unheard of. An added plus: You can transfer the booking to a travel agent when you get home and take advantage of any promotions the agent is offering, as well. You can cancel or change dates if you need to, (subject to the lines’ cancellation and policies) so if you even think you might want to sail again on that line, book before you get off the ship. Once you’re back home, it’s too late to take advantage of the offer.
Despite the recent price hikes, cruising is still one of the best travel deals out there because everything is included in the base fare and it’s a hassle free experience. However, there are always ways to cut your costs a little further and I’ve shown you my top ways to make cruising an even better deal.
Image courtesy of Romy Schneider