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10 Tips to Save Money on a Cruise Vacation


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Cruising has never been as popular as it is today. Nearly 26 million passengers boarded cruise ships in 2017, and the Cruise Lines International Association projects that number will jump to more than 27 million in 2018 – another all-time high. If the industry has its way, those numbers will rise even faster. Newer, bigger ships and efforts to attract younger passengers are just some of the ways cruise lines are enticing more vacationers.

Cruising doesn’t have to be expensive. In many ways, it’s actually one of the more affordable vacations around since the price includes meals and onboard entertainment. However, costs can quickly rise when you add in all the extras available onboard. Here’s how to save money on your cruise vacation.

How to Save Money When Planning a Cruise

Young Boy Binoculars Cruise=ship Sea

1. Use a Travel Agent

A travel agent can explain the ships to you, but cabin credit and other perks are bigger money-saving reasons to book through an agent. Travel agencies offer various incentives for booking with them, like a cabin credit that can be used onboard for any purchase, such as drinks or merchandise. The credit amount will vary depending on the type of cabin, but however much it is, there’s nothing like a little free money to start your cruise.

Travel agencies also sometimes offer reduced cruise deposits. It’s common for cruise lines to ask for a $500 deposit per person, but some agencies ask for a smaller deposit, such as $250 per person, keeping more money in your pocket upfront.

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Travel agencies can also help you get credit in the event of a price adjustment. If the cruise ship offers a lower rate after you’ve booked your cruise, your travel agent can get you the lower fare. Just make sure to check the cruise price regularly for changes.

2. Know the Additional Fees

You may see what seems like an amazing offer of $699 per person for an inside cabin on a seven-day cruise. But that $699 quickly becomes $875 or more when you add tax, tips, fees, and port charges. Prices vary based on room and ship, but here’s an example:

  • Cabin price: $699 per person
  • Tax, Post Charges, Fees: $83
  • Tips: $101.50 (based on $14.50 per day for 7 days)
  • Total: $883.50 per person

Keep in mind that cruise fares are based on double occupancy. A single person can book a cabin, but cruise lines charge a single supplement for doing so. In many cases, that means a solo traveler ends up paying at or close to the price for two, anyway. Some cruise lines, such as Norwegian, offer single travelers cabins that can make the cost of a trip more bearable. Otherwise, the best way to cruise is with a partner.

3. Book Early

Cruise lines offer several last-minute deals, and some of them are outstanding. These last-minute specials often come 90 days before the cruise date. Some recent examples, all for inside cabins, include a seven-day Caribbean cruise for $339, a 10-day cruise through New England and Canada for $624, and a nine-day cruise to Mexico and Central America for $425. CruiseCompete has a comprehensive list of current cruise specials here.

If you don’t care about cabin location, have the flexibility to cruise in a matter of weeks, and don’t really care about the itinerary, then waiting until the last minute may be for you. But if you prefer more certainty, book well ahead of time.

Itineraries are available as much as two years in advance. Booking early means getting your choice of cabin at a lower rate. Once the ship starts to fill up, prices creep higher. Sure, a lot can happen in a couple of years, but remember that customers have up until 90 days before the cruise sail date to get a full refund of their deposit and any money paid.

Booking early also gives you more time to plan your travel to the cruise port. If you’re driving, you can scout out parking locations and factor that cost into your budget. You can check airfares and pounce on the best deals. You can book your choice of hotel for your stay the night before. You don’t want to risk traveling to your ship on the day of departure; doing so means you’re a flat tire or canceled flight away from missing your cruise.

4. Don’t Be Picky

Some of the best deals are during off-peak times. For instance, the Caribbean is sweltering in July, and the hurricane season is just getting underway. Europe, like the United States, gets cold in November. The two weeks after Thanksgiving are awash with deals as potential customers focus on the holidays. If you don’t mind traveling off-peak, you can score a great bargain.

When booking these deals, ask for a guaranteed cabin. That means the cruise line will place you in a room in the category you’ve selected. There is a risk in doing this, though. You could find yourself in an aft or port cabin when you prefer mid-ship, or in a room in an undesirable location, such as near a club or restaurant where noise can be a distraction. However, the savings are often enough to justify the minor inconveniences.

Pro Tip: If you do plan a cruise vacation during hurricane season, consider purchasing travel insurance through a company such as Travelex.

5. Consider All Cabin Options

Some cruisers like the biggest, best cabins they can get with all of the amenities, including private butlers, daily canapes, and access to private clubs and restaurants. Others want the cheapest cabin they can find, reasoning that they won’t be spending much time in their stateroom and just need a place to sleep. If you fall into the latter category, being flexible about your cabin options can save you some money.

Inside cabins may have the cheapest base rate, but that doesn’t mean they’re always less expensive. If the cruise ship or travel agent offers perks, do the math and see if it makes sense to upgrade.

Consider that $699 inside cabin. It could actually be as expensive as a more-desirable balcony room. Let’s say a balcony cabin costs $899 – or about $200 more – per person. If the travel agency offers a perk like pre-paid gratuities and an additional cabin credit, or Internet access and gratuities, those perks may be worth the upgrade cost.

On one of my recent cruises, I booked a suite that came with pre-paid gratuities, a $650 cabin credit, drink packages, and Internet access. By the time I added up all of the perks, my suite cost about the same as a balcony cabin without all the perks.

How to Save Money When On Board a Cruise

Champagne Sunset Happy Hour Friends Cheers

6. Bring Your Own Wine

Cruise ships allow passengers to bring wine onboard. All limit the number of bottles to generally one per person or two per stateroom. Bring on two bottles, and that’s two nights you don’t have to pay for wine.

There are rules about where you can consume the wine, so check those with the cruise line. For example, you may be able to bring the wine into the main dining room or specialty restaurant for a corkage fee. Whatever the rules, bringing a couple of bottles on board is a money-saver.

7. Think Long & Hard About a Drink Package

Coffee, tea, lemonade, and non-bottled water are all free on cruise ships. After that, ships offer a litany of drink packages – soda packages, coffee packages, and alcohol packages – and the cost can add up.

A soda package is about $7 per day, per person, plus gratuity. That’s about $175 a week for two people. Alcohol packages are by far the largest expense; it’s not unusual to see packages in the range of $60 to $65 per day, per person. Add a 20% gratuity, and that’s $72 or more per day, or more than $500 a week per person.

Again, do the math. At $60 per day, that’s eight to 10 beers or six $10 drinks. Have a couple of drinks by the pool, a pre-dinner cocktail, a couple of glasses of wine at dinner, and an after-dinner drink, and you’ve easily spent that $60.

To save money, stick to the drink specials cruise ships offer daily. These $5 or so drinks are a bargain. Domestic beer, at $5 to $6 apiece, will also stretch your budget.  Buckets of beer save even more. You can find a nice glass of wine in the main dining room for $10 and under.

There are also opportunities for free drinks on the ship. Customers are often welcomed on board with a glass of sparkling wine or champagne. Free drinks may be available during some ship events, such as art auctions. Moreover, ships now have a bevy of wine, spirit, and beer tastings that can be a bargain.

Another option is to do your drinking locally in port. You can get a beer on a Caribbean Island at any number of stands for a few dollars, and you don’t have to add the gratuity on top.

If you insist on a drink package, consider waiting until the second day to buy one. If your ship is taking off around or after dinner time, chances are you won’t drink enough that first day to justify the cost. The ship will sell drink packages throughout the cruise, so you can at least save the cost of one day.

8. Stay Away From Expensive Excursions

Excursions sound exciting and exotic until the bill comes. It’s common for excursions to cost $100 or even $150 per person, which can add up quickly. But that doesn’t mean you have to miss out on everything a destination has to offer. You can have a great time by planning the excursion yourself.

Cruise ports are close enough to major attractions that you could spend several hours within walking distance of the ship. Caribbean cruise ports like Old San Juan in Puerto Rico, Philipsburg in St. Martin, and Oranjestad in Aruba are, at most, a short cab ride from the center of town. The same goes for locales in Spain, France, and Italy. For more adventurous travelers, bike, car, and even off-road vehicle rentals are readily available.

I’ve taken my wife swimming with dolphins in Dominica, horseback riding through the waters of Bonaire, and visited the town of Hell in the Cayman Islands. In Europe, we’ve walked the historic towns of Cinque Terre, toured Pompei and the Amalfi Coast, and took a day trip to Monaco. Not once have we taken a ship excursion.

Bypassing planned excursions isn’t for everyone. It takes time to research what’s available in and near the ports. Then there’s the planning and scheduling to make sure you can get to your destination and make it back before the ship leaves. It may be too much for some, but it’s worth considering since you’ll save 50% or more by planning excursions yourself.

9. Avoid Expensive Internet Access Packages

Many cruise ships are connected to the Web, and that can be a good or bad thing depending on your perspective. With that connection comes a cost. Cruisers can expect to pay $15 to $25 a day or more to access the Internet. And that fee only covers a limited number of devices, so you’ll have to double it to cover you and a travel partner adequately.

Instead, wait until you get to port to check emails and make calls. It’s a lot cheaper, especially if you purchase an international calling plan. If you absolutely have to use a computer onboard, you can buy Internet time by the minute or a similar unit.

10. Limit Other Ways You Can Spend Onboard

A cruise ship is a giant invitation to spend money. Try to avoid the temptation.

From the moment you get on the ship to the moment you get off, staffers will ask to take your photo. They’ll ask when you board the ship, when you leave the ship for an excursion, and at dinner. They’ll take all sorts of pictures in the hopes that you’ll buy some for a high price.

Instead, use your own camera and take as many pictures as you like for free. You’ll meet people on the cruise, and these new friends can take photos of you all around the ship.

A spa treatment always sounds nice, but it’s very pricey on a cruise. Massages can cost $200 or more. Facials, hairstyling, manicures, and pedicures are all available and also expensive. Get it all done before the cruise and save money. If you’re determined to have at least one spa session, ask for information on port day specials; cruise lines offer discounts when their customers are getting off the ship.

Specialty restaurants are tempting because the food is excellent. But the per-person price, which is in the $50 per person range plus tip, can be a budget-buster. Instead, stick to the main dining room, which is included in the cruise fare. The food is delicious and offers plenty of choices. If you simply have to have a meal at a specialty restaurant, find out when the ship offers discounts. Some ships have discounted specialty restaurant meals on the first night of the cruise. Sometimes, specialty restaurants hold lunches that cost less than dinner but have the same, or a very similar, menu.

Final Word

Cruising is all about experiencing new destinations and making new friends. It doesn’t have to be about overspending. Find the most cost-effective cabin, avoid the temptation of spending big on board, and take advantage of as many free or low-cost onboard options as you can. It will take some research, but saving several hundred dollars could well be worth it.

Have you been on a cruise? What other money-saving tips would you share?


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Ray Marcano is a lifelong journalist with a career in newspapers as an editor and reporter. He's passionate about financial writing, especially when it comes to helping people better manage and use their resources. He's the former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, a two-time Pulitzer juror and a Fulbright Fellow.