Sixteen million Americans will take a cruise vacation in 2005, according to ABC News. Cruises are convenient; they’re fun; and they offer a thrill and excitement that no other vacation can match. No worries about where to go to dinner, what to see, and no packing and unpacking to visit the next destination. Once reserved for the rich and privileged class, today, cruises are for everyone. There are more cruise ships going to more destinations than anytime in history. How can you afford a cruise? How can you avoid spending too much while on the cruise? Let me share a few tips:
Save on Your Cruise Fare
Use a Travel Agent. “Booking directly with a cruise line insures that you are paying the highest fare,” says travel guru, Evan Eggers, veteran cruiser, and owner of 02cruise.com. Cruise lines can offer only their rates; whereas, a good travel agent has a wide array of cruise line information at her disposal. To pick a good agent, ask about the agent’s own cruising experience. Make sure she’s enthusiastic about cruising. Also, pick an agent that is CLIA (Cruise Line International Association) certified. This means she’s had special training in cruises.
Book Early. Contrary to popular belief, the best savings go to those who book early. Early booking discounts, not to mention better availability, are offered to those who book three to twelve months in advance. Some lines also offer a discount if you pay in full at the time of booking.
Consider Repositioning Cruises. Each year, generally in the spring and fall, cruise lines must move their ships from one part of the world to another. For example, a ship that is based in the Baltic Sea in Europe for the summer might be scheduled to cruise The Caribbean in the winter. The cruise that gets the ship from Europe to the Caribbean is a repositioning cruise.
Repositioning cruises offer unique itineraries, lots of days at sea to enjoy the shipboard activities, and, frequently, substantial savings. For example, in 2005, the cruise fare on Holland America Lines’ fall sailing of The Westerdam between Rome and Ft. Lauderdale starts at $1899 compared to a mid-season Copenhagen to Rome cruise on the same ship at $2349 per person.
Be Loyal. Most cruise lines have some kind of frequent cruiser program. On Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, it’s the Crown and Anchor club. On Holland America, it’s the Mariner program. On Celebrity Cruises, it’s the Captain’s Club. These programs offer advance itinerary information and substantial – up to 60% – discounts on selected sailings. Find a cruise line you like and stick with it.
Off-season vs. high season. Off-season cruises are good values. Everyone wants to cruise The Caribbean during Christmas, but how many want to travel there the first week of December? That week and the first week in January are, traditionally, the lowest-priced Caribbean cruises of the year. Sound better already? Similar off-season discounts apply worldwide. Travel early in May or late September to Alaska for the best rate. Travel before or after school breaks for the summer for the best European cruise rates.
Airfare. Booking your own airfare offers a big opportunity to save money. Cruise lines negotiate with airlines years in advance to be able to offer competitive airfares to their cruise passengers. Sometimes, market conditions change dramatically from the time the cruise line buys the airfare and when you book your cruise. Always check the current airfare and compare it with the cruise lines’ airfare. One caution: if you purchase your own airfare, you are, in most cases, responsible for getting yourself to and from the cruise ship. That’s not a problem in Ft. Lauderdale where the port is five minutes away from the airport and taxis are plentiful. It is more of a consideration in a place like Rome where the airport is over an hour away from the port. Also keep in mind: if your flight is delayed and you miss your cruise, the cruise line has no obligation to get you to the ship if you booked your own airfare. Keep these things in mind and weigh the savings accordingly.
Cabin choice. Except for Cunard’s transatlantic cruises and a couple of other small ships, you are entitled to use the same dining room, the same pool area, and you are offered the same amenities and shore excursions whether you stay in a deluxe suite or the smallest inside cabin. I don’t always agree with that old cruise adage: “you don’t spend a lot of time in your cabin.” It does, however, bear some consideration. Are you the “on-the-go” kind of person who is out on deck at 600 a.m. and closes the disco at 200 a.m. If so, save money by choosing the least expensive cabin. Conversely, do you what to enjoy the Alaska scenery from the privacy of your own verandah. Then choose a verandah suite. Cabin rates can vary widely. For example, on Holland America Lines’ summer European sailings, there is a $700 per person difference between the least expensive inside cabin and the least expensive outside cabin.
Book a Group. Do you have a lot of friends who enjoy cruising? Do you have a large family? Booking a group cruise or a family reunion cruise can offer you substantial savings as well as some unique perks. Most cruise lines offer anything from a discounted berth (half cabin) to a free cabin to the organizer of a group cruise. The cruise industry standard is to offer one free berth for every fifteen passengers in the group. (This is almost always without airfare). In addition to free cabins, cruise lines offer special group amenities such as free cocktail parties, shore excursions, photos, or unlimited sodas. Think about organizing your church group, your neighbors, or your gardening pals. Everybody wins!
Save While on your Cruise
Drinks. Beverages, alcoholic and non-alcoholic, are generally not included in the cruise fare and can add up quickly. On Celebrity Cruise Line, cocktails start at $4.25 a drink. Again, a little advance planning can save you money. For alcoholic drinks, consider buying a bottle of your favorite spirit at the duty free store upon departure or pick up a bottle in port. Rum is very inexpensive in The Caribbean Islands. St. Thomas and the Virgin Islands offer good prices on all types of liqueur and wine. Try Kahlua and tequila in Mexico. You can’t carry your bottle around the ship with you, but you can use it for before dinner drinks in your cabin. You can also return to your cabin from the pool to pour a drink in the afternoon.
Consider ordering wine at dinner instead of cocktails to save money. Interestingly, wine prices tend to be more competitive on cruise ships than liqueur prices. Your waiter will be happy to cork and store your wine until the next night if you don’t drink the whole bottle at one dinner. Don’t bring your own wine, however. Most cruise lines charge a corkage fee to serve your wine, usually around $15.00.
For soda drinkers: Many cruise lines, including Celebrity Cruise Lines offer unlimited sodas for one price if you purchase a card at the beginning of the cruise. On Celebrity it’s $5.00 per day if purchased for the entire length of the cruise. Not a bad idea if you drink a lot of Pepsi. Those $1.25 per soda charges can add up. Or, pick up a twelve-pack of soda in port for drinks in your cabin.
As with land-based vacations, beware of the mini-bar. Designed for convenience, not economy, the mini-bar prices can be much higher than the same item purchased in the lounge. It’s very tempting, but use cautiously.
Shore excursions. “Ditch the excursions to save real money,” advises Pam Kane, cruise expert and author of “Happy Sails: The Carefree Cruiser’s Handbook.” While cruise line excursions are easy to book, they tend to be much more expensive than putting the same trip together yourself. This is especially true with local sightseeing tours.
Evan Eggers recommends that you “educate yourself about the possibilities of each port before your depart.” Often, you can walk around the port sights on your own or grab a taxi right off the ship.
My advice is to save your money for those “once in a lifetime” shore excursions, ones that are difficult, if not impossible, to book yourself – flying to the Arctic Circle while in Helsinki or taking a dog-sled ride across a snow-covered glacier when in Alaska. These special excursions can be booked in advance and sell out quickly.
Electronics trap. Telephones, e-mails, and Internet connections: we’ve got to have them wherever we are. Or do we? Ship-to-shore, direct-dial telephones and Internet service are available on most ships today, but at a high cost. Possible via a roving satellite dish on top of the ship, this modern technology is wonderful to give you peace of mind and to use in emergencies. Watch out, though. Current telephone charges on Royal Caribbean Cruise Line are $7.95 per minute. Charges for an Internet connection at the Internet café on Norwegian Cruise Line are currently 75 cents per minute (or a little less when sold in packages) plus charges for printing. Evan Eggers advises, “Send e-mails and make phone calls from ports of call.” Good advice.
Watch the extras. Almost all cruises operate on a sign-and-go basis these days with your cabin key functioning as a charge card. It’s very convenient, but this system also makes it very easy to run up a large tab by the end of the cruise. Take a look at your bill periodically, every two days or so, just to make sure you know what you’re spending. The purser’s office can provide you with this information.
The ship photographer seems to be everywhere at once, clicking away. Be careful here. A photo is a nice way to remember your trip, but limit yourself to one or two. Photos can cost up to $20 each.
Keep an eye on extra charges. Make sure they are worth the cost to you. Cruises offer spa services, extra-cost dining options, laundry service, and casino gambling. Carnival Cruise Lines’ new ship, The Carnival Triumph, even offers teeth whitening! All these things add up.
Book again and Save
It’s easy to start thinking about your next cruise vacation while your still enjoying this one. Cruise Lines reward this kind of thinking. Many lines give a substantial discount to passengers who book their next cruise while onboard. Ask at the receptionist desk. The cruise line will refer the booking to your travel agent, who can check to make sure you have gotten the best deal.
Do your homework, enlist your friends, plan ahead, and watch those extras. Cruising can be your next vacation. Happy Sailing and Bon Voyage!