Learn how to beat the cruise ship money-making system by taking smart actions that result in huge savings.
Hopping on a floating resort and cruising off to a corner of the world can be an excellent way to travel with the family. However, that cruise liner ad making you think a certain voyage will be a total steal can be misleading if you don’t know how to work the system - a system that's a pro at getting cruise-goers to spend money.
We used to steer clear of cruises, thinking they were not-worth-it money traps. But after navigating monetary hiccups and confusions during our first few cruises, we were able to work out how to go on a cruise that was less than $800 per person, and included a final on-board bill of $0.
Before you book your next cruise…
1. Find a ship that leaves from a port near you.
The big save here is that if you live close enough to this port you won’t have to pay for airfare, and a hotel the night before or after the cruise.
Major cruise ship ports in the United States are located in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Tampa, Honolulu, New Orleans, Boston, New York, Charleston, Norfolk and Galveston.
2. Set up a new email purely for travel deal notifications, and sign up for special-deals-emails from the cruise companies you’re interested in.
Most cruise lines are constantly offering an assortment of deals. However, the type of deal you need when you happen to look might not come up. For example, maybe you have young kids and are looking for a deal that allows kids to cruise for half off.
To ensure you’re able to catch the right deal at the right time, set up an email address used specifically for savings-alerts from the cruise lines you’re interested in traveling with. This way, your main inbox won’t be inundated with emails from cruise lines, and you can choose when you want to dive in to deal research. Make sure you don’t miss out on the deal you’re looking for by going through these emails about once a week.
3. Book last minute.
If you have the flexibility to travel on a whim, you can often find amazing last minute deals for cruise lines eager to fill their remaining rooms. For those dead set on a certain cruise line, particular ship, select destinations, or date range, this likely won’t be a good fit.
4. Reserve an interior room.
If you’re someone planning to spend ample time in your room, skip this suggestion and opt for a window or balcony room. But if your jam is getting up and at em’ and utilizing the ship’s numerous amenities, you’ll likely only be using your room for sleeping, in which case a room without a window will provide wonderful sleeping conditions and a big savings.
5. Buy your next cruise while you’re on a cruise.
Cruise lines have cleverly discovered that it’s much easier to get people to sign up for another cruise while they’re immersed in the goodness of the current one. To make this buy even more desirable, they often offer mega-deals for subsequent cruises. They’re banking on the whole “too good to refuse” philosophy, but it’s a win-win situation.
6. Skip the newer ships.
The newer and fancier a ship, the more likely it is to have a high price tag. If you’re purely cruising to enjoy the latest-and-greatest amenities, it might be worth it to you to spend the extra dough to get a room on say, Royal Caribbean‘s Symphony of the Seas. But if you’re primarily interested in the various destinations cruise ships take you, you might as well score a cost cut by booking on one of the older ships visiting the locales you’re into.
7. Request the removal of automatic gratuity.
Many cruise ships automatically add pretty hefty gratuities on your bill for the various on-board services you receive. For example, on a cruise to Cuba with Royal Caribbean we discovered that $100 dollars in gratuities had been added to our family’s bill for each day of our cruise – that’s $800. The service was good, but not that good. Most people just pay this, thinking they don’t have a choice. But if you simply ask the cruise ship to remove these charges before you close out your bill, they will. Then you have the freedom to tip the amounts you feel are fair.
8. Utilize the free dining options.
Cruise ships offer numerous free culinary choices, such as the infamous buffets, pizza or hot dog eateries, and the main dining rooms where you can eat a white-tablecloth breakfast and dinner. We’ve found this free food is just as good (at least most of the time) as the “additional cost” onboard restaurants. The same goes for the dessert and candy shops - skip these costs by getting your sugar fix at one of the complementary soft serve ice cream stations (!), or at a buffet offering a menagerie of sugar. In addition, you’re welcome to order as many desserts as you want during dinner in the primary dining rooms.
9. Calculate your beverage needs at least three months before you board.
All boats provide beverage plans offering the option of unlimited alcohol, specialty coffees and other non-alcoholic drinks, and bottled water. If you’re someone who plans on always having a drink of some sort in your hand, this might be the best deal for you. However, it’s important to know that if you do want one of these packages, every other adult in your room needs to buy one as well. And cruise ships are vigilant about making sure you’re not slipping drinks to someone who didn’t pay for one of these packages.
To calculate whether a drink package will save you money, determine the amount of alcoholic drinks, specialty non-alcoholic beverages, and bottled waters you think you will drink each day of the cruise. Then, look up how much those various beverages typically cost on the cruise line you’ll be on. For example, Royal Caribbean cocktails are typically $12 - $16, beer and wine is around $7 - $10 per glass, specialty non-alcoholic drinks range from $3 - $6, and bottled waters costs $3 - $4.
Now multiply the number of drinks you estimate you’ll have during one day, with the corresponding costs. Then multiply that number by the number of days you'll be on the cruise. If that number is lower than the cost of the drink package, skip the package. If the number is higher, you’ll save money by purchasing the package, especially if the package is offered at a discounted rate online - and they usually are discounted up to a week or so before the cruise departs. Sometimes these packages are even 50% off if you jump on the deal early enough.
Note: Regular coffee, hot chocolate, juice and tap water (which we’ve always found perfectly good on cruise ships) is free.
10. Organize your own excursions.
Excursions through a cruise line often carry a hefty charge, and sometimes means you’ll be shuttled around with a large group of people. If you’re wanting to explore an area that is safe, speaks a language you’re fluent in, and provides an assortment of activities and tour companies, you could save money by organizing your own excursions.
To do this, go online, research the various activities or tours you’re interested in, and book your itinerary directly... if the costs you find are lower than what the cruise ship is charging. However, because you won’t have a cruise line employee monitoring your time during these excursions, make sure you’re hyper vigilant about getting back to the ship well before it departs, as they will leave you.
With that said, in some circumstances ponying up extra money for a cruise line excursion is worth the investment, and can provide access to amazing experiences you might have missed had you not been with the cruise line tour operators. For example, when we went on a Royal Caribbean excursion in Cienfuegos, Cuba, we were treated to a special performance by a group of actors and musicians - an amazing opportunity we wouldn’t of had if we hadn’t been with the cruise-affiliated outing.
Essentially, do you research and compare all the options before booking.
11. Bring your full allowance of alcohol.
Most cruise ships allow you to bring one bottle of wine or champagne, per adult. If you’re a wine or bubbly drinker, you might as well say yes to this allowance, as the booze you’ll buy on board will be much more expensive than the bottles you bring from home (unless you’ve decided to purchase a beverage package that includes alcohol.)
12. Bring specialty snacks with you, or purchase them at one of the ports.
If there are specialty snacks you can’t live without, and won’t be able to access for free on board, bring a stash in your luggage, as most cruise lines do not restrict food. Another option is to buy the snacks at one of the ports where you’ll stop. However, be sure to look up regulations the cruise line might have about fresh produce purchased in certain areas.
13. Bring enough clothes to last you the entire cruise.
Having your laundry done on a cruise ship is not cheap – we’re talking $1 - $2 to wash a pair of skivvies. Avoid this high cost by looking over your itinerary, and being intentional about the clothes you bring. For example, if you’ll be going on two different excursions that are almost sure to leave you sweaty and dirty, don’t count on being able to wear those particular outfits again on your trip.
However, some cruise ships have laundromats that cost about $6 per load (a steal compared to their fancy-laundry-services.) If your ship offers this convenience you can seriously cut back on luggage weight.
14. If you’ll need Internet access, buy the package ahead of time.
Many cruise lines offer around 25% off Internet packages bought through their website at least a day or so before the cruise departs – sometimes there’s bigger savings when you snag it even further in advance. And in regards to the high-speed Internet upgrade, skip it, as we’ve found that, on many ships, it’s not much faster than their standard Internet offering.
Note: Royal Caribbean offers one of the best Internet packages.
If you’re currently planning a cruise, we would love to hear about your experience and any new tips you discover. We’re also happy to answer questions that pop up as you navigate this sometimes-overwhelming process.