Do you dream of getting on board a cruise ship with your bag full of shorts and bathing suits and sailing the seven seas, all while being completely catered to and visiting new ports of call? With Summer fast approaching, there are cruise deals galore! Of course, not all of them are for Summer, many are for late Spring and even Fall. Luckily, with the exception of Alaskan cruises, the weather will be warm and (hopefully) beautiful. I learned a lot on my first cruise, both while I was planning it and while I was on it. Here are some tips to help you get the most from your money both onboard and in port.
The price you see is not the price you pay – It’s true! When you see a cruise rate that seems too good to be true, it’s because it isn’t listing the taxes and port fees that each cruiser has to pay. The more ports you visit, the more fees you incur. One could, theoretically, pay twice as much as the listed price once fees and taxes are added. Don’t let this scare you, though. I was able to Google port fees for my chosen cruise and find out exactly how much they would add to my rate. It may take a bit of detective work, but you can find it. If you don’t want to take time for that, just assume the cost will be twice what you see and anything less will be a nice surprise when you’re ready to book!
Get involved – Your cruise is (mostly) all-inclusive. You’re paying for activities and entertainment whether you use them or not. My suggestion? Use them! If there’s miniature golf or a shopping talk or a trivia session available, go do it! Unless it sounds like you’ll hate it, mark all the things on the daily schedule you want to do. It’ll keep you busy, keep you moving, keep you from being bored and give you the most value for your dollars spent. We never once set foot in the pool on our cruise. Not because we didn’t plan to, but because we ended up being so busy that by the time we thought about it, it was time to go to sleep. Also, the water slide was shut down practically the whole time we were on board. Some activities do cost money, like some exercise classes, rock climbing and dinners you need to make reservations for, but there are a lot of free things to do. Between crushing other passengers at trivia, going to the rivalry party, dancing, taking in an art auction, playing extreme dodgeball, watching all the entertainment and sleeping and eating, we didn’t really have time to be sitting around doing nothing.
Book your own excursions – No, don’t book it yourself through the cruise line, unless you want to pay double or triple the going rate. Book it completely on your own. There are many reputable excursion companies out there and you’ll find them if you look. I employed Google for this one again: (destination) excursions. You’ll get a whole host of companies that specialize in excursions that fit into the cruiser’s schedule. In my quest to find something fun and affordable to do in Grand Cayman (which we ended up being refunded for, because the ship couldn’t dock), Belize City and Isla Roatan (Honduras). I found some fantastic tours that were highly recommended by other cruisers and similar, if not exactly, to what the ship offered, but at a fraction of the price. Two tours were half the cost of the similar one offered onboard and through the Carnival website and the other was only one-third the listed price! The cruise line takes a cut of each excursion you book online and on board with them, so they mark the prices up higher than retail.
Most people don’t realize they can book on their own, or they are scared of doing it. As long as you find a reputable company with good reviews, you are safe in booking and also on your tour. My husband and I were the only two on our Isla Roatan tour and we ended up getting an extra 90 minutes out of it. Our Belize City tour only had two other people on it and we all had a great time. All the tours I booked were guaranteed and only required a 20% deposit. My Grand Cayman tour was cancelled due to weather. I was sad that I didn't get to go swimming with the sting rays, but our deposit was refunded to our credit card, as it wasn’t our fault that we couldn’t dock.
Book early – The earlier you book your cruise, the better chance you will have of getting a great deal on a good cabin. You’re bound to be given some extras as well, like onboard credit, cabin upgrade and more. If you aren’t sure what cabin is right for you, take a trip over toCruiseCritic and you can get the low-down on which decks have bigger and/or quieter rooms, which cabins and decks to avoid and more.
Get an inside cabin – Since we had never been on a cruise before, we weren’t sure if we were going to like it or not and decided that spending more money to get an oceanview or balcony cabin wasn’t really something we wanted to do. Oddly enough, those rooms don’t tend to be that much bigger and we figured we could just go up on deck to see the ocean. Besides the big drop in price, inside cabins are very quiet and VERY dark when you turn off the lights. If you have trouble sleeping with any sort of light coming at you, an inside cabin is the way to go. I might suggest bringing a portable nightlight with you, though, as trips to the bathroom can be super tricky without turning on a bedside lamp or the overhead light.
Don’t tip the staff – This sounds really mean, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. You want to know why? All specialty drinks (soft drinks and alcoholic beverages) are charged an 18% gratuity right off the bat. If you throw extra money in the tip jar, you’re actually tipping twice and making that drink – that’s already cost you twice what you would pay in any restaurant or bar – even more expensive. Also, you will be charged a certain amount of money for each guest for service gratuity. This includes tips for your awesome steward, maitre‘d, waiter staff and more. I think it generally costs $10-15 per passenger per day, so on a 7-day cruise for two people, you’re paying an extra $140-210 for those people to do their jobs. Of course, you can contest this at the purser’s desk and have them lower the amount if you feel the staff didn’t deserve so much, but I think you’ll find that they go above and beyond your expectations.
Save your drinking for the ports – I know you’re on vacation and you want to do some drinking, but alcoholic beverages are marked up quite high. Seriously, I had a piña colada and it cost around $15 after their added gratuity. Add up several of those per day across your stay and you’re in for a heart attack come “cruise bill” day. Port cities are depending on your business, so get several drinks on land for the same price as one on sea and keep your wallet happy. You’ll help the economy and have a fun time with your fellow cruisers.
A good way to get free drinks on your cruise is to attend the captain’s welcome party. Anyone can go and they generally serve free snacks and alcoholic (and non-alcoholic) beverages. There is also the goodbye party at the end of your cruise where you can take advantage of free drinks. And during your cruise, if you take advantage of any tastings they are offering, you can get drinks for much cheaper. On our trip there was a deal for a tequila tasting. Six different tequilas for $20. What a bargain compared to my ONE piña colada. At least I got to talk to a lovely waiter from Bahrain.
So, while it seems like a cruise can be a money pit, there are a lot of ways to make it affordable and even a cheap vacation. You can meet a lot of different people, learn to be more outgoing and even discover more about countries around the world both on the ship and off. Keep an open mind and make sure to participate in games and other things around the ship. You’ll be surprised how much fun you can have if you just let go. Hey, you’re never going to see those people again probably. I made quite a fool of myself during the sail away party and again at a blindfolded trivia and probably several other times over our week, but so did other people and I just laughed about it and had a great time.