I LOVE boats and cruises. From small expedition trips like the one I took in the Philippines, to ferry rides, to wildlife spotting expeditions to see whales and bears. But most people who think of cruises immediately think of the mega-ships. Well, I like those too and here are some tips from a very frugal, and slightly adventurous traveler. I’ve spent 45 nights on cruise ships so I am by no means an expert but I’ve discovered some tricks to make your cruise more enjoyable and to save money. Cruise ships are in business to make money. Period. Everywhere you turn is an opportunity to spend money. But if you know what to expect and how to avoid these pitfalls I will show you how to save money on a cruise.
BEFORE YOUR CRUISE
Get a Good Deal on Your Cruise
Don’t pay full price for your cruise. There are many websites that show you the selection and current prices of cruises. My favorite for searching is “Vacationstogo”. Usually the base price of cruises is the same no matter where you book it, but some of the booking companies throw in some perks, like some shipboard credit, a bottle of wine, etc. It’s worth checking booking directly with the cruise line as well if they throw in some perks.
Be flexible with your dates. Sometimes a one week difference can be $100s less or more expensive. Thanksgiving is particularly expensive for some locations, but sometimes Christmas can be even cheaper.
Consider a Repositioning Cruise
Some of the cheapest cruises are so called “Repositioning” cruises that take you from one city to another, usually from one popular area to another. For example Caribbean to Europe, Caribbean to Pacific Northwest (for Alaska), and vice versa. Most of these cruises will make a couple stops in both areas and may make some interesting and remote stops mid-cruise.
Choose Your Freebies Wisely
Many of the cruiselines are offering promotions like pick 1 or 2 of several options. Common options I’ve seen are
- Tips Included. This one usually has the lowest retail value but I will always choose this one if given the chance. It saves real money – $13.50 average per day.
- Free Drink Packages, sometimes alcoholic but often non-alcholic. This option is often has the highest retail value. But would you select a drink package normally. If the retail value is $20 for non-alcoholic drinks, can you really drink $20 worth of soda and coffees? I had this once and found that I couldn’t drink more than 3 sodas and an afternoon tea – just wasn’t worth it.
- Ship credit. I would consider this, depending on the amount. It can be used towards shore excursions.
- Free Internet. Up to you. I like to stay disconnected.
- Free specialty dining. Lots of free food on ship so only if you are a foodie.
Save on Airfare and Pre & Post Hotels
Don’t assume the cruiseline is offering the best deal on airfare. If you want to stay days before and/or after your cruise you’re usually better off buying your own airfare as cruiselines will require you to book very expensive hotels through them for extra days. But price both because occasionally the ship has the better deal.
For example: I did a cruise around the horn of South America to Antarctica over Christmas and New Year’s one year. We got a great deal on the cruise since we booked it only a couple months before the cruise and got discount prices. Airfare search sites were showing fares of $2000 so close to Christmas. But, the cruiseline had group ticket prices for $1200 per person. We wanted to stay an extra day in Santiago to ensure we didn’t get delayed due to weather so we paid the crazy expensive $400 to stay in the cruiselines’ selected hotel because it was still cheaper than booking airfare and hotel separately.
Research your parking options
Not flying and driving instead? Research non-port parking options, including those with shuttles. Alternatively, some hotels provide parking if you stay a night before or after your cruise.
Join CruiseCritic and the Rollcall for your Departure
CruiseCritic is a for profit website owned by an even more evil conglomerate but it has been very helpful for me and has given me some great opportunities and I have saved hundreds of dollars on shore excursions as a result. Get a sign in ID and register under Rollcall by ship and date of departure. Some people organize shore excursions or provide contact details of local tour companies. You can also look under the “Ports of Call” section for advice on individual ports.
Research Shore Excursions and Don’t Book Through the Cruiseline
The cruiselines have a wide list of activities at each port but generally I find these options are very expensive and very full. I’d prefer to do my own thing or take a tour with a group of 8 in a van rather than a coach full of 58. There are other ports that might be better to explore on foot or by taxi. Here are some great examples of money saving independent shore excursions:
- In several towns in Norway, such as Bergen, Stavanger, and Griengerfjord, it was possible to explore on foot and I spent nothing. Compare this to ship excursions costing $50 or much more.
- In Punta Arenas, Chile we wanted to visit the penguin reserve so we got off the ship first thing in the morning and negotiated with a taxi driver. Not only did we pay less than the ship excursion, we got to the park at opening and got to watch the penguins without other people. We also got to stop multiple times on the way to and from the reserve to get amazing pictures of farms, animals, and windblown trees. He also dropped us in town to visit the cemetery and town square that wasn’t included in the penguin ship tour.
- In Stanley, Falkland Islands, we booked with an independent operator to take a Land Rover over the peat bogs to Volunteer Point beach to see a large penguin colony including the amazing King Penguins. We paid $180 per person. The ship excursion to the same place was ultimately sold out but cost $350 per person and it was the same exact tour!!! The only difference I noticed is that they got a ham sandwich for lunch and we had egg salad sandwiches.
- In Norway, a retired passenger from Cruise Critic organized bus tours to see the most interesting spots at several ports. We had three spectacular tours, seeing more than the ship tours, for about 1/4th the price. Examples are this day in Olden, and this trip along the great Ocean Road and Troll Highway.
- In the Caribbean, many ports have independent operators offering trips for half the price or offering full day trips with extras for the same price of a 2-3 hour trip from the ship.
Important Note: Do book independent trips at your own risk. There is not a money back guarantee if something goes wrong. Also, be 100% sure you are back to the cruise ship on time for departure. The tours offered by the ship have an included guarantee that the ship won’t leave without you but the independent trips obviously do not. It would be at your own cost to catch up with the ship if you miss it and this can cost 100s of dollars or more.
Set a Budget and Decide What’s Important
There are some great deals on cruises, which can cost $100 per person per night or even less. But it’s not difficult for the full price of the transportation to the cruise and extras to cost several times the base fare. Before cruising, set a budget and think about what is important. This will help you not end up with a nasty bill when you get home.
ON BOARD YOUR CRUISE
Your Ship Card
Not only is this card convenient, it’s also easy to rack up a big bill at the end without knowing. Do you sometimes get a credit card bill that’s way higher than you expected? The same applies here.
Attend the Cruise Critic Party
You joined your role call on CruiseCritic like I suggested above…right? The cruiselines want to make these guests happy because we are most likely to go back and leave a review. If you register you will get invited to special events for CruiseCritic members. There is always a meet and greet at the beginning of the cruise, usually on the first full sea day. The party is attended by officers of the ship, and occasionally the captain! As a result of attending the CruiseCritic party, I’ve also had the chance to take a tour of the bridge (the control center and steering room of the ship) and have a sail-away party on the helipad in a Norwegian fjord.
Attend the Art Auctions…But Only for the Free Champagne
The thing about cruiseships are that you’re stuck and sometimes there are whole days at sea. This bores some people and you may be tempted to attend an Art Auction. I find these silly. It’s fun to watch the action once and enjoy a free drink but don’t spend money on this overpriced art.
Attend the Free Events
Many of the traditionally free activities on board have been reduced – for example crafting and movie theaters. But some still remain – such as the nightly headliner show and trivia. When I cruise, I make a priority to attend the nightly show. While the show is free, avoid the pressure to buy drinks from the wait staff that makes their way around the theater.
Take Your Own Photos and Ask Other Guests to Take Your Photos
From the moment you step on the ship, the ship photographers will be taking your picture. If you want a lot of photos, you might want to buy a package but individual photos are very expensive. Selectively taking selfies and asking other guests, such as your tablemates at dinner, may be all the photos you need.
Put down that computer and smartphone and enjoy some disconnected time aboard. Ship internet is very expensive and painfully slow.
If you must get online, many ports or businesses near ports offer wifi. Ask or watch what the ship staff does – they know where all the free wifi is located.
If you want to catch up on news, there are news channels on the TV. Many ships also offer a condensed copy of the daily newspaper in several languages for free at the front desk.
Don’t Shop Until You Drop
Bring your hygiene essentials (toothpaste, deodorant, sunscreen, insect repellent, over the counter medications, seasick remedies) from home. Prices may be double on the ship.
Many of the shops are located between the main dining room and the show room, and many nights there are pop-up shops selling discounted goods. If you are tempted by shopping, you may consider avoiding this section of the ship.
Think Before You Drink
Alcoholic drink prices on a ship are similar to prices you’d find at bars in any major city. But the cost can really add up if you’re drinking daily. Here are a few strategies I’ve used as a low to moderate drinker:
- Most cruiselines allow you to bring on one bottle of wine per cabin or person. Make sure you do this as the lowest cost wine bottles on board are around $30. Drink this in the room to avoid corkage fees
- On one cruise, they were lax about taking drinks you brought back at a port if you didn’t get obvious. So I brought back a soda or local beer or two without any problem. Worst case is they don’t let it on so you just guzzle at the port.
- On one cruise, there was a stop at a port with many duty free shops on the second to last day of the cruise. Due to the shear volume of duty free liquor, they just let everyone keep their goods. But I was on a back to back cruise meaning I would not check out until a week later so we spent the next week mixing our own cocktails and enjoying them on our balcony for almost free.
- If you are really desperate, there are some tricks that people use to smuggle on hard liquor, for example in a mouthwash bottle. The cruiselines have caught on to many of these tricks so do this at your own risk and don’t be surprised if you’re caught.
- Buy a bottle of wine for dinner and just enjoy a glass per night. If you’re at assigned seating for dinner, you can buy a bottle and have them store it for you for additional nights.
- Just abstain. Alcohol is empty calories. Enjoy the drinks that are available for free on the ship that always include water, iced tea, coffee, tea. Some cruiselines include other drinks such as lemonade, juices (for breakfast), punch, especially in the buffet restaurant.
- If someone hands you a drink, ask if it’s complimentary. I’ve read stories of people who accepted a drink only to be handed a bill later.
If you do feel the need to drink a lot, consider purchasing a drink package. Yes, they are expensive and it requires everyone in your cabin to also purchase a drink package (the ship doesn’t want one person just ordering for everyone in the room allowing them to drink for free). It also requires you pay for every day of your cruise – so you can’t selectively choose binge and non-binge days. I have never done this because it will always add $100’s of dollars to the cruise and it would encourage me to drink too much to “get my money’s worth.”
Take an empty water bottle to the ship. Fill it up with tap water before going on shore so you don’t have to buy water. Even better yet, take a filter bottle so you can refill with local water without getting sick.
Avoid the Casino and the Bingo Hall
Cruise ship casinos are not subject to the gaming commissions like in Atlantic City and Vegas. The odds are in their favor so it’s likely you will lose more here than at your normal gaming facilities. Like the shops, the Casino just happens to be located between the main dining room and the show room, making it a very easy stop on the way from dinner to the show. If gambling temps you, it’s worth taking a detour through another floor.
Know Your Dining Options
There is no shortage of food on cruise ships and many dining options are included in your base fare. Common included food offerings include the buffet/Lido, often there is a grill for burgers and such, sometimes a bar of healthy foods near the pool, and always the main dining room where you can get a full service meal. Most cruise lines also offer enhanced dining experiences where you get better food and better service. We had a package that gave us a free meal in one of these restaurants but I wouldn’t say it was noticeably better than the free options on the ship. If you’re a real foodie you may find these are a good value.
The Best Things in Life are Free
Don’t think of cruises as a place you can splash out and spend freely. Think of it as a place to spend quality time with loved ones. Enjoy the amazing views from the ship. I’m always how amazed how few people are at the best viewpoints of the ship in the early morning and evenings. Some of my favorite cruise memories are quietly watching the shore go by as we sailed up fjords in Chile and Norway, watching whales frolic in the icy Antarctic waters, and some of the sunsets in the Caribbean.
If you’re taking a longer cruise you will need laundry. Some ships have a few vending washing and drying machines. If they do, consider doing laundry first thing when you wake up to avoid a wait. If there isn’t vending, the laundry is very expensive and consider washing some items in your room.
Don’t Be Cheap – Pay the Customary Service Tips
I’m a frugal person but sometimes I cross the line of being cheap. One thing I would not do to be cheap is forgo the customary tips that are disclosed when you book your trip and charged as a rate per person per day of the cruise. Most cruises are charging around $13.50 as of 2017 and this amount goes to pay a large portion of the income of all the service staff of the cruise. They work so hard – often 7 days a week from morning to night. Some cruiselines allow you to pay these in advance, and sometimes they are included in the “freebies” at time of booking.
Check Your Bill
On most ships you can check your bill on the TV in your room. You can also request your bill at any time at the front desk. Check your bill mid-cruise to see if you’re sticking to your budget and adjust. At the end of your cruise, check all charges for accuracy.
Do you have any additional ways how to save money on a cruise? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
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