Cruises can really be one of the best value vacations around, effectively bundling your lodging, meals, entertainment and activities, and transportation into one tidy, upfront rate. Like anything, the costs can add up if you don't cruise smart, so we put together 10 cost-cutting tips so you can maximize your cruising dollars. The best tip we can give you, though, is to make sure you budget in all the little things that aren't included, but that are still necessary—shore-side expenses and flights to and from port are two good examples.
1. Shop around for the best price. There's no true one-stop shopping destination to compare going cruise rates, so you'll have to check multiple sources (like cruise lines' websites and Twitter pages, trusted third-party cruise sellers and travel agencies, and deals-specialized websites) to secure the best deals and added-value promotions (i.e., free cabin upgrades or onboard credit). Just be sure to read the fine print to see if any additional charges (taxes, port charges) might ultimately up the cost of the quoted fare, and know what's included in the rates for the cruise line you book, before forking over your credit card. Better yet...
2. Use a cruise-specialized travel agent. If you don't have the time (or patience) to scour countless cruise offers, turn to a trusted travel agent. Cruising lends itself well to an agent's expertise. Knowledgeable specialists know the ins and outs, and can help match you to the ideal cruise line and ship for your tastes and budget, pick out the best cabins, and, since they buy in bulk and offer repeat business, use their leverage with cruise lines to get better rates and perks than you could likely find independently. Be sure to use a reputable agency that is affiliated with reputed outfits like the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). Best of all, note that cruise lines typically pay travel agent's commissions, so you won't have to foot the bill.
3. Book early or during "wave season." The waiting game rarely pays off when it comes to cruising, with the best rates and preferred cabins going to those who plan ahead. Cruise lines are eager to fill up their inventory as far out as possible, and will lure in early birds with hooks like reduced rates, onboard credits, and cabin upgrades; luxury lines regularly post 2-for-1 fare deals and free airfare, too. Plan on booking your cruise trip at least six months out, and if you want to travel during peak times (summer or school breaks), a year in advance is better still.
Another good time to nab deals is during "wave season," from January through March, when cruise lines looking to book up the year ahead are met by winter-weary travelers yearning for some vacation light at the end of the cold-weather tunnel. Or, keep an eye out for specials posted during National Cruise Vacation Week, held from October 21–27, 2012.
4. Cruise during shoulder season. Shoulder season sailings—where moderate temperatures, minimal crowds, and reduced rates meet—fall into that magic window between high season (the most popular periods) and low season (when weather conditions and prices dip, and demand is at its lowest). Time your sailing right, and you can get the exact same sailing, on your dream ship, at a fraction of its high-season cost.
For the best bang for your buck in some of the most popular sailing destinations, try Alaska in May where, for enduring slightly chiller temps, you'll be rewarded with less rainfall than in summer, good wildlife viewing, and mountains still capped with snow. Or, beat the heat and the tourist crush by sailing the Mediterranean in September or October—if you're not big on beaches or buzzing nightlife, milder faller temps make for far more enjoyable sightseeing conditions than under the baking summer sun.
The Caribbean in late fall, meanwhile, at the tail end of hurricane season, is also rife with bargains. Cruise ships can easily change course to avoid the path of any brewing storms—you'll just need to have flexibility should itinerary changes be deemed necessary.
5. Shop around for airfare or cruise from your homeport. Getting to your embarkation port can be expensive, so be sure to investigate airfare expenses before pulling the trigger on your trip. Though booking airfare through the cruise line offers some insurances (like a better likelihood that the ship will wait for you if the flight is delayed), these fares are often inflated in the name of cruise line profit bolstering. Shop around for airfare independently to gauge the going rates, and be sure to factor in extra flight expenses for sailings that start and end at a different port. Or, save even more by choosing a cruise that leaves from your nearest drive-to "homeport" (with more than 20 operating in the US today), and forego the expense of airfare altogether.
6. Choose your cabin wisely. At first glance, a tempting way to save money is to nab the lowest rate, which is usually quoted for an inside—or, interior—cabin. Only in rare instances do we recommend actually doing so, as being deprived of natural light and ocean views in potentially claustrophobic-inducing conditions isn't worth the savings. At the same time, considering the little amount of time that you'll spend in your cabin, the most spacious, priciest suite is rarely worth the splurge either.
We recommend paying a small premium for an outside, or, ocean view, cabin, and, if you are going somewhere with fabulous weather, and at least a day or two spent sailing at sea, to go ahead and spring for the balcony upgrade. Those oceanfront breakfasts and sea-misted champagne sunsets, set just steps from your bed, will pay for themselves in no time.
7. Book your own excursions. Cruise line-sponsored shore excursions offer convenience and certain assurances (like guaranteeing the ship will be held for you if your tour bus gets stuck in traffic), but they are often priced at considerably higher rates than what can be arranged independently. Do your research, and get some price quotes on tours or private guide services in port—you might be surprised to find that you can see twice as much at half the price (with a fraction of the people in tow).
Note that if you are sailing on one of the luxury, adventure, or river cruise lines, chances are that most of your excursions are already included in the upfront rate.
8. Sail an older ship. Cruise lines charge a major premium to sail aboard their latest and greatest ships, and will reduce rates on the older vessels in their fleet as they are pushed out of the spotlight. If you're willing to skip out on newfangled frills, sailing aboard line's older ships can be a real money saver, without necessarily meaning you'll have to sacrifice comfort, amenities, or itineraries. Do, however, read up on reviews and ask questions when booking to be sure that the ship has been well maintained, or, as is the growing trend, even extensively refurbished to feature some of the more popular features of the line's newer ships (like dining venues or attractions)—effectively offering very similar experiences at lower fares.
9. Demonstrate brand loyalty. Like airlines with frequent flyers, cruise lines consider repeat passengers their bread and butter, and are in the habit of luring past passengers back for more. The more you cruise with your preferred line, the more return-trip booking incentives you can expect, with past-passenger discounts and promotions offered through special cruise membership clubs. Plus, you can expect special onboard perks like invitations to captain's dinners or cocktail receptions. Note that you can also nab discounts by booking a future cruise while still aboard your current sailing.
10. Buy travel insurance. Booking a cruise vacation is a big-ticket investment, and one that's worth protecting. Reasonably priced travel insurance policies can easily be purchased from third-party insurance companies (like Travel Guardâ€”read our Q & A), which will reimburse the costs of your cruise, airfare, and more should unforeseen circumstances force you to cancel or interrupt your trip. Plus, policies will often include medical travel insurance, too—a vital asset when heading outside US borders, where coverage for most American medical policies ends. Just be sure to read the fine print, to ensure the policy is right for your particular needs. Insurance costs are minimal, typically a nominal percentage of the total trip price, and the policies easily pay for themselves in peace of mind alone.