So, full disclosure.
I do not like cruises.
I used to hate them, now I tolerate them.
The idea of being stuck on a ship with thousands of people, on a vessel that pitches and rocks, did not sound like my idea of a vacation.
And getting into a port of call with several thousands more people from different ships on the same day? Urgh.
I do, however, adore my wife and kids, and they love cruises.
So I decided to hack the cruise booking process, and found a way to cruise for under $50 per person, per day. This is fully loaded, with all fees and surcharges included, for lodgings, more meals than a hobbit can eat, pretty good entertainment, and childcare.
For an apples-to-apples comparison among the prices advertised by various cruise lines, you should deduct about $15 a day for port fees, taxes, and gratuities. So go with $35 per person, per day.
Here’s how I did it.
Watch for friends and family sail free offers
This is the biggest money saver, and is how I get the biggest price breaks, sailing as a party of four. I no longer book any cruises unless the 3rd and 4th passengers, ie, my younger son and daughter, get to sail free.
Sure, the gratuity and fees still apply to them, but without this promo, I won’t come anywhere close to getting the $50 per person per day rate.
Pick the smallest room your party can handle
The first time we went on a cruise, I thought it was going to be a one-off experience. So I sprang for a suite with a private balcony.
It was nice, sure, but we ended up not being in there much at all.
Between the ports of call, the onboard activities and entertainment, and the non-stop eating, we were mostly in the cabins to shower and to crash.
In hindsight, it wasn’t a great use of money because it ended up being about $200 per person, per day.
When I realized how much my family enjoyed these floating confinements, I decided that, ok, we’ll plan for another one, but this time, we’re going with lower cost rooms – an inside stateroom even, for a quarter of the price.
Grab those bonuses
From time to time, on top of the offer that lets a 3rd and 4th person sail for free, there are also additional perks.
The Gratuity Waiver for the first two guests is my favorite, which, depending on the length of the cruise, can really add up. At $13.50 a day for a ten-day cruise, that’s $270 for a couple.
This money goes into a central pool for most of the service staff. If you meet specific individuals who helped make your entire cruise a great experience, consider tipping them directly. We did.
Sometimes, the cruise companies throw in a second bonus. I tend to go with a free upgrade to a cabin with a porthole, which again, for the same ten-day cruise, can be worth a few hundred bucks.
The rest of the perks really depend on your priorities. My personal preferences:
- I tend to get a lot of work done on cruise ships, but I avoid the onboard Wifi as it’s extremely pricey, without the speed to match. But if there is a bonus that awards me free minutes, I’d go for that.
- Less valuable for me are things like the onboard dining package, that allows the first two passengers to dine at specialty restaurants without the added cost, although we would still have to pay for the kids. There are plenty of free dining options onboard – some are very good – so the onboard dining package isn’t a thing for me.
- If you drink like a fish, the unlimited drinks package might be interesting. I don’t like to drink for personal reasons, so that’s not an option I ever pick.
- The least interesting perk for me is anything to do with discounts on excursions. I tend to avoid ship-organized shore excursions, preferring to plan and explore independently (see below).
Stay with the same cruise line
If you know a little about marketing, you know that it’s far cheaper and more effective to market to existing customers.
So if you like the first cruise line you sail with, I would suggest you stay with them, at least for a few cruises, as you’ll be able to get some sweet perks.
I’ve stayed with Norwegian for four years now, and the family likes the experience and service. Also, the more days we stay, the more onboard perks we get, like with the airlines.
Things like priority check-in and disembarkation, ship pin and daily mints (my kids like those), discounts for various services onboard, and drinks with the senior officers of the ship if that is your thing (it’s not mine).
Those are nice reasons to think about coming back, but the real reason NCL gets our repeat business is the CruiseNext deals that it offers during the cruise.
I’m sure other cruise lines have similar deals, but basically this is how the NCL CruiseNext deal works:
For a deposit of $250 on a future cruise, you get $100 of onboard credit to spend as you desire. That $250 deposit would go towards the next cruise either for yourself, or, given as a gift.
As a former marketing person myself, I gotta give a hat tip to NCL for using the same program to encourage both return and referral businesses.
Watch for repositioning cruises
As the seasons change, so do the areas of operation for the cruise lines.
Summer is when most ships ply northern waters: Alaska, New England, the Baltic Sea, and so forth.
As Fall approaches , and especially after Hurricane season is over in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, most ships divert to less frigid waters on one-way journeys.
They are going to have to make the passage even if they sail with no passengers. Naturally, they’d rather have as many as they can get, and the prices and deals they offer for these repositioning cruises can be pretty awesome.
Their bet would be to make some of that money back on the high seas in the form of alcohol sales and casino business. They’ve never won that bet with me.
Watch for last minute deals
If you have any flexibility at all in your schedules, watch out for last minute deals.
The same basic principle applies – the ship would rather sail with as few empty staterooms as possible, so drop the prices 1-2 weeks before a sailing date, and see what happens.
I’ve noticed this especially during the start and the end of the sailing season for a location.
Plan your own excursions
If you book your shore excursions through the cruise line, expect to pay a premium as the tour operators pay a commission to the cruise lines.
In many instances, you can plan your trip ahead of time, using cruisecritic.com to get a sense of where to go and what to do. It’s like TripAdvisor for cruising.
In some ports of call, the most fun we had was renting a car, grabbing a map, and driving to places where the locals hang out.
There are times when an excursion booked through the ship would make sense.
For instance, if it is going to be a long day and you want to be among the first off and last back on the ship. As long as your excursion is booked through the ship, you can be sure the vessel will not depart without you.
We’ve always made it back in the nick of time (which drives my wife nuts, who prefers a wider margin of error), but we’ve heard stories of people who did not and had to arrange for their own transfers to the next port of call.
Did you find any of these tips helpful? If you are into cruising, what tactics, if any, do you employ to get the best deal possible?
Let me know by leaving a comment.