Money-Saving Cruise Trips for a Dream Vacation at Sea

Ahoy, future sailors! Here's how to save money on a cruise--and avoid sticker shock when the final bill comes due.

Do you have the urge to sail the high seas? Cruises are back, and they’re bigger and better than ever. But are they a good deal? And how can you save the most money, both before you embark and after you set sail?

Read on to discover insider tips on how to cruise for less.

Best Time to Sail

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The best time to sail depends entirely on where you want to go—and what your priorities are when you’re at sea. There’s a trade-off between the lowest prices and the best weather, no matter where you want to travel. However, there may also be seasonal events, such as whale-watching in Alaska, that only happen at special times of the year.

If you want to take an Alaskan cruise, the best prices are during the shoulder seasons of May and September. However, you also risk plunging temperatures and rainy weather.

A cruise in the Mediterranean is most expensive during the summer when visitors can enjoy the warmest temperatures and sunniest days. However, European cruises also tend to spike in price during the December holidays.

But what about the Caribbean? Well, hurricane season seems to start earlier and earlier every year, although it officially runs from June through November. That’s quite a large stretch of time when the risk of storms is higher than usual. The best month to go in terms of price is January!

Onshore Parking

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If you drove to port, you’ll need to leave your car somewhere. And it won’t come as a surprise that parking in a secured lot for a week or more can add a substantial cost to your trip. Cruise.com has a rundown of port parking for all United States and Canada departures, including a breakdown of prices. Typically, you can expect to pay $15-$20 at most ports, though New York City is considerably more expensive than the average.

If you live within an hour or two of the dock, then it makes sense to ask a friend or family member for a ride, as paying them for the gas will likely be much less than the cost of parking. If that’s not an option and you’ve already ruled out public transportation, then it’s a smart move to pre-book your parking if at all possible. Most lots are first come, first served, and the absolute last thing you want to do is drive around in search of a place to park.

You can comparison shop online for the best rates, the highest reviews for safety and customer services, and any coupons or promotions. Lots aren’t operated by the cruise ship lines, but they usually offer free shuttles to the various docks.

Drinking and Dining

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Cruise ship food is one of the highlights of the experience, but not all dining options are created equal. Before you decide on a cruise line, read the fine print about which dining options your ticket includes. Most will offer a basic dining room option, but premium restaurants can carry a hefty cover charge.

That’s slowly changing, as cruise lines such as Virgin, Viking, and Silversea have started to offer all dining choices to every cruiser. However, you will still need to book premium restaurants as far in advance as possible, and you’ll usually be limited to one booking per voyage for each restaurant. In other words, you can’t dine at the steakhouse every single night.  

Drinks are a whole different issue. Even on the most generous cruise lines, everything except water, tea, and basic coffee is going to cost. You can purchase a drinks package that covers all premium beverages, including alcohol, or look into a soda-only package for a lower price. These packages can be purchased on most ships after you board, but you may find that it’s cheaper to pre-pay when you book your ticket. In addition, some cruise lines offer periodical incentives with free drinks or bonus shipboard credits that you can use for beer, wine, and cocktails.

Most cruise lines allow you to bring your own drinks onboard—but there are limits. Check the fine print before you stuff your carry-on with champagne bottles!

Over at Don’t Waste the Crumbs, Tiffany recommends taking advantage of the best of both worlds by enjoying your meals on the ship but grabbing a drink at port. Onboard dining options are included in your fare, while drinks can be quite pricey—even sodas. At port, however, the opposite is often true. Restaurants that cater to tourists typically have serious markups, and while the drinks are marked up too, it won’t be quite as steep as onboard prices.

Read More: Best Credit Cards For Travel Points

Choosing Your Cabin

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Seasoned cruisers tend to have strong opinions about the best place to stay on a ship. Some will tell you that the lower price of an interior cabin is a bargain since you’ll be spending most of your time elsewhere. Others insist that a balcony can turn a mediocre cruise into a transcendent experience.

Interior cabins are the cheapest and smallest choice. Next, you may be able to choose an ocean-view stateroom for a slightly higher price. After that, you’ll be looking at veranda or balcony rooms, which have small, private outdoor areas. After that level, many cruise lines offer luxurious suites at premium prices.

Before you choose, head to YouTube to see if any travel bloggers offer tours of their cabins on board a ship similar to the one you’re looking at. It’s one thing to look at a photo or even a computer-generated virtual tour versus seeing a real person move around the space.

On old-school cruise lines, such as Cunard, your room is also tied to the level of dining you can access. People who purchase more expensive tickets can also eat dinner at the more lavish restaurants.

Be Savvy About Shore Excursions

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Although it might be tempting to spend your entire cruise enjoying the onboard dining and entertainment, don’t forget about shore excursions! When ships pull into port, you’ll usually have a handful of activities to choose from that are sponsored by the cruise ship. These can be once-in-a-lifetime experiences, such as ziplining over a jungle or snorkeling in crystal-clear water. But—and you know there’s a “but” coming—excursions booked through the cruise ship aren’t cheap.

As with almost everything else, bargain cruise lines do not include the price of shore excursions in the basic ticket. You’ll need to book those, and it’s a good idea to do so in advance. Premium and luxury cruise lines tend to be more generous with excursions. For example, Viking offers at least one experience each day that you’re in port as part of the ticket price.

Of course, there’s another way to have fun during port days. Unless you’re docked at a private island owned by the cruise line, then you are free to make your own accommodations for tours, museums, dining, and shopping. Port towns often cater to cruise ship patrons, and you can find plenty to see and do for a bargain when you play travel agent for yourself. Just make sure that there’s no chance you might not get back to the ship on time!

Read More: Money-Saving Tips for First-Class Travel on a Coach Budget

Don’t Forget to Tip

Cozumel, Mexico - April 24, 2019: Cruise passengers arrive to the cruise ship to check in and board the MSC Seaside Cruise Ship which sails from Cozumel to Miami.
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Many first-time cruisers aren’t aware of the expected gratuities for the various folks who make your stay a pleasant one. It’s unlike any other system of tipping, and plenty of people find it perplexing.

Most cruise lines automate gratuities, meaning that different groups of service professionals receive a set amount of cash per sailor per day. People such as the cabin steward and dining room staff receive the bulk of these tips. Sometimes, they might show up on your bill as a “Crew Incentive” charge or a generic service charge.

According to Cruzely, the average cruise line charges $15-$20 per person (not per stateroom) each day for gratuities. Carnival, Disney, and Princess are at the low end; Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, and Holland American are in the middle; Norwegian is at the high end of the scale. You’ll note, however, that the most high-end cruise lines aren’t on that list. Why? Because those lines usually include gratuities as part of the overall ticket price rather than itemizing them in the final bill.

This speaks to a larger issue with so-called bargain cruises. While it’s certainly possible to get a dirt-cheap deal on a five-night Caribbean cruise, the advertised price doesn’t include gratuities, port fees, taxes, drinks or premium dining, or shore excursions. Once you add everything up, those pricier cruises start to seem like a bargain, don’t they?

Of course, you can always add more to your tip to recognize outstanding service. You can also tip bartenders directly on most ships. However, it’s often very difficult to argue with a cruise ship about reducing or eliminating your automatic gratuity charges.

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