In today’s competitive cruise market, finding a great deal on a cruise fare is not difficult. Websites scanning the latest deals are plentiful. What is less plentiful are ways to save money once you are on the ship. Cruise lines make most of their profits from cruisers while they are on board and cruises are designed to make it sinfully easy to rack up a huge shipboard tab. There are some helpful tips I’ve learned over the years while cruising to help save some money. I’ve been so successful with some of these tips that I ended one cruise with the ship actually owning me money (true story!) We’ve been on 24+ cruises, so here are the tips and trips we’ve learned from those experiences.
1. Book Your Cruise Through a Travel Agent– I’m a big do it yourselfer and typically book travel on my own. However, I’ve learned that there are some big benefits of booking through a travel agent. I usually do my research first and know what the best deals are on the cruise I want to take (see Vacations To Go). I then book with an agent who can match that fare and who can give me some type of additional benefit (i.e. airline miles, free trip insurance). I highly recommend Cruise Compete. It is a website where you state the cruise and date you want to go on and various travel agents will compete to offer you the best deals and perks. The agents can then go to bat with the cruise line to try to procure you additional benefits. If they have many clients booking the same cruise they can often negotiate additional perks. If you cruise often, the agents can often get additional on-board credits, cash back offers, room upgrades, etc. If you notice before your sail date that the cruise line is offering additional promotions, your agent can often get these additional benefits applied to your account. We’ve gotten free gratuities, free internet, and additional ship board credits by watching the current promotions. It’s worth you time to monitor these promotions and ask for the perks. See our tips on how to Save on Travel to find deals getting to your embarkation port.
2. Join Cruise Critic– While not the easiest website to navigate, joining cruise critic can be of advantage in saving money while on board. The website allows you to join a group of other passengers that are also going on the same voyage. People can then communicate, share information, ask questions, etc. People can also leave unbiased reviews of the ship, service, etc. on this site. Due to this, many cruise lines monitor these sites and sometimes organize an on board gathering of the guests who registered as a passenger of that voyage on cruise critic. This gathering often includes free cocktails or other perks. It’s also a great way to meet fellow cruises ahead of time and even coordinate shared private shore excursions. It’s great to start the trip with a few built in friends.
3. Book Your Own Shore Excursions – In many ports, it is very easy and way more economical to book your own shore excursions. Cruise lines hire local agencies to provide shore excursions then charge an up-charge on that excursion to you for the convenience of booking though the cruise line. My advice is to look at sites like Trip Advisor for providers who have reviews of many local tour guides. Search Trip Advisor for your port city, and then look at Things to Do. You’ll find local providers with contact information and website links in this area. You can then contact them directly and book your tour. I find you can typically save more than 1/2 the cost of the cruise line excursions, have the flexibility to see what you want to see, and often have time to see way more than the cruise line excursion. Just note that the ship will not wait for you if you miss the all aboard time. I always arrange to be back on the ship at least an hour ahead of the all aboard time so that there is little chance I’ll miss the ship. If you are concerned with safety, I advise leaving the cruise line the information on who and how to contact your tour guide, what you are seeing, and what you agenda is. Often on cruise critic, you can contact other passengers on your same voyage and arrange to share a private tour. This will save you even more money and provide even more security (safety in numbers)
4. Explore Specialty Restaurants– Many cruise lines have specialty restaurants where they may charge you an extra fee to dine in. I don’t typically partake in these restaurants as I don’t think the extra charge is justified for the food. I have found that on several cruise lines, they open the specialty restaurants for lunch and offer this service with no extra fee. This is often not advertised widely. While the menu many be more limited, it gives you a great way to see and try the specialty restaurant without incurring the extra charge. Some ships (i.e. Celebrity) also offer to reduce the specialty restaurant fee on the first night aboard. Many cruise lines allow you to book reservations at the specialty restaurant up to a few months before the sail date, so if they offer special deals the first night, you can reserve a slot ahead of time and the difference in the special rate is usually refunded as an on board credit to your account.
5. Avoid Laundry Fees– All ships will offer you laundry service- usually at an extraordinary fee. I never use this service. I bring my own detergent and wash small items in my room and dry them on the clotheslines provided in the bathroom. Almost all ships have laundry machines that you can use. You’ll need to purchase tokens to use the machines, but this is way less expensive than using the full laundry service. See our Packing Tips to ensure you don’t forget anything.
6. Take Advantage Discounted Drink Offers– If you like to partake in alcoholic beverages while on board, be prepared to pay a pretty penny. However, many ships offer a happy hour where they offer half price or two for one drinks. Many cruise lines also offer a drink of they day that they often discount. If the ship has an event, they often offer a free beverage if you attend. Art Auctions also typically offer a free drink while you watch the auction.
7. Bring Your Own Beverages– While many cruise lines have policies on bringing alcoholic beverages on board, they usually allow you to bring 1-2 bottles on board when you embark. Check the policies of your ship (here is a link to each Cruise Line’s Alcohol Policy) If you bring more than the allowed amount, they may do nothing, or they may take and hold the extra alcohol until your disembark. My experience has been the more upscale the cruise, the less they are likely to make an issue of a guest brining on drinks. They also tend to only check for guests bringing in bottles upon embarkation. Once you are at port, they rarely check when you come back on board, so I have been successful in bringing beverages back on board in my daypack – in other words, I don’t make it obvious what I am brining back onboard. The beverage policy typically only applies to alcoholic beverages, so bringing on board soda or drink mixers is typically not a problem. I always bring a large plastic cup with a lid and straw and fill the cup up with juice in the morning when it is offered and then use it later in the day as a mixer for cocktails. Bringing ice tea bags and dry drink mixers like Kool-Aid on board also helps save money so I’m not tempted to buy sodas on board.
8. Maximize Your Internet Time– While at sea, there may not be a lot of options to avoid using satellite service that the ship offers which is very expensive. A few weeks prior to your voyage, check online to see if the ship if offering any specials of purchasing minutes prior to your trip. They often offer discounts or extra minute packages. Check your cell service carrier to see if they have any type of International package that you can use for data service. Often you can find carriers that may actually be less per minute than the cruise line. Utilize free or discounted WIFI while in port. Many restaurants offer free or discounted WIFI service. Always ask as they may not advertise the service but will often let you use it if you are purchasing something there. Many cruise terminals also offer free or inexpensive WIFI. Certain travel credit cards also offer free Boingo service which will give you WIFI in many places around the world. Another tip is to compose all email while off line and then log in quickly to send emails and download new ones quickly. Disconnect, then read new emails offline.
9. Read Your Daily Cruise Newsletter– Cruise lines often offer various daily deals that may help save money while on board. My favorite is the Captain’s happy hour or Champagne toast where the cruise will offer you free drinks and appetizers. Another deals that may be offered is ship board credit on your current cruise if you book your next cruise while onboard. Remember to bring your travel agent information and you can still get the perks that the agent offers and if other deals or promotions are offered later, your agent can try to get those applied as well.
10. Avoid the Ship Shops – Unless you really love an item, the items offered on board are typically way over priced. If it is an essential (i,e, you forgot your toothpaste), you can often ask you room steward and they may have the item available free of charge. If you can wait, you can almost always find essentials easily while in port