Going on a cruise doesn’t mean you have to spend a shipload of money. If you’re a skilled and clever DIY Cruise Planner, you can get more for your money by using these secrets saving money on a cruise.

If you book a cabin with prepaid tips,  it’s possible to disembark the cruise and not spent any additional money over the base fare.

Shop around

Check several cruise lines for similar ships, itineraries, and duration.

Use 3rd party websites like Cruise Time Tables, Vacations To Go or Costco Travel to compare different cruise lines and itineraries. You don’t necessarily have to book with them, but they may give you more perks than booking directly with the cruise line.

If your objective is to spend a few days at the beach, don’t be too picky about the cruise line. Pick the best fare value you can find.

Note: Don’t get a drink or alcohol package just because the cruise line puts it on sale. You have to drink a 5-8 alcoholic drinks per day to make it worth your money. You can also buy alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks in port for a fraction of the cost.

Look for promotions

All cruise lines have rotating promotional sales and some even have offers such as:

  • Onboard credit
  • Kids sail free
  • 2nd guest half off
  • Prepaid tips
  • Drink package
  • Internet package

Some of these features may be included in the promotional fare. Check several cruise lines and compare rates.

Several lines have no-cost addons, like OBC (on board credit), drink packages, internet, pre-paid tips and more that already are included at no extra cost. Norwegian and Celebrity commonly have free addons like drinks or tips included in the base fare. 

If you go with Carnival or Royal Caribbean, price the drink package or tips and compare to other lines where they’re included to get an actual cost comparison.

Here are some examples of cruise sales & promotions:

Note: These offers may no longer be available.

Some cabins also come with perks and promotions.

The Boardwalk balcony rooms on Royal Caribbean Oasis, Allure, Harmony and Symphony currently come with non-alcoholic drink packages, rock climbing lessons, and a meal at Johnny Rockets, a specialty restaurant.

On the same ships, the Central Park rooms come with dinner at Jamie’s Italian, Sabor or Johnny Rockets, bottle of red wine, and casino gaming lessons.

Book an inside cabin

Inside rooms are often the best value because they include everything that the cruise line offers with the fare, like food and entertainment, without paying a premium for a view you can get just by going up to the top decks. Most of the time all you do in your cabin is sleep and shower.

There are heaps of places around a cruise ship where you can get spectacular views, and find a quiet place to read, work on a craft or play cards with a friend.

There are many activities to participate in on board. You’ll get a printed cruise planner guide each night for all the happenings the next day, and where they’ll take place. You will also get a port shopping guide with a useful map (even if you have no interest in the shopping).

When you book an inside cabin, it can leave you with significantly more money available to do things like upscale dining experiences or excursions.

Pool deck, Royal Caribbean Serenade of the Seas (c) 2018 Alyce Meserve

Guaranteed stateroom rate

Guaranteed rooms are one of the most overlooked strategies to get more value for your money on a cruise. You select the class of room you want–interior, oceanview, balcony, etc–and you are shown the lowest price for that class.

The catch is: you don’t get to pick your room. You’re guaranteed a room of that class OR BETTER! Your cabin will be assigned about a week before the cruise.

Select “contact me if upgrade is available” and they’ll contact you close to your cruise date and offer an upgrade. Some upgrades are free, but some require a small fee, like $25 or $100.

If you get upgraded to a suite, enjoy!  It comes with a lot of extra perks the other classes don’t offer.

Guaranteed cabins have the highest chance of getting a visit from the upgrade fairy. If you get a free upgrade, congrats! You are very lucky.

Cruise while kids are in school

Often, the most expensive times to cruise are the months when school is out, such as June, July, Winter break (Christmas), Spring break (mid-March).

Booking a cruise for late August through early December (except for thanksgiving week) can often yield great deals on fares.

January and February can also offer lucrative deals, but this is also a time when snowbirds crave warm weather, so you may find some fares a bit higher. It’s also known as “wave” season–an uptick in demand.

If you want to cruise Alaska, June and July are peak months, so consider May or August for lower fares.

Canada/New England cruises are more expensive the closer you get to peak foliage season. That’s usually the first week of October.

Europe peak months are also June and July, so you may find the best deals for early spring or early fall, like April and September. Also consider a transatlantic cruise that visits several European ports before reaching its final destination.

Repositioning cruises

Repositioning refers to ships that move from cool weather to warmer climates or in spring returning from the Caribbean back to Europe/New England for summer cruising.

You can find excellent value for your money on these trips, as the fare tends to be lower than similar itineraries of the same length. For the flexible cruiser, this can be an ideal vacation, since you’ll get the opportunity to spend more time in port when you disembark the ship on the final day.

These cruises are as popular with value-seekers since they conclude in different ports from where they departed. Consequently, it’s not as convenient if you have to buy two one-way airfare tickets.

Norwegian Pearl Reposition San Diego to Tampa via Panama Canal

Popular repositioning itineraries include:

  • Australia and Hawaii/Vancouver/Seattle

  • New England and Florida/Caribbean

  • Florida and California

  • Europe and South America

  • Australia and Japan/China

  • Florida/Caribbean and Europe

  • Europe and Dubai

The benefit to these cruises is that the fares are low to attract casual cruisers and people with flexible schedules, and you get an opportunity to visit ports that the cruise line may not regularly visit, such as

  • Dutch Harbor, Alaska
  • Charleston, South Carolina
  • Norfolk, Virginia
  • Panama
  • Greenland
  • Petropavlovsk, Russia
  • Papeete, Tahiti, French Polynesia
  • Easter Island, Chile

The typical repositioning cruise is 10-11 days long, but may be as long as 24-27 days, depending on the distance and number of ports the ship visits.

When shopping for repositioning cruises keep an open mind and be creative about ports to search.

You might find some surprises like short 3-day cruises from places like Puerto Rico to Florida. That could be great for people who have a limited amount of time to cruise.

Book early

Cruise fares are often at their lowest when the schedule is newly released.

That is to say, if you can book a year and a half to two years in advance, you have an opportunity to grab some of the lowest rates on fares. Prices increase around 6 to 12 months ahead of the sailing date.

In addition, you’ll have your pick of rooms because fewer have been booked yet. For people who want specific rooms and locations, you’re more likely to find what you want booking farther out.

Most of all, handicap accessible rooms are in high demand. As a result, you will have the best luck finding availability by booking early since they are some of the first to book up.

Chops Grill, Royal Caribbean Serenade of the Seas (c) 2018 Alyce Meserve

Book last minute

If there are 4 weeks or less before the sail date, the fares may be significantly discounted.

Cruise lines want to sell off their remaining cabins rather than leave them vacant.

Even if they don’t get the original higher fare, they count on the guest to spend more on board, such as alcohol, dining, excursions or entertainment to make up for the discount.

Discounted gift cards

You will need to use your research skills to find the best deal and weed out scams. Some sites only save you 5%, but sometimes you can find cards on eBay with a 15% savings (you can buy a $100 card for $85).

AARP’s Rewards for Good program offers Carnival and Royal Caribbean gift cards at a discount. You do not need to be a senior or an AARP member. Anyone, any age can register at their website for the program. Do a couple of quizzes, earn the minimum points to unlock the rewards. You don’t need to earn points to spend on gift cards. You can buy the gift cards with a credit or debit card.

Sometimes clubs like Costco and Sam’s offer gift cards for cruise lines.

Make sure you read the terms of the gift card before purchasing. Some might only be usable on new bookings. Therefore, you can’t apply it toward a final payment if you already booked something, unless you cancel and re-book using the gift card.

Tip: You may also find airline (eg, Southwest) discount gift cards too.

Keep checking fares

Just because you booked the fare doesn’t mean it’s the best price.

You can set up alerts with cruise fare websites that track it and then email you if the fare changes.

If you booked prior to the final payment due date, keep checking fares once or twice a week for drops. If you already made the final payment, you’re locked in at that rate and can’t make changes with out significant fees.

How to Save Money On Board

Know what’s included

  • Meals in the non-specialty restaurants
  • Non-specialty drinks (water, milk, lemonade, iced tea, regular coffee)
  • Gym & fitness area and sports courts
  • Theater entertainment such as plays, musicals, live music acts, ice skating and cliff diving shows
  • Indoor/outdoor pools and whirlpool spas
  • Activities sponsored by the cruise director’s staff: trivia, talks/lectures, demonstrations, parties, competitions
  • Most non-premium activities like dancing, surfing, rock climbing, parades and parties
  • Special needs accommodations
  • Special diets
  • Kid’s clubs

Often room service has no fee, since the food comes out of the main kitchens, but some might have a delivery service fee.

Some lines, like MSC Cruises, tend to be more inclusive than other lines, like Carnival and Royal Caribbean. While the fare may be a bit higher for the same cruise, after you add on all the drinks and perks of MSC, the cost could be a better value for you.

Always shop around and compare apples to apples as closely as possible. Factor in drink costs if you plan to imbibe.

Tip: check the website for your ship or call the cruise line to be sure what’s included.

Know what’s not included

  • Specialty restaurants
  • Room service fees
  • Specialty activities on board (such as exercise classes or escape room)
  • Alcohol, mixed drinks, beer, wine, spirits
  • Soda, bottled water, Starbucks/specialty coffees, smoothies, and similar
  • Excursions off ship
  • Spa and salon services
  • Internet (yes, this includes Facebook)
  • Casino
  • Transfers to/from port
  • Treatment or drugs from the ship’s medical bay
  • Baby food and babysitting services (such as in-cabin babysitter)
  • Video arcade games
  • Laundry services
  • Medical devices and mobility assistance
  • Tips & gratuities
  • Port fees and taxes
  • Travel insurance
Voom Internet Promotion Sign

Skip the internet and drink packages

If you’re on a vacation, then be on vacation. Disconnect from Facebook and email for a few days and practice self care. Bring a print book. Get some sun. The world will still be on fire when you return.

Internet packages tend to run $15-20 per day per device.

If you have to check in from time to time, it’s not hard to find free wifi in ports. You can commonly enjoy it if you’re buying food or drinks off-ship.

Your cell carrier may allow wifi calling so you can stay in touch with home. Make sure to set your phone in airplane mode when you leave port.

Drink packages can save you money if you drink a lot. Like 5-6 drinks a day.

Alcohol packages average $70-85 per day per person. They are strict about sharing–so if you buy one, be prepared to buy two. It might be required.

But you’ll also have to pay gratuities on top of the package price.

For an occasional spirit, just pay a la carte.

Bring your own drinks

Most cruise lines allow passengers to bring two 750ml bottles of wine per room. They must be consumed in the room, or you have to pay a corkage fee at the dining room.

If you want to be stealth, bring an opaque plastic bottle, fill it in your cabin and take it with you around the ship.

There are mixed reports from people who bring on their own cases of water and soda. While most lines explicitly prohibit them, people often get them on board without incident. Some put the bottles into luggage, others just tape a cruise line luggage tag on, and the porters deliver it to the room.

If you’re a Mountain Dew drinker and the ship only serves Coke products, security may look the other way, or you can just tell them you don’t like Coke products.

Some people had success bringing discrete reusable flasks on board:

Of course, always be prepared if security confiscates your hidden contraband. Don’t make a scene over it or they may not even let you embark.

If you tried any of these strategies, let us know how it went in the comments.

Pass on specialty dining

Even the smallest of ships have at least two included dining options: the main dining room (MDR) and the buffet.

Larger ships will have more food options that are included in your fare such as cafes or bistros. They are usually casual dining options, meaning short order food like burgers and sandwiches or self-serve buffet style.

The largest ships offer a wide variety of specialty dining, but they may put you back $30-50 per person per meal.

Snorkeling in St. Maartin (c) 2018 Alyce Meserve

DIY Excursion Planning

Ship-sponsored excursions are the same ones that the 3rd parties offer, but the ship charges a premium. On the upside, they guarantee the ship will not leave without you if your excursion returns late to the port.

This doesn’t happen a lot, because when people miss ship’s departure it’s frequently because they lost track of time shopping in the port.

Third-party excursion booking sites like Viator offer the same tours the cruise line offers for a lower cost.

These tour bookings customarily they offer a guaranteed return time so you won’t miss the ship’s departure, and guarantee airfare to the next port so you can rejoin the ship if they are responsible for your tardiness.

Sometimes you can book directly with the tour operator, like I did in San Juan, PR with Flavors of San Juan food tour. (Use promo code CARMEN for a 10% discount). They also have tours in St. Thomas and St. Maartin.

If you want to save big, skip the ship-sponsored excursion trips, as well as the 3rd party groups.

Research each port you’re going to and make a list of things you want to see, do or eat. Find out what that place is best known for. Share a taxi or rental car, hop on a city bus, or simply walk and explore.

You can even buy gear for a fraction of the rental price, such as a snorkel set for $30 on Amazon instead of paying $100 per person for a snorkel excursion.

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