Going on a Cruise Part 2 – Getting the Best Deal

This is part two of my series on cruise vacations.  In my first post on cruising I talked about the basics of cruising like what the cruise fare covers (and what it doesn’t) and life on board the ship.

In this post I reveal how to get the best deal on cruise fares.

 

Finding the best cruise fare

Cruise fares are highly seasonal, so you’ll save a lot of money by traveling during the off season.  For cruises, low season starts in September once the kids are back in school and the odds of a hurricane in the Caribbean skyrocket. The low season ends sometime in February as the spring breaker business picks up, with higher rates in the late spring and throughout summer.  Peak season cruises during summer are usually two or three times the price of off season cruises.

We love booking in the low season.  In the fall, it’s a little cooler in the Caribbean so you don’t burn up as much.  In the winter, we escape the freezing temps at home.  The only problem is the kids’ school schedule so we try to pick a week where they have one or more days off school.

costa-atlantica-deck-panoramic

Hurricanes have never caused any problems in our cruising itinerary, and even if there was an active tropical system in the Caribbean, the cruise ship will typically detour around the worst of the storm to visit other ports that aren’t impacted by inclement weather.

For the absolute lowest fares, last minute cruise deals are the way to go.  When we’re thinking about taking a cruise soon, we’ll start checking prices and watch for a really good bargain to show up.  Prices are typically the lowest during the three or four weeks before sailing, so be ready to hit the road not long after booking if you go this route.  Be flexible as to cruise line and ship, departure port, and ports of call, and you can usually find some great last minute bargain cruises at $40 per night per person or less.

Another great source of low fares, sometimes even lower than last minute cruises, are “repositioning” cruises.  Particularly cheap are transatlantic repositioning cruises.  Each April and May, cruise ships leave the warm waters of the Caribbean for a summer of cruising in the warm season in Europe.  In October and November, these ships leave Europe and return across the Atlantic for the warm Caribbean winters.  Hop aboard one of these Europe-bound cruises in the spring or a Caribbean-bound cruise in the fall and you might pay as little as $30-35 per person per night plus tax.  I’ve also seen similar rates on a repositioning cruise from San Diego, California to Chile.

These repositioning cruises are a smoking hot deal if you can devote two weeks to the cruise and deal with one way airfare to or from Europe.  We’re hoping to take advantage of the repositioning bargains to or from Europe some day, and get free one way plane tickets by redeeming airline miles from credit card sign up bonuses.  While we’re in Europe, we can do some sightseeing before returning home.

Just shootin' some hoops. On a ship.

Just shootin’ some hoops. On a ship.

 

Picking a cabin to save money

The cheapest rooms aboard are “inside” cabins.  This means they are in the interior of the ship and do not come with windows.  The next category of rooms are “oceanview” cabins where you get a porthole or window so you can see the ocean.  Upgrade once more and you get the “balcony room” where you have a door to your own private balcony overlooking the water.  The ultimate upgrade is the suite that comes with a balcony and usually has separate living and sleeping quarters and is more spacious than the lower category cabins.

All the cabins have access to the same dining rooms, shows, and entertainment while on board, so the extra cost that comes with the upgraded room is really just a nicer room.  You do get some extra perks with the suites depending on the cruise line (like an on-call butler).

Being cheapskates we tend to book inside rooms.  Sure, we can’t see the ocean from our room but we don’t stay in the room very long anyway unless we’re asleep.  If you like to sleep in, it’s really nice to have the absolute darkness that comes with a room devoid of all windows.  I like looking around the formal dining room and thinking of all the guests that paid five or ten times what we paid even though we’re chowing down on the same filet mignon and lobster.

If you’re flexible on your room assignment, you can save even more with the “guaranteed inside” cabin category.  Book a “guaranteed inside” cabin and you’re guaranteed some cabin on the ship but the cruise line gets to pick where it is.  It’s typically one of the lower cost cabins but one time we received an outside cabin with a window view (partially obstructed with a lifeboat).  You’re doing the cruise line a favor by soaking up their excess inventory of cabins and in exchange you save some dough.

View from our cabin's balcony

View from our cabin’s balcony

 

Booking a cruise with kids

When booking a cruise, you’ll see the advertised price.  Double that and add in a bit of tax and that’s what you’ll typically pay for a cabin with two people in it.  Our $199 cruise last September was actually $650 for a two person cabin with taxes included.

The two person cabin is the commodity good of the cruise industry.  Drop to a person traveling solo, and you’ll pay almost the same price as a two person cabin.  Add in a third person to your room and you’ll usually get bumped to a higher category cabin that costs more for the first two cruise fares.

Disco party for the kids

Disco party for the kids

As a result of the increased cost for cabins accommodating three or more people, it’s often about the same price or sometimes cheaper to book two cabins if you’re traveling with four people.  If you’re traveling with kids, it’s nice to have that second cabin so the kids have their own space and the adults have their own, too.  We usually book me and one kid in one cabin, and Mrs. RoG and the other kid(s) in the second cabin since they want an adult present in each room.  Then we switcheroo once we’re on board.  Our cabin attendants knew what we were doing and they never raised it as an issue when our two year old stayed with his 8 and 9 year old siblings in one room while the adults stayed down the hall.

We booked “inside guarantee” rooms on the last two cruises and lucked out with cabins near each other.  If being in a room next door to your kids is a must, you’ll have to pay up for a particular room and forgo the “inside guarantee” savings.

Conversely, sometimes it’s significantly cheaper to book a four person cabin if the cruise line has a “kids sail free” promotion.  We snagged a steal on Costa a few years ago where a balcony room for four of us was under $1,100 total for a seven night cruise.

Our children love the kids clubs on the cruise

Our children love the kids clubs on the cruise

 

How to search for and book your cruise

If you’re focused on finding the best cruise value, you should be looking at the “price per night” metric.  Travelocity used to have a very nice search interface with filters and screens for cruise length, departure port, cruise line and other features and also allowed sorting by price per night.  Unfortunately they revamped their website and it’s now harder to use.  I contacted them a year ago to suggest a “sort by price per night” option but never got a response.

Travelocity is still a pretty solid option for searching for cruises, and my preferred option for completing the cruise booking.  Travelocity lets you sort by price for the whole cruise.  But if you want to be able to sort by price per night, Vacationstogo.com is a better option for the search.  They have a 90-day ticker for last minute cruise deals and a full search function for all cruises for the next couple years.

I like booking with Travelocity because they offer very competitive sales and incentives to get your business.  They occasionally have sales that beat the rates available at Orbitz or other online travel sites.  Travelocity also offers “on board credit” promotions when you book cruises through their site.  For example, the cruise you want to purchase might be $259 per person at every cruise site on the internet while Travelocity also offers $50 or $75 back in the form of an on board credit you can spend while on the ship.  I use on board credit to buy bottles of alcohol to take home or to pay the mandatory gratuity (around $12/day per person), so it’s almost like a cash rebate.

Speaking of cash rebates, don’t forget to use your favorite online shopping portal.  We usually get $40+ back on each cruise just for clicking through a shopping portal like Mr. Rebates or Ebates.  Looking at those two sites for purchases from Travelocity, I see 4% cash back at Mr. Rebates and 7% back at Ebates on cruises right now.  7% of a $1000 cruise is an easy $70 in exchange for 10 seconds of clicking.  I find the cruise I want to buy, then click through the Mr. Rebates or Ebates site and complete the purchase for some quick cash.

costa-atlantica-atrium

The atrium on Costa Atlantica. Look out below!!!

Another neat site for booking cruises is CruiseCompete.com.  It’s like a reverse auction for cruises where the travel agents bid for your business.  You pick the cruise and cabin you want and submit to Cruise Compete, then wait a few hours and get a number of quotes from different travel agents.  For the bargain basement last minute cruises in the lowest room categories that we usually buy, I haven’t received any great offers through cruisecompete since I’m usually getting a promotion from Travelocity and stacking it with 4-7% cash back from Mr. Rebates of Ebates.  From talking to travel agents I found through Cruise Compete, they have mentioned the higher priced cabins and more expensive sail dates typically have more wiggle room to offer free cabin upgrades or on board credits to win your business.

You can also purchase cruise tickets direct from the cruise lines or through your own travel agent.  I’ve found that a lot of the discounts go away if you’re booking straight with the cruise line, though that is how we got our amazing deal on Costa a few years ago.  If you have a preferred travel agent, you’ll get great service from them although you might not get the best pricing or promotions (then again, you might).

 

Check out all the posts in the Going on a Cruise series:

Going on a Cruise Part 1: Overview

Going on a Cruise Part 2: Getting the Best Deal (this post)

Going on a Cruise Part 3: Save on Board and on Transportation

Going on a Cruise Part 4: The Food!

Cruising the Caribbean Aboard the MSC Divina

 

 

Do you have any tips or tricks for getting a great bargain on a cruise?

 

 

35 comments

  • That is great info! We have been on a few cruises and enjoyed them. Have you ever seen deals on or have tips for Disney cruises? We want to take our kids on a Disney cruise in 2 years or so before we FIRE, but, from what I’ve seen, they don’t tend to go on sale… too high demand, perhaps.

    • Sorry, I don’t have much advice for Disney cruises other than start saving early because they aren’t cheap. The rates I’ve seen are typically 2-3x the off season rates we pay normally, so we haven’t done the Disney cruises (and our kids aren’t huge Disney fans, either). I think they are more expensive because they don’t sell tons of alcohol to offset the low basic cruise fares.

      As for cruising with kids, our kids have loved to the 10th power all of the cruises we have taken. They love the kids club, the attention they get from staff, the pool, the food, the fun activities like mini golf. So the basic el cheapo cruise is already pretty awesome for the kids, but in a different way than Disney cruises. The net gain in awesomeness of a Disney cruise probably wouldn’t be worth it to offset the added cost (to us).

    • MouseSavers.com is good info if you’re set on a Disney Cruise. We booked our pre-cruise hotel based on their advice: free shuttle from airport to hotel, and hotel to cruiseport!

      We did a Disney cruise out of Miami in February with our just-turned-4 year old. The Disney cruises are nice because the rooms all sleep 3-4 (2 adults, 1-2 kids), but that might be not-so-nice if you have older kids. We got a 3 person room which was smaller than the 4s. The cruise experience as better than I anticipated – I was not looking forward to days stuck on a boat with so many people! It was nice to be able to walk to everything. On the other hand, we’re doing a week in Florida this year rather than another cruise (we vacation the first week of February every year) because 1) the food was uninspiring and 2) the pool is tiny and 3) there are no playgrounds. I like to have all the central/south american food I can find in Miami that I won’t get in the suburbs of Massachusetts. I like to take my daughter to the playground to run around every day. I like to get in the pool with her, but not with 40 other people.

  • We really enjoy cruising and usually do so every 3-4 years. We would set up a family and friends cruise through the cruise line or the travel agency we use. It would be great…having people on the ship we knew, sharing experiences and dinners, but the ship was large enough if you need some space. Lol. A great perk about planning the cruise was after so many cabins were booked, we would get our cabin for free. Also, our travel agent always threw us a private party with food and drinks or gave everyone cruise bucks to be used as we wanted. Love cruising!

    • Sounds awesome! We’ve done one family cruise with our family, my mom, and my grandma and it worked out well. We didn’t get any free cabins out of our small reservation, but snagged a good deal nonetheless and it was out of Charleston so not much driving required.

      Maybe I should set up a Root of Good cruise get together and work a free cabin into the mix for me! 😉

  • When I cruise Carnival, I buy 100 shares of their stock a couple months before the cruise, send a copy of my ownership statement to Carnival, and they give a ship board credit to shareholders of at least 100 shares. Then I sell it after the cruise.

    • Interesting idea! I’ve thought about that, or buying the shares then buying some put options to cover me in case the price drops significantly. Not quite worth the hassle and risk for $100 but probably worth it for $250. I’d ideally like to snap up the 100 shares at a decent price and just hold them indefinitely. CCL also pays a dividend around 2-2.5%.

  • Check out cruisesheet.com also.

    • Someone else recommended it, but I’m unimpressed. It doesn’t seem to be picking up all the low priced cruises. Or maybe it’s that travelocity has special sales that cruisesheet.com doesn’t have access to. It is a good search engine with the ability to sort by price per night, but the cheap cruises we’ve been seeing lately don’t show up there. That’s why I hesitated to mention it for finding the lowest price cruises. So YMMV on cruisesheet, but it might be worth a look.

  • I’ve been waiting for the second installment! But you don’t mention the specifics of putting 3 in a room… the one you book with your wife and the other kid(s), do you have to get a bigger room because there are 3 people in it? I’m cool with people sleeping on the floor, but there’s probably some sort of lifeboat/life jacket count that has to be part of it…

    • Yes, the 3 person rooms are more expensive and come equipped with bedding for 3 or 4. What those 3rd and 4th beds are varies. Some 3rd/4th beds fold down from the walls. Some are cots they fold out for you at night and fold up and stow in the mornings (your room attendant takes care of the bedding). Some fold down overhead like bunkbeds.

  • Interesting stuff! I definitely want to take a transatlantic repositing cruise someday.

  • Great info! What ports do you typically go through when you cruise? Do you fly or drive to the ports?

    • We do a different port each time it seems. Once each from Charleston, Jacksonville FL, Miami, and 2x from Ft. Lauderdale.

      We’ve driven to all the ports except our very first cruise (in the pre-kids days) when we flew to Ft. Lauderdale. That’s a very convenient port to fly into because it’s just a few miles from the airport and a very cheap taxi ride ($12 one way back in 2004).

  • I had not heard of this before: “a “guaranteed inside” cabin where you’re guaranteed some cabin on the ship- but the cruise line gets to pick where it is”. I will have to check that out. The last minute deals are also an excellent choice for those people with flexible schedules.

    This was a great recap for cruise and got me excited about our trip coming up in February to Mexico. Once the wife and I have more time away from employers, we do plan to take advantage of a repositioning cruise in the next year or so. The idea of making a European trip with a cruise in one direction would be a blast!

    • Definitely check the guaranteed inside rates, especially if it’s just the two of you. We’ve been very happy with all the rooms we’ve randomly received, no complaints so far.

      I’d love to do a US to Europe and return to US using repositioning cruises, but it would mean spending the entire summer in Europe and the kids would miss a couple months of school if we do it now. Maybe that’ll be a trip we do once the kids are out of the house (in 15 years!). Something like leave the east coast of US around May 1, arrive Europe May 15, depart Europe October 15, arrive US east coast Nov 1. That’s six months abroad in total, with a visa run out of Europe at some point.

      There’s also the option of the Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 that makes routine transatlantic runs between NYC and England I believe. Not the cheapest at $600+ per 7 night cruise, but not a ton more than 1 way flights. And it’s a sweet ship.

      • Oh, hot dang, I want to steal your plan! I don’t have kids so I could do it now and tell you how it goes. You could consider me your guinea pig! However, I imagine the deal-gathering climate will change quite a bit in 15 years. 😮

        • Go for it!

          I’m hoping these deals will still be around in 15 years. They were there 11 years ago when I took my first cruise, and I think there will always be a need to reposition cruise ships between Europe and the Caribbean to follow pleasant weather (or between other cities/countries/hemispheres).

  • I remember scanning a site called Cruise Sheet because they had some insane last minute sales…. it made me wish I lived in a bigger port city (Baltimore doesn’t have the great itineraries since there are so many Ship days).

    • It would be awesome if Baltimore and Norfolk VA had better cruise deals because those are both relatively close to us too. South Florida seems to be the place to be for cheap cruises.

  • Thank you for these posts. Looking forward to the next one. My self and my girlfriend are travelling to florida in march but can’t deside about a cruise or renting a mustang and driving around to see the sights. This posts will probably help us decide 🙂

    Have a great day.

    From one who reads your blog regularly on the other side of the Atlantic

    • I’d have to go for the cruise if I were in your shoes. You could see a few different Caribbean islands while you’re on this side of the Atlantic.

      Though a cruise around the highways of Florida in a convertible sounds pretty cool too.

  • Lots of good info on saving on cruise vacation. $40 per person is a crazy good deal. Never heard of this inside guarantee deal, definitely need to look into it next time we book a cruise vacation. The repositioning cruises might be something worth while to look into if we are considering going to Europe in the future.

  • I’ve been enjoying this series. I tried to convince Mrs. Dragon to do a cruise a few years ago when we lived close to a port, but she was having none of it. However, after our vacation this summer her thoughts about it have changed so I might get to use some of this info in the next year or two. I’ll be keeping an eye out for the other parts. Cheers!

    • Cruises are great for relaxation and indulging in a little luxury – think resort that floats. It’s no great cultural exploration expedition, but still great.

  • Thanks for this series. I am really considering a cruise. Just need to figure out when and where. Might as well try it once.

  • I know what you mean about last minute cruise deals! When we’re getting cruise fever, my wife will constantly check the prices and has sometimes booked without checking to make sure I can take off! But yeah, the deals are much better the closer you get to the cruise date. We also use Vacations to Go to check out prices on cruises.

    For us, we had taken a honeymoon on a cruise with a balcony so it’s hard getting away from that, but nowadays the cost of a balcony is hard to compare with an inside room. Especially when you don’t spend much time in the room anyways. Just talking about cruises makes me want to hop on one and sail off.

    • We booked the last cruise without really researching it that much. Just a great price and a fairly local port so it made sense.

      We’ve only done the balcony once. It was really nice to have it, but I’m not sure how much I’d be willing to pay. Maybe $100-200 for a 1 week cruise? Ours was small enough that it was a tight squeeze to get four of us on it at the same time, though very nice to have so Mrs. RoG and I could sneak out there while the kids took a nap in the room. Perfect place to enjoy room service coffee or tea and some snacks while catching the sunset. Although there have always been quiet places to do the same elsewhere on the ship even when we’re staying in steerage class way down below deck. 🙂

  • First of all, that atrium…um, no. Just no. I am afraid of heights and I have a 3 year old who is a climber.

    So, mandatory gratuity would be about $50 a day extra for a family of four?

    • Yeah, it was a little tricky walking on those stairs. 🙂

      Gratuity for a family of 4 would be right at $50 (maybe $46-48) on some cruise lines. Some discount the gratuity for the 3rd and 4th passenger in a room if you book the whole family in 1 room, so it might be closer to $25-35 on some cruise lines.

  • Hello,
    First, Wow! Let me tell you that finding this blog changed my life forever! Thank you for sharing all these tips! Congrats for retiring and being able to travel and enjoy quality time with your family!
    I am a solo female traveler and never considered going on a cruise because I don’t want to share a cabin. However, this year, I will take two months off during September-October and I guess I could find a good deal even if I have to pay for the whole cabin with the “guarantee cabin” option (hope I am not being too naive…). Could you explain again your fantastic idea of using “repositiong cruises”? I… have never been to Italy and if I could stay 5 days in Rome or Florence after a nice cruise, it would be a bliss!
    Thanks for the response!

    • Repositioning cruises tend to have the lowest per night fares of any cruises. Many of the repositioning cruises leave from a Florida port in the spring (April/early May) and spend the summer in Europe. Then in Oct/Nov they return to Florida for Caribbean cruises. So you might be able to find a good cruise from Rome to Florida in mid to late October. That’s a free return trip to the US. Then figure out how to get to Europe in September or October (before the cruise).

      You can usually book a single room and pay for the whole cabin (ie pay a 100% “single supplement” that’s basically the same cost as booking 2 people in the same room). Some cruise lines charge less than 100% “single supplement or run promotions where it’s less (sorry – I don’t have more specifics here).

  • Some real good ideas. I didn’t know about Beatles for cruises or the garunteed inside cabin options.
    Thanks much!

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