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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 2: Getting the Best Deal (this post)
Do you have any tips or tricks for getting a great bargain on a cruise?
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