How to Get the Biggest Bang for Your Cruise Buck

by Marilyn Green

Holland America Line Stateroom

Knowledge is definitely power, especially when you’re shopping for a cruise vacation. While others are paying list price for a cruise, you can either save hundreds of dollars or get valuable extras if you know where the opportunities lie. And if you’re in the know, you can bring your children along without paying, get Concierge Club privileges free, fly without paying airfare, get stateroom upgrades worth hundreds and enjoy free perks from wine to ice cream.

Some of the specials are specific to a particular cruise line; others are available across the industry. Read on to see where the bargains are.

Plan according to party size
Among the first are accommodations like Norwegian Cruise Line’s studio staterooms for single travelers on the new Norwegian Epic. They run hundreds of dollars cheaper than a standard stateroom, which is a revolution, considering single cruisers normally pay fares on most ships that can run to 200% of the per person rate for two. Epic‘s studios are perfectly comfortable, with standard beds, flat screen TVs, closets, bathrooms, etc., at 100 square feet; solo guests also have exclusive access to an attractive adjoining private lounge with coffee, snacks and a bar, where they can relax or mingle. Both seagoing and river cruise lines also periodically suspend the single supplement, sometimes offering additional perks like reduced airfare.

For families, several cruise lines will allow children to sail free in the stateroom with two adults from time to time as special offers; MSC Cruises, with a fleet of 11, invites children under 12 to sail free on all itineraries in Europe, the Caribbean and Canada/New England, all the time.

Upgrade to save
Carnival Corporation’s Italian line, Costa Cruises, which first created the spa stateroom, still has a unique setup, even with the other cruise lines following with their own versions. Spa staterooms on Costa come in various categories, including inside staterooms and suites, for 20 percent above the normal fare.

For this, guests not only get spa amenities in the staterooms and proximity to the 23,000 square foot spa with access to the giant Thalassotherapy Pool, treatments, classes and a tea ceremony, but they can eat any of their meals in the private gourmet spa dining room, which is anything but ascetic. The elegant cuisine attracts passengers outside the spa staterooms, too, but they pay an average of 25 euros (or $32.11 at an exchange of $1.28 per euro) a meal. Eating even half of the 21 meals available there on a seven-day cruise would cost 250 euros ($321.12) and could more than cover the additional cost of the stateroom. These staterooms offer the “ship within the ship” experience, much like staying on the concierge floor of a fine hotel.

Let them entertain you
Extras in entertainment can also be counted against the cruise fare; NCL’s new Epic has a variety of free name entertainment that would normally rise to over $100 a person, like Blue Man Group and Legends, and all seats are free; you just sign up for the performances you want to attend. Royal Caribbean International’s Oasis of the Seas has exclusive licensing for the eight-time Tony Award-winning “Hairspray” as well as a new partnership with Dreamworks. NCL has built an extensive partnership with Nickelodeon that incorporates free shows and character encounters.

Not only do children on Disney cruises see the company’s most recent releases — the smaller numbers when compared to theme parks make for a very personal experience with the characters, who often address young passengers by name.

Theme cruises, too, offer great value, from free movie screenings with the stars on board to demonstrations and conversations with celebrity chefs. One extra which is so little known that cruisers run to e-mail home from the ship, is the baseball greats series on MSC, with the likes of Bob Feller, Clarence Jones and Stan Bahnsen on MSC Poesia in the Caribbean for five cruises this winter. Passengers interact freely with the baseball greats in Q&A sessions, pitching, hitting and base-running clinics and casual chat after the sessions, all without charge. One excited fan on a recent cruise could hardly get his fingers to work on his Blackberry as he texted home, “I just was talking to Earl Weaver! Earl Weaver!”

Lessons at sea
A number of experiences are surprisingly cheaper at sea, from teeth whitening to instruction in building websites. And budding musical stars can create a professionally mastered and edited vocal CD on Costa’s ship of music, Costa Pacifica, in a very sophisticated studio for only 35 euros ($44.93), a fraction of the cost of a similar land-based session.

Be in the know
And then there are staterooms that have extra features. Carnival’s Category 9 wraparound balconies are so prized that passengers have registered anger on the Internet when they were upgraded to suites. The view from the back of the ships is spectacular.

On Royal Caribbean’s Freedom-class ships, stateroom 6305 is also known as the Moo Room or, more formally, the Ben & Jerry Sweet. These are promenade-view staterooms where the view is partially obstructed by the rear ends of the Ben & Jerry’s cows above the ice cream parlor. They come with all the free Ben & Jerry’s you can eat and, on Freedom of the Seas, Concierge Club privileges.

In some cases, Holland America Line‘s Lanai Staterooms are priced very close to an outside rate, and they have sliding doors out to the Verandah Deck. They are available on the Veendam and Rotterdam, and will be added to Maasdam early next year; the Statendam and Ryndam will get them in about a year.

Across the cruise lines, early booking rates are huge for extra value; very often you can go up a level from what you’d pay later, from inside to outside stateroom or outside to balcony. Can’t plan that far ahead? When a particular sailing or set of sailings looks underbooked, the cruise lines offer substantial discounts for new bookings. This is one of the areas where good travel agents can really help, since they are informed daily about such offers and their deadlines, and can get in touch with a client when there’s a match.

Be sure to sign up for the loyalty program on any cruise line whenever you sail and to make sure all subsequent cruises are recorded. It’s free, and perks vary from special cocktail parties to stateroom upgrades.

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