The Perfect Cruise Vacation – How to Spend Less for the Very Best

Who ya gonna call? –

Where do you buy your cruise tickets to get the best price? Should you buy from a traditional travel agent, an online mega-seller or direct from the cruise line? Surprisingly, when it comes to the base fare, it doesn’t make much difference. Price variation is more contingent on qualifying for a particular type of discount; promotional, seasonal, past passenger, military or last minute booking- than on where you buy your ticket. The real variables between booking channels are in the level of service provided during the process and perks offered. So read on to learn how to max the experience while making sure you are getting the best value.

When trying to determine actual price from the advertised price, cruise fares can be almost as maddening as airline pricing. Advertised cruise prices are often misleading and unnecessarily vague.

Published prices are always per person based on double occupancy. Additional people occupying the same cabin pay less…usually a lot less. Port taxes and other fees are considerable and are the same for everybody, regardless of category and whether they are the first or fifth person in the cabin.

The add-on fees and taxes when combined with the base fare have been known to add 20% to 50% to the total per person, especially on shorter, already deeply discounted cruises. Always remember to ask about price inclusive of all fees and taxes- or note the fine print if you are reading a brochure. Some cruise lines include the added fees in their advertised prices, most do not. Always ask.

Click here if you would like to see our comments superimposed over a typical cruise ad.

How to qualify for discounts –

The most common discounts are seasonal, last minute, military, geographical, past passenger, senior citizen, positioning itineraries, promotional and distressed categories.

Seasonal – Caribbean cruises are typically discounted in the fall. Alaska cruises will be cheaper at the beginning and end of the season (May, September and October). Ditto for European and Mediterranean cruises – avoid the peak months of July and August and you’ll probably snag a good deal.

Last Minute – Waiting to book can also lead to a great bargain, especially if you are prepared to depart on short notice, having no strong preferences on which ship or itinerary.

Military – Tell the agent that you won the Medal of Honor fighting alongside Sgt. York at the Battle of Verdun and you might get an extra 5% to 10% off.

Geographical – Sometimes small discounts will be available because of where you live – say in Paris, Texas instead of Paris, Tennessee. (Don’t ask why – it is something known only to cruise line executives.)

Past Passenger – lines will frequently offer discounts and/or perks to loyal customers -depending on the number of previous cruises with that particular cruise line.

Senior Citizen – If you are over age 55, ask if an age related discount is available.

Promotional – These kind of discounts can rear their pretty little heads for any number of reasons – again, some only known by cruise lines executives.

Positioning Cruises – These are necessary but less popular itineraries needed to get the ship from one seasonal station to another – say, from Miami to Seattle for the Alaska season. These itineraries are available mostly in the spring and fall and almost always offer deep discounts. But be forewarned – these positioning cruises involve long days at sea and fewer ports. This is especially true of trans-Atlantic positioning cruises.

Category Sale – Another frequent price promotion – a ship may be over-sold in one category and grossly under-sold in another; resulting in deep discounts on the latter.

How to get the most perks –

Many times it is as simple as asking! If you are working with a travel agent, have the TA quiz the cruise line reservations department about any and all available promotions and perks on the sailing(s) that interest you. A good, experienced agent will have a long laundry list of possible perks for which you might be qualified. Or, if booking direct with the cruise line, use what you have learned here about booking direct- but you will need to play the role of Grand Perk Inquisitor yourself.

People who are associated with a group of passengers traveling on the same sailing will automatically qualify for some combination of perks- such as category upgrades, onboard spending credits, free photo, bottle of wine, private meetings, a free shore excursion, etc.

Tip – What most would-be cruisers don’t know is that you only need to be associated with the group on cruise passenger list – not literally. Hence, you only need to find an agency or online consolidator that has group space reserved on cruises that match your desired dates and destination- and before you know it you’re cruising in Perk City. Additionally, if the group is a theme group lead by a celebrity- you might find yourself temporarily basking in the glow and glory of one of your all time idols. Imagine the thrill of being part of the Simon Cowell School of Charm Cruise – complete with an in-the-flesh tongue lashing and public humiliation by Mr. Warm & Fuzzy himself!

Many mega-agencies will have hundreds of departures available with blocked group space into which they can slip perk hungry purchasers.

How to keep costs low –

Cruises were once all-inclusive – one price paid for everything. Today the cruise fare can pale in comparison to the bill you receive at the end of your cruise. There are so many extra cost options – you need to manage those activities as you go.

On board you have no need to carry cash, a credit card or even your wallet on your person – you are issued one card with a magnetic stripe that does triple duty as your room key, on board spending card and boarding pass. You can purchase anything on board with this little piece of plastic convenience in your pocket- alcohol, soft drinks, gift shop items, shore excursions, photographs, spa treatments, art work, surcharges for alternative restaurants, Internet access, ship to shore phone calls- you can even buy chips for gambling in the casino.

Tip – many ships now allow real time access to your on board spending tab at any time from the closed circuit TV in your cabin- displaying a current, up-to-the-minute running total – with details for each line item. So, you can rein in spending if it appears to be getting out of hand. Plus, you can call the front desk at any time to dispute an item if you think the charge is incorrect or excessive for any reason.

Tip toe lightly through the minefield of extra costs once on board –

Alcoholic beverages – Booze is always at extra cost with prices running about what you would expect to pay for similar service in a moderately upscale on-shore establishment.

Soda – priced from $2 to $4 per soda depending on ship and cruise line – if you consume soda daily best bet is to buy the flat rate “unlimited sodas” option for duration of the cruise.

Wine – always at extra cost with prices running about what you would expect to pay for similar in a moderately upscale on-shore establishment – there will be some “freebies” like at the Captain’s Welcome Aboard party or a complimentary bottle if it is your anniversary.

Specialty/Alternative restaurants – most have surcharges of $15 to $40 per person per reservation – the average being about $30. In our opinion the price is well worth paying for a night or two – especially if you want to experience elegant, high-end dining at a level that could easily cost $100 or more per person in a similarly upscale shore side establishment. (Click here for more details on the fine points of maxing the shipboard dining experience.)

Internet access – Available on most ships, you can purchase a basket of minutes for a fixed price. To economize on these dearly priced minutes, read and compose email offline – then log on just for sending and receiving.

Ship to shore phone calls – forget about it! Charges run $2 to $3 PER MINUTE! Buy the Internet access plan instead – then use Skype from your laptop. Plus, your regular cell phone will work on occasion – especially if you are departing from a US port and near land. My Sprint phone usually works just fine from the deck of the ship when within 5 or 6 miles of Miami, Ft Lauderdale or any US island like St. Thomas, Puerto Rico, etc.

Coffee bar – Although regular coffee at meals is included in the cruise fare, you are charged extra for specialty coffees such as espressos and cappuccinos – priced at about what you would expect to pay at Starbucks.

Photos/videos – They are grossly over-priced but it’s a captive audience, so they can get away with it. Even so, you might want to go ahead and buy one or two. My spouse and I always like to get a classy shot of us all dressed up in our matching pink satin bib overalls on formal night.

Shore Excursions – another huge profit center and usually way over-priced – but there’s good news; there are now highly reputable and reliable third party options that can save you a ton of money (Click here to see some alternative possibilities for Shore Excursions.)

Art Auctions – Usually held on days at sea to insure a captive audience, these events are intentionally set in a high trafficked public place to guarantee that innocent victims strolling by will be sucked in by the slick, silver-tongued Art Auction barker. You are cautioned to hold your hand firmly over your pocketbook when in proximity, as well as averting your eyes, humming loudly to yourself to drown out the beguiling sales pitch. It is our personal theory that these Pimped Up Picasso Pushers may be a contributing factor in the recent rash of suicides by jumping overboard. But, that’s just us.

Onboard Shopping – What started out years ago to be just a storage closet with a Dutch door – only open for business for an hour or two each day – primarily for elderly passengers to stock up on essentials such as Denture Cream and Preparation H (sold separately so as not to be confused) has now morphed into mega-malls to rival those of a small city. And, the deals have gotten better and better – with volume has come lower prices – sometimes even lower than shore side because of the lack of taxes.

Tip: Merchandise often goes on sale during port visits – if local authorities allow the onboard shops to stay open while in port – as well as on the last day of the cruise. If you can wait to buy that tacky tank top that says “I went down on the Titanic”, you might save a few bucks.

Gratuities – This is another aspect of cruising that has changed drastically over the years – from no tipping, period…to no tipping required…to “you’d better tip if you ever want to see your luggage again”…to prepaid tips. On cruises today you can expect to tip – but our preference is to maintain control over who and how much. So we stick with the old fashioned method. Pretending to be Congressional lobbyists, we go around the ship on the last night passing out envelopes stuffed with cash. However, if you are into convenience – go the prepaid route. You can always give a little extra on the side at the end of the cruise.

Gambling – There is a reason why the English blackjack dealers refer to customers in the casino as “punters”. For that same reason, our advice is to STAY OUT!…especially if you are easily mesmerized by loud noises, flashing lights and shiny objects going around in circles (NASCAR fans…are you paying attention?)

Tip: Occasionally people just have to test Lady Luck. If this is the case, set aside a fixed amount of money – an amount that you can afford to lose – and when that is gone, casually sip the last of your drink – but NEVER eat the ice; nervous, out-of-control ice eaters have been known to snow in their pants – then slowly but humbly stagger away from the table with downcast eyes, pockets turned inside out. Your dog will still love you.

How to earn a free cruise –

It is a well known secret that cruise lines offer a “TC” – or Tour Conductor berth – to travel agencies booking groups. With most cruise lines the ratio is one free for every fifteen full fare paying passengers traveling on the same cruise. The sixteenth person pays only the taxes and fees. (Note that only the first two people occupying a cabin are credited towards the TC- third and fourth people sharing a cabin at a discount rate don’t count- so you can’t stack-the-deck by cramming five people into each of three cabins.)

Tip – There several ways to leverage this offer – and most travel agencies will work with you on this. Give the credit away to a fellow cruiser; use it to defer your own cost of cruising; tell your travel agent that you want the credit to be an overall discount for the group- or, like a bankrupt CEO bailed out by tax payer money – skip the cruise, pocket the credit as a cash bonus and retire to your deluxe double-wide on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

Pros & cons of booking direct with the cruise line –

Pros – If you know exactly which line you want to take, the cruise line should be able to answer all your questions in great detail and will take your booking direct. You can access a cruise line’s online booking engine 24/7 and not have to wait for the travel agency to open for business.

Cons -The cruise line is going to offer the same price as travel agents – you won’t save any money on the fare. However, they are not going to tell you about any other cruise line that might match your needs – or have lower prices for the same itinerary. If you register on many of the cruise lines own sites for information, the lines will contact you often. One can receive weekly phone calls and emails for months or years!

Once you’ve talked with a travel agency, you need to let the agency handle the cruise booking details, follow up questions, etc. (although other cruise related add-ons such as airfare, hotels, car rental, travel insurance, shore excursions, etc. can still be handled on your own – or online if you are a “do-it-yourselfer” and wish to avoid agency service fees.)

If the cruise line knows that you have already reserved space through an agency they are not likely to provide further information. In such case, when called directly, the cruise line will stonewall – relentlessly referring you back to your travel agent for any more details.

Now you are ready to cruise – to max the experience while controlling the costs. But there’s more. Coming soon – articles on getting the best airfare; the best stateroom, maximizing onboard experiences such as dining, activities, entertainment, as well as how to get the best deal on travel insurance (hint: it is usually NOT the coverage offered by the cruise line).   – Lyn Edwin Cathey

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