A good cruise is truly like a dream. Unpack your suitcase just once, and then let the ship spirit you away. A new port every morning. Endless, watery horizons when you’re at sea. But, let’s be honest — a voyage can be an expensive endeavor. And often, the costs can add up more quickly than you ever imagined. Here are some money-saving tips we've learned over our years sailing the seven seas.
When finding the right voyage, shop around to find the best price and compare costs. A few things to consider as you search: Prices are almost always better during shoulder season — a Caribbean cruise in April, for example — will be cheaper than one in January. And, if you’re comfortable booking last-minute, especially if you’re flexible on the destination, you’ll be able to snag steep discounts.
Make sure to plan for additional, built-in costs like port fees and tips, which may not appear in the flashy base prices advertised online. Also, people who live in cruise departure ports (like Fort Lauderdale or Galveston) can really clean up: Ships will often offer ridiculous promotions right before departure in order to fill up the rooms and get people spending on board.
Every spring and fall, ships around the world move from one region to another (most commonly between the Caribbean and the Mediterranean in the spring and vice-versa in the fall). The process of getting there is called a “repositioning cruise.” Because the voyage length tends to be long (often around two weeks) and most of the days will be “at sea” (meaning you’re just sailing in the middle of the ocean), these sailings typically cost just a tiny fraction of a regular itinerary. Think about it as a great deal on a floating resort: Enjoying lazy mornings with room service breakfast on the balcony, afternoons at the pool, and plenty of shows and other entertainment to keep you busy in the evening.
It pays to stick with one cruise line. Like frequent flier benefits, those who regularly sail with a single company qualify for all sorts of freebies — even after just a handful of voyages. What's more, you'll be awarded everything from room upgrades to special lounge access to onboard credits for things like spa treatments.
Read more: 8 Reasons to Stick with One Cruise Line
Will you only be using your stateroom to sleep? Do you expect to spend most of your time out on deck? If that’s the case, book an inside cabin. Windowless and often no-frills, these entry-level cabins are by far the cheapest rooms you can book on board.
There are a handful of high-end cruise lines that offer all-inclusive pricing. Tips, drinks, all dining, and even excursions are included. However, it's important to note that you will be paying a premium price for that peace of mind.
Drinks package and specialty dining
Impulse purchases while on board can add up very quickly. Upon check-in, the crew swipes your credit card, and from then on, all transactions are cashless. So, that multi-page bill they leave on the bed on the penultimate night of the voyage can certainly be a shocker.
Our advice? Make a plan before you even embark. Figure out what services are included and which come at extra cost. For example, certain restaurants (often known as “specialty dining”) come with a surcharge, and it’s helpful to know which ones do before you book a table. Decide which nights you’re willing to pay extra for the surf and turf at the steakhouse or the multi-course tasting menu at the boutique gourmet outlet. Then, of course, you'll need to stick with the plan.
A big consideration: drinks. Most cruise lines offer an all-inclusive drink package, where you pay a single price for unlimited (or almost unlimited) alcoholic beverages, as well as higher-end coffees and the like. These are often priced at around the cost of two cocktails. If you think you’ll have more than that each day, get the package right from the start.
Read more: The Best All-Inclusive Cruise Perks
Most cruisers book shore excursions through the ship, whether online, in advance, or while on board. (The cost is usually the same, although the most popular trips often book up quickly.) And there’s a good reason for this: Meeting your tour group will be seamless and easy. And — a big one — you’ll never be left behind by the ship, even if your tour is delayed for some reason.
But, be aware that cruise lines definitely charge more than local operators for these excursions (and the assurances that come with them). Also, these tours tend to be mass-market products, heavy on buses and light on personalization. In certain circumstances, it makes sense (in terms of cost and personal attention) to book your own shore excursions. A couple of good examples: Beach days (where you can call a taxi and pay for a lounger and a bucket of beers) and cities with close and easy transit links to the port (such as Cape Town, San Francisco, and Stockholm) where you can book with a local guide or explore solo.
The Bottom Line
Research has shown that vacations are probably the best way to spend your money when it comes to happiness. If you have fun while you’re away, those memories stay lovely no matter how much time passes. So, while being smart about how you spend makes sense, don’t pinch pennies. If you’re stressing over booking that snorkeling excursion or upgrading to a balcony, go ahead and splurge — you won’t regret working that extra shift or skipping that latte later.