Cruises can be expensive affairs. First, ships reel you in with a “cheap” room and an onboard credit but then smack you around with high-priced drinks, non-included restaurants, and dollar-a-minute Internet. A couple of years ago, I went on the Oasis of the Seas (one of the largest boats in the world) on a seven-day cruise around the Caribbean. The listed price of this cruise?
That’s expensive for a week of cruising. You could go to Southeast Asia for a month on that kind of money.
Luckily, there are, in fact, ways to cruise for as little as $30 per day. It just takes a bit of skill, a lot of discipline, and a bit of sneakiness.
Note: Where did I get that price? That’s the cheapest listed price on Cruise Sheet, a website I explain below. I’ve been tracking prices for months, and that is generally the consistent cheapest figure.
How to Book a Cheap Cruise
Booking a cheap cruise is actually quite easy and requires only one thing: flexibility. See, cruise pricing is similar to tour pricing. The closer you get to the departure date, the lower the price becomes. Why? Because cruise ships don’t want to depart with half-empty boats, so they drop prices steadily until that boat is leaving port, since for them empty cabins mean less money. Cruises make the majority of their money from what people purchase on board, so they want bodies on those ships. (Plus, most of the crew earns their money from tips, so they need to keep the crew happy — and besides, who is going to think highly of a cruise that is only half full?)
You can also book early, but I find last-minute bookings to be the best. And since you are booking close to departure, you need to be flexible with where you are willing to go or OK with not booking the actual cruise even if you booked your flights.
Another tip comes Doug Parker of Cruise Radio, “When the kids are in school, the rates are the best.” This holds true in all travel but especially cruising, because it is such a family activity. Don’t travel when everyone else is traveling! If you do that or travel during the shoulder season, you can find the best rates. Chris from Chris Cruises also reiterates my recommendation: “Book far in advance or last minute for the best fares.”
So where should you go to book your cruise?
Doug advises that you start with a travel agent, as they have relationships with the cruise companies and can often get better rates and last-minute deals. And my experience has me agreeing. While there are many “do it yourself” options, travel agents often can find much lower prices and can act as liaison to cruise companies when something goes wrong.
If you want to go with the “do it yourself” angle, you only need to go to three sources to find cheap cruises:
These websites do a detailed job of scouring the web for cruise deals. Vacations to Go is more of a travel agent/operator and thus often has better deals since they can negotiate with the cruise lines directly, but keep in mind that they add a lot of fees. Cruise Sheet is simply a website aggregator that crawls the web and then displays cheap last-minute fares. This is my favorite cruise site, as it seems to find all the deals and makes finding a cheap cruise easy. Cruise Deals has a weekly deals newsletter worth subscribing to.
In terms of timing, don’t book early. As Doug states, “the only benefit to booking early is to secure the room you want.” If you want a specific cabin, book early. Otherwise, wait until the last minute. As I said in the beginning, cruise companies don’t want to sail empty ships and so do heavy last-minute discounting — be sure to sign up for cruise company newsletters to stay informed!
Finally, if you book a cruise and the price drops, contact the cruise or your travel agent. They will often give you the difference as an onboard credit.
As Chris from Chris Cruises states, “There are so many ships now, prices are at an all-time low.” Now is a great time to go on a cruise.
Three Things to Remember
Smaller is cheaper – Smaller boats tend to be less expensive since they offer fewer amenities and attractions.
Cruise in the off season – Traveling off season (Caribbean during the hurricane season, Alaska in September) will get you markedly cheaper fares.
Take a repositioning cruise — Repositioning cruises are when cruise lines move ships from one part of the world to the next in anticipation of the upcoming season. These “cruises” are a great way to cross an ocean or sail down a continent’s coast on the cheap and can be found on any cruise booking website.
What about your flight? Don’t book your flight with the cruise — book it separately. Check out this guide to finding a cheap flight to lower that cost.
How to Enjoy a Cheap Cruise
Cruises are not often all-inclusive and become increasingly less so each year. Chris states, “the gravy is what people spend on board.” Cruise ships want you spending, since that’s where they have the best margins. However, if you are smart and disciplined, cruises don’t have to cost much more than the price of the cabin itself. Here’s how to save money while on board:
Skip the soda — A long time ago, soda was free. Now, you have to pay around $3 USD for a tiny glass, or you can pay $45-60 USD for a soda card that gives you unlimited soda for the duration of the cruise. You’d have to drink a lot of soda to make that worth it. Instead, stick to the free water, iced teas, and juices on the ship. Your wallet and insulin levels will thank you.
Say no to photos — Do you really need some cheesy “professional” photos of your family? I didn’t think so. Get them done back home for less or take a digital camera and have someone take them for you on the ship.
Avoid the restaurants — On most cruise ships these days, there are specialty restaurants that you can book for an added cost. Some are à la carte, some charge a set fee. (The sushi restaurant I tried on the Oasis of the Seas was à la carte.) Avoid these specialty restaurants. The food in the dining areas, the buffets, and the other shops is just as good and less costly. (If you do decide to book, doing so before you board can generally save you 25%. Doug also suggests looking for dining packages, as they work out cheaper, too.)
Limit your drinking — $6 beers and $10 mixed drinks can really add up. Enjoy fun in the sun while sober and skip spending a ridiculous amount of money on booze. I was amazed at how quickly my alcohol bill added up after just a few days of wine with dinner and a couple of piña coladas while sitting by the pool.
Bring your own supplies — Cruise companies will let you bring one case of your own water, soda, and beer, as well as a bottle of wine onto the ship.
Bring extra booze — If you do want to drink hard liquor while on board, get Rum Runners. These handy little bags allow you to pour alcohol into them and — because there are no air bubbles — escape the X-ray machine. You need to be sneaky, but if you’re smart, you can smuggle your own alcohol on board and avoid paying for high-priced drinks.
Avoid the casino — This goes without saying.
Plan your own shore excursions — Cruise-run shore excursions are overpriced and crowded. Instead, do some research online and plan your own activities with local operators who will get to keep all the money. You’ll save money, support the local economy even more directly, and avoid the hordes that will clutter your photos.
Just remember that the boat will leave without you, so give yourself enough time to get back. Doug Parker recommends the company Shore Excursions Group whose activities are 30% cheaper and offers a guarantee that it will get you back to the boat in time.
Clean your own clothes — Having laundry done on a ship costs crazy money. Instead of sending a bag of clothes off to be cleaned, you pay per article like in really nice hotels. Frankly, my socks aren’t worth $2 USD each. Instead, buy some Woolite and clean your own clothes in the bathtub or sink.
Skip the airport transfers — The airport transfers cruise companies offer are overpriced, and you can fit into a cab for a much cheaper rate.
Skip anything that costs money — This is obvious, but I like to cover all the bases. The spa, the shopping, the Internet, the cell phone access, etc. They all cost money. Don’t do it! Save the money for something cheaper back on dry land.
And remember if you do spend money on a cruise, by using the booking tips from the previous section, you should be able to get a free onboard credit that will cover some of your costs!
I like cruises. I think a cruise is a great vacation because it is a chance to get away from everything and have a place where you can just relax. Sitting on a boat by the pool, drink in hand, without a care in the world. I eat well (all-day salad buffet), sleep well, head to the gym, and relax. I don’t think of it as “travel” but more of a relaxing break.
The ancillary costs of cruises are what really add up and make a cruise “expensive.” But if you avoid all the additional costs and take advantage of your onboard credit, you can cruise for just the base rate of your cabin. It takes discipline to avoid that next piña colada, but you can do it. You can easily enjoy an entire cruise without spending a penny!
Follow the tips above, cruise cheap, and enjoy a relaxing vacation without breaking the bank.