In case you haven’t noticed, I love to cruise. I’ve been on two cruises so far this year, with four more already on the books. Now, you might be thinking: There is no way I could afford to cruise that much. But it is entirely possible to cruise on a budget.
Listen, I’m a writer and my husband is a middle school teacher. We aren’t exactly rolling in dough. Yet we still deserve to enjoy our lives, don’t we? YOLO. So with some simple budgeting strategies, we’ve found ways to make our happiness a priority and set sail as much as we can.
You deserve to enjoy your life, too. If you’re looking to cruise on a budget, check out these guidelines we follow to live the cruise life without defaulting on our mortgage.
- Before You Book Your Cruise
- After You Board the Cruise Ship
- The One Thing You Shouldn’t Skimp On
- How Do You Cruise on a Budget?
Before You Book Your Cruise
It’s always a good idea to do your homework before you actually put down a deposit. A little prior research can go a long way toward saving some cash. (That’s probably why you’re here, isn’t it? Prior research. You’re smart!) So when figuring out when and where you want to go on your cruise, keep these tips in mind.
1. Time Your Sailing Right
Cruises are almost always cheaper in the off-season. In cruising, this is known as “shoulder season” and it varies by destination. Usually it corresponds to the weather. For example, Alaska cruises are cheaper in the colder months of May and September, while Caribbean cruises are cheaper when hurricanes are barreling toward the Atlantic.
You’ll also find that cruises can be cheaper when school’s in session. That’s why summer, Christmas, and Spring Break cruises are often pricier than those in, say, the middle of January.
If you’re like me, it can be hard to book a cruise in the off-season. Between my fourth-grader and my teacher-husband, we simply can’t take a family cruise during the school year. But if your schedule is more flexible, definitely try to cruise during one of these less popular times.
2. Look for Cruise Package Deals
There are lots of travel agents out there that will throw in some extra perks for booking a cruise through them. They can give you free upgrades, onboard credits, or even sparkling wine and fruit baskets delivered directly to your stateroom.
Personally, I love booking cruises with Costco Travel. Their best offers are called Kirkland Signature cruises. Not only are they priced competitively, but they include so much awesome stuff. Our last Alaskan cruise was a Kirkland Signature and included beverage packages, specialty dining vouchers, a spa treatment for two, onboard credits, and an additional Costco Shop Card.
Please note I am in no way receiving any compensation or commission for recommending Costco. I am simply a huge fan of the company and had a great firsthand experience booking my cruise through them. You might find some other great deals on cruises through Travelzoo, AAA, or your local neighborhood travel agent.
3. Sign Up for the Cruise Credit Card
I’m not The Points Guy, so I’m not an expert on credit card rewards programs, but I will tell you I’ve got a lot of mileage out of my Royal Caribbean Visa. I signed up while booking a last minute cruise on their website (another hot tip: last minute cruises!) and received 10,000 bonus points and a $200 statement credit for doing so.
Every time I book a cruise, reserve excursions, or use that card to pay for onboard purchases on either Royal Caribbean or Celebrity Cruises, I get double points. Those points can then be exchanged for onboard credits, stateroom upgrades, or even free cruises. So if you’re in this cruising thing for the long haul (or even if you just want a couple hundred bucks off the first cruise you book), this might be a good option for you.
4. Be Flexible with Staterooms
It’s a dream of mine to one day sail in the Royal Suite Class. Until I win big at Mega Millions, though, I’ll be sticking to standard staterooms. But frankly, I have no complaints. Standard staterooms are actually pretty nice. Besides, with all the activities going on around the ship, I barely spend any time in my stateroom, anyway.
Your cheapest option will almost certainly be an interior stateroom with no views of the ocean (although some ships have interior staterooms with windows that overlook shared indoor spaces like promenades). If you want to enjoy an oceanview or balcony room, you can always save a few bucks on that by booking a guaranteed cabin. This guarantees that you’ll get the class of room you want, such as a balcony, but you won’t get to select the exact location on the ship.
If you’re a bit of a control freak like I am, you might want to choose your own stateroom. This’ll be the most costly option, however you can usually save a little bit of cash by choosing a room in the forward (front) or aft (back) of the ship. Then put that savings toward a piña colada!
5. Purchase Add-Ons Ahead of Time
The base fare includes a lot of stuff, and you could easily have a great cruise vacation without spending an additional dime. But if you’d like to drink alcohol, eat at specialty restaurants, or take an organized group excursion, it’ll usually cost you extra.
Fortunately, you can save big time by pre-purchasing these items. Go to your cruise line’s website or app to see how much of a discount they’re offering. Whatever the price, it’s almost certainly going to be cheaper to buy it before you step foot on the ship. And check back often for special sales; some cruise lines, like Royal Caribbean, offer Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals in their online cruise planner.
After You Board the Cruise Ship
The budgeting doesn’t stop once you’ve booked your cruise. When you’re on board, there are still plenty of ways for you to part with your hard-earned cash. Never fear: you can maximize the fun and minimize the spending with these cruise budget tips.
6. Bring Your Own Booze
Alcoholic drinks can be expensive on cruise ships. On a Royal Caribbean cruise, my favorite cocktail, the Goombay Smash, costs around $17 (with tip). I drink them sparingly.
Fortunately, some cruise lines allow you to bring on a limited supply of wine or champagne. (Beer or hard liquor is usually a no-no.) Not only that, but you can bring on a limited supply of non-alcoholic beverages, too. The exact quantity varies between cruise lines, but it’s usually around two six-packs of sealed soda cans or water bottles. Check your cruise line’s policy and if it’s an option for you, why not take advantage of it?
7. Enjoy the Included Dining Options
Like I said before, there is so much good stuff included with your base cruise fare. On any given cruise ship, you’ll find an assortment of buffets, dining rooms, and snack spots that offer complimentary meals. You don’t have to spend any additional money on food if you don’t want to.
Specialty dining restaurants are cool, and if there’s something you’re really craving, you should absolutely indulge (YOLO, remember?). But don’t feel like you’re missing out if you skip the extra expense of eating at a specialty dining restaurant. Trust me, you’ll never go hungry on a cruise ship.
8. Steer Clear of Sales Pitches
Sales pitches are everywhere on a cruise ship. In the shopping promenade, they’re disguised as “free giveaways.” In the art gallery, they’re disgused as “champagne toasts.” In the casino, they lure you in with “$2 free play.” Don’t fall for it. Once they’ve got your attention, it can be hard to say no to spending more cash.
Like… maybe you didn’t win the raffle for the free charm bracelet, but you could still buy one! And after you down that glass of bubbly, you might start thinking that $10,000 Thomas Kinkade print would look perfect in your living room. Let’s not even get started on how addictive the slot machines are.
Do your wallet a favor and stay away from the shops, the art auction, and the casino.
9. Explore Ports of Call Independently
Excursions can be fun, and in certain places I absolutely recommend them. Going to Alaska? It might be worth it to splurge on that once-in-a-lifetime glacier flightseeing tour. But there’s something to be said for exploring a port of call on your own.
Grab a map, get off the ship, and take a walk around. You never know what treasures you may find when you’re not looking for anything in particular. For example, I went to Ensenada last weekend without any planned excursions. Instead, I spent a couple of hours wandering around the downtown area and the boardwalk. I enjoyed a chilled Michelada with a warm gordita relleno as I watched the fountains dance along the waterfront. It was perfect, and it cost a fraction of what an organized excursion would have.
10. Take Advantage of Port Day Discounts
If you feel like staying on the ship during a port of call, you can sometimes find deep discounts on onboard offerings. Spa services are often cheaper on port days, so it’s the ideal time to indulge in a couples massage. And if you really have your eye on one of those specialty dining restaurants, enjoy a discounted lunch with a view of the harbor. You’ll usually have the benefit of an empty ship, too, since most of the other passengers will be off exploring.
The One Thing You Shouldn’t Skimp On
When it comes to cruising, there is one thing I advise you to never, ever be cheap about: gratuities. While the added gratuities aren’t mandatory, you shouldn’t ever ask to have them reversed. And it might be nice to tip a little extra to your steward, waitstaff, and any other crew members that did an outstanding job, like the people who run the kids’ club.
Why? Because crew members work hard. They toil for long hours on these ships, often spending months at a time away from their families, all to help you enjoy your vacation. Without them, you wouldn’t be able to cruise at all! They deserve to be paid fairly and compensated for a job well done.
How Do You Cruise on a Budget?
So that’s how I cruise on a budget. Did I miss any important ways to save on a cruise? If so, let me know in the comments below!