Regardless of your vacation budget, everyone loves saving money. Why pay regular price when you can get the same thing for less? Cruising can be a cost-effective way for your family to vacation and see the world if you know how to and where to look for deals and discounts.
Below are 22 different ways to stretch your vacation dollar and plan a memorable cruise vacation for your family. We’ve divided them up into three different sections so you can save money during each stage of the cruise planning process.
Contents & Quick Navigation
Before You Book Your Cruise
1. Be Flexible with Sail Dates
Cruise pricing is similar to airfare – it’s constantly changing. If you’re flexible with your schedule, you’ll likely end up paying less for a cruise vacation.
If you can, plan to cruise during slower travel periods (January to April, late August and September to November) or when kids are more likely to be in school. This will normally result in fewer crowds, cooler temperatures (if you’re on a Caribbean cruise) and better deals.
2. Shop Around Before Booking
Can’t cruise during shoulder season or low season? Try booking your cruise during this time. Cruise lines typically have more promotions during this period and you’ll often find lower prices or incentives like cabin upgrades or onboard credits. They do this to attract more customers and to fill their ships quickly during peak travel season.
In addition to these discounts, cruise lines will often offer special promotions for specific affiliations, professions or groups. Canadian and UK travelers, residents of specific states, military members, firefighters or seniors may qualify for discounted cruise fare. You may not be able to combine these discounts with the ones mentioned above but it’s worth taking a look at any discount that can be applied to your booking.
3. Book Early, Book Late
Cruise lines reward those who put down a deposit months in advance with different incentives. Reduced cruise or airfare, complimentary amenities (beverage packages, photo packages or specialty dining), on board credits or cabin upgrades are some of the ways cruise lines get people to book early. These extras save a lot of money in the overall scheme of things so if you have firm cruise dates, this is one of the easiest ways you can stretch your vacation dollar.
That being said, booking a cruise last minute is also a way to save money on a cruise vacation. As the sail date nears, you’ll see drastically reduced prices. The drawback to waiting to book last minute is you won’t have too much of a selection when it comes to staterooms, reserving a table at a specialty restaurant or booking shore excursions.
4. Cruise Close to Home
Cruise lines have embraced starting their cruises in as many US and Canadian ports as possible. You can cruise from New York, Boston, Galveston, Seattle, San Francisco, Quebec, and Vancouver on a year-round or seasonal basis. If you live close to these departure ports, you’ll save on airfare.
5. Multiple Rooms vs Suites
For larger families or travel groups, booking multiple standard staterooms over a larger suite will make less of a dent on your budget. Cruise ships usually have a limited number of suites which fetch a higher price tag and less discounts, so splitting up into separate cabins is a way to save on cruise fare.
6. Consider Using a Travel Agent
In the age of do-it-yourself vacation planning, people don’t often think to use a travel agent when it comes to booking a cruise. Travel agents, especially those who specialize in cruises, can make your life simpler by keeping an eye on the latest promotions and helping you with the booking and planning process.
Their job is to do all the research and come up with the best options for your family – whether it is figuring out which discount to apply to the reservation, which itinerary works best and what stateroom meets all of your needs. Most do not charge a planning or booking fee and you’ll end up saving not just your money, but your time as well.
7. Pay with a Rewards Credit Card
Some cruise lines have their own branded credit card. These cards earn points which can be redeemed for future cruises, onboard credit and other amenities. If you tend to sail with one particular line most of the time, signing up for a cruise line credit card can save you money.
Of course, this is not the only option. There are several rewards credit cards on the market that can help offset the cost of a vacation. Popular rewards programs include cash back, airline tickets, and free or discounted hotel stays.
While You’re Planning Your Cruise (After You’ve Booked)
8. Know What’s Included
Before you embark, plan how much extra spending money will be required for your cruise vacation. Most cruise fares covers accommodations, port taxes and non-alcoholic beverages at dinner time. Budget for extras – like tips, specialty dining, shore excursions, photography packages, drink specials, and internet packages. This way you won’t be surprised when receive your credit card bill when you get home.
9. Plan Your Own Shore Excursions
Think about what activities your family would like to do on port days. Shore excursions offered through the cruise line can be costly. Spend some time researching online and you might be able to get a better price for the same or similar excursion. Many local companies offer special tour packages specifically for cruise line passengers.
10. Be Your Own Tour Guide
Alternatively, you can take a chance and be your own tour guide once you get on land. Most ports have attraction and tour company kiosks at the cruise terminal so you can purchase tickets or take a tour on the day of. Check out our Port Guides, guide books or other websites to help plan your day in port.
11. Low Cost / Free Excursions & Activities
Instead of an all day tour or attraction, why not break up your day in port with several low cost or free activities. Many Caribbean ports have family friendly beaches that don’t require admission as well as activities right in the port area that offers a few hours of fun for a low price. Margaritaville in Falmouth has a complimentary pool for families who want to stay in the port area.
Several cruise lines allow passengers to bring their own beer and wine onboard. While there might be a corkage fee (if you’re having wine at dinner), it’s still cheaper to bring alcoholic beverages from home than buying on the ship where there is a significant markup. You can also request your server to re-cork the bottle for the next day’s dinner if you’re unable to finish it all in one sitting.
12. Plan What to Pack
Start a packing list for each member of your family. Baggage fees add up quickly and you may only end up using half of the clothes you end up packing. Remember, you can do laundry onboard (either in your cabin, in the laundry room or through the ship’s laundry service).
When You’re Onboard
13. Join the Club
Most cruise lines have a frequent cruiser rewards program to entice you to cruise with their line again. As your status level advances, the more rewards you’ll be offered.
You’ll enjoy benefits like special prices on cruise fares, amenity upgrades, special events and discounts on purchases made onboard. Cruisers are usually enrolled automatically on their first sailing with a cruise line but if you are not, make sure you sign up at the main reception desk. It’s free!
14. Look for Drink Packages or Drink Specials
Beverages offered on cruise ships are normally limited to non-alcoholic drinks at dinner time. If you’re looking for an alcoholic drink, juice, milk, or soda outside of dinner time, you might have to pay out of pocket for it. Drink packages are available on all cruise lines and they offer unlimited or a better selection of beverages for a flat fee.
It can range anywhere from $5 per day for bottled water or $45 per day for a plan that includes alcohol and soda. If you can drink enough, it might be worth purchasing a beverage package as you can save anywhere from 10 to 25%.
Guests who don’t drink beverage package can still look for discounts or drink specials. A bucket of beer (buy 5, get the 6th bottle free) or the “drink of the day” can save you a few dollars. Just try to stay away from the souvenir glasses and mugs that often accompany these drink specials. You’ll most likely never use them again once you get home.
Also, if you can wait to enjoy a drink while your ship is in port, you’ll pay far less than onboard. Caribbean and European ports generally have much lower prices for alcoholic drinks.
15. Skip Photo Packages
Many ships have photo galleries where cruise lines have onboard photographers take pictures of your family embarking, dressed up for formal night, meeting special characters, and posing at various ports of call.
While it’s convenient to have someone constantly snapping family photos, the pictures are quite costly – starting at $15 for one print. Instead of relying on the photographer’s snaps, ask the photographer if they can take the same photo with your personal camera. Most will not hesitate to do it for you.
16. Check Email on Port Days
Using your phone to make calls or surf the web is pricey on cruise ships. Expect to pay anywhere from $0.25 to $0.75 per minute for Internet and WiFi packages offered onboard. Service can be hit or miss – sometimes it’s quite fast and other times loading a web page could take several minutes.
For budget conscious cruisers, check your email on port days. Most ports have internet cafes or WiFi connection (paid and sometimes free) at the port or a few steps away from where your ship docks.
Also many attractions and tourist sites in certain ports will provide free WiFi for paying customers. Cozumel beach clubs are good at providing this amenity for cruise passengers that are vising for the day.
If it’s imperative to stay connected during your cruise, purchase an internet/WiFi package on embarkation day or near the end of your cruise. Ships will offer extra minute specials or a small discount if you sign up at the very beginning or near the end of the cruise.
17. Know When to Shop
Have a small souvenir budget? Consider shopping on shore rather than onboard. You’ll save a bundle on clothes, jewelry and alcohol if you make the purchases during your days at port. And sometimes you’ll save the duty too.
Of course if you’re looking for cruise line branded items, wait until they announce a special sales day on your ship. They are often announced in the daily itinerary/schedule of events or you’ll receive an invite to the event in your stateroom. These sales days are normally held towards the end of the cruise on a sea day.
18. Learn to Save at Specialty Restaurants
There’s no question many people enjoy the food on cruise ships. Specialty restaurants have gained a reputation for offering foodies unique and memorable culinary experiences while at sea. Reservations go quickly for popular restaurants and it’s always recommended to book sooner than later.
Meals at these restaurants are not included in the cost of cruise and you’ll have to pay a per person fee when dining there. There are several ways to experience what it’s like to dine at a specialty restaurant without having to pay full price.
Making a reservation for brunch or lunch generally costs less than dinner. Attending complimentary events like cooking demonstrations or kitchen tours will often result in a discount at the featured restaurant. Some cruise lines also offer discounts if you book several meals at their specialty restaurants.
19. Save the Spa Visit for Port Days
Cruise ship spa treatments can be pricey. The cost of a massage or facial is similar to what you’d expect to see at a luxury resort hotel. If you’re looking forward to a spa visit during your cruise vacation, there are a few ways to stretch your budget.
Embarkation and port days are when spas will discount their treatment and service rates. You can save anywhere from 10 to 30 percent if you visit the spa on those days. Some cruise lines also over mini-treatments during slow times. Save money by booking multiple treatments at once – spas will offer discounts to those that “buy in bulk”.
20. Do Your Own Laundry
Many cruise lines offer laundry and dry cleaning service however with prices starting at $2 an item it can add up. Save money by doing your own laundry – either in your cabin’s bathroom (at the sink with a small bottle of detergent and drying them on the clothes line) or in the self-service laundry room. Wash only the items you need to reuse or re-wear and save the rest for when you get home.
21. Watch the Tips
Cruise lines have a recommended gratuity amount that they automatically charge to your onboard account for cabin stewards and dining staff. Bars and spas sometimes include a 15 to 18 percent gratuity, so make sure you double check the receipt before you accidentally sign for an additional tip.
While it’s nice to give extra for outstanding service, you should not feel obligated to give more than the cruise line’s recommended amount. On the last night of your cruise, check your onboard account statement and adjust gratuities as you see fit.
22. Book Your Next Cruise or Buy Future Cruise Credits On Board
You can get a deal on your next cruise if you book it while still on board the ship. Many cruise lines reduce the amount of the deposit required and also offer extra bonuses like onboard credit, stateroom upgrade, free photo or drink package and discounted cruise fare if you book in advance. You can save hundreds of dollars this way – just be sure to check the refund and cancellation policy if your family’s schedule happens to change.
Some cruise lines don’t require you to choose a cruise itinerary or sail date – instead they allow you to purchase a future cruise credit which can then be applied to your next booking. You can purchase onboard credits starting at $25 and up and use that to cover tips, specialty restaurants or shore excursions after you’ve booked your next cruise.
Do you agree or disagree with any of our money saving tips? What are some of the ways you save money on a cruise vacation? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!