Cruising can be an awesome vacation for the budget conscious who want to get away for a while. As a matter of fact, I graduated at the height of the recession in 2008 and stepped right into working on a cruise ship. During the nearly five years I worked for that cruise line, the ship was always packed. I’d hear story after story of how bad things were back home and yet people were just lining up to cruise anyway.
There was good reason, too: You can go on a cruise for a really low price. Do you know why? Because cruise lines makes most of their money off of you once you’re on board. Selling you a $300 seven-day Caribbean cruise sounds like an absolute steal to you, but the odds of you not spending at least $500 while on board are pretty slim. And that’s a conservative measure.
Here are some ways to keep cruising in your budget, from someone who knows all their tricks.
Pick the Right Itinerary at the Right Time
You’re not going to find great deals at the height of any season. You want to avoid the Caribbean in the dead of winter, Europe and Alaska in the middle of the summer and scenic New England and Canada cruises in the fall. If you want to cruise these destinations, the best time to go is at the very start of the season.
With the Caribbean, you want to watch going at the end of the season because hurricanes can cause the ship to divert its course and miss ports. With Alaska, you don’t want to go at the end of the season because the water gets so choppy that it’s not uncommon to miss ports, especially any that require tendering.
The exception to this rule is Europe. You can get excellent prices at the beginning or end of the season if you’re willing to do their “repositioning” cruise. Most cruise ships have two main routes, a summer route and a winter route. I often spend the winter in the Caribbean and then “repositioned” to Europe for the summer. A ship might spend the winter in Australia and then “reposition” to Alaska for the summer. The ship only repositions once per season and that cruise is often cheaper than all the others because there are many additional sea days. The cruise line knows six sea days isn’t a draw for many people, but the European itinerary before it leaves for America or after it gets to Europe from America is, especially if it’s at a reduced rate.
If you’re fortunate enough to live near a cruise ship port and have a flexible schedule, you can score some really excellent last minute deals all year. Cruise ships know they need to fill the cabins to make money and can give them away at astonishingly low rates. As the sailing date approaches and the cabins aren’t booked, cabin prices drop. Last minute rates for all sorts of itineraries are often rock bottom, assuming you’re in a position to hop right on the ship.
Once you’re on board, the best thing you can do for yourself is to assume nothing is free. This isn’t completely true, but it will save you from racking up unexpected expenses. For instance, most of the entertainment is free, but some lines offer activities like culinary classes or crafts that actually do cost money to attend.
As far as meals, many lines have a higher quality steakhouse/five-star type dining experience that costs additional money to eat at. While you can certainly eat every meal at the buffet or dining room for free, lots of times the only drinks available are water, coffee and tea. If you really like soda, you’ll be paying extra for that.
Activities like the spa are also not included, so you’ll be spending more if you plan to make use of those services.
Finally, just be aware that there is marketing on board everywhere to get you into the gift shop, over to the casino and even into areas like art galleries, all of which are places for you to spend your money.
A lot of free events also have an upsell in mind. You might go to the free yoga in the morning and spend half of the yoga class listening to the instructor tell you about the fitness classes you can pay to attend or the spa offerings.
Even the layouts of most ships are designed to encourage you to spend. You’ll notice that the majority of ships are l aid out with their shops in high traffic areas, such as between the main theater and the dining room. Those are places the company knows you have to walk through often.
All that being said, a cruise can be a terrific and fun vacation as well as an excellent way to see a few new places of the world in one go. Just be aware of the potential budget busters and time your vacation right.
Mel Bondar blogs at brokeGIRLrich, where she explores topics including how not to totally panic over adulthood, working in the arts and retirement strategies that don’t involve living in a cardboard box under an overpass.