A cruise can be a great option for frugal vacationers. Not only can cruisers sail to exotic locales, sampling the culture and cuisine, but they can also enjoy a wide array of onboard activities, from swimming to rock climbing.
But, that doesn’t mean cruising is inexpensive. Cruisers spend an average of $1,350-$1,950 on a five-day cruise, according to Cruzely.com. Onboard amenities like spa treatments, exclusive restaurants and alcoholic drinks can destroy your vacation budget, too. GOBankingRates spoke to travel experts for tips on saving on your next cruise.
1. Book Far in Advance
One of the best ways to save money on a cruise is to book nine to 18 months before sailing, said Colleen McDaniel, senior executive editor of cruise reviews and information site Cruise Critic.
“Booking in advance can allow you to not only secure a lower introductory fare, but it also can offer some significant add-on savings, like onboard credit, beverage packages or included gratuity — all of which could save hundreds of dollars,” she said.
See how planning ahead can help you can enjoy a fall cruise on $100 a day.
2. Book at the Last Minute
If you’re a spur-of-the-moment vacationer, you can find deals on cruises within three months of departure. “The majority of companies will slash pricing at the last minute in order to fill the boat,” said Greg Geronemus, co-CEO of smarTours, a group vacation tour company.
Expect discounts as high as 50 percent. Keep in mind, though, you’ll have a limited selection of cabins — and they’re not liable to be the best, since preferred cabins will likely have sold first, McDaniel said.
3. Be Flexible With Dates
If you haven’t locked in time off from work, opt to vacation when cruise prices are lower. Pricing for the same cruise can vary by hundreds of dollars from one week to the next, said cruise expert Stewart Chiron of cruise deals site Cruise Guy.
4. Use a Travel Agent
You can search cruise options online all day and still miss out on a good deal. That’s because travel agencies tend to know about exclusive offers and promotions.
“Travel agents constantly have their fingers on the pulse of the cruise industry,” said Rob Stuart, co-author of “Just Add Water: Your Guide to the Ultimate Cruise Vacation.”
Not only do travel agents know the industry inside and out, they can buy tickets in bulk to get better pricing, Geronemus said. Using an agent can save couples up to hundreds of dollars, he said.
5. Take Advantage of Wave Season
January through March is known as wave season, and McDaniel said this time of year is the equivalent of Black Friday for cruise lines. Not only can you find great deals, you might pick up perks like free drink packages, Stuart said.
6. Don’t Miss Black Friday Deals
When winter comes biting, hunt down Black Friday deals on cruises for your perfect Caribbean getaway. Cruise lines have offered enticing deals on the shopping holiday in past years, McDaniel said. “In some cases, cruises are deeply discounted and, of course, bundled with enticing add-ons,” she said.
7. Cruise in the Low Season
You can save 20 to 30 percent on the price of a cruise by traveling during the shoulder season, when demand is low. Most shoulder seasons are in the spring or fall.
Geronemus recommended cruising in Europe and Asia in April and October for lower prices. For Alaskan cruises, vacation in May and September, McDaniel said.
8. Avoid Cruising on Holiday Weekends
Cruise fares tend to be highest during the holidays, when droves of vacationers are hitting the open seas.
“If you can avoid times when everyone is traveling, you’re going to save a lot of money,” Geronemus said. Not only are cruise fares higher during major holidays and long weekends, but so is airfare.
9. Cruise Between Thanksgiving and Christmas
Schedule a cruise to the Caribbean between two of the biggest holidays of the year, and you can snag a good deal, Stuart said. Don’t book a cruise too close to Christmas, though, because fares will be higher.
10. Gamble on a Cruise Guarantee Cabin
Sure, you can book a specific cabin on your cruise, but you can save money by booking a category of cabin instead. The guarantee cabin, as it’s called, ensures you get a certain type of cabin — like one with a balcony — plus the possibility of an upgrade. Although you might get a room in a noisy part of the ship, you can save up to $1,000 per person, Chiron said.
11. Don’t Assume Traveling Solo Costs Less
If you travel solo, you might be paying more for your single cabin. That’s because cruise lines price cabins assuming double occupancy, Chiron said. So, look for cruises that offer cabins for singles and compare pricing. Make sure you don’t make these costly mistakes while traveling alone.
12. Take a Short Cruise
“For travelers looking for a budget-friendly getaway, weekend cruises are a great way to get away without spending too much money,” McDaniel said. You can take a three- to four-day cruise to the Bahamas for a couple hundred dollars, which is cheaper than the cost of airfare and hotel, she said.
13. Avoid Cruising on New Ships
If you want to save serious cash, avoid traveling on brand-new cruises, which cost more, McDaniel said. “Older ships are often a bit smaller than newer megaships and don’t generally have all of the bells and whistles of ships just hitting the market. But [they] still offer a fantastic vacation option at a lower price point,” she said.
14. Cruise on Refurbished Ships
If you want the bells and whistles of a new ship but not the high price tag, look for recently renovated ships.
“Cruise lines are frequently investing significant amounts of money to keep their older ships up to date with newer features and amenities, and you can benefit from those upgrades,” McDaniel said.
15. Don’t Assume the Cheapest Cruise Is the Best Deal
A lot of vacationers choose cruises based on the fare alone, Stuart said. But don’t neglect looking at what’s included in the fare and what amenities the ship offers.
Although meals are typically included in the base fare, alcoholic beverages, WiFi and shore excursions might not. If you have to pay extra to take advantage of most amenities on the ship, you might be better off booking a more expensive cruise that offers them free of charge.
16. Consider a Luxury Cruise Line
Stuart said upscale cruise lines are liable to offer more perks on base fares. Yes, you’ll pay more for the luxuries, but don’t assume the cruise is more expensive than paying a la carte on other cruise lines.
If you opt for a cheaper cruise but want to dine in specialty restaurants and visit the spa, expect your vacation costs to jump. In fact, adding these extras to your base fare could equal the cost of an all-inclusive luxury line, which can include shore excursions and transfers between the ship and airport.
17. Take a Repositioning Cruise
Because ships can’t cruise year-round in destinations like Alaska, cruise lines move their fleets every so often. Take advantage by booking a repositioning cruise, where you can enjoy a 10- to 14-day cruise for the price of a seven-day cruise or less, Stuart said.
Repositioning cruises don’t have a lot of port stops, so they’re only ideal for people who are most interested in the cruise itself, rather than tourist destinations. “If the idea of a cruise is relaxing days on the ocean, a repositioning cruise is the way to go,” Stuart said.
18. Minimize Spending Onboard
Once you’re onboard, be careful not to rack up costs as you sip martinis by the pool. Any extras you pick up will be charged to the card you provide at the beginning of the trip, Stuart said. He said he knows people who have paid more to get off a ship than to get on. So, although there are quite a few cruise activities that are worth the money, you’re better off sticking to the basics. If you’re raring to hit the spa, go to one off the ship.
19. Book Extras in Advance
If you want to enjoy onboard amenities, book them in advance so you can account for them in your vacation budget.
“Book your alternative restaurants, shore excursions and anything else you know you want to experience prior to boarding,” McDaniel said. “That way, you won’t be caught off guard by added costs, and you can focus more on enjoying your trip, instead of keeping close tabs on your onboard spending account.”
20. Don’t Be Blinded by Add-Ons
Don’t let special add-ons like drink credits and free WiFi distract you from the high cost of a cruise. “A lot of times, cruise lines use those offers to deflect attention from higher prices,” Chiron said.
21. Cut the Cost of Excursions
Shore excursions organized by the cruise tend to be more expensive. The best way to vacation for less is to explore port cities on foot, or by taking public transportation, said Stuart. Compare pricing with local tour groups, too.
If an excursion is a must, see if there are bargain shore excursions at any of your cruise’s port cities.
22. Opt For a Lower-Cost River Cruise
High-priced river cruise packages are aplenty, Geronemus said. But, you can often find companies offering similar and lower-cost cruises onboard older ships. You’ll have fewer amenities but the difference can be thousands of dollars, he said. You won’t miss the amenities much anyway — after all, the point of a river cruise is to see the sights at the ports.
23. Save on Airfare With a Package Deal
If you’re booking a cruise through a travel agency, you might be able to save money on airfare if you get a package deal, said Geronemus. Take the time, though, to price airfare on your own to make sure you’re getting a deal.
24. Be Skeptical of Free Airfare Offers
If a cruise line has a special promotion that includes free airfare with a cruise, you might not actually be getting a good deal if it’s not an all-inclusive line that typically offers flights as part of the cruise package.
“That would be a red flag for me,” Geronemus said, adding that these kinds of offers could indicate high pricing onboard the ship.
25. Weigh the Extra Costs of a One-Way Cruise
Fair warning: If you think a one-way cruise is a cheap vacation idea, think again. Your airfare could cost more because you can’t book a round-trip flight. So, take that potentially higher cost into account when you’re comparing your options.
26. Book a Cruise Onboard for Discounts
If you frequently vacation on the open waters, look for deals on future cruises onboard the ship. Cruise lines might offer perks for onboard bookings, according to Cruise Critic’s Colleen McDaniel. You might get reduced deposits, onboard credit for services or a discount on your fare.
27. Sign Up For Email Deal Alerts
Stay on top of the latest sales and promotions by signing up for email alerts from cruise lines and travel sites. You might even learn about cheaper destinations to explore.
28. Check Social Media for Deals
Cruise lines and travel agencies frequently post about deals on social media. So, follow your favorite cruise lines and local travel agencies — and definitely check in on holidays, when promotions might be going on.
29. Beware the Brochure Rate
Brochures from cruise lines might have tantalizing pricing — but don’t be sucker. Brochure rates typically aren’t accurate, and they might not even be offering deals.
“Brochure rates are printed way in advance, and the actual rates are usually lower,” Stuart said. “It’s easy to change a rate on a website, as opposed to printing all new brochures.”
30. Pay Your Bill Little by Little
You’ll have to pay a deposit when you book a cruise, and then pay the rest by a certain date — typically 60 to 75 days prior to sailing, Stuart said. If you book through a travel agent, you typically have the added benefit of making interest-free installment payments, he said.
This can be a good way to soften the blow to your budget. It can also help you avoid interest fees you would incur if you charged the full cost to a credit card.