Six Tricks To Getting A Great Deal On A Great Cruise For You

Cruising can be the best vacation value going, but it is also possible to overspend on a cruise, book a trip that doesn’t suit you, or wind up getting hit by unexpected expenses. Here are six tricks to making sure you get the perfect deal, not the perfect mess.

The first step is to understand what is and is not included in your cruise package. Typically, your cruise fare entitles you to half of a stateroom. Every cruise line I can think of quotes rate based on double occupancy. You can cruise solo, but you will end up paying extra. How much extra depends on the cruise line and the cruise. It always makes financial sense to cruise with somebody else.

Your cruise ticket also includes all meals on the cruise but that is not the same thing as saying it covers everything you will eat or drink. What is not in there are alcoholic beverages, soft drinks, and some specialty items. For instance, many cruises have small restaurants or eateries on board in addition to the dining facilities; your meals and snacks at such places may or may not be included.

Cruise passengers who plan on imbibing can run a tab. You may find that your cruise line has a deal on a flat-rate drink card that entitles you to unlimited sodas while on board. Most cruise lines have serious restrictions about bringing alcohol on board, even alcohol you buy in port.

Also included in your fare are on-board entertainment and activities. You should be able to see the shows and do the basic onboard activities at no charge (pool, sun decks, gym, mini-golf). However, there are often costs associated with other on-board attractions. If you ship has a spa, expect to pay for spa services. Casinos, of course, are not much different than their land-based cousins. You have to pay to play!

When the ship hits port, there is no charge to get off and find your own way around. Most ports offer lots of local sightseeing; many people actually prefer to shop, dine out, or hit the local beaches while in port rather than do a packaged tour or program. If you want to take advantage of excursions offered through the cruise line, be advised that they cost extra. The costs can be modest ($50) or surprisingly high (I’ve seen excursions priced at over $1,000).

You’ll need to arrange transportation to and from the port from which the ship sails. This can be arranged on your own or set up through the cruise line. Be advised that for some passengers, the air fare can be a significant chunk of the cruise expense.

Tips are not included in your cruise package and are expected and appreciated. Ask the cruise line what sort of tipping guidelines they have (most cruise lines have suggested percentages) and who you should tip. Factor that into your total price.

Second, buy early. Cruise lines consider every bed on the ship as “inventory.” The more inventory the cruise line can sell in advance, the happier they are. It means they don’t sail half-empty cruise ships and they don’t have to scramble with incentives at the last minute to fill certain vessels. For that reason, most cruise lines are extremely generous about giving discounts to people who book early. Early in the cruise world can be a year or more in advance.

Furthermore, many cruise lines offer loyalty incentives to stay with their company. If you’ve already cruised with a line, you may get an automatic stateroom upgrade or some onboard credits if you book another cruise. Former passengers may get special brochures or e-mail offers. The sooner you can commit to a cruise, book passage, and pay for it, the more leverage you have in getting a good deal.

Third, know how cruises discount. The way most of us think that cruise lines should discount prices is by taking money off the fare price. That can happen; check out discount travel websites or talk to the cruise agent or travel agent.

Many cruise lines offer other types of discounts. For instance, you may be offered a cabin upgrade, online credits, or special credits toward certain services. A cabin upgrade definitely is a nice thing, but only you can say if the few hundred dollars worth of upgrade is meaningful to you. Onboard credits can buy drinks. spa services, photography services, and so on. There may be limitations attached, so ask. Now if you know you are likely to spend a couple of hundred bucks on drinks, photographs, spa treatments, and that sort of thing, grab this deal fast. But if you find yourself trying to figure out how to use them up, it’s an incentive that many not be worth much to you.

How can you negotiate a discount? You really can’t haggle with most cruise lines like at a Middle Eastern bazaar, although I suppose some have done that successfully. Your best bets are to call a talk to a cruise representative to find out what offers he or she can make (the bargain-seekers mantra is ask, ask, ask). Frequent cruises and those loyal to one or two lines are going to get first crack at best offers. Shop discount travel websites, cruise line websites, and keep looking for offers. Sign up for e-mail deals with cruise lines that offer to send you advance notices of sales.

Fourth, cruise close to home. This is not possible for everyone, but if you live near a port city with a cruise line, you will save a bundle simply by avoiding the airfare. Since most cruise lines are expanding the ports they use, you can now find ports on East and West Coasts plus the Gulf of Mexico. If you can’t cruise close to home, tying your cruise to some other travel that puts you near a port city is a great way to go. For instance, if you’re going to Los Angeles on business or Orlando for a family reunion, you can check into cruise offerings at those times and tack on a cruise. (Both Los Angeles and Orlando are major ports for cruise lines, although we don’t always think of them as cruise cities. But nowadays you can also cruise out of Galveston, Vancouver, New Orleans, and New York.)

Fifth, book late. This is a riskier strategy. It’s riskier because a late-booker sometimes misses the boat. If your cruise gets sold out (and many do) or if all the cabins in your price range are bought up (and that’s even more likely), you won’t get to go on the cruise you want. If you can be flexible with your travel dates, don’t mind missing out on some deals, and are a bit of a gambler, try to buy passage at the last possible minute.

Why do cruise lines deal when it comes down to the wire? It’s really a game of chicken. The cruise line starts to get scared that it will set sail with empty rooms-and that’s a financial loss. So they will start to discount the rooms. It is better to book passage for these cabins, even at a discount, than to risk letting the cabins go unbooked and take a loss. At first, the discounts are modest but they will get steeper as the cruise date approaches.

Sixth, shop. It’s a good idea for you to start exploring cruise vacations early in the process and to become a fairly constant cruise shopper. Read about cruise destinations, look through the travel section of your Sunday paper, and talk to your friends who cruise. The more you get familiar with types of cruises, destinations, and cruise lines, the better able you’ll be to find the cruises that might suit you best.

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