I Go on 5 Cruises a Year and Save Up to 40% on Every Trip—Here’s How
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How to save big on cruises
Think sipping a margarita from a cruise-ship balcony is beyond your budget? Think again! I’ve spent more than 150 nights at sea (I’ve been on five cruises in the last year alone), and I didn’t pay full price on a single one of them. By my estimation, I save, on average, at least $900 on every cruise I take, which can be up to 40% off the full price. I even went on one completely complimentary seven-night cruise!
I’m not a travel professional, but I have become a travel expert over the years. I’ve spent the last 20 years exploring the world with my family, which includes my wife, two kids and sometimes my parents. As you can imagine, the costs for a vacation with four to six people can add up quickly. Plus, cruises are, by far, my first choice for a relaxing vacation. I call them a vacation from a vacation because all we have to do is show up and then we can choose to do as little or as much as we want.
Well, I figured out a way to make it work, and I’m sharing my best tips on how to save money on a cruise with you. Here’s how to find discounts on the best cruise lines, from adults-only cruises to family cruises to even the most affordable cruise lines.
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Book through a third-party site
Third-party booking sites like PrestigeCruises.com or Vacations to Go can offer significant discounts, since they often purchase blocks of cabins at a discounted rate directly from the cruise line. They may also throw in perks like prepaid gratuities, complimentary specialty restaurant dining and onboard credit.
Christmas is one of the most expensive weeks to cruise, and I booked a Princess Christmas-week cruise through Prestige Cruises at a huge discount. With their deal, we got the third and fourth passenger to sail for free, so both our kids sailed for free, saving us more than $1,800 on this one cruise. And when you book through a third-party site, you still get all the nights from that cruise credited on your cruise loyalty program, as well as the corresponding benefits from your cruise loyalty tier. Since you don’t lose any of these benefits when booking with a third-party site, there really is no downside.
Stay loyal to your favorite cruise lines
Belonging to cruise line loyalty programs consistently saves me money and gives me perks that make cruising more enjoyable. Unlike land-based hotel loyalty programs where you must re-earn loyalty status yearly, cruise line loyalty programs are cumulative, so your status does not reset every year. With Royal Caribbean, I have Diamond member status in the Crown & Anchor Society, and one of the perks with this loyalty tier is that it allows me to get an additional $225 off the lowest listed prices every time we book a balcony room on a seven-night cruise. Loyalty programs also increase my chances for complimentary upgraded staterooms, based upon availability.
Use loyalty to earn other perks, like lattes and laundry
Another Royal Caribbean Diamond-level perk that saves me hundreds of dollars? I get four complimentary drinks—up to $14 per drink—every day that I’m on the cruise, which is almost $60 per day in complimentary drinks. This adds up to a whopping $420 in free drinks on a seven-night cruise per each Diamond member. I also receive access to the Diamond Lounge, which has complimentary specialty coffees like lattes and cappuccinos available. (There are also cocktail hours from 6 to 9 p.m. with drinks and hors d’oeuvres.) Specialty coffees can range from $3 to $5 each on a cruise ship, so for a caffeine lover like me, this saves me another $10 per day.
Breakfast is also served in the Diamond Lounge, which is much less crowded than other venues on the ship and is usually located in an area with phenomenal ocean views. Other benefits include things like a free portrait photo per member, which saves about $20, as well as a free day of internet, which is about $25.
On Norwegian Cruise Line, I have Platinum-tier loyalty, which has its own unique cost-saving benefits. The perk my wife, Vernic, loves the most is that they wash one bag of laundry free per Platinum member, which otherwise costs about $35 per bag. We get our laundry done on ship before we leave, so when we get home from our cruise, there’s no arguing about who’s going to do the laundry. Platinum members also get a complimentary dinner for two at one of the specialty restaurants on board, including wine. We use this perk to enjoy a quiet date night while on the ship, which usually costs about $50 per person.
Sign up your kids for loyalty perks
I signed up my children for the loyalty programs on their first cruise. Most cruise lines, like Royal Caribbean, match the children to the parents’ loyalty tier, so my kids are Diamond members as well. This saves me additional money, beyond their tickets: Our kids receive four complimentary nonalcoholic drinks, up to $14 per drink, per day each, as well. For my two children, this saves me about $112 per day, or $784 on a seven-night cruise, just on drinks for them! Children also receive a day of complimentary internet access each, which is about $25 in additional savings.
Double your savings with spouse loyalty-tier matching
When I married my wife, she had never cruised before, but I had already sailed a couple of times prior to getting married. When we took our first Royal Caribbean cruise together, I learned that my wife would be able to be tier-matched to my Crown & Anchor Society level. This was great, since it essentially doubled the perks and value that we were receiving for that tier without my wife having to spend weeks at sea to earn this tier level.
Ask if a cruise line will match your loyalty status
At first, the prospect of sailing on several cruise lines and spending weeks at sea to build up status sounded daunting to me—until I realized that I can instantly get top-tier status with certain cruise lines even if I’d never sailed with them before! Cruise lines like MSC Cruises matched my loyalty-program status tier not only with other cruise lines but also with other hotel chains. So I used my clout with other loyalty programs to get matched to MSC Voyager’s Club Gold status. MSC cruises even matches hotel brands like Hilton, Marriott and IHG. Once I was matched, I immediately started sailing with top-tier loyalty benefits right on my first cruise with MSC, so there was no need to spend lots of time or thousands of dollars building up loyalty.
Bid to upgrade your cabin
I regularly take advantage of the option to bid to upgrade my cabin. This is when a cruise line reaches out by email prior to the cruise and allows you to bid an additional amount per person, per night, to upgrade your cabin. So I always book the lowest cabin category that I am comfortable with, since this upgrade is not guaranteed. (It’s based on various factors, like availability, how many people are on the ship and the dollar amount you bid.)
I don’t want to be stuck in an inside cabin for seven nights, so I make my initial booking for a balcony cabin and then use the upgrade program to bid on a junior suite or higher room. With this option, worst-case scenario I’m still having breakfast on my balcony. And best-case scenario if my upgrade bid offer is accepted, I’m lounging out in a junior suite! The savings I get here varies depending on how high the occupancy of the ship is, but it usually saves me about $500 to $1,500 per cabin versus booking the upgraded cabin directly.
Use the future cruising program to save on your next trip
Another great idea for how to save money on a cruise is using the future cruise program, where you get a discount on future cruises when you book another one while still on the ship. Depending on the cruise line, I usually don’t need to have a specific date or destination in mind; I just put down a small deposit, usually between $200 and $500 per cabin, and then I can select my next cruise with the discount rate. This usually saves me at least $200 to $500 per cruise.
Look for “kids sail free” promotions
When I travel with the kids, I shop around. Most cruise lines as well as third-party cruise sites occasionally offer promotions where kids sail free. These promotions provide me with substantial discounts—often between 30% and 50%—saving me $1,000 to $1,800 for two kids in a balcony cabin. One note: Even though the kids sail for free, I am still responsible for paying for their port charges and taxes (about $120 to $180 per child). But the savings on the cruise fare with these kids-sail-free programs are significant.
Choose your timing wisely
Like everything else, cruise prices vary by season. The off-peak season, and the lowest-priced time to cruise, is usually September through early December and also mid-January through February. Whenever my schedule permits, I book cruises during these times. The ships are less crowded, so it allows me a better overall cruise experience. I also save about 40% to 60% during these times, which translates to savings of $900 to $1,500 on a seven-night cruise.
Plan ahead for holiday cruises
Holidays, like Christmas and New Year’s, are some of the most expensive times to sail. When I sail on these holidays, I usually book my trips six to 12 months in advance for the best deals. Summer is also a premium sailing season, since most families travel with children who are off from school.
Thanksgiving is an underrated time to take a cruise, and I usually get amazing deals over Thanksgiving, even though it’s a national holiday and should be priced at a premium. I book three to six months in advance, so Thanksgiving seven-night cruises are about 30% less than the more popular holiday periods, which means I can save an average of $500 to $1,200 per cabin, depending on the cruise line.
Book shore excursions before you board
When I purchase shore excursions prior to my sailing, I use the cruise line’s online portal and usually get about 30% off the excursions versus waiting to book the same excursions when I am already on board the ship. Most shore excursions range in price from $100 to $200, so booking prior to boarding the ship saves me about $30 to $60 per person, which can add up to almost $250 in savings per excursion for my family of four.
Consider booking excursions through third-party operators
When it comes to excursions, I usually like to play it safe and book directly through the cruise line. This is the safest option, since they guarantee to get me back to the ship on time for departure—and if not, they will cover the costs. Occasionally, if I’m really trying to figure out how to save money on a cruise, I will book excursions with sites like Viator, which saves me up to 60% on shore excursions. Most operators on Viator also have flexible cancellation policies, allowing me to cancel up to 24 hours before my excursion, which is great in case my cruise itinerary changes due to unforeseen circumstances such as inclement weather.
With Viator, I can also see the ratings of the tour operators, as well as reviews. In many cases, these are the same third-party tour operators that are being utilized by the cruise line—just with a significant discount. It’s like cutting out the middleman.
Go ahead and purchase the packages
I always purchase packages—such as drinks, spa, photo and especially internet—prior to cruising, because this is a simple, surefire way to save up to 40% on things I would want anyway. When I travel with the kids, I always pre-book the “four devices steaming internet” package as soon as I book my cruise, which is usually a 30% discount ($150) versus purchasing while on the ship. Some cruise lines, like MSC, bundle the drink and internet into one package, which means you can save an additional 20% to 30% versus purchasing individually.
When traveling as a family, some cruise lines offer an all-inclusive photo package for around $300 for a seven-night cruise. Although it sounds steep, this package provides a great value, since each individual photo purchased on the cruise is about $20. This way, I can take all the family pictures I want during the cruise with as many poses or backgrounds, and my total cost is capped at about $300.
Pre-book onboard entertainment too
When it comes to onboard entertainment, I always pre-book these well in advance, usually as soon as I book my cruise, if the cruise line’s web portal is open. Most cruise lines now require reservations for the onboard shows and entertainment, even though these are usually complimentary. When I don’t get a chance to pre-book them, I get stuck standing in a really long line, usually 30-plus minutes on embarkation day, trying to make these show reservations and then I’m not able to get the premium show times or days, since those have already been booked.
If booking premium entertainment, such as the paid circus shows on Norwegian, it’s always better to purchase them before you get onboard. The cruise line’s online portal will also offer a 20% to 30% discount on these shows if they are pre-booked and paid for prior to boarding.
Nab more discounts using travel credit cards
I often book cruises with my American Express Platinum card. Even though it has a yearly fee between $595 and $695, it has a multitude of benefits that consistently provide me with five to 10 times the yearly fee in value and benefits. The Amex Platinum card has a vacation-booking portal that also includes cruises. One of the benefits is that when I book a cruise through them, they provide additional discounts, such as a $100 to $300 onboard ship credit, $100 if booking an inside cabin, $200 if booking a balcony cabin and $300 if booking a suite. This discount is applicable to most major cruise lines. All I have to do to receive this additional credit is to book my cruise on the Amex platinum vacation portal or call my Amex platinum concierge.
Buy stock in your favorite cruise lines
Here’s a not-so-well-known discount that I use: I get perks from owning stock or shares of a cruise line. For example, with Royal Caribbean, because I own more than 100 RCCL shares, I get an additional $250 discount when I book a 14-night cruise or a $100 discount for a seven-night cruise. This discount is layered on top of any promotions currently on the cruise line’s site.
Take a gamble on casino hotels
In addition to discount cruises, I have also sailed on completely complimentary seven-night cruises. How? I have medium/high-tier loyalty with several casino hotels, and most of these hotels partner with cruise lines to offer their program members discounts with “sister” cruise lines. I have the prime-level loyalty tier with Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City, and one of the most valuable perks they provide is a complimentary seven-night Caribbean cruise on MSC cruise line for two people, redeemable once every year. I have used this discount to receive a completely complimentary cruise, including port charges and taxes, saving my wife and me more than $2,400.
Now that you know how to save money on a cruise, check out these all-inclusive-resort tips to help you make the most out of a different type of vacation.