Planning on taking a cruise? I bet you’re wondering how to save money on a cruise vacation without sacrificing any of the fun and relaxation you’re looking forward to.
I’m about to share over 22 tips and tricks that will get you the most bang for your buck (or euro, or pound. You know what I mean). Ready? Let’s save money on a cruise.
1. Book your cruise early
You might have heard that to save money on a cruise, you need to book last-minute unsold cabins. Although there are some deals to be had by booking very close to sailing, cruise lines have become far more savvy about how to fill their cabins. Heavy discounts on last-minute unsold staterooms aren’t as common as they used to be.
Although this can be a great strategy if you live near a cruise port and have an extremely flexible work schedule (or you’re retired), most people need to plan their vacations weeks or months in advance.
Your best bet to get a great rate? Book very early and watch for price drops.
How does this work? You only need to pay a deposit to hold your spot on a cruise. The remainder of the balance isn’t due until a few months before you sail. At any time before final payment is due, you can re-book if you notice that the price has dropped, without penalty.
One caveat: If you had perks such as on board credit or a free beverage package from your initial booking, you’ll lose those. You will be entitled to any perks offered with the current promotion. So do the math—if the price drops $500 but you would lose a beverage package worth $800, it makes no sense to rebook.
So how do you check for cruise price drops? I like to use the free ShipMate app on my phone (It’s available for IOS and Android). Once you enter the details of your ship, sailing dates, and stateroom category, you can set it to notify you if the price of that cabin category changes by more than 1%.
2. Pick an older ship
If you’re not interested in the newest ships with go-kart tracks and bungee jumping, try a ship that’s been around for a while. Many have been recently refurbished, so odds are your ship will look just as bright and shiny as a newer model.
You can save hundreds or even thousands of dollars by cruising on an older ship, and you might even like the ship more!
Cruise lines are designing their newest ships to maximize revenue. They’re expanding public spaces that earn them more money, while making non-revenue-producing areas smaller. Many older ships were designed before this time, so you may notice more areas to just relax, for free!
Older ships are usually smaller than the newest mega-ships. If you’re concerned that a cruise might be too crowded or the ship will be overwhelmingly huge and difficult to navigate, book a cruise on an older ship.
3. Cruise from a port within driving distance
If you’re lucky enough to live within driving distance of a cruise port, why not check out what cruises your home port offers? We live in the northeastern US, and we’ve saved lots of money by cruising out of Boston compared to our cruises from ports in Florida.
If you’re concerned about the cost of parking at the cruise port, look into hotels near the port that offer park and cruise deals. If you stay over one night, you’ll be able to leave your car at the hotel during your cruise. Most offer a free or inexpensive shuttle to the cruise port as well.
4. Check airfare prices to various cruise ports
Don’t live anywhere near a cruise port, so you have to fly there?
Before you start narrowing down which cruises would fit your budget, do a little research on the cost of airfare to various cities with a cruise port. You may be able to reduce your total vacation cost by flying into a different port city.
Airline prices fluctuate, but you’ll be able to get an idea of how much airfare will cost when you check before booking your cruise. Find out which budget airlines serve your local airport, then check their websites to see which cruise port cities they fly to.
5. Use a travel agent
A travel agent is your #1 ally to save you money and get you extra perks for your cruise. The best part? A travel agent’s services are usually free. (Some travel agents do charge a fee for their services, on top of the commission they earn from the cruise line, but this is the exception, not the norm.)
We regularly receive discounts from the travel agency on top of what the cruise line is offering, free or reduced deposits, and on board credit.
I like to use Cruise Direct to book our cruises. They don’t charge booking fees, they offer a best-price guarantee, and their website makes it easy to compare cruises that you’re interested in.
6. Choose an inside stateroom
Oceanview and balcony cabins are nice, but an inside stateroom can save you a lot of money! Yes, they can be small, but if you’re not planning on spending a lot of time in your room it makes sense to spend your money elsewhere. Or keep it in the bank!
You may also like: The 10 Worst Cruise Ship Cabins to Avoid
7. Book a guarantee stateroom
Guarantee staterooms are the least expensive option for any stateroom category. Instead of choosing the room in the location you prefer, the cruise line picks it for you (they usually give you a room assignment a few days before you sail).
What does this mean for you? You could have a room anywhere—above a restaurant, near the nightclub, literally anywhere. If you book a guarantee for an oceanview or above, your view could be partially or totally obstructed by a lifeboat.
Be sure to look at all of the perks and promotions available before booking a guarantee stateroom. Often, they don’t apply to this category of room. Sometimes you can save more money by booking a slightly higher-priced room to score free perks you might have been planning to purchase anyway.
If you’re prone to motion sickness, sensitive to noise, or would be furious with an obstructed view, don’t book a guarantee stateroom. But if you don’t see yourself being bothered by any of these things, go for it!
Bonus Tip: If you choose a guarantee stateroom, be sure to sign up to accept automatic upgrades. If the cruise line needs to free up rooms in your category, they might just bump you up to a room of their choice in a higher category. You didn’t choose your room’s location in the first place, so get on the list! The cruise line or your travel agent can make sure you have automatic upgrades selected.
Want to learn more about guarantee staterooms? My What Is a Guarantee Stateroom on a Cruise (and Should You Book One)? will tell you everything you need to know.
8. Be a group leader
You can earn a discount or even a free cruise if you organize a large group of cruisers. You’ll generally need to book a sizable number of staterooms, but you can save a significant amount of money if you act as the group’s organizer.
When could you act as a group leader for a large group of cruisers?
- Family reunions
- School class reunions
- Weddings and anniversaries
- Milestone birthdays
- Social groups
- Clubs and associations
- Church groups
Contact your travel agent to find out how many staterooms you’d need to book. Generally, you’ll need to be able to book at least eight cabins to qualify as a group. Taxes and port fees will still need to be paid on any free cruise fares you receive.
9. Max out your stateroom capacity
Even inside staterooms are often listed as four- or five-person capacity. If you won’t be spending much time in the room, recruit family or friends to cruise with you. The price per person is significantly less!
Just be sure that you really get along with the people you ask. Tight quarters can lead to tension. Your snoring brother or slob best friend will be even more annoying when you’re crammed in a tiny stateroom.
Bonus tip: Watch for deals that allow your third and fourth guests (or kids) to cruise for free in the same stateroom. You’ll still have to pay taxes, port fees, and gratuities, but the savings can be significant.
10. Skip the cruise line’s excursions
The cruise line’s excursions may be convenient to book, and they come with the added protection that the ship will wait for you if your group is late getting back (or they’ll transport you to the next port in certain situations).
But the shore excursions sold by cruise lines are actually operated by local companies—you can almost always book directly with the tour operator to save a lot of money! Just look at the description of the tour that the cruise line is advertising, and with a little googling you’ll almost certainly figure out what company is operating that tour.
In many ports, there will be representatives for local tour companies right at the port offering excursions.
Or, you can just wing it and walk around from the cruise port (or take a taxi or rideshare to attractions). Just remember that not all ports are right near the city center—many are located in industrial areas far from town. Do your research on exactly where the port is located to avoid any surprises.
If you’d prefer to not be so DIY, check with the major worldwide tour companies that offer shore excursions for cruise ship passengers.
My go-to choices are Viator and GetYourGuide. They offer a wide range of shore excursions at cruise ports around the globe. Their prices are more reasonable than those offered by the cruise lines, and they both offer a flexible cancellation policy.
11. Buy a future cruise deposit on board
While you’re on board a cruise, many lines will offer a future cruise deposit program. Essentially, you pre-pay a small amount towards a future cruise. In return, you’ll get on board credit, either for your current cruise or the next one.
You don’t need to book your next cruise on the ship, although you can if you want to (my advice is to wait and go through your travel agent).
This tip won’t help you save money on your first cruise, but future you will be glad you were so smart!
12. Use free or discounted gift cards
Many cruise lines have their own branded gift cards that you can use toward your cruise fare, to pre-purchase on board credit, beverage packages, or your automatic gratuities.
Check to see if any of your credit card points programs offer points redemption in the form of cruise line gift cards.
If you belong to a membership program like AARP or Costco, you can often purchase discounted cruise line gift cards as a membership perk.
You can also purchase cruise gift cards from resale websites. Sites such as Gift Card Granny resell gift cards that people don’t need, at a discounted price. Some allow you to set alerts for when a particular cruise line’s gift cards are in stock. Some even sell new gift cards at a discount!
13. Use on board credit wisely
If you’ve earned on board credit, you often have to spend it while you’re on the ship—not before (check with your cruise line to see if you can use OBC before you sail). Take a look at what you’re planning on pre-purchasing, and determine if it makes sense to wait and pay on the ship with on board credit. Some ways to use your OBC are:
- Beverage packages
- Photo packages
- Automatic gratuities
- Shore excursions
- Specialty restaurants
Remember that many passengers will be pre-booking shore excursions and specialty restaurant reservations, so the most popular ones may be fully booked by the time you’re on the ship. Be flexible if you plan on using on board credit for these.
You may also like: How to Get Onboard Credit for Owning Carnival Stock
14. Look for free beverage package promos
Many cruise lines periodically offer free unlimited beverage packages as a promotion. Norwegian Cruise Line does this more often than any other line with their Free at Sea sale. Be sure to sign up for emails from your favorite cruise lines to be notified of these promotions.
You’ll still have to pay gratuities on the value of the package (generally 18 to 20%), but one or two cocktails will make up for that small fee.
15. Bring your own drinks
Many people sneak (or attempt to sneak!) alcohol on cruise ships. Some people get caught, their alcohol is confiscated, and they’re most likely a bit embarrassed.
But you don’t have to be sneaky! Most cruise lines allow you to take a limited amount of certain alcoholic beverages and soft drinks on board at embarkation.
Read more: How to Bring Your Own Drinks on a Cruise
16. Don’t always pre-purchase the beverage package
A common question from new cruisers is whether beverage packages need to be purchased for every day of your cruise. The answer? Well, it depends.
In general, once you purchase a beverage package, you’ll need to purchase it for all remaining days of the cruise. However, some cruise lines don’t require you to purchase a package starting on day one. In fact, they may have a table set up for the first couple of days with staff members selling the beverage package.
Read more: Are Cruise Drink Packages Worth It?
If you don’t want to shell out for an expensive package for each day of your trip, check with your cruise line to see if you can buy on board, and when the last day to purchase will be.
Just remember that some cruise lines offer a discount on packages if you purchase them before your cruise.
Bonus Tip: Some cruise lines require all passengers over 21 to purchase a beverage package if one passenger in the same stateroom buys a package. You can usually ask for an exemption for a medical condition, or if one of your companions is recovering from addiction.
17. Don’t go to the (paid) specialty restaurants
Specialty restaurants on cruise ships usually come with a cover charge—anything from $15 for Princess’ Planks BBQ to $125 and up for an ultimate dining experience, such as Disney’s Remy. Most specialty restaurant cover charges are in the $25-$45 range per person.
If you’re trying to save money, this doesn’t mean you’re stuck with the buffet! All cruise ships have at least one complimentary main dining room. The food and service are generally high-quality, even on mass-market cruise lines. The main dining rooms are open for breakfast and dinner, and are often open for lunch.
You’ll also like: What New Cruisers Don’t Know About Cruise Food & Drinks
Some cruise lines have free sit-down restaurants in addition to the buffet and main dining rooms. Norwegian’s O’Sheehan’s and Princess’ Alfredo’s Pizzeria are just a couple of examples of complimentary casual restaurants with table service.
You’ll also likely find basic fare like burgers and hotdogs at quick-service spots near the pool. These are also free!
Bonus Tip: If your cruise line has formal nights and you really want to splurge on a specialty restaurant, don’t book it for the formal night. There’s usually an elevated menu in the main dining rooms on formal nights. Don’t miss out!
18. Avoid room service charges
Some cruise lines are now charging for room service. Even if it’s free, you should still tip a couple of dollars to the person who delivers your food. To save money if you know you tend to have the late-night munchies, you can bring snacks and drinks from the buffet to your room to save in your mini-fridge.
Even cruise lines that charge for room service still offer complimentary continental breakfast delivered to your room. You can’t just call it in like a normal room service order, though. You’ll need to fill out a card the night before to hang on your door, or check the cruise line’s smartphone app—many allow you to order on your phone the day before as well.
Bonus Tip: Order extra glasses of juice with your continental breakfast. Juice is often only free at breakfast, so it’s good to have some in your fridge if you don’t have a beverage package. If you have alcohol in your room that you ordered or brought aboard*, juice makes a good mixer.
*I don’t condone sneaking alcohol on a cruise ship, but I know many people do it. Other ways that people might have alcohol in their stateroom is from a free mini-bar setup from the loyalty program, ordering a bottle of liquor from the cruise line, or by taking allowable amounts of wine or champagne on board.
You may also like: How to Bring Your Own Drinks on a Cruise
19. Don’t drink the bottled water or mini-bar beverages in your stateroom
You’ll often see bottles of water in your stateroom, or drinks in the mini-fridge. Even if you have the most all-inclusive beverage package, these are usually not free.
On my very first cruise, my beverage package included bottled water. I’d take a bottle back to our room each night. Somehow, my bottles got mixed up with the bottles left in my room and I was charged for drinking four of them! Thankfully I noticed the charge in time, and the staff at Guest Services were understanding and removed them from my bill.
If you want to make 100% sure that you’re not hit with a charge for accidentally drinking something, ask your room steward to remove the beverages from your stateroom.
20. Make sure you know all the discounts you’re eligible for
If a member of your party is in the armed services or is a military veteran, most cruise lines will offer a discount or onboard credit. Discounts are also offered for past passengers on the same cruise line, even if you last cruised with them many years ago!
Have you booked a cruise with a specific travel agency before? Some offer a loyalty discount when you book again. There are even discounts for residents of certain states, and people over a certain age (generally 55 or 60).
Check with the cruise line or your travel agency to see if you’re eligible for any of these discounts, and what they require as proof of eligibility.
21. Be flexible with your cruise dates
Looking at all of the sailings for a particular itinerary, you’ll notice that the price will fluctuate, often significantly, from one sailing to another. For the same ship, same ports, and the same amount of days, the price can vary by several hundred dollars depending on the date.
Prices can skyrocket due to demand, with holiday weeks being among the most expensive. If you want to cruise over Christmas or the New Year, you’ll often pay a premium price. Popular school vacation weeks and the peak weeks in summer can also be more expensive.
If you’re able to be flexible with the dates of your vacation, look at prices for all sailings of the itinerary you want. You’ll be surprised by how much you can save just by changing the week you’re planning to travel.
You may also like: What is the Cheapest Month to Cruise?
22. What to never skip? Travel insurance.
You might consider skipping travel insurance to save money on a cruise. Please don’t. Not purchasing travel insurance could end up costing you big bucks in the case of an unforeseen situation.
Your personal medical insurance may not cover you in a foreign port. Some policies that do provide coverage still require you to pay upfront and they reimburse you later. Most policies won’t cover medical evacuation back to the US, which can cost $100,000 or more, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Medical emergencies happen on cruise ships just as often as on land. Large cruise ships have a medical facility with at least one doctor and several nurses. But they’re not equipped to handle all life-threatening emergencies. If someone needs to be evacuated to a hospital on land, the cruise line doesn’t foot the bill.
If you have an emergency situation arise before or during your cruise—such as an illness, death in the family, or a natural disaster—many travel insurance policies will reimburse you for the cost of your vacation.
Be sure to read the fine print before you purchase a policy to make sure it covers everything you need, including travel health insurance, medical evacuation insurance, and trip cancellation insurance.
The cruise line or your travel agency will likely push you to purchase their travel insurance. I’ve been able to get comparable coverage for less money when I purchase it independently. I use Travelex, and I’ve found their rates to be very affordable. Click to get a free quote.
Looking to save money on flights to get to the cruise port? Not everyone (myself included) is lucky enough to live close to a year-round cruise port. Check out some amazing travel hacking tips that will save you tons of money on airfare, hotels, and can even earn you money towards your next cruise vacation.
You may also like: Seven Reasons Why a Cruise Can Be a Cheap Vacation
Have you used any of these tips to save money on a cruise? Or do you have any other money-saving tips for cruising? Let me know in the comments below!
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