Cruising is back.
And, after two years of being stuck on land, many vacationers may be ready to get out of the house and onto the ocean.
As more cruise lines lift COVID-related restrictions, they are opening up their cruise ships to more people. In late February, Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian cruise lines announced they would be making masks optional (or “recommended” but not required) indoors for vaccinated guests.
And good news: You can find affordable options on most cruise lines, especially right now as the industry attempts to lure customers back.
17 Money-Saving Cruise Tips
Here are some of the tried and true ways to save money on a cruise vacation.
1. Book Early
Many cruise lines, like Royal Caribbean, offer their best prices when they first release their itineraries. Over time, as more cabins get filled, that cruise’s fare increases.
For most lines, you can book up to 18 months in advance. Plus they often throw in special perks for early bookers — like beverage packages and shore excursions.
2. Cruise During ‘Shoulder Seasons’
Shoulder seasons are simply the off season when a cruise line isn’t as busy, depending on the time of year and area of the world the cruise ship will be sailing.
For example, Caribbean cruises will be cheaper in late summer and early fall because of the hurricane season. For European cruises, May and September usually offer shoulder season pricing. Take advantage of these lower-demand timeframes.
3. Keeping Checking Prices, Even After You Book
Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Norwegian cruise lines offer “repricing” options (meaning “get the lower price now offered”) after you book. Each cruise line has different rules.
For example, on Royal Caribbean, if the price of your cruise fare drops anytime up to 48 hours before your sail date, you can receive the difference as a non-refundable onboard credit after the final payment or as a rate adjustment before the final payment.
This is a win-win situation, as booking earlier lets you avoid price hikes, and you have the ability to reprice if the rate goes down.
4. Where You Cruise Matters
It’s all about supply and demand. With more plentiful cruises out of Florida and through the Caribbean, you’ll be able to find better rates. Cruises to Alaska and through Europe are more limited, so you can expect to pay a higher price on those trips.
5. Travel Agents Can Help
These days, it’s so easy to book quickly online that it almost seems silly to use a travel agent. However, on expensive endeavors like a cruise vacation, you might want to consider one.
Travel agents will be more knowledgeable about timing for special rates, which cruise lines make the most sense for you and what deals are available. Plus, if you’re working a full-time job, a travel agent can save you a whole lot of time on research.
6. Make a Bid to Upgrade Your Cabin
Three cruise lines – Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Celebrity – give you the chance to bid against other passengers for cabin upgrades when you’re booking your cruise.
If you don’t win the bid, it’s no loss to you. If you do win, you’ll get a sweet upgraded room for the price of a lower level cabin. Your bid will be the cost per person. Cruise Fever says that bids of $25 to $50 per person for an upgrade are quite common.
7. Book Last Minute
Wait a minute, didn’t we just say to book early? Yes, we did. But if you’re a last-minute type, you might find some savings as well. Cruise lines will drop prices close to the departure date to unload inventory. If a particular cruise line still has many open cabins, they might reduce the rates significantly.
The best time to book a last-minute cruise is between 60 to 90 days prior to departure, according to Cruise Critic. Up until that point, someone can cancel their cruise without penalty.
Looking for last-minute deals shouldn’t be your go-to method, as it’s not as reliable as booking early. But you could benefit if you decide to go see the Bahamas on a whim. It also helps if you’re within driving distance of the cruise port, to avoid overpaying for airline tickets.
8. Take Advantage of Redeployments
A redeployment is when a cruise line needs to move a ship to another port in another part of the world, usually at a great distance. For example, a cruise line might choose to reposition a cruise ship from Australia to Alaska in the summer.
They might offer special deals for passengers who simply want to sail the ocean with limited stops. Keep in mind, these trips to cruise ports are one way, so you’ll need to secure a plane ride home.
9. Eat to Your Heart’s Content (But Watch Where You Eat)
Your goal should be to gain 10 pounds by the time the cruise is over. Just kidding. However, you are paying for all those meals, so take advantage of them!
Cruises historically have been known for mediocre food, but that has changed in recent years. Most lines include meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner – as part of their basic package, with the option to buy “specialty dining” at an upgraded price.
Most of the specialty packages include more unique or fancier restaurants with a celebrity chef’s name attached to them. Foodies might find these packages attractive if they’re willing to spend a little more. Otherwise, you can save by sticking to the included restaurants.
The great thing about cruise dining is that if you didn’t like the fish you ordered at one restaurant, simply go order the steak at another one – at no extra cost.
10. Consider an Inside Cabin
Inside cabins don’t have the greatest views, unless you enjoy staring at walls, but they are the cheapest. This is all a matter of personal preference, as some passengers can’t go without a nice balcony with a view.
However, most cruise ships have so much entertainment and food to offer that, most likely, you’ll be spending very little time in your room.
11. Book Shore Excursions Direct
This requires a little research, but booking shore excursions on your own can save you some cash. If you’re worried about keeping track of time, then booking through the cruise line guarantees you’ll be back before the cruise ship leaves.
However, if you research the ship’s shore excursions and find out which local businesses the cruise line uses, you can usually book directly through those businesses. You’ll still make it back in time, and you’ll save money in the process.
12. Bring Your Own Wine
Don’t get crazy. You can’t bring a barrel on board.
But most cruise lines will allow you to bring two bottles of wine on board the cruise. Anything you buy at the ports will need to be checked and will be returned to you when the cruise is over.
13. Consider the Beverage Packages
Even if you can’t bring all the wine, you can score some serious savings with drink packages that many cruise lines offer. You’ll have several options – both alcoholic and non-alcoholic to choose from.
Simply do the math to decide if buying the drink package makes sense. Keep in mind that you can buy drink packages at any time you’re on board. If you’re unsure, take the first day or two to gauge whether the package makes sense for you. If you’re only imbibing two margaritas and a diet coke over the course of the day, you might choose to go a la carte or take advantage of the free drinks, like coffee, lemonade and unbottled water.
14. Avoid the Internet Package
Internet packages start around $15 to $20 per day for a small amount of usage, so that can really add up over the course of the week. Take this opportunity to unplug and enjoy the beauty of your surroundings during your cruise vacation.
If you really need to communicate with friends or family, take advantage of your time at the cruise port, especially if you have an international calling plan.
15. Limit the Extras
You’ll have opportunities to upgrade your experience throughout the cruise – from the previously mentioned drink package to specialty restaurants, shore excursions, photo packages and spa appointments.
While some of those may make sense, make sure you take a reasoned approach to buying them. Read the reviews about the specialty restaurants to find out if the food is worth the extra cost. See what previous cruisers thought about the available shore excursions. And use that fancy camera on your phone instead of buying those expensive photo packages.
16. Pick the ‘Guaranteed’ Cabin
Usually, the cheapest rooms on cruise ships are the “guaranteed” cabins. This means, obviously, your spot on the boat is guaranteed. The downside is that you don’t have a choice on where your cabin will be. Your fate lies in the hands of the cruise line.
This is a good option if you only want the cabin to get your eight-ish hours of rest and plan to spend most of your time seeing what all your cruise ship has to offer.
17. Look Out for Specials on Port Days
On days at port, most cruisers choose to visit the port and nearby surroundings.
If you stay on the ship, you can often find special deals on retail items and at the less-crowded spa and salons. Plus, you can take advantage of the food and “free” drinks you’ve already paid for instead of going to a local restaurant.
Robert Bruce is a senior writer for The Penny Hoarder.