A few winters ago, Husband and I desperately needed a break — from snow, from our regular schedule, from everything. So we took a nice long Caribbean cruise. Instead of dealing with impatient clients, we strolled the streets of St. Maarten. No deadlines: instead, we sheltered from a warm rain outside the street market in St. Lucia…and went snorkeling that same afternoon.
And one of the great pleasures of this two-week vacation? The whole thing cost about $50 a day for both of us, including an itinerary of exotic locations, great food, entertainment and a cabin with an ever-changing view of the ocean.
Yes, you read that price right. Even with airfare, souvenirs, tips and a few island tours thrown in, the total was less than $1700 for both of us. We came home rested and tanned, with a new grip on our hectic lives. Aaahhhh…
Wonderful cruises at rock-bottom prices are possible for you, too — especially when using a few helpful approaches to find the best deals.
How are you going to get there? If you’re close to an ocean port, driving’s your best bet. (Most cruise lines have parking lots you can safely park your vehicle in while you’re gone.) Are you getting there with a rental vehicle? Rather than pay long-term charges, drop it off at the closest airport — cruise lines generally arrange for free pickups there by van. (Reserve another car for pickup at the airport at cruise’s end.)
Airfare gets you to your destination fast, and minimizes time you’ll need for traveling. Cruise lines will offer to book your tickets for you — but unless they’re running a special, you’ll pay extra for the convenience. Get the best prices possible by booking at least a month or longer before you go. Kayak’s an excellent starting point for discount prices. (Another good spot, for any kind of discount travel: Travelzoo. They even have Top 20 lists every week that come straight to your e-mail box.)
Several airlines, however, like Air Tran (especially good for Florida fares), give better prices, or offer discounts on luggage fees, from their own websites — take a minute to double-check. Do it late Tuesday night or early Wednesday, when lower prices often pop up more quickly.
(Driving your car to the airport…and picking it up on your way home? Sometimes your best option is a local hotel. Stay there for the night, park your car in the lot, and take the hotel shuttle to the airport. Some hotels offer this — ask before you book.)
Next, figure the total cost. And it’s not just the price of the cruise — that’s only the beginning. You need to add in:
*Taxes, including port fees (generally $100 – 400, depending on the trip’s length and where you’re stopping)
*Tips — these will be automatically added to your account at the end of the cruise, unless you specify differently. (The ship’s crew generally work very, very hard, and deserve it.) That’s another $100-200 to figure in.
*Drinks. Unless you’re willing to rely on water, tea, regular coffee and lemonade (okay, juices at breakfast, too), you’re going to pay extra — and it’s going to be a lot. Soft drinks and specialty coffees are nearly as pricey as the alcoholic ones. Make it easier on yourself by buying wine and soft drinks while you’re in port; splurging on a drink or two during the trip; or bringing your own on board. (Some lines allow one or two bottles per stateroom when first embarking, but will confiscate and hold any liquor you bring on the ship at ports-of-call. Presumably they give it back when the cruise is finished. Policies vary, and change periodically — go here for more.)
*Specialty items. Upscale meals at the ship’s higher-end restaurants; massages and other personal care; gambling fees; purchases at the ship’s stores or auctions; and any other “extras.” (Room service, surprisingly, is generally included in the basic fare. Use it to get a headstart in the mornings when you’re planning to leave the ship early.)
Don’t forget to add in travel costs to get to and from the cruise ship itself, including hotel, meals, taxis and such. Many cruises will let you put a smaller down payment, then make payments, with the remainder due by the time you leave.
|Get used to seeing interesting juxtapositions like this – cruise ships often tower over small ports|
How about shore excursions? These take you away from the same streets your fellow passengers are trudging down, and into less-populated areas. Our day trip while in Grenada took us to a spice market, lunch at a restaurant (the fish was amazing), sampling fruit off the local trees, and a visit into a state park filled with jungle foliage, where monkeys did as much staring as we did. At the top of the mountain, we stopped by the edge of a deep and spooky-looking lake. There, our guide insisted, his grandparents and parents came every year to “feed the mermaids.” (What those ‘mermaids’ actually were, I never quite figured out.) Price: about $50 each, including lunch.
We would never have found those memories, had we stayed in the same four-block area along the waterfront that most of our fellow travelers hung out in.
First and foremost, don’t let the cruise line scare you — you can book shore excursions yourself. They’ll be lower-priced overall, and more varied. Look for customer reviews via Google or travel websites — that’s how our Grenada tour operator popped up. Don’t just pick the cheapest one — look for the spots and activities that interest you. Reputable tours are careful to ensure your safety — after all, they want you to have to a good time, so you’ll recommend them to the next visitors. Reserve your spot online beforehand, and print out a receipt and confirmation to bring along..
Some ports are better explored on foot. Sometimes they’re small…or you just planned to soak up the sun on the beach, anyways. A good guidebook (we like the Eyewitness travel guides) lets you prepare in advance, and starts the anticipation.
Or do both. Take a half-day shore trip, come back to eat lunch at the ship, then wander at your leisure before the ship leaves port.
Finally, choose your cruise. Where do you want to go? How long can you stay out?(A longer cruise often gives a better price-per-day ratio. For especially good buys, look for ‘repositioning’ cruises, where a ship is moving from one area to another.
Your room is the next factor. Are you planning on spending a lot of time there? In that case, you’ll want to pass on the cheaper “inside” rooms, and look for something with a view (obstructed or not). Best of all: your own private balcony. Unless you’re in one of the higher-end suites, your room will feel small, and a tad cramped. (The shower, especially so!) Try this article for general terms and more desirable areas of the ship.
Of course, you’ll want the best price possible. Look for sales and do searches — compare pricing, so you know when something special comes along. Does it include airfare, or onboard credit? Can you get a balcony cabin at the same price you’d normally pay for an obstructed view? Give yourself time to search. Double cabins give you a better price-per-passenger, but single passengers can let the cruise line match them up with another single, if they’d rather not pay the higher price. (This has its advantages and disadvantages, of course.) Kids are sometimes free if staying in their parents’ cabin — check, if you’re planning on bringing everyone in the family.
|Yes, you’ll be sharing your experience with plenty of other people.|
How did we get the incredible price we paid for those 12 nights in the Caribbean? First, Husband is a Navy veteran, which got us a special serviceman’s discount on the Dynamic Travel site. (Others offer specials for teachers, firefighters and other public service professions.)
Next, we took time to research. Our cruise popped up only after at least a month of looking and comparing. By that point, we knew what was a good price, and what was a steal — and we grabbed it. Fast. (The really good specials don’t stay available that long.)
And finally, we shipped on a cruise line that didn’t just cater to Americans. Our ship, MSC Cruises’ Lirica, gave instructions in English, Spanish, French and German. This emphasis meant expanded menus, programs and subtitled movies to appeal to a broader range of tastes and cultures. We enjoyed this chance to expand our horizons, and meet people from other countries than our own. (True to form, a number of United Statesers listened to the English…then talked loudly while others were trying to hear the rest. Ugly Americans.)
A check of the MSC Cruises site showed several current specials, including “employee pricing” (starting at $399 for a 7-night cruise…slightly more than $55 a night per person!) and two-for-one-fares.
Multiple levels — and options — to choose from. Gaudy? Yes…but interesting.
Timing — and planning — are everything. Soon after we took that steal of a cruise, we did a second one – to Alaska. My parents had been there some years before, and had always wanted their kids and grandkids to return with them. Dad had been diagnosed with cancer, and they wanted us to go — now. A cruise was hurriedly chosen (though we were able to arrange our own shore excursions)— and we were handed the bill.
Did we have a good time? Parts of the cruise were memorable –like watching out the porthole-shaped windows for whale spouts, feet up after a great meal, or being on the lookout for icebergs. Bits and pieces of the time spent with the family were worth it, too, especially with Dad, who is gone now. But we paid for the convenience. That Alaskan cruise cost roughly 4 times more than our Mediterranean jaunt.
One of the best ways to snag a low-cost cruise? Wait. Websites like Best Price Cruises have a huge section on last-minute cruises all over the world that still have openings. Best Price Cruises currently boasts more than 900 to choose from, including a ‘Top 40’ list. We’re planning to take advantage of this when we retire, and can just take off at the spur of the moment.
Cruises, with food, bed and travel in one tidy package, can be a great bargain. Or they can be a huge expense. The choice is honestly up to you.