All about the challenges of Midlife Finance

Cruising for Pleasure

Tired of this yet? 

If dreary weather has been your recent companion, why not trade it in for a stroll down a sandy beach? (Cemetery Reef in the Grand Caymans, in this case.)

Or would you prefer strolling down a shady street in San Juan, Puerto Rico…just before enjoying coffee at a curbside table.  (Note the blue-tinted bricks in the cobblestones; they were brought over as ships ballast back in the day, then used for construction.)

I’d love to get away for a while,  you think. But on my budget…?

Actually, there’s a lower-cost way to travel to warm-weather countries. It’s called cruising.

Yes, traveling on a cruise ship. Sleeping in, strolling down for delicious meals whenever you wish (or just getting room service). Entertaining shows and movies, interesting talks. And best of all, your traveling hotel pulls up curbside at the latest country. All you need do is flash a passport and your cruise i.d., and you’re off to explore. (This one’s also San Juan, by the way.)

There are good reasons why cruises are worth considering:

*Everything’s included — to a point. Food and drink (as long as the latter’s not soft drinks or alcoholic) are part of the price. Not only can you indulge in everything from fresh pizza and burgers to lobster tail and gourmet delights — you can generally do it as often as you like.

Shows, classes and other special events are free, as well. More on this in a bit.

*Someone else does the housekeeping. Come back from supper (“Yes, I suppose I could handle a third dessert…”), and your bed is freshly made up, with a towel animal welcoming you. Grubby bathrooms instantly get cleaned, and nagging little issues are quickly settled. And if you’re willing to ante up the cash, laundry’s done for you, as well. Even your luggage will be schlepped on and off the ship, free of charge.

*Relaxing is the whole point. You don’t have to drag yourself to entertainments, if you don’t want to — in fact, you don’t have to get off the ship at all! Take a book and doze off by one of the pools, or soak in the jacuzzi. Dance until late, then sleep in. No one will make you do anything.

*Cruise prices can be surprisingly affordable. Don’t ever pay full price — you don’t have to. A number of cruise lines, like Carnival and Norwegian, have recurring specials. Special websites, like Cruise.com, are out there to offer deals. One consistent favorite for great prices isTravelzoo; not only do they feature regular deals from your favorite city, but their ‘Top 20’ list is available weekly by e-mail. That’s how we found the cruise we just took in December — at $295 each for a seven-night jaunt through the Caribbean. In fact, we took two cruises, back-to-back, each at that price. Imagine: less than $45 each day for the equivalent of hotel, meals, transportation — and a stop at exotic places!

      If the cruise lines are adding new ships, or renovating their old ones, the opportunities will be even better. In our case, we went on an old favorite: MSC. This Italian-based line specializes in European cruises, but does a lot of catering to Americans and other customers on its Caribbean jaunts, as well. MSC just added two new, very large ships to their fleet. Our ship, the Divina, held more than 3000 people, but these are slated for 6000 or so. If you’re thinking that MSC should be offering some sweet prices to fill all these extra cabins — you’re right!

Not everything about a cruising vacation is bliss. For example:

*Forget about cellphones or using the Internet. Not only did we have to watch particular countries’ charges — using a cellphone, even aboard ship in Miami, could mean a couple dollars a minute. Computer use was laughable: $50 or so an hour. We ended up turning off our phones, or keeping them in ‘airplane mode,’ then turning them back on once we got off the ship. (Actually, this ended up being a benefit.)

*You can get off — but be back on when they tell you to.  Generally, this means returning to the ship by 4 p.m. or so. Snooze on the beach, if you like, but don’t miss that last taxi. (We used the few hours until supper for a late snack and a nap, generally.)

*The crew will arrange excursions for you — for a hefty price. Yes, these cost extra — a lot of extra. Do it online yourself, before you leave, or after you get off the ship, and you’ll save. (Just be sure you’ll make it back in time.)

*Plenty of things cost extra. Soda, for example; a can of pop was a cool $2.50. Bottles of wine, even a California vintage, generally started at $39; a glass was approx. $8. You could circumvent this by ordering a drinks package…for more than $100, just for soda alone. Husband knew a co-worker who ended up paying more than the original cruise price in drinks alone.

Specialty restaurants abound on the ship — but you’ll pay extra for all of them.

So do specialty classes. A wine-mixing class was $45. (Granted, you came out of it with a bottle of your own specialty wine…almost worth it, if you didn’t mind $45 bottles, to begin with.) Although nearly all of the events were free, some selected ones weren’t.

The ship also had souvenir and clothing shops, sales events and an art auction selling prints for painting prices. We generally stayed away from these, although we did attend the art auction. (Sparkling wine, and the chance to win a free cruise did it.)

*Don’t forget taxes and tips. Cruise lines will add an extra charge daily for tips. (In our case, it was $10.) Taxes for the trips averaged between $100-200 each.

*How are you going to get there? Plane tickets cost, especially for luggage. (Spirit Airlines charged us $50 for extra weight, due to a few too many bottles of tequila and presents stashed in our homegoing suitcases.) Also, unless you allow the cruise people to make arrangements, you’ll have to find a way to and from the port. (It’s not that difficult, but does entail planning.) You can drive…but plan for gas and, unless you make different arrangements, a hefty parking fee at the cruise terminal. (One of our cousins paid $20 a day parking on a car she rented! Ouch.)

Get a bargain on your plane or rental car…book an inside cabin (an ‘obstructed view’ is even better-priced than ‘oceanview’)…and watch your expenses carefully. (Here are some other ideas on how to save, as well.) Keep an eye out for sales, too.

You might even try what a friend of a friend does: stop by the cruise terminal on any given sailing day, then make an offer. They keep their passports current, live locally and are retired, so it’s not that big a deal. But they’ve gotten balcony cabins for just a few hundred dollars with this method.

So far, it’s worked every single time.

(all photos by Cindy Brick, and may be used only with permission) 

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