Cruises are my favorite type of vacation for many reasons but at the top of the list is cruising is an incredibly affordable way to go on vacation. Of course, I know exactly how much I’m going to spend while I’m onboard the ship (hint: nothing). To keep you from having an unexpected shock on disembarkation day, I’m going to teach you how to save money on a cruise.
Cruise lines make a LOT of money in addition to what guests pay before getting on board. In other words, no matter how much time you spend getting the best deal on a cruise, they are masterful at finding creative ways to get more of your hard earned money once you get on board. You may not be as cheap as I am — it is a vacation, after all — and there are some things you’ll want to do onboard that cost money; you’ll have to decide what is worth while. My objective is to teach you how to avoid spending extra (and unplanned) money since it’s easy to blow a vacation budget when you’re excited (or had one tii many martoonies).
Before you even book your cruise, it’s important to have a total budget in mind. Knowing how much you want to spend makes every other decision easier. With a number in mind, you’ll be able to determine which cruise line, ship, itinerary, and length you can afford. Don’t forget that before you set foot onboard, you’ll be faced with unexpected ways to take a chunk out of your budget. Pre-paid gratuities (a VERY good use of your money), drink packages, and excursions to name a few.
Whether you decide to purchase a drink package should depend on a lot of factors, but either way, there are surprises everywhere that add up quickly. The major cruise lines have daily specialty drinks — that are more expensive than the per drink allowance. They’re good, they’re delivered to you anywhere you’re sitting, and they’re $3-5 per drink extra that will be charged to your room. Similarly, the really top shelf liquor is above the allowance, and if you buy a bottle of wine with dinner? Probably not included in your drink package. Also, some cruise lines limit the number of drinks that are included in a 24 hour period. When you’re trying to save money on a cruise, having a surprise bar tab at the end isn’t a good feeling.
I like the thrill of having a chance to win in a casino but the reality is for every winner there are many (many!) more who aren’t so lucky. Every casino onboard a cruise ship makes it very easy to get drawn in and comfortable. You win just enough to forget how much you’ve lost and the money you’re gambling with is attached to your onboard account — which is connected to your credit card. Like every good casino, crew members are happy to bring you a drink — but take their time doing it — as long as you stay at the same place in the casino. The excitement and energy are as intoxicating as the alcohol and it’s not an accident. By the way, Bingo is fun and seems to be an affordable way to win cash and prizes — it’s a money grab. Beware.
While it’s easy for me to avoid the spa, women spend a LOT of money for overpriced spa and salon services. The crew members are excellent sales women and they take full advantage of the excitement everyone is experiencing when first boarding to sell lots of services. If you or someone with you is planning to go to the spa, be aware that the prices fluctuate wildly based on the time of day and whether or not it’s a port day vs. a sea day. While on the topic of health and beauty, beware of the fitness center as well. Most of the machines are complimentary. Classes are almost never free. Personal training is never free.
If you want to save money on a cruise — and who doesn’t? Reserve and pay for your excursions and any premium dining before boarding. There are almost always discounts for pre-purchasing (usually purchases have to be made three days before sailing) which means you’ll pay full price once you’re on board. Premium dining is a great experience if you’re a foodie — I’m known to do specialty dining on occasion, but I make my reservations before sailing so I don’t get caught spending more money than I budgeted. Ask questions and make sure you understand how much the premium dining is, whether there is an extra cost for taxes and tip (there usually is!), and what on the menu is an even bigger upcharge.
I mentioned the cruise lines are coming up with creative ways to separate you from your money. Some cruise lines charge for onboard activities like the race track, laser tag, specialty shows, or in the case of the brand new Virgin Voyages: a tattoo parlor called Squid Ink. One of the more “classic” money grabs is taking pictures of guests all around the ship then selling the prints (or digital files). I am all for having pictures, but everyone has a cell phone and the ship is full of people who will gladly take a picture for you. You can save money on a cruise and still have physical prints with all the photo apps available.
Finally, save money on a cruise by avoiding the onboard stores and art shows. The items are way over priced and the lure of “duty free shopping” is way over rated. If you have to buy something (I buy a ceramic replica of every cruise ship I’m on — but it’s factored into my budget!) wait until the last night when everything is on sale. It’ll still be over priced, but less over priced. This, by the way, also applies to the “general store” which sells expensive over the counter pain medication, band-aids, anti-nausea gadgets, and lots of other items that you should remember to pack so you don’t have to buy onboard.
About the Author
Joel is a co-owner of JJ Travel Associates (a Dream Vacations franchise), blogger-in-chief at JoelKnowsTravel.com, lover of all things travel (especially UNESCO World Heritage Sites), wannabe comedian, and the person you should call if you're thinking of planning a vacation.