Thinking of taking a cruise? Well you’ve come to the right place! I just got done taking my 11th cruise and I’d like to share with you some tips on how I saved a couple thousand dollars and had a fantastic good time in the process!
Cruising is one of the absolute best ways to see the world.
1) At least every other night, you wake up to a new city where you can go explore on your own or through one of the many customized tours. If you’re like me and abhor packing, checking out, and checking back into places then cruising is perfect.
2) When you come back from sightseeing, you can quickly drop off your things in your room and head on over to the spa to soak your aching legs in a mineral bath, filled with water jets to massage every other part of your body.
3) When you’re done soaking, head on up to the various dining rooms and eat to your hearts content. Lobster, prime rib, rack of lamb, ribeye, pastas, pies, cakes, you name it, the cruise has it. It’s no wonder why everybody puts on at least a couple pounds, or in my case 10 pounds! Curse you lemon meringue pies!
The problem is, people feel cruising isn’t affordable, which is far from the truth once you break things down. There are many different levels of cruise ships and itineraries to choose from. I just so happened to go to the expensive Nordic region because I wanted to experience St. Petersburg and Amsterdam.
Once you see how I’ve broken down the price of a cruise, you’ll realize that cruising is not really that expensive at all!
TIPS ON SAVING MONEY ON CRUISES
* Book late. The biggest cost of cruising is the cruise expense itself. My 12 day/night Baltic cruise on Holland America is advertised at $3,499. Once in print, cruise companies can’t effectively increase their prices, because all a customer has to do is show the company the printed price to not pay more than list. As a result, you should view the printed price as the price ceiling. If you have ultimate flexibility in schedule (e.g. retiree, school teacher for summer vacation, etc), then I recommend waiting until about two months before the sail date to start calling the company directly or searching online on sites like Expedia.com, which has excellent deals. I ended up getting my Baltic cruise with balcony for $1,999, or 43% off list by booking two months before departure!
* If you’re too nervous to book late, book early. Cruise companies always recommend booking early so they can better estimate their future demand. With a $100 deposit you can “secure your spot for the cruise of your dreams” at the lowest price wherever it ends up being. You’ll probably also get $25-$100 in shipboard credit as further incentive. If you don’t go, worst case is you lose $100. I love my optionality and have lots of freedom now, which is why I don’t pre-book. There are always things coming up I don’t foresee.
* Join their rewards program. As a Two Star Mariner for Holland America, I get first dibs on all sales. Once the sale price rooms are sold out, that’s it until someone cancels. The next level pricing is then offered to the general public. You want to focus your cruising on one or two lines maximum to accumulate the highest level status you can. I’m booking a 2013 South America cruise for only $1,300 vs. $2,000 for non-Mariner members. That’s a 35% discount!
* Book onboard for your next cruise. Your cabin will ultimately have a nice brochure full of sexy future cruises to choose from. If you see the cruise you want, go down to the front desk or cruise desk and ask to reserve. You should be able to get even more shipboard credit, such as $300 vs. $50-$100. You also have flexibility to get the lowest price, but you have to call back and take action.
* Be flexible with excursions. Excursions run from $100-$200 on average per person and last 4-8 hours. The excursion desk is probably one of the biggest money makers for cruises. If you can bring your guide book and do a little due diligence, you can probably save at least 60% off the excursion price per day by going on your own. For example, I spent 8 hours walking around all of Copenhagen, hitting every single must see spot in the book on my own. Yes, it took 8-9 miles of walking, eating, and sleeping in the Rosenborg gardens, but I managed to do it and spent a total of $15 bucks vs. $150. Excursions are wonderful for large cities which are far away from the port. The port of Nynasham is 50k away from Stockholm, so I decided to pay the $80 to get a bus with guide instead of walk 20 minutes to the train station, pay $20 for the ticket, wait, and have no guide.
* Bring food with you on excursions. Before every excursion, pack your bag full of fruits and pastries. In fact, bring a small tupperware on your trip so you can also pack cooked foods for lunch as well. Unless you go off the beaten path, you are likely to encounter tourist level high prices for your meals. Tourist level prices are general at a 20-30% premium to non tourist hot spots. In Scandinavia, lunch can easily cost you $25-30 a person. In Helsinki, Finland, I calmed my appetite with a couple free raspberry danishes and apples. Of course I had to taste some of the famous market herring, so I headed over there to eat the free samples of fish and sausages they were readily giving away. There will be certain countries you just have to try the local cuisine e.g. countries that are not similar to your own. Go for it! Many excursions will also provide a local lunch. Eating a heavy breakfast is another definite recommendation if you want to save.
* Wait for the inevitable sale. Shopping galleries, spas, fitness classes, and specialty restaurants will always have sales at some point on the cruise. Wait for the sales! I don’t buy anything on cruise ships because there is a decent markup. Also, I pack very light and don’t want to lug anything more around that I don’t have to. The one thing I happily spend money on is the spa. I paid $199 for the 12 day spa package with unlimited access to the hot baths, saunas, steam room, rain showers, and hot stone chairs. The price was usually $299 which I paid last trip, but I took advantage of the embarkation “sale.” You should always ask the attendants if there is an upcoming sale and whether they are flexible on price, especially if you and your companion purchase.
* Alcohol and other beverages are expensive. If you enjoy drinking, expect $7-8 cocktails, and $5 beers to be the norm. You can always take advantage of the various happy hours on board which offer 2 for 1 specials, and discount prices like bars do on the mainland. Bottled water, sports drinks, and other beverages also cost money. Here’s a great chance for you to just stick with water, and the juices that come with the morning meal! I always took an extra glass of fresh OJ from breakfast and put it in the fridgerator for later consumption. At the poker tables, I was always comped a free drink from the casino manager each night I played. Just take your time getting to know management.
* Daily fees to know. Be aware your cruise will charge you taxes and a daily gratuity fee. My latest cruise gratuity fee was $11.50 a person. That’s $23 for a typical couple in a room. This money is split between your steward and the cruise staff. The stewards work hard, and I’m glad a good portion of the money goes to them. They clean your room three times a day and wait on your every need. Just don’t be surprised to see your bill at the end of the cruise increase by a noticeable amount due to these fees. Given you are paying fees, you shouldn’t feel bad ordering room service and requesting other services. To feel like you are saving on fees, use their services!
* Skip the satellite internet. Satellite internet is slower than old dial-up modem speeds and cost 30-70 cents a minute, depending on what package you get! I spent $300 on satellite internet fees in 2011 because it was the first year I had a blog and went on a cruise. The experience was frustrating due to the speed and frequent drop offs. In 2012, I went without satellite internet completely and just used the ubiquitous free wifi at all the ports and cities. You can find free wifi at the ports, coffee shops, fast food chains, restaurants, and bars. Free wifi penetration continues to go up each year, so if you can do without internet for 24 hours on average, you’ll be fine. It’s good to unplug on vacation!
BONUS! HOW TO MAKE MONEY ON CRUISES
One of my favorite activities is hitting the Texas no limit holdem poker table after a show. The evening usually starts around 10pm and can last as late as 2:30am if the next day is at sea. If you are a Texas Holdem poker player, you will be in for a treat given the poker table has a fast computer dealer. You just have to get used to not playing with your chips and holding your cards. Furthermore, competition is not very good!
The typical blind structure is only $1-2 with a $200 maximum buy-in. The average buy-in only $50-$100 given almost everybody is a beginner. If you are an intermediate player who plays once a month or so for the past several years, you will likely do very well.
Given the blind and limit structure, the average amount you can comfortable make is probably around $30-$80 an hour depending how good you are and whether you can get a large enough table. If you play three hours a night for seven nights, you can make around $600-$1,600. I’m not a great poker player, but I do play a couple times a month at a very vicious game where it’s not uncommon to see $1,000+ pots. As a result, I ended up winning about $1,400 on last year’s cruise, and won eight consecutive sessions in a row this cruise for $1,280.
Playing blackjack, roulette, craps, and three card poker are all games of chance. You might get lucky, but you might lose all your money as I saw player after player do. Every time I encouraged a luck game player to join me at the poker table, I got an evil eye from the dealer who commented, “You taking my players away from me?” Yes, to another table owned by your casino. The table still rakes 15% of a pot up to $6 if a flop is shown.
You can see the pit bosses faces light up with happiness each time a player loses a blackjack hand. Nobody observes the pit bosses in the background, but I do and their glee is obvious each time a new player sits down!
Do not feel bad taking other people’s money at the poker table. You didn’t force them to play poker. Besides, the patrons are likely wealthy since they all have over 30 years of savings accumulated! Finally, you need to play with a winning mentality or else you will lose!
CRUISES ARE A GREAT WAY TO SEE THE WORLD FOR CHEAP
If you hate to pack and unpack, love to wake up to new countries, eat amazing food, soak in hot baths, meet interesting people, play cards, have a romantic drink on a balcony overlooking the ocean, listen to live music, and watch shows, cruising is for you! After taxes, gratuity, and spa my 12 day/12 night cruise cost $2,400. That conveniently equals $200 a day.
If I were to compare this cost to what I would have to spend on land, it would be no comparison!
Land Cost Per Day
* Hotel: $160
* Similar food: $100 for all three meals.
* Spa: $50
* Shows: $30
* Transportation: $60
Total: $400 a day ($4,800 for 12 days) vs. $200 a day ($2,400 for 12 days)
The average price for an equivalent dinner inland was probably around $75 after tax and tip because every dinner was a four course meal complete with dessert. Lunch is easily $20, and breakfast another $10. All meals are all you can eat. The shows were good, not great, which is why I only assign a $30 price. But, you can watch a solo guitarist in the morning, listen to a four string quartet in the afternoon, and an acrobat show in the evening all included.
Taking a two hour, second class ticket Euro-rail costs around $50 Euros minimum. I conservatively estimate $60 a day for a total of $720 in travel costs for traveling to eight different cities.
As you can see, cruising might seem expensive, but actually, they provide much better value than you might realize. Add on $1,350 for flights, $450 for excursions, $500 for land food, and $300 for miscellaneous, and my total cost came out to around $4,700 ($3,400 after poker winnings) for 16 days in Europe. That’s not bad at all in my book, and I’m already anxious to go on another trip!
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Updated for 2015. Let the good times continue.