How To Save Money On Cruise Vacations: Lobster Dinners At Filet-O-Fish Prices

Thinking of taking a cruise after the industry shut down for over 12 months due to the pandemic? Well you've come to the right place! I've taken 11 cruises in my life and I'd like to share with you some tips on how to save money on cruise vacations.

Cruising Is One Of The Best Ways To Travel

Cruise vacations are my favorite. Once there is herd immunity, we plan to go on a family cruise again to Mexico or Alaska from San Francisco. Here are some reasons why I like cruises.

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.

How To Save Money On Cruise Vacations

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!

4) If you have family, cruise vacations provide childcare services. There is seriously every type of service imaginable on a cruise.

The problem is, some people feel cruising isn't affordable. This is far from the truth once you break things down. There are many different levels of cruise ships and itineraries to choose from. I went on a Nordic region because I wanted to experience St. Petersburg and Amsterdam. It wasn't that bad at all as I'll show you below.

How To Save Money On Cruise Vacations

As a Financial Samurai, you always want to save money on cruise vacations. Saving money makes you feel great! It then enables you to enjoy the cruise even more.

Here are the best ways to save money on cruise vacations:

1) Book late

Spa Hot Tubs
Mineral hot baths on board

If you have the flexibility, the easiest way to save money on cruise vacations is to 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. I ended up getting my Baltic cruise with balcony for $1,999, or 43% off list by booking two months before departure!

2) If you're too nervous to book late, book really 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.

3) 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 and an easy way to save money on cruise vacations.

4) 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.

Of course, if you decide not to go on your next cruise, you may have to pay a cancellation penalty if you cancel too late. Double check.

5) 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.

6) Bring food with you on excursions.

Amazing meals on cruises - How To Save Money On Cruise Vacations
All you can eat prime rib

If you don't have to eat or drink, you can save money on cruise vacations! But starving is no fun.

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.

7) Wait for the inevitable sale

Cruise vacations always go on sale. Therefore, you just need to subscribe to a couple of your favorite cruise companies to get their notifications. If you have flexibility to travel, you can save a great deal.

While on the cruise, 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.

8) Alcohol and other beverages are expensive

If you only drink water, you can save a lot on cruise vacations! That said, where's the fun in that? You want a nice Cabernet Sauvignon to go with your dry-aged rib-eye steak.

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.

9) Know the daily fees and utilize your perks

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!

10 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. I've been 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

Poker Balance - Make money on cruises by playing poker
$1,130 poker balance after 7th session

Now that I've shared how to save money on cruises, let's focus on th income side of the equation. After all, to achieve financial freedom sooner, it's much better to focus on boosting active income and passive income.

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 Hold'em 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 a previous cruise. On my last cruise, I won eight consecutive sessions in a row this cruise for $1,280.

Most people playing poker on cruises are just there to have fun. You should be there to have fun too. But if you can slightly alter your mindset to making money at the tables, then you could do very well. Besides, making money at poker is fun!

The Other Games Will Likely Lose You Money

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 My Favorite Way To See The World For Cheap

How to save money on cruise vacations
The crooked buildings of Amsterdam

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 one of my 12 day/12 night cruises 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.

Cruises Provide Much Better Value

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.

With the cruise industry making no profits during the global pandemic, you should be able to save money on your next cruise. However, with pent-up demand, getting a great deal may be harder than we think.

Looking for an awesome travel rewards credit card? 

One of the ways to save money on cruise vacations is to charge everything with a rewards credit card. This way, you get the rewards points and cash-back bonuses.

Check out the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and others. I use my Chase credit card for all my business and travel spending to get points for more free travel, insurance in case my bags are lost or my flight is stuck, and more insurance for defective products I buy and want to return. Everybody should have a credit card for the free 30 day credit. Just make sure to pay off your credit card every month in full! Check out some of the benefits:

  • Earn 50,000 bonus points when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's a ~$650 value right there.
  • Named a ‘Best Credit Card' for Travel Rewards by MONEY Magazine.
  • You get 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.

Also, check out my latest post on how to travel for free and lower your taxable income.

About The Author

39 thoughts on “How To Save Money On Cruise Vacations: Lobster Dinners At Filet-O-Fish Prices”

  1. I definitely plan to do a cruise at some point, but probably when we’re older – we can do the budget stuff while we’re still young.

    Cruises are probably a bit less economic down under – either you do a pretty dull short cruise within the Pacific, or fly over to Europe or the Americas to cruise around there!

  2. I think cruises are so much fun. I went on a Caribbean cruise once and I loved it. If I still lived on the East Coast I’d probably take a Caribbean cruise every winter actually. A lot of them aren’t that expensive, a lot of them leave right from Florida, and I’d want to escape the freezing cold to sail the warm blue waters instead!

    There are so many cruise lines and itineraries nowadays that there’s easily something to fit everyone’s schedule and wish list of places to visit. Some people even take cheap 2 day cruises, which I did once to the Bahamas. I’ve always thought it’d be cool to go on an around the world cruise one day, although I’d probably get home sick after a couple weeks!

  3. I am not a huge fan of cruises since I like to drink a bit. There is something about getting that bill slid under the door with all those drinks added up that bothers me.

      1. Carnival is also testing all-you-can-drink packages on some cruises, more like a land-based all-inclusive resort. It’s just a test, so don’t spoil it for everyone.

        “The ‘My Awesome Bar Program’ costs $42.95 per person per day plus an automatic 15% gratuity of $6.44 and can be used to order all wines by the glass, beer and individual cocktails priced at $10 and lower. Full bottles of wine and champagne, as well as wines by the glass, beers and individual cocktails priced above $10, are available at a 25% discount.”

  4. I just got back from my second cruise and loved it. On my first cruise I actually booked some of my excursions off the ship. They were much cheaper.

    Great tip on bringing tupperware. The food can be quite expensive in certain cities.

    1. One reason to buy excursions from the cruise line is that the ship will wait for their own excursions when they are late. However, if you buy on your own then it is up to you to make your way back to the ship. I do a lot of independent travel on a cruise, but you need to make sure you have sufficient buffer time to make it back. Also, I would be more reluctant to do an adventure / wilderness excursion without that guarantee–equipment failures do happen. It’s one thing when you can hop a city bus or taxi back to the dock, but it’s another thing if your ATV gets bogged down in the mud. I have also seen many bicycle tours that return late; I would not recommend taking a late departure bicycle tour.

      So, if you travel independently make sure your are prepared. You probably didn’t need to take your passport with you off the ship, but if you had to fly back home or to the next port, would you need it? Do you know the bus line and nearest bus stop to the cruise ship dock? Do you have a phrasebook? A little preparation leads to confidence as you travel, and you can put your money to the things you want the most.

      Great tip about food, Sam. My wife and I actually have *collapsible* plastic bowls, so we can bring food off the ship with us, and bring back souvenirs in the same space the food used to take up. I think we got them at REI. We also use our own water bottles, both onboard and off. The ship (well, Royal Caribbean, at least) posts health warnings that you should not refill a bottle directly from a water or drink fountain, but bottles are allowed. Just fill up some of their glasses, and then pour from the glasses to your bottle.

      1. Great point about booking via the cruise to MAKE SURE the boat doesn’t leave without you!

        I think almost every cruise, at least one person gets behind!

        I’ll check out the collapsible plastic bowls from REI. thx!

  5. 160 pounds! Been a long long time since I’ve been even close to that weight, my goals today, not to try and gain weight.

    Did a cruise once, wish I had known this would have helped

  6. I went with friends for the first time last July: Sydney – New Caledonia – Vanuatu – Sydney for 8 days. The price was awesome – $600 per person. Unfortunately not very young crowd (I’m 26) and I hated to wake up at 7am to enjoy very short time onshore, and quite a bit of boredom on the ship. But as you said – the value is unbeatable and it’s great way how to cheaply explore where to go for longer and tick box “I’ve been there” at the rest :)

    Thanks for the tip with poker! Will do next time :)

    1. Never been to any of those places you’ve mentioned! Must put on the list!

      The more expensive the cruise line and ship, the easier it is to make a lot more w/ poker. But just be careful, there are sharks in the water everywhere!

  7. Renée (@nickelbynickel)

    I went on a cruise back in 2005 when I was just 18, had a blast, our group was definitely the youngest crowd on the ship but I would go again in a heartbeat. It’s not my preferred way to travel but the food & the experience & the ease… worth it for a nice getaway and indeed not expensive at all!

  8. So is 1-2 usually the only game they have or do they ever run higher? Ever play in any tourney’s onboard?

    I’ve considered an actual poker cruise before, but haven’t pulled the trigger yet.

  9. Cruises are more affordable then most people think. I actually agree with every single point in your post. I just hated the one and only cruise we took. I was bored to death on sea days and annoyed with my fellow cruisers on any other given day. You should write a post your fellow cruisers. :) I would love to read your take on passengers. :) God, I am still bitter when I think about our Alaskan cruise.

    1. All you have to do is eat, gamble, and drink heavily and you’ll have a blast during sea day!

      I enjoy my fellow passengers actually. Older demographic, but all with a ton of wisdom!

  10. Sam, you bring up some great points about the excursions. My wife and I have been on one cruise, and we spent almost half of one ticket’s cost on excursions alone. Great tips!

    1. The excursions are a killer! But, if you never plan on going back, they may be well worth it. Frommer’s and Rick Steve’s guides are great for doing things on your own.

  11. As an engineer for a ship repair yard that specialises in cruise ship repairs, I have kind of developed a phobia for cruises even though I have never been on one. The only way I would ever consider a cruise would be to stay in one of the rooms above the main deck, preferably with a balcony (expensive!) and travel to warm places. I would love to do one of those Alaskan fly cruises, but my phobia just won’t allow me to do it!

  12. Bret @ Hope to Prosper

    We are going on our first cruise next week for our 22nd anniversary. We are taking a 7 day cruise to Mexico with five couples from our neighborhood. Most of the couples have already been on a number of cruises and they say they are the best way to travel. I am really looking forward to it.

  13. yes we rented an apartment inParis (found online) last time we went and shopped at the local market for most meals except dinners and I think it was much cheaper and more fun than a hotel…

    1. Renting an apartment can be a great way to save, particularly if you have a larger group. It can save 50% off of 3 or 4 hotel rooms. You do miss out on interaction with other travelers, but shopping like a local can easily make up for that. When we were in London, we almost couldn’t go out for dinner because the local grocers had such great hot prepared foods. We explored a lot of Indian cuisine by watching what the locals were ordering.

  14. I visited Norway Finland and Sweden this summer on my motorbike, those countries were crazy expensive, and cold! I have to say for the first time I envied the cruise passenger just getting on and off the boat, warm and well fed.
    In those kind of countries, cruises are a great value. And for island hopping too, like around the Caribbean. Not sure for European cities though, as several days are usually needed to explore a bit more.

    $160 for a hotel night? If there were two of you on the cruise are you budgeting for half the hotel night or full price?

    1. That must have been a blast by motorbike though! Are you based somewhere close by to be able to ride out there? My bum would hurt. I’ve had a couple motorbikes before and loved them. Hard to ride in SF so I sold.

      $160 per night at a hotel in Amsterdam, weekend rate. Breakfast and tax included. Not bad!

      Amsterdam is cheaper than SF it seems!

      But Helsinki and Stockholm are indeed crazy expensive. I’ll pass.

      1. I am from Paris but pretty nomadic right now. I started a Europe bike tour in April, ended early September, and yes it was a blast! I have air cushions to soften the seats… It doesn’t hurt so much!
        Last year I went from Guatemala to Seattle and checked cruises to Alaska but none would board my bike! Would have loved to cruise one way and ride back!

  15. My wife likes cruising because there is no packing or moving during the trip. I like paying in U.S. dollars in a volatile exchange rate environment. Although cruising is less expensive compared to a typical trip, there are alternatives that are more interesting. I would love to rent a house with friends and stay in a country a week at a time. You would see much more and enjoy the country more. I traveled the UK that way and saw the country like a native. I have cruised 6 times and saw a great deal of Europe, but it is similar to an appetizer. It is just a tease to the meal.

    1. You got the analogy right! An apertif or appetizer is more like it… figure out what moves you, and return on the next trip for longer.

      I wanted to stay in Amsterdam for more than a day, so that is how I arranged it (4 days Amsterdam, 2 days St. Petersburg). and going to the various cruise companies direct have lots of options!

  16. Sam, what about renting a car and driving around Europe? It’s probably more fun and gives you a lot of flexibility. Just don’t try to drive around St. Petersburg, the roads in Russia are really bad :)

  17. I’m going on a cruise later this year to the Bahamas and Key West. It is my first cruise so I’m sure it will be a blast! We got a pretty good deal on the cruise and I’ll make sure to do a cruise report once I get back!

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