Over the last two decades, cruises have become one of the least expensive ways to travel. As more itineraries and ships become available, competition heats up while prices get lower. If you live near a port, keep an eye out for deals—you can snag some pretty good bargains and spend less traveling by sea than you would by land. Knowing what things cost, what hidden extras to look for and how to spot a good deal are all essential bits of knowledge you'll need to get the best value.
A plethora of cruise websites offer vacations almost two years into the future, but the best deals are usually found last-minute or booking ahead on an off-season cruise. Ships are optimistic that they'll fill up at their listed price. Once they realize that the ship is sailing in a few weeks and rooms remain to be filled, prices drop while perks and cabin credit incentives start coming available. These extras can add up really fast if you paid for them on the ship, and can actually end up more expensive than the cruise itself. Below, a list of the most popular upgrades:
Drinking heavily on a ship while you're having a boring day at sea can quickly spiral your budget out of control. A beverage package covers most of your drinks to a certain dollar limit and can be a good value if you drink a lot. Some cruise lines will offer this package as an incentive to book a stateroom. If you're teetotaler, there are also drink packages that cover soft drinks and juices. Most cruises charge you for these non-alcoholic beverages unless you're getting a juice at say, the breakfast buffet.
You get unlimited food on almost any line, but many ships offer luxury restaurants that aren't included with your cruise. A dining package allows you to eat at these restaurants fur a specified number of days. It's usually cheaper to get this before you get on the cruise or as a perk, rather than pay at the restaurant.
Many people are surprised by their bill at the end of the cruise when they discover they've been charged a fee every day for their room steward and other staff members that keep things running. It's one of the tricks cruise lines use to get their prices low. Often, you're allowed to pay more or less if you choose, but let's face it—you don't really want to take money away from that nice guy who's been making swans out of towels, leaving you chocolates and picking up your dirty socks while you stuff yourself at the buffet. Some cruises offer prepaid tips as a perk. Typically that can save you about $100 per person for a week.
This is essentially free money offered by the ship that you can spend on shore excursions, spa treatments, food and drink, and sometimes even tipping and gambling. Cabin credit is a popular incentive that cruise lines use to get you to book a cruise or as part of a loyalty program to win future business from established cruisers. Third-party cruise sellers might offer credit to get your booking. It's important to note the amount, whether per room or individual, and what items the credit can be used for.
Stateroom choices on ships range from a balcony suite to a windowless sleeping cube in the middle of the ship. Loyalty programs, last-minute deals or sometimes just asking can help you get a better view or location. Generally, more expensive rooms are higher floors in the middle of the ship, but lower central decks are usually a smoother ride. Factors that influence the cost of the room are space, location, service, added features such as lounge or spa access, and window or balcony size. There are usually four main categories: inside, outside, balcony, and suite. Decide how much time you'll be spending in your room before you make a decision. Getting a free upgrade can save hundreds of dollars on the price of your stateroom.
Now that we've looked at some of the add-ons, how do you find a good deal? My favorite site is vacationstogo.com. It's easy to use and allows you to look at all the variables: ship rating and specs, cruise companies, ports, dates, and parts of the world. The best values are usually found by sailing at the beginning or end of the season, competitive routes, or repositioning cruises. Repositioning cruises are sailings where the ship is leaving an area as the season changes, to another area where the popular season is beginning. Mediterranean and Alaskan cruise itineraries might move their ships to the Caribbean during the winter to meet demand for warm weather vacations. Transatlantic cruises can be as long as two weeks with only a few ports to stop at in between. If you just want to relax on a ship and have time to kill, you can find these deals as low as $50 per day. In the case of a repositioning, you'll have to find transport back to where you started since the cruise is one way.
Smaller cruise ships tend to be a more expensive option and are usually either river cruises that have a lot less passengers or ships designed to call into smaller, more intimate ports the bigger ships can't navigate. There is also usually a higher ratio of staff to number of passengers. You won't find Cirque or Blue Man Group shows on the smaller stages that these ships offer, but they do allow you to visit ports that are harder to reach. River cruises can cost double or triple the daily price of an ocean cruise, but allow you to pull up right into the center of the city, making it easy to hop on and off your ship since there are fewer passengers and port procedures are minimal. The most popular river cruises are found in Europe, but Egypt and China also have some great options.
Subscribe to websites like travelzoo.com, crucon.com, vacationstogo.com and directly with the cruise lines. Norwegian has been very competitive lately, offering lots of free upgrades if you book ahead. If you take a cruise, make sure you sign up for their loyalty program. Frequent cruisers get rewarded with a lot of perks. If you're interested in river cruises, subscribe to vikingcruises.com. One word of warning, however: Once you're on their list, you will get brochures in the mail for the rest of your life.