My family and many of my friends are huge fans of cruises, primarily because it’s a fun way to take a vacation and pre-pay for virtually everything up front (read: no need to figure out splitting bills at dinner). Very little pre-planning is needed and there is something for everyone, and it’s convenient to find each other to meet up. It’s basically an all-inclusive resort (fine dining meals and incredible entertainment) on water, and being from the Bay Area, being on water is definitely something we appreciate! But it’s even better than a typical all-inclusive resort in that you get to go on awesome day-trips in interesting cities, so you’re not “resort-captive” for days. My past cruises have been:
- Princess 2-night cruise from Vancouver to San Francisco (both beautiful and fun cities, and I’m not biased :D)
- Carnival 3-night cruise from Long Beach to Ensenada and back to Long Beach (we ate the best pina coladas and street tacos! And went ziplining and horseback riding on the beach. The ship also had a giant waterslide on top which was awesome.)
- Royal Caribbean 5-night cruise from Ft. Lauderdale to Belize City and Cozumel and back to Ft. Lauderdale (great snorkeling! The ship itself had a lot of fun amenities that other cruise companies don’t have, like an ice skating rink, Flowrider surf simulator, mini golf, rock climbing, and more.)
Will You Be Bored?
My greatest advice for cruises is to go with a fun group of people. There’s a LOT to do on the ship, contrary to what you might imagine, so you’ll never be bored, but hanging out with a good group of friends with common interests is key. I almost exclusively go on cruises with at least 6 great friends, and we do most things together but also get some downtime to ourselves.
Getting a Deal
There are often good deals to be had on cruises, and you can fly yourself to the port using cheap flights or miles. I try to aim for cruises that are $50-$100 per person per day. This is a great deal — keep in mind this includes all those fancy meals and entertainment! Travel agents can often get you the best deals over booking through the cruiseliner directly, since they can stack cash discounts and offer all sorts of extras like onboard credit (OBC, money you can spend on the ship if you choose to; you could also easily go on a cruise and have fun without spending any additional money), free prepaid gratuities, VIP boarding (this is really nice, the lines are long to get on/off the ship, so think of this like having status or TSA precheck), or gifts like bottles of wine/champagne and cheese.
Here are the steps I usually take in choosing/booking a cruise:
- Most people start with a desired route/ship. Much of the cruise experience depends on the ship, so choose newer and highly rated ships, like RC’s Anthem of the Seas. Use www.cruisecritic.com for the most comprehensive ship reviews.
- Check these sites and compare prices:
- Once you’ve found the lowest price for your desired cruise, go to www.cruisecompete.com and fill out the form. At this site, agents bid for your business by offering you their best price on the cruise you want. It usually takes about a day to get all your quotes in.
- Start a spreadsheet and start calling up every agent that seems to offer a good deal. I tend to prefer cash discounts over onboard credit, because I rarely ever use onboard credit. Sometimes, onboard credit promised to you never actually makes it into your account, so there’s that risk too. If you have cruised before, call up your previous travel agent, let them know what you’re working with, see what they can do for you too.
- Choose your preferred agent and book the cruise.
- Make payments using a good travel card like Chase Sapphire Reserve or Citi Prestige. If you have an Amex Platinum, they often give you onboard credit and champagne or other extras on board if you book with an Amex Platinum (ask the agent if they know about this).
- Look out for Amex Offers, Discover cashback coupons, gift cards sold at a local store or online for a discount (such as one of the official gift card sellers on eBay), AARP coupons, or even perks as a shareholder.
- Prepay your gratuities using a credit card, or if you prefer you can also remove gratuities completely and tip crew as you wish to make sure your appreciation goes directly to specific individuals that have provided you great service.
- Leave honest reviews for agents that help you, because this will be truly helpful to other future cruisers!
Real Life Example
I just booked a Royal Caribbean cruise for my parents on one of their newest ships, the Anthem of the Seas, heading out from Newark towards New England and Canada. It’s going to be a beautiful trip, and the ship has a lot of awesome entertainment even above and beyond their other ships.
For my parents, this is how it went:
- They wanted Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas heading north (to avoid Zika virus in the south), and found the lowest price on Crucon Cruise Outlets for $1952.84 plus $150 of onboard credit (this is a 9 night cruise for 2 people, taxes and fees all included, comes out to about $108 per person per night). They are fine with an inside cabin (on Anthem of the Seas, they get a “virtual balcony” which is basically a display on the wall with a “view” of the outside).
- I submitted the cruise to www.cruisecompete.com and wrote in the comments that the price to beat was $1952.84 with $150 of OBC. Within half a day I had at least 8 quotes. I got a few more after that.
- I called 4 of the agents that provided a quote I was interested in. This was also how I first learned about the benefits of booking with an Amex Platinum, so I also called the Amex Platinum line for a quote.
- Agent #1: $1840 with no OBC, he promised to apply any upgrades to better rooms if they popped up (nice cash discount, better than getting OBC)
- Agent #2: $1952 and $100 OBC (not quite as good as my original offer)
- Agent #3: $1866 with VIP embarkation/disembarkation, 2 bottles of wine and cheese delivered to the stateroom on first day, and a $300 coupon book for services on board. If booking with an Amex Platinum, would get $100 OBC plus a bottle of champagne. (nice cash discount and the VIP stuff would be really nice for my parents)
- Agent #4: $1877.84 with no OBC, but the same ability to get the same Amex Platinum perks (not as good of a cash discount)
- Amex Platinum: $1952.84 with $100 OBC and champagne
- After reviewing these options, I chose Agent #3, which was Cruiser Travels (shoutout to Chris for taking care of this reservation). Since the cruise was coming up quickly, I had to pay in full instead of the usual method of putting down a deposit and paying the rest later (nice for using different cards). I paid with Chase Sapphire Reserve.
- The next day, an Amex Offer for $75 off $350 Royal Caribbean appeared on five of my Amex cards (Everyday Preferred, Blue Cash, and SimplyCash). Sadly, I had just cancelled my Amex Platinum before the 9/1 deadline, but I heard it appeared on those cards too, which would’ve been nice to get the Amex Platinum perks.
- I called Royal Caribbean and discovered that even though I had already paid the cruise in full, I could overpay the account using other credit cards, and then request a refund to the original card. So I made 5 payments of $350, which came up almost perfectly to the amount of the cruise. I decided to prepay gratuities too, which were $13.50 per day per person for a total of $243, so the cruise total came out to be $2109, and I borrowed an Amex Offer from my friend Chantal (thanks!) and made one more payment of $350. Then I refunded the CSR.
- Total savings: 6 Amex cards x $75 statement credit = $450
- Total final cost: $1866 cruise + $243 prepaid gratuities – $450 = $1659
- That’s $92 per person per night including gratuities!
- I then booked their flights from SFO-EWR via a Virgin America sale for $158 per person and used Lufthansa miles to book them in UA F from EWR-SFO for 25k miles per person ($825 flight for redemption value of 3.23 cpm). I also booked them one night at the Hilton Doubletree Newark for 20k points ($219.44 room for redemption value of 1.10 cpp).
Future post ideas: tips on shore excursions, communicating with your group during the cruise, free cruises from gambling (although this is not my expertise, I’d point you to Matt from Saverocity for that).
If you have any other tips on scoring a deal on cruises, share them below! Happy cruising!