The high seas, sun, 24/7 dining, and stops at exotic ports of call: What’s not to love about a cruise? Sometimes, the answer is the price. A cruise can be a big-ticket vacation item that’s a challenge to afford.
But for the people who crave an all-inclusive travel experience, there are smart ways to snag a deal. Whether your fantasy is navigating the dramatic Alaskan coastline or floating through the Caribbean’s crystal waters, there are hacks that can help make it a reality.
Read on to learn insider strategies for finding the cheapest ways to cruise.
First, a word to the wise: As just about every frugal traveler knows, sometimes deals really are too good to be true…or at least not all they’re cracked up to be. It’s important to read the fine print and be sure of what’s included and not included in cruise deals you may find.
When considering the cheapest way to cruise, you’ll want to think about airfare, meals, excursions, room type and location, and other amenities that can lead to upcharges. That way, you can budget appropriately and make sure you have enough money in your travel fund to ensure you can afford your trip.
You’ll also want to pay close attention to cancellation policies. Many people plan trips far in advance, and situations can change between the time you book and the time you are supposed to board the ship. It can be wise to consider the costs and benefits of trip insurance. Note: Some credit card travel insurance may have you covered; check with your card issuer for details.
Next, the money-saving tips.
1. Read Cruise News
There are countless sites and blogs devoted to the cruise industry, staffed by both insiders and frequent cruise passengers. These sites cover both industry trends as well as specific deals and offers from particular cruise lines. In addition to finding cruise deals, they are great for learning about unique cruise offerings and locales. Some noteworthy sites include CruiseFever (cruisefever.net/), CruiseHive (cruisehive.com/) and CruiseCritic (cruisecritic.com/).
2. Search the Travel Sites
CruiseDirect.com (cruisedirect.com/), CruisesOnly.com (cruisesonly.com/), Cruise.com (cruise.com/), and others are searchable databases of cruise offers. They are similar to Expedia, Travelocity, and other general interest travel websites, except they are devoted to cruises. These sites typically have sections focused on cruise deals and may at times have exclusive offers that aren’t available elsewhere.
Cruise line websites typically have their own deals section, as you’ll see on Carnival (carnival.com/cruise-deals), Princess (princess.com/cruise-deals-promotions/), and Royal Caribbean’s (royalcaribbean.com/cruise-deals) sites.
3. Scan Social Media
The sites already mentioned and many others have social media presences on Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms. They often broadcast limited time deals through these accounts, so following them could be a good idea. Some good examples are CruiseDeals on Twitter, Best Travel Deals’ cruise account on Twitter, and the travel agent-led private Facebook groups Cruise Deals! and Vacation Packages & Cruises.
4. Look for Bundles
Both travel websites and cruise lines themselves often encourage passengers to bundle a variety of services and amenities when booking. These cruise bundles can offer real savings. Some of the options that are typically bundled include airfare, meal and drink packages, transport to and from the ship, free WiFi, and more. (About that WiFi: While some cruise lines have free WiFi, others charge $20 or $30 a day for this.)
When evaluating these packages, it’s worth taking the time to review each item, what it includes (there are various levels of perks available on ships, after all), whether you really want everything in the bundle, and what it would cost if you were to purchase the items separately.
5. Travel With Friends
If you have a big family and/or lots of friends, or if the idea of going on a cruise with your coworkers isn’t terribly off-putting, you might be able to score a group rate on a cruise. For example, Norwegian Cruise Lines features a group deal that offers bonuses for every five cabins booked. People traveling on group deals may qualify for bonus packages that include food and drinks, excursions, free WiFi, and more.
Recommended: How Families Can Afford to Travel
6. Book Well in Advance…Or Last Minute
Popular cruises, particularly the more luxurious ones, tend to fill up quickly. And the best rates are usually available when tickets first go on sale, which can be as much as a year and a half in advance. After tickets begin to sell (often between November and March, when promotions kick in) and the sail date nears, prices typically start to rise. The other benefit of booking early is that you’re more likely to get your choice of cabin and dining options. Early bookers may also get access to other special perks, like free airfare, upgrades, and free drinks.
That said, there are also plenty of stories of people scoring incredible last-minute deals on cruises. As the departure date grows closer, if a ship hasn’t sold out, the cruise line may offer serious incentives in order to fill up those empty rooms.
7. Sail During Shoulder Season
Determining peak cruising season when demand is the highest can be tricky because of all the variables involved. First and foremost (and perhaps most obviously), different parts of the world experience the seasons and corresponding vacations at different times. So peak season in one part of the world may be very different from peak season in another.
Many think that off-peak season, when demand is the lowest, is the best time to find a cruise deal, though that may not always be the case. If a cruise line cuts back on the supply of cruises too much because of seasonal drops in demand, there may not be many deals or even much availability to be found.
That’s why many point to “shoulder season,” the period between the peak and off-peak seasons, as the best time to find deals on cruises. Keep in mind that the weather might not be as great as it is during peak season, but you’re also more likely to avoid crowds both on the boat and on shore excursions. You’ll also want to consider seasonality when looking for the cheapest days to fly to and from your cruise’s point of departure and return.
Recommended: How to Balance the Urge to Travel and the Need to Save
8. Check for Special Discounts
Factors such as what organizations you’re a member of and where you live can help you lower the price of your dream cruise, whether that means exploring the Mediterranean or waters around Mexico.
You may find that belonging to a group like AARP can score you a cruise discount. In fact, American Express and other card issuers may offer cruise benefits. There may also be general discounts for seniors, military families, teachers, and even frequent cruisers.
You might also be able to take advantage of resident cruise deals if you live in a particular area. Carnival, for example, offers deals to residents of states including Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
9. Pay in Full
Even if you’ve found a fantastic deal on a cruise, vacations are expensive, so it’s important to consider your financial options. If you don’t have the funds to cover the entire cost of the trip, then you may want to consider waiting until you do.
Keep in mind that if you put the trip on a credit card and carry that balance over from month to month, you’ll be paying relatively high interest rates, perhaps 20% or higher. That adds to the cost of the trip significantly, even if you’re using a cash back rewards credit card.
Some people opt to use personal loans for vacations, which typically come with lower interest rates than credit cards. But personal loans, though often more affordable than credit cards, aren’t free, and they’ll add to your vacation budget as well.
10. Maintain a Budget
When planning your cruise, it’s important to drill down and really think through the budget. If you don’t have a truly all-inclusive deal, you’ll want to to itemize everything, such as:
• Cruise tickets
• Ground transportation
• Food and drinks
• On-ship entertainment
• Travel insurance
• International calls
• Fees for any travel visas
• Currency exchange
There are plenty of great budgeting trackers that can help you monitor spending on vacation and more. But when it comes to vacation planning, it’s best to earmark the money before you’ve spent it, add a cushion of 10% or 20% to cover the unexpected, and then stick to it. You’ll enjoy the vacation more knowing that you’ve got it covered and won’t stress out when it’s over because you’ve spent more than you can afford.
Also don’t forget to see how you might apply your credit card rewards for travel; you might be able to apply cash back or otherwise lower costs this way.
Taking a cruise doesn’t have to be expensive. If you’re wondering how to get cheap cruise tickets, there are luckily myriad ways you can get cruise discounts, ranging from going during the off or shoulder seasons to bundling your vacation expenses.
The cheapest way to cruise may be to avoid paying with credit cards, personal loans, or other methods that will end up costing you in interest. So if you need extra help budgeting for that cruise vacation, SoFi Checking and Savings could help. With a SoFi Checking and Savings Account, you can set savings goals for your next vacation.
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