Before I went on a cruise, I thought they were all incredibly expensive and not a good option for budget travelers. The fancy dinners, the expensive excursions, the cost to get to the ports…it all seemed just too much for my tight budget. However, having gone on two cruises with two different cruise lines, I can now say that cruising can be done quite cheaply if you know what to expect and how to cut costs.
Basically, cruises can be as expensive or as cheap as you want them to be. You can certainly upgrade to the fanciest balcony room, order several bottles of champagne a day, and spend lots of money at every port of call. However, if you do some research and plan ahead, you can prioritize the options and have a cheap and still very fun, relaxing vacation.
Here are ten ways you can cut costs on your next cruise:
1. CRUISE IN THE OFF-SEASON
While there is some debate as to when off-season is for cruising, a lot of the suggestions depend on where you are going. If you are going to the Caribbean, for example, hurricane season (July-November) usually offers good rates, although you always have the risk of bad weather. After Thanksgiving to before Christmas and sometimes early January often are good times to go as well. If you are cruising to New England or Alaska, then the shoulder seasons (May and September) are going to be cheaper than the summer months when everyone takes vacation.
The best thing to do if you are able to be flexible with dates is to do some research and find out if any cruise lines are offering deals during specific times of the year for the destination you want to go.
2. FIND CHEAP ACCOMMODATIONS FOR OVERNIGHT STAYS
When Sam and I booked our cruise to the West Caribbean, we had to fly in the night before in order to get on the ship in time. We decided to use Couchsurfing and stayed with an awesome guy on his sailboat the night before. Not only did we get a place to sleep for free, but he gave us advice on getting around in Fort Lauderdale/Miami and saved us a ton of money by helping us navigate the public transportation system. Couchsurfing is so much more than just a free place to crash, though. It’s an awesome community of people who like to learn about and experience a location through the people who live there. I can’t say enough good things about it!
If Couchsurfing doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you can always use Airbnb to try and find a cheap place to stay. While I haven’t personally used Airbnb yet, I’ve heard nothing but positive things and plan to use it this summer on a road trip to Missouri, so I’ll be able to give my honest opinion then!
If you are driving to the cruise, camping is another great option. When Sam and I cruised in May 2012, we decided to drive to Florida instead of fly. We camped at Little Talbot Island in northern Florida. This was the coolest camping spot ever! No crowds, beautiful beach, perfect weather…it was a great time. We couldn’t have managed it without driving though, because we had to haul all the equipment.
If you prefer to drive instead of fly, this is probably the cheapest option besides Couchsurfing.
3. USE PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION
If you are flying to the cruise, chances are you going to have to get from the airport to the cruise ship and/or your accommodations. Using public transportation is going to be the cheapest option. You can almost always research this ahead of time to see what buses, trains and/or subways you can take to get from point A to point B. We saved a lot of money by using the train system in Miami instead of taking taxis.
If you aren’t super comfortable with public transportation you can almost always find someone who is able to guide you in the right direction. Our Couchsurfing host gave us details on which trains to take, and we also had others come up to us and offer assistance when we couldn’t figure out which train to get on or how to use the ticket kiosk. People are often helpful if you ask – just use common sense and you will be fine.
If you have too much baggage and don’t want to lug it around on a bus, Uber is probably the next cheapest option.
4. BOOK THE BASIC ROOM
You are on a cruise and there is so much to see and do – you probably will only be in your room to sleep. Why spend more money on your sleeping space? While waking up to a view of the sea might be nice, is it really worth the extra money? I’ll admit, the interior rooms can be a little cramped, but I never once wished we had upgraded. I went up to see the sunrise and sunset on each cruise, and the view was spectacular from the higher decks.
Just save the money and get the cheapest room.
5. TAKE YOUR OWN EQUIPMENT
If you are a scuba diver, snorkeler, surfer, etc. it might save you money to take your own equipment on the ship. While I can’t speak too much from experience, a lot of the research I did supports this statement. In Cozumel, there are plenty of places to snorkel for free, but you have to pay to rent the gear. The same with a lot of the resorts – once you pay to get in, you still have to pay for a towel, umbrella, surfboard, etc. if you didn’t bring one.
While the cost of flying with your gear may be more than the rental, this is a good option to look into if you have the space in your luggage and will be using it frequently.
6. SKIP THE EXCURSIONS
This tip depends very much on how you like to vacation. If you are an adventurer and like to experience new things like ocean kayaking, swimming with dolphins, parasailing, etc. you probably will want to do excursions – and that’s OK! If spending your money on these kinds of activities is how you travel, than you shouldn’t give that up just to save a few bucks.
However, if keeping your vacation as cheap as possible is very important, then you should skip the excursions and plan your own adventure at the ports of call. There are usually lots of things you can do for free or almost free.
On our first cruise, we did the ocean kayaking and snorkeling activities on Royal Caribbean’s private island as there wasn’t much to do otherwise. Then when we were in Nassau we chose to wander around and see some of the sites in town instead of going to Atlantis or keeping to the resort areas.
On our second cruise we didn’t do any excursions, but instead planned our own itinerary on Key West and Cozumel. We still spent money, but we felt that we were able to experience more of the area by going out on our own. Go here to read more about the trip.
Do some research on the cruise excursions and see if there is anything you absolutely can’t miss. If so, then do it, but if not, check and see if planning your own day will save you money and be more memorable. Renting a car in Cozumel and traveling at our own pace was much cheaper and (probably) more fun than if we had done a Jeep tour and had to keep to a specific schedule.
7. BRING YOUR OWN DRINKS (OR DON’T DRINK AT ALL)
Every cruise line has their own policy, but check and see how many alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks you can bring on board. We were able to bring a 750ml bottle of wine with us during embarkation and we drank it the last night of the cruise. You can save a lot of money by doing this as the on-board drinks are very pricey. Also, I know on Carnival that if you buy alcohol at any of the ports, you have to check it in and the crew will hold it until the last day, so unless you are super sneaky you won’t be able to bring alcohol on board to drink after the first day. I’m not sure what the policies are on other cruises, but it’s worth looking up in my opinion.
If you are traveling with kids or don’t drink alcohol, you usually have to pay for any non-alcoholic drinks too, so bringing some of your favorite sodas on-board will still save you if you can’t stand to only drink water the whole cruise.
8. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE FREE FOOD ON-BOARD
This goes two ways. First, most of the food on the ship is included with your cruise, and you can eat as much as you want the majority of the day. There are a few places you can pay extra to get super fancy stuff, but in my opinion most cruise food is pretty decent, and the sit-down dinner gives you a fancier meal for nothing extra. I got to try some new and yummy things, like escargot, without paying an additional fee.
Second, try and plan your time at your ports of call around your meals, which means eat before you get off the ship and you probably won’t have to eat much until you get back on. That way you aren’t spending extra money on food that you can get for free on board. However, don’t try and take food off the ship. Depending on where you are, they will check your bag and throw it out (I thought I would take a banana off the ship in Cozumel for a snack and got stopped by the drug-sniffing dog – oops).
9. ENJOY THE FREE EVENTS ON THE SHIP
Every cruise line and ship is different as far as what activities and events are available. I remember being on the Royal Caribbean cruise and feeling like there was nothing to do on-board that didn’t cost extra. Then we did the Carnival cruise a few years later and there was a lot to do for free. I’m not saying that Royal Caribbean doesn’t have free things and that Carnival always does – what I’m saying is that depending on the ship, the length of the trip, the destination, etc. there will be different options.
Our first cruise was only 3 days and we weren’t on the ship except at night, which is probably why there wasn’t much offered. On the other hand, our second cruise was 4 days and we had a whole day at sea, and there were lots of options available, even when the ship was in port. Take advantage of these free events. Whether it’s a show, comedy club, pool/hot tub, mini golf, water slides, movies, whatever – there is usually something you can do that won’t cost you anything extra. Plus, you can’t go wrong with just sitting on deck with a good book and sunbathing. I don’t know about you, but I could do that all day long.
Most ships also have specific kid-friendly areas to keep the younger passengers entertained. As far as I know, most of these activities are included.
10. SKIP THE TRADITIONAL SOUVENIRS
I’ll admit, I love to browse through the quaint little shops and admire all the trinkets whenever I’m in a new place. Sometimes I’ll even buy something. However, I usually have in my mind exactly what I’m looking for and how much I’m willing to spend for it. There is nothing wrong with buying a souvenir or two, but you should definitely have a budget and stick to it! Anyone can get carried away when they see something they “must” have.
Sam and I always get two things – a bottle of wine and a box for all the mementos from the trip. To me, collecting ticket stubs, bottle caps, coins, and other little tidbits is the best way to remember the vacation. Plus having all the little boxes lined up on my bookshelf is super cute and makes me want to travel more!
Thinking outside of traditional souvenirs will also save you money and get you something really different that tells the story of your trip. Maybe you found the perfect little shell or rock on the beach that you will get made into a necklace. Maybe it’s a map of the town where you mark the route you walked. Maybe it’s simply framing the photos you took and making a collage that is uniquely yours. Souvenirs don’t have to be expensive – maybe they don’t cost you anything. The best ones are the ones that make you remember your trip fondly and make you wish you were there again.
If you follow some or all of these suggestions, I guarantee you can have an affordable cruise vacation. The main things to remember are to make a budget, keep track of your spending, and know what is worth spending money on and what isn’t.
If you are interested in seeing what Sam and I spent for our 4-day cruise to the West Caribbean, download the PDF here. I’ve made a few notes on the spreadsheet, but keep in mind that we received the initial cruise and flights for free for sitting in on a timeshare presentation. We upgraded to a longer cruise and still had to pay taxes and port fees, and we also had to pay for our bag on the flights. We certainly could have done this trip a lot cheaper, but we spent money on the things that were worth it to us, and that is what you should do on your vacation.
Which of these ideas will you try on your next cruise or vacation? Which of these do you find the most difficult? Leave some love in the comments!