8 Tips That Will Save You Some Serious Cash on Your Next Cruise

Use these tips to save money on your next cruise vacation.

Solo female traveler boarding a cruise
Photo: Getty Images

The word is out — cruise vacations are fun, relaxing, and increasing in popularity. With more travelers looking to visit several destinations without having to unpack and repack, transfer to airports, or check into new hotels, cruises on oceans and rivers are seeing passenger growth each year. New ships are being built and added to accommodate the growing demand.

Cruising can be economical, and there are ways to ensure that you’re getting the most for your dollar. Research, planning, savvy spending, and comparing cruises will help get you the best value. It’s important to remember that it’s a vacation, and you want to enjoy your trip and be comfortable with your decisions. So, sometimes it may be worth spending a bit more to have what’s important to you. Here's how to save money on a cruise, so you can afford to splurge where it counts.

Book your cruise early — or late.

If you're interested in booking a high-demand cruise on a new ship or during peak season, lower prices are often available when cruise itineraries are first published, as early as two years ahead. Prices will generally increase as the ship fills up. Sometimes, booking years in advance is the only way to guarantee a spot or cabin type, especially on luxury cruise lines.

If you’re flexible on your schedule, itinerary, and ship, you might get a good deal around 90 days before a cruise, when passengers can cancel advance bookings without a penalty and spots become available. Some cruises offer lower prices between January through March (a period known as wave season) in addition to other perks like free upgrades or prepaid gratuities. The best way to get a deal is to track fares, which can be done through the apps like Shipmate or websites that report on deals like Cruise Critic.

Figure out what's included.

Cruises are often billed as all-inclusive vacations, but what's included can vary depending on the cruise line. Before you book a cruise, educate yourself on any extra fees, taxes, excursions, gratuities, baggage charges, alcoholic beverages, or other expenses you'll have to cover. Compare cruise lines, specific cruises, cabins, and credits by using cruise line websites, brochures, e-mails, newsletters, and every source of information available.

While less-inclusive cruise lines may appear to be more affordable, you may end up spending more in the long run, especially if you indulge in spa treatments, premium cocktails, and fine dining onboard. You'll also want to include the cost of getting to your port of embarkation when comparing costs. Will you be flying to Europe to meet up with your river cruise, or can you save money by driving to a domestic port for your ocean cruise departure?

On cruises with optional beverage plans, consider your usual drinking habits. If you enjoy a cocktail or two before dinner, wine with dinner, and sipping a drink by the pool, a pre-paid alcoholic beverage plan might be an economical approach for you. If one a day is your usual, you’ll probably do better to pay as you go. Look into what’s included before you decide, and know that you can usually make that decision once you’re onboard.

Work with a travel advisor.

Travel advisors are experts in finding great deals and can help you select the right cruise line, ship, stateroom, and itinerary for your budget and preferences. Since it can be time-consuming to understand and compare cruise fares, having a knowledgeable advisor help you determine the best options can eliminate some of the legwork. There is rarely an additional charge for booking through them, and many specialize in cruises. Some agents may get first access to sale prices before they're available to the public, so booking through them may actually save you money.

Be flexible when choosing your stateroom.

Consider your personal preferences when it comes to staterooms. Is a balcony important to you? Do you need more space to be comfortable, or do you have a preferred deck or location? Will you be satisfied with a lower-cost inside cabin knowing that you won’t be in there most of the time? Use these questions to guide your decision. If you're traveling solo, compare single supplements or seek out cruise lines that offer single cabins or lower-cost supplements.

If you're flexible, you may want to book a “guarantee” or unassigned cabin, which means you can select the category but the cruise line will choose your exact cabin for you. Keep in mind that you might wind up in a less desirable location on the ship but there’s also a chance you’ll be placed in a better stateroom than you would have booked for yourself.

Plan your own shore excursions.

Guided shore excursions can easily eat up your entire budget. Instead of feeling pressured to join every activity, plan some of your own excursions and save your money for the guided experiences that matter most to you. Start by researching what you want to see at each port. You may prefer to be on your own to explore a destination, just paying for a taxi or driver to take you into town. Or, you might want to spend your day in one place rather than hopping on and off a bus to see a little of a lot of places. Many local tour operators wait around the port to fill the remaining seats in their vans or boats, so you can often get a good deal if you're comfortable negotiating.

On port days when most passengers are off the ship, many cruise lines offer spa discounts. So if you want to treat yourself to a treatment and don't mind skipping a particular destination, keep your eye out for these deals.

Pack and shop smartly.

Toiletries and incidentals can be expensive onboard, so make sure you plan ahead and pack what you need. The same goes for grooming, so get your manicures, pedicures, and haircuts before you go. For some, however, getting pampered in the ship’s salon is part of their cruising pleasure, so your personal preference will guide you on this.

While most cruise lines do not allow guests to bring hard alcohol onboard, some allow you to bring a bottle of wine or two from home. This can save you money if you want to have a glass of Champagne on your balcony or bring a nice bottle of wine to one of the ship's restaurants, where they will likely just charge you a corkage fee.

Resist what may feel like pressure to purchase photos, gift shop souvenirs, or another cruise while you're onboard. However, if you know you are ready to book your next cruise and you’ve done your research, you can secure a discount by taking advantage of the opportunity to book while onboard.

Prepare for the worst.

Check your medical insurance to ensure you’re covered in your destination, especially if you’ll be taking an international cruise. While many cruise ships have basic medical facilities, you may have to go to a hospital if your health concern is serious. Look into travel health insurance if your plan doesn’t provide coverage. When choosing activities, be aware that some insurance policies don't cover treatment for injuries resulting from high-risk adventure activities like parachuting or hang-gliding. You'll also want to pack all your required prescription medications (in their labeled containers) and non-prescription medications you might need.

Consider unplugging.

Internet on cruises has come a long way, with most ships now offering Wi-Fi to their guests. Since connectivity is provided by satellites or land-based signal towers, service can still be spotty, and even the most basic Wi-Fi packages can cost a pretty penny. Whether you decide to splurge on Wi-Fi (or a luxury cruise with complimentary internet), you'll also want to understand your cellular provider’s available plans to choose the best one, or simply put your phone on airplane mode to avoid any extra charges. One of the best strategies is to unplug while cruising and catch up with emails and social media while in port. Not only will this help you avoid the frustration of slow internet — it will also encourage you to be more present and fully enjoy your time at sea.

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