Cruises can be truly affordable vacations — but that doesn’t mean you won’t run up a significant bill booking your sailing or spending during your trip. It’s also easy to overspend on certain travel costs because you don’t know all the best money-saving tricks. As someone who cruises often, I don’t have a huge budget to spend on onboard purchases for each sailing, so I’ve had to get wise on how to save money on a cruise.
Some of my strategies are obvious and others I’ve learned from trial and error over 50+ sailings. I’m happy to share the wealth, so to speak, so you can avoid money mistakes and stretch your travel budget as far as it can possibly go. Here are my 33 top tips on how to save on a cruise.
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How to save money on your cruise booking
Book early. Most cruise lines increase prices as ships sell out. Book early to get the lowest prices, as well as the widest choice of cabin types and locations, plus dining times.
Book at the last minute. The corollary advice is that cruise lines will sometimes drop prices or offer value-added promotions on cruises that have too many available cabins left a few months before its scheduled departure. You can find cheap deals on last-minute sailings, especially if you’re not picky about which cabin you get.
Book a shoulder-season sailing. Spring and fall tend to be less busy travel times, and cruises during these shoulder-season months are priced accordingly. Pick a cruise at the beginning or end of the Alaska or Mediterranean season when the weather isn’t as optimal, and you’ll save big over the peak mid-season voyages. Sailings departing after Thanksgiving but before Christmas are also less popular and therefore cheaper.
Book an inside cabin. The cheapest room on the ship is an inside cabin, so choose one of those rooms if you want to spend less on your next sailing. You’ll get access to the same pools, restaurants, shows and activities as the folks in the balcony cabins; all you’re missing out on is a window and some more floor space. Some people actually prefer inside cabins for amazing sleep in the pitch dark and because they spend all their time out and about on the ship and are never in their room.
Be flexible on dates. Many unpredictable factors combine to make one sailing more expensive than the identical itinerary the week before or after. If you can be flexible on which week you cruise, you can save money by choosing whichever sail date has the cheaper price.
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Book an older ship. Newer ships with their one-of-a-kind attractions and up-to-date everything get all the attention — and can command the highest prices. Seek out older ships to get a better cruise deal. Cruise lines maintain their older ships and often give them massive makeovers to add the latest restaurants and top-deck attractions, so you’ll hardly notice you’re on a 20-year-old ship. But your budget will notice the more affordable rates, leaving money in your pocket to spend on splurges like spa treatments and specialty dining.
Look for sales and promotions. Cruise lines run sales so often that you’re wasting money if you book when there isn’t a deal on. Some promotions are all about lower fares, while others save you money with included perks, like free Wi-Fi or a complimentary beverage package. Solo travelers should look out for sales that waive the solo supplement, which can save you up to 50% of the normal single cabin price. Families should watch out for kids sail free sales or other discounted third and fourth guest offers.
Related: The best cruise booking perks – and which ones are actually free
Leverage your casino play. Cruise lines love casino players because they spend money on board. Once you’ve established yourself as a member of a cruise line’s players club, you may find yourself the recipient of cruise discounts and complimentary casino cruise offers. You can definitely save on a cruise when all you have to pay are taxes and fees.
Be loyal to one cruise line. Sail once with a cruise line and you’re eligible to join its loyalty program. All members are eligible for select past-passenger cruise fare discounts, but the most loyal members can access free upgrades or even free cruises.
Choose a drive-to port. Parking a car for a week is almost guaranteed to be cheaper than airport transfers, flights and a pre-cruise hotel for a family of four. There are departure ports all along the U.S. and Canadian coastlines; consider choosing a cruise that departs from a port within driving distance of your home in order to save money on your next cruise.
Use a credit card that gives you perks. Even if your cruise fare isn’t dirt cheap, you can still get more value from your vacation dollars when you pay for that vacation at sea with the right card. For example, book with The Platinum Card® from American Express and its Cruise Privileges Program will get you double Membership Rewards points, onboard credit and cruise line-specific perks. Or perhaps you can use your cruise final payment to make the minimum spending requirement on a new credit card and get a slew of points or miles you can use for a free trip down the road.
Related: Should you get a cruise line credit card? Here’s a closer look
Bid for an upgrade. Several major cruise lines, like Norwegian and MSC Cruises, offer select guests the option to bid for an upgraded cabin. Bid less than the difference between your cabin cost and the price of the nicer room, and if your bid is approved, you’ll get upgraded onboard digs at a discount.
Use a travel agent. Most travel agents won’t charge you to use their cruise-booking services, but they can help you find the best deal on the best sailing for you, and they might even throw in a free bottle of Champagne or some onboard credit. If nothing else, these knowledgeable advisers can save you from making costly mistakes on the wrong cruise purchases, and that is a value in and of itself.
Book your next cruise on board. Most cruise lines run a future cruise sales desk on board ships, and if you put a deposit down on a future cruise while you’re sailing on the current one, you can be eligible for discounts such as onboard credit (which translates to free spending money for you).
Related: 10 mistakes to avoid when booking your cruise
How to save money on board
Get first-day discounts. Embarkation day can be crazy. You’re getting familiar with the ship’s layout, signing up for all the things and likely going to the main dining room for dinner to meet your waiters. You might not even realize that the spa and specialty restaurants are open that evening. In order to lure passengers through their doors, onboard spas may offer first-day discounts, and specialty restaurants might throw in a free bottle of wine.
Book activities and packages in advance. Many cruise lines offer discounts for booking drinks packages, Wi-Fi plans and shore excursions online in advance of your cruise. It will save you money on your next cruise if you do some pre-cruise planning instead of being spontaneous once on board.
Go to the spa on port days. Most passengers get off the ship when it’s docked in port, so they prefer to book spa treatments on sea days. (The salon is especially busy on formal nights.) In order to entice passengers to book treatments on port days, cruise ship spas will often run specials or discounts, saving you money on the pricey massages and body treatments.
Enjoy specialty restaurants at lunch. You can rack up quite the cruise bill dining at specialty restaurants each night of your cruise. To save money, look for extra-charge eateries that are open for lunch. The food is usually just as good, but the menu is smaller and the prices are reduced from the dinnertime fee.
Look for daily or happy hour drink specials. Your ship’s daily newsletter is your guide to saving money. Look for daily drink specials or happy hour deals that will save you money on those tropical drinks that are the hallmark of a Caribbean vacation. Or ask at your favorite onboard bar if they ever run drink deals, and plan your visits around those times.
Book a drinks or dinner package. If eating and drinking are how you spend your money on a cruise, you may save by bundling your purchases. Look for all-you-can-drink packages that will save you money if you already plan to drink a lot each day or specialty dining packages that offer a discounted total price for booking multiple reservations in advance.
Related: Are cruise line drinks packages worth the price? What to know before you buy
Skip the souvenir glass. Step onto a cruise ship pool deck or atrium on the first day of your cruise, and you’re likely to be approached by a waiter offering you a drink in a souvenir glass. You want the cocktail, but do you really need to bring home a cup in the shape of Carnival’s funnel? Say yes to the drink and no to the souvenir glass, and you will save a few bucks on the cost of the drink (not to mention the extra-bag fees when you realize you can’t carry all those souvenirs home).
Seek out free alcohol. If you pay attention, you can find several opportunities to get drinks for free on a cruise ship. Many of the onboard art auctions pass out Champagne or sparkling wine to attendees, and sometimes the ship’s shops will offer liquor tastings in an attempt to convince you to buy a bottle. If you’re a suite guest or loyalty member, you might be eligible for free drink vouchers, happy hours or events with comped drinks.
Shop the sales for souvenirs. Cruise line boutiques often run BOGO sales or “everything for $10” hours on items like T-shirts, evening purses and sunglasses. If you’re thinking of purchasing some souvenirs, look for promotional events listed in your daily schedule. If you’re looking to splurge on high-end jewelry or other expensive gifts, look for specials in those boutiques. These purchases won’t be cheap, but you might be able to save a bit or get an extra bauble thrown in for free.
Check out the seminars. Your cruise ship’s spa or boutiques will often host seminars about wellness practices or understanding gemstones. These events are really marketing plays to get you to sign up for spa treatments or buy shoe insoles or jewelry. However, they often convince people to attend by giving away spa credit or jewelry in a raffle. If you’ve got nothing better to do on a sea day, you might show up in the hopes of winning something. Spa tours and port shopping lectures also run raffles (plus you might get a free massage for a minute).
Look for mid-cruise specials. Cruise ships will discount paid attractions on the fly if they need to drum up more revenue in a certain area or if restaurants are not full. If you keep your schedule flexible, you can jump on mid-cruise specials, advertised in your daily schedule or newsletter, and save on specialty dining, arcade games, spa treatments and more.
How to save money in port
Book your own tours. Cruise lines mark up shore excursions because they have to pay the provider and turn a profit. You can often save money by going to the source and booking a tour directly with a provider. Alternatively, a private tour guide for a group may not always save you money, but you will usually get more value out of a small-group tour that you can customize to your preference.
Skip the tour and explore independently. You don’t need to shell out big bucks for an organized tour in every port. To keep costs down, skip the beach break tour and walk or take a bus or taxi to the beach. Do your own walking tour with a guidebook or app. Go on a hike or take yourself to a cathedral or museum. If your tour independently, you won’t have to pay for a guide or cruise line overhead.
Look for less inclusive beach breaks. Sometimes a cruise line will offer several versions of the same resort day pass or beach break excursion — one that just covers your entrance and another that includes lunch and drinks and water toy use. If you don’t plan to eat or drink that much, or at all, you can save by booking the least expensive version of the tour and just paying for the amenities you use a la carte.
Related: 10 cruise ship excursions to avoid
Use local transportation. Taxi rides can add up for a couple traveling together. Consider using less expensive forms of transportation to explore a city during your port stop. Local buses and subways can be more affordable ways to get around, plus offer a glimpse into local life.
Use Wi-Fi in port. Cruise ship internet access is pricy; you might pay more for a week on board than you do for a month at home! If you don’t have to be connected at all hours, skip the cruise ship Wi-Fi plan and seek out free or cheap Wi-Fi in port. Many port terminals have free Wi-Fi, or you can grab a cup of coffee or a drink at an establishment in town with complimentary Wi-Fi for customers.
Negotiate prices. Know when prices aren’t set in stone and negotiate a lower fee to save on your in-port purchases. You can often barter over the price of crafts, food or souvenirs in open-air markets, or negotiate rates for taxi tours or rides. Always be friendly and polite when haggling, and be prepared to walk if the vendor does not accept your offer.
Bring your own beach gear. Most beaches you’ll visit on a cruise, including the cruise lines’ private islands, will rent you snorkel gear, umbrellas and beach floats, or sell you beach toys. Save money by purchasing and bringing your own snorkel gear, beach shade, inflatable beach toys and floats. The upfront cost might be higher than a single rental, but you can use the gear in multiple ports and on multiple cruises. Look for inflatables or collapsible gear that can pack down small or that come in convenient carrying cases.
Don’t eat lunch or dinner in port. I always recommend trying the local cuisine in port, both because it’s a fun way to experience a new culture and to support the local economy. But if you’re on a budget and need to cut costs, skip the meals in port and head back to the ship for meals in the many included eateries on board. If nothing else, avoid the over-priced and often inauthentic waterside tourist restaurants and ask around for where locals eat on the cheap — or skip the lunch and treat yourself to a cheaper gelato or pastry instead.
You don’t have to employ every one of these tips to save money on your next sailing, but keep them in mind to make smart decisions as you plan your next vacation and once you’re on board. It’s always OK to splurge a little on vacation, but you want to make sure you’re not spending unnecessarily. What matters is that you’re getting the biggest benefit from your vacation buck.
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