This is a guest post from my friend Laura, who enjoys cruises. She wanted to write up an insider’s guide to cruising, which I think will be helpful for many of you since I am not a cruising expert, and don’t really know much about the industry.
Cruises are the easiest vacation anyone can take. They’re ideal for anyone who doesn’t want to spend a lot of time, money, or energy going through dozens of airline, hotel, entertainment, and restaurant options. This kind of travel is a great choice for anyone looking to maximize their time and minimize their planning.
There are literally hundreds of types of cruises that can cater to tastes of any kind. Of course, there’s the Disney cruise line for parents wanting a Disney-type vacation without the hassle. There are National Geographic cruises for those looking for a smaller atmosphere, exclusive locations, and educational opportunities. There are cruises for specific dietary concerns, lifestyles, and even hobbies – for example, there’s even a Pandora Jewelry cruise! Let’s cover the basics…the who, what, when, and where as well as expenses and discount options.
In terms of the “who”, of course there are many different cruise lines and options. The most well known are probably Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and Disney. Royal Caribbean and Carnival both occupy a large portion of the market because they both tout a fleet of more than 20 ships. Personally, I am more inclined towards the small ship expeditions offered by cruise lines such as National Geographic. For those that are looking for a romantic trip, the small cruise line Silversea is very luxurious and boasts nearly one crewmember to every passenger. Looking for extreme luxury? Crystal Cruises sail around the globe in small, luxurious fashion with cruises lasting up to 108 days. There is literally a cruise line for every type of passenger.
Cruises now will take you anywhere you want to go – as long as a boat can dock! There are over 1,000 ports of call around the world and on every continent. In terms of departure, there are many departing cities around the world, and they’re growing every day. Carnival Cruises now offer departing ships from Baltimore, Charleston, North Carolina, New Orleans, and even Alabama, while Holland America will depart from Boston in the warmer months. Cruises usually focus on one region, though you can take cruises that literally circumnavigate the globe. An average Caribbean cruise is less than a week, while a European cruise will be at least a week. Specialty cruises, such as National Geographic’s “Tahiti to Easter Island: Tales of the Pacific”, typically take two to three weeks. What’s In Port created a port map showing many popular ports of call –
Now, we get to what most people care about – the cost. A cruise is pretty much a package expense with the lodging, food, and entertainment all combined into one price. Special trips (“excursions”) when docked can be an extra fee, and most cruise lines will give you an opportunity to look through options and book those trips in advance or while on the boat. US News & World Report ranked the “Best Cruise Lines for the Money”, and I’ll discuss their top five choices here. Their number one ranked cruise line is Royal Caribbean Cruises, probably the best-known cruise line, which they state offers a comprehensive vacation for under $100 per person per night. Interestingly, Disney cruises take up the number two best deal, and it certainly is a great bargain if comparing to a Disney park vacation. Carnival Cruises is the third best deal, and like Royal Caribbean, they tout that they can easily satisfy cruisers for under $100 per day. The fourth best bargain is Princess Cruises, which is actually owned by parent company Carnival. The difference is that Princess caters more towards adult cruisers rather than families. Finally, number five is Norwegian Cruise line. Their claim to fame is that cruisers can ditch the commonplace dining time requirement and eat anywhere, anytime.
As stated, the most affordable cruises cost around $100 per person, per day. Luxury cruise lines, such as Crystal Cruises, will be more expensive. Cruise Market Watch recently did a 2015 comprehensive cruise financial breakdown that assumes the average cruiser, across all cruise lines, will spend about $222.00 per person, per day – $168.43 per day on the cruise itself and $53.57 per day on extra amenities, like on board casinos, shore excursions, and spas. The average eight-day comprehensive cost they estimate to be about $1,779 per person. This is a fantastic deal!
In travel, where there’s a cost, there’s options for discounted costs. There are several ways to get discounts on cruises, making an already affordable vacation even more so.
- Loyalty Programs is one option. This is very similar to airlines’ frequent flyer programs – you cruise with one company more, you receive more discounts/upgrades in the future. Some of the most common loyalty programs include, of course, Carnival Cruises. They have a five-tier system that starts with first sailing and goes through 200 days sailing and up. Highest tiers offer free cabin upgrades and free third/fourth passengers. Best benefits start at about 75 days of sailing Carnival. Disney Cruises does have a loyalty program that all cruisers are automatically entered into, but there are few perks. Once you have cruised more than ten times with Disney, you will receive priority check-in/boarding and a free upgraded exclusive dinner onboard. Royal Caribbean has a point system where you earn one point per night sailed, or two points if you’re staying in a suite. There are many discount and member benefits with this six tier system, especially once you get to the Platinum (30 points and above) level.
- Child discounts are another great option for cruise savings. Many cruise lines, now in an attempt to get the family vacation budget directed at them, offer deeply discounted or free children fare. For example, Crystal Cruises (luxury cruise line), offers children age 17 and younger to usually cruise totally free, or deeply discounted during high travel season. Even Disney Cruises, focused on children and families specifically, offer free sailing to select cruises to Alaska and the Bahamas. Norwegian Cruises will offer a free upgraded stateroom and discounted children’s fares. MSC cruises are totally free for children 11 and under. The major cruise lines even offer free cruises for children during select months.
- Cruise lines often offer military rates as a thank-you to our American heroes. Carnival Cruises is currently offering a seven day Caribbean cruise the last week of the month for military families at the rate of only $379/person. Norwegian offers 10% off for military cruisers. Royal Caribbean will offer a military discount not only to the service member, but also to a spouse if the military member is currently deployed.
- If you have a flexible schedule, there are many options for last minute booking where you will get seriously discounted cruises. Carnival offers a “Pack and Go” deal where you book approximately the month or less before the sail date and save about 35% – making a ten day cruise departing on February 20th only $544. Princess Cruises has the “Drop and Go” program with cruise bargains changing every week – currently there is a 7-day Western Caribbean cruise departing from Houston for only $499, a 7-day California Coastal cruise from Los Angeles for $579, a 7-day Eastern Caribbean cruise from Ft. Lauderdale in an large upgraded balcony stateroom for $899, and a 7-day California Costal cruise from San Francisco in a large upgraded balcony stateroom for $799. Many cruises can be booked at a steep discount on travel booking websites, as well.
- Finally, of course, there is a credit card option for discounted cruising. There are cruise-line affiliated credit cards for six lines – Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Disney, Holland America, NCL, and Princess Cruises. Pointes can be accrued and cashed in for free/discounted cruises, onboard upgrades and amenities, etc. The only card with an annual fee is Disney, and the fee is less than $50. APR’s are all less than 21%. These cards aren’t nearly as good of a deal as airline credit cards. The better option is to get a non-affiliate credit card that allows rewards to be spent on cruises – the Barclaycard Arrival, Chase Sapphire Preferred, American Express Blue Sky Preferred, or Bank Americard Travel Rewards.
I hope this introduction to cruises, expenses, and discounts helps plan your next vacation! If you want to take a break from figuring out where to go, how to fly, where to stay, and how to get there – cruising might be the perfect vacation for you.
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