Five Essential Tips for First-time Cruisers

| Monday, 15 Oct. 2012

This is a great time for a first cruise, and if you are like most you will say "if I had only known how great it is, I would have started cruising years ago." What makes cruises such a great value? The cruise business model depends on filling up ships at almost any price because most people will spend much more money once they get on board. When the economy went bust many people cut back on vacations, but the cruise lines adapted by offering even lower fares, but maintaining the same great quality of food and service.

Once you understand how the cruise lines make money you will understand how to save money on your cruise. Here are our top ten cruise tips and why they work.

Are you a first-time cruiser looking to use these tips? Talk about it in the First-Time Cruisers forum.

Rule #1: When to Book Your Cruise

This is a complicated topic, but the simple answer is to book a cruise during low-demand time periods. Summer vacation is when cruises are most expensive. The long post-holidays winter season from January to May is also pricey, especially for Caribbean cruises. The September to November period is when you will find the best bargains - especially in the Caribbean.

Other cruise regions; Alaska, Europe, Asia, etc. tend to be cheapest when fewer people want to go there. For Alaska cruises, which are only offered during the summer, look at the "shoulder seasons" in May and September. You take a chance on having colder weather, but the cruises are cheaper and the ships and ports of call are less crowded.

Rule #2: Last Minute Cruise Bargain Realities

Do not be impressed by any cruise agency that claims to have exclusive access to "last minute cruise discounts." It's pure hokum. The quoted price for any cruise should be the same no matter where you look because that is what the cruise lines mandate. Cruise lines forbid any one agency from selling cruises cheaper than everyone else because they do not want any one agency dictating prices. Whether you book direct with the cruise line, online at the cruise line or Expedia or at the local travel agency on the corner the price should be the same every place you look. Now, there may be a few exceptions, but they are just that – anomalies. If a travel agency is advertising "lower than lowest prices" they are either breaking the rules or not being fully honest in what they tell you.

The biggest fallacy is travel agencies that compare their rates to "brochure rates." No one has paid the "brochure rate" for a cruise in almost 10 years. Even the brochures now show two price quotes, the "brochure rate" and the real price. Brochure rates are as outdated as buggy whips so don't even look at them.

But there are such things as "last minute bargains" – but there is just no such thing as "exclusive access" to those bargains. You can find them anywhere, and I recommend looking on the actual cruise web sites first for the most accurate prices; Carnival.com, RoyalCaribbean.com, Princess.com, etc. But after you find them I recommend you call a travel agency, and I will explain why further below.

The only true last minute cruise bargains comes when a cruise ship is close to sailing away on a specific cruise date and it still has too many empty cabins. This varies week to week, meaning prices on the same ship and itinerary can also vary week to week by big amounts. Although this is hard for some people to grasp, the best way to get a real cruise bargain is to be date flexible and look for the cheapest cruise in a given time period.

Here is a real price list for a singular (Carnival 7-day Caribbean) cruise, same ship and itinerary each week, the only difference being the date the cruise begins.

Sail Date

Inside

Oceanview Balcony Suite

July 15, 2012

$609

$809

$879

Sold out

August 12, 2012

$529

$679

$789

$1099

Aug. 26, 2012

$439

$529

$629

$1079

Sept. 9, 2012

$349

$419

$529

$849

Sept. 23 2012

$349

$399

$529

$849

As you can see – this is the exact same cruise repeated on regular dates. But if you sail in July (summer vacation season) the price starts at $609 inside. If you wait until summer is over and book the September cruises the price is much cheaper - you can get a balcony cabin for less than the price of an inside cabin. Remember; same ship, itinerary, stateroom, entertainment, food… everything except the sail date.

So, is the "last minute cruise" your best bargain? Absolutely not, in this case it is the worst deal. The best deal is September 23rd and there is another reason for this; the "full payment is due" factor.

When people select a cruise they put down a deposit as low as $100, but the additional full payment is due anywhere between 60 and 90 days before the cruise sails. Before full payment is due the people can cancel the cruise without penalty, and many do. When I got the numbers above the "full payment due date" had just passed for the September 23rd cruise. Lesson: look for bargains on any cruise 75 to 90 days away from its sail date for good bargains. Now last minute cruises (which I define as those sailing next week) can also be very good bargains if the ship is relatively empty. But if it is nearly full they will actually charge MORE to let you onboard. Why? Because they know that anyone who wants that specific ship must have a reason - friends or relatives on board, so they will pay extra.

However, there are other risks with last-minute bookings: If you need to fly to the port, it may be difficult to get an inexpensive flight because many cheap airfares require a 21-day advance purchase; also, you will probably not get the cabin category of your choice on the ship and will have to settle for whatever is available.

Rule #3: Watch for Special Offers but Book with a Travel Agent Cruise lines have figured out something in the last few years - sales and special offers sell cruises. In the past cruise lines would advertise the product with words like "pampering, luxury, escape, etc." - but they kept prices fairly constant all the time.

In the old days sales were rare, but once prices dropped they tended to stay down. It is different now - and we have especially noticed this with Princess Cruise Line. About once a month they will drop prices significantly, up to 35%, but just for a few days. The rest of the month they raise the prices back to the original fares.

I highly recommend that you subscribe to the newsletters for your favorite cruise lines at their web sites. You will get offers by email for discounts. Norwwegian Cruise Line (aka "Norwegian" or "NCL") also holds a lot of sales - almost every other week. On the other hand Holland America, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean holds sales more rarely, but the prices tend to stay lower on average. Still, it is to your adbantage to register with cruise lines and stay informed about their special offers.

But once you find that special deal, we recommend that you call a travel agent to book the cruise. We have no problem with people who want to book directly with the cruise lines – but a qualified cruise travel agent can save you money in unexpected ways with their advice. In fact, many agents will give you a special gift just for booking with them such as onboard credit, a bottle of champagne, etc. An agent will act as your advocate if something goes wrong with the cruise. Or if you miss your plane you just make one call, to your agent, they will call the cruise line and the airlines and find you a new flight. Most importantly, it does NOT cost you any more to book with a travel agent. The cruise lines pay 100% of their commissions. Some agents may charge you a fee to book your air, but not if you book the air supplied by the cruise line.

You can also go to our "cruise deals" section in our message boards - we try to post as many cruise sales as we see there.

Rule #4: Drive Rather Than Fly Many cruise lines have staterooms that sleep three or four people. Watch for specials where additional people (the third and fourth guests) sleeping in the same stateroom as two adults can sail for half-price or even free. It is actually very common and a great way for a person to try a full cruise for next to nothing. While it may be a bit crowded at times, the savings more than compensate for the lack of elbow room.

There are more cruises than ever departing from "close-to-home" ports such as Boston, New York, Bayonne (New Jersey), Baltimore, Charleston, Jacksonville, Tampa, New Orleans, Galveston, Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Francisco and Seattle. You can save a lot of money by driving to a cruise rather than flying – especially if you have a family of four or five people.

The best vessels for families are the newer and larger ships with extensive children's facilities; look for water parks, activity centers, teen discos, video arcades, kiddy pools and all kinds of supervised activities for kids. Parents get a more relaxing vacation because the kids are kept separate and busy, and best of all, there is generally no extra charge for these kid's facilities on ships.

Rule #5: Watch the Onboard Charges and Know the Fixed Costs Ships are "cashless" societies; everyone gets a room key which also acts like a charge card for onboard purchases. Everything you purchase goes onto your room account and you get a bill at the end of the cruise. This includes shore tours, spa services, alcohol, casino gambling and gratuities.

While cruise lines generally say "all-inclusive pricing," there are many costs not covered by the cruise fare. These include sodas and alcoholic beverages, spa services, specialty dining venues and shore tours. You can save money on tours by booking them online with private companies like viator.com before the cruise. Or you can hire taxis, take the train or just walk.

Spa services are nice, just keep in mind that a massage on a cruise will cost about $120, almost double what you pay for a top quality massage on land (and triple the price of a cheap "chain store" massage).

If you must buy something in a ship gift shop, wait until the last day of the cruise when most of the stores put their merchandise on sale.

Gratuities for your waiters and room steward are charged at the end of the cruise and in general cost about $10 per passenger per day. On some ships you can have these removed, but please do not do this unless you truly feel you had terrible service. Add in the cost of gratuities when you are planning the cruise.

However - do keep in mind that penny-pinching can go too far.

The temptation by most first time cruisers is to try to do everything as cheaply as possible. If you are not sure you will enjoy a cruise you can always book a lower category cabin, such as an inside cabin (no windows or verandah). These staterooms usually sell for as little as $50/day per person and include food, ports of call and entertainment. If you don't like the cruise you haven't lost much. If you do like it then the next time you might try a more expensive balcony cabin.

Naturally, it makes sense that if you paid to cruise in Europe you should see the Leaning Tower of Pisa. You paid to get to Italy, after all. But if you have to walk to a train that makes local stops it could take all day. Instead, you can get a tour from the ship that visits Pisa and Florence with a tour guide. Make the most of your limited time in port by planning your time carefully and keeping value and margins of error in mind.

Also – I recommend not drinking too much. Yes, it's fun the night before, but you don't want to miss the next port of call due to a wicked hangover. How much you drink is up to you, but the cost of alcohol can really add to your cruise costs. If you plan to drink a lot you can do that at home.

Also be very careful about flight times; do not book a flight that has you arriving in Miami at 3:00 the day the ship sails. If you miss the ship it's your fault, even if the airline had a delay. Many people who live on the West Coast fly into Miami a day early and stay at a hotel - remember that the East Coast is three hours later than the West - so if you have a five hour flight leaving California at 7:00 a.m. you still won't hit Miami until 3:00 p.m. But a "redeye" flight leaving at midnight with a two-hour layover will put you in Miami at just about the right time to go to the port and board the ship.

Even More Cruise Tips Here!

Those are our ten rules for first time cruisers, but for even more knowledge on making the most of your cruise I suggest the section of our web site called "Cruise Secrets." It includes 10 individual in-depth articles on how to get the most out of your cruise and your cruise dollar.

Are you a first-time cruiser looking to use these tips? Talk about it in the First-Time Cruisers forum.

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