The following article has some of the better tricks I have discovered over the years for getting the best possible cruise deal, and then getting the most out of your cruise. Even experienced cruisers can probably learn something new here, or remember something they may have forgotten.
Choosing a cruise is complicated because there are so many different styles available. But once you've settled on a particular cruise, that decision defines most of the elements of your vacation. It determines where you'll go, what you'll see, what you'll eat, your entertainment and your accommodations.
Selecting the right cruise line, ship and stateroom are all-important, but then you can then just relax - the toughest decisions are over. Okay, it isn't exactly that simple, but the convenience of cruising means many details are handled for you - giving you far more time to relax and enjoy your vacation.
For example, at the end of my Danube River cruise last month, we took a train to Salzburg. But here is what we really did in just two days:
- We took a taxi from the ship to go to the train station (15 Euro)
- We took a train from Nuremburg to Munich (120 Euro)
- We had 11 minutes to change trains (with five pieces of luggage)
- We took another train to Salzburg
- We hailed a taxi (8 Euro) and rode to our hotel (250 Euro)
- We walked around Salzburg
- We ate at a random restaurant that was overpriced (40 Euro)
- The next day we took a different hotel room because the street outside was too noisy
- We took a "Sound of Music" tour we had booked independently (110 Euro)
- We walked some more to find the Bier Garten - ate dinner (80 Euro)
- Went to the hotel, slept, woke up early
- Called a taxi and went to the airport (15 Euro)
If you take a cruise, all you have to do is get to the ship. All of your destinations, tour tickets, meals and entertainment are essentially delivered to you - you do not have pack and unpack, pay, tip, keep track of separate reservation tickets, etc.
But there are certain steps you need to take to get the most out of your cruise - and we outline them for you below:
1. Pick the Right Cruise Line and Ship
Each cruise line has a distinct personality. Carnival is known for having "Fun Ships," where the staff engages in impromptu antics such as singing in the dining room. They play games some people might find a bit silly, such as the "hairiest chest" or the "sexy legs" contests - men are the contestants.
So it is important to research each cruise line. You should know that Royal Caribbean has the most "hi-tech" ships, while Carnival has the zaniest. Princess is a solid, consistent "premium" cruise line but the ships are rather large; Holland America's ships are much smaller, but also quieter than some people like. Celebrity is hi-tech and has bigger ships, as long as you book the Solstice class vessels, and not the older and smaller Celebrity Century, which brings up an important point:
Even within one cruise line there can be a variety of ships. Yes, they will all share certain characteristics of that cruise line, but on the more mainstream lines like Carnival or Royal Caribbean you will find newer ships that are very modern, but also older and smaller ships that are a very different experience. When a person says "we only sail on Carnival," it doesn't tell me that much. Carnival's "Fantasy class" ships are so old that only a small percentage of the staterooms have balconies and the dÃ©cor is very dated. They are still "Fun Ships," but the experience is nothing like the brand new Carnival Magic, inaugurated a few months ago.
So after you choose a cruise line, investigate the individual ships. For Carnival and Royal Caribbean, any ship of less than 100,000 tons and built before 2000 is one I would normally not recommend unless you get them at bargain prices.
2. Cruise Booking: Book Early for Best Selection, Be Date Flexible for Best Price
That may sound complicated, but it isn't. People who have never cruised might assume cruise ships operate like trains - the same ship repeats the same itinerary at a pre-set price all year round. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ships are sold using the "yield management" pricing strategy developed by the airlines, meaning the cost of any particular stateroom on any given ship changes constantly and depends on many factors, e.g.:
- How close in is the sail date?
- How sold out is the ship?
- How much competition is there in the region?
- What is the most they think you will pay?
In fact, ship pricing is very unpredictable. A year in advance, most sailings of a particular ship and itinerary will have a similar price structure, but as the cruise gets closer, the ships that are most sold out will become pricier. The ones that still have staterooms available will get cheaper. Waiting until the very last minute can get you a very good bargain, or it can cost you twice as much.
The way to get the best price on a cruise is first to look for regions where there are too many ships (this varies year to year). For example, this year the Mediterranean has lots of cabin availability, hence there are bargains. If you look at any one ship you may see one sail date where prices average 30 percent lower than the cruises before and after it. That happens when one single sailing has not sold well. The goal of every cruise line is to sell out every ship, and they will eventually sell all the cabins on that ship at almost any price.
By contrast, other ships may have only a few very expensive cabins available because they have already reached 100 percent of their capacity when you count third and fourth guests in cabins. A "full capacity ship" may still have empty cabins, but they double the price knowing some people will want to be on that specific ship (to sail with friends, perhaps) -- and if they don't sell those last cabins, the ship is still considered full.
But, while there are some advantages to booking early, there are different advantages to booking later. I said above you can get the best prices once the cruise line drops prices on a ship that is not selling quickly. Lower prices will show up about three to six months before the sail date. But if you have your heart set on a balcony cabin facing the back of the ship, you must book early. Suites sell out first. But if you are not that particular about your stateroom, then wait until about two months before the sail date and book the cheapest cruise you can find.
Once you find that great price - we always recommend using a travel agent. A travel agent can not only get you perks you cannot get on your own. When something goes wrong they will act as your advocate. A cruise-focused travel agent will know everything in this article already, and they will assure that you get the best deal. Travel agents are also great intermediaries for you if you have a dispute with the cruise line. Furthermore, the cruise line pays their commission, not you.
3. Pre-book Restaurants and Shore Tours Online Pre-Cruise
These days it is possible to book shore tours and specialty restaurants on the cruise line's web site well before the cruise. In the old days, many people stood in line on the ship the first day of their cruise to book certain tours and to secure restaurant seating on specific nights. Now almost everything on your cruise can be reserved before departure by going to the cruise line web site. If you want to make sure you can schedule the shows and tours you want on the days you want them, that is another reason to book your cruise early (six months to a year in advance).
The people who squeeze the most fun into a cruise are those who plan out every single day. They do not book the $30-per-person restaurant the same night the main dining room is serving lobster at no extra cost (usually at the captain's "farewell dinner"). The same people might take two tours in one port call - an early one and a late one. They might also reserve a table for two in the best restaurant for their anniversary. If you plan ahead, be sure to make a schedule to map out each day of your cruise.
4. Arrive the Night Before
During Hurricane Irene last week, we heard about ships forced to sail from San Juan three hours early, and from New York City at 1:00 p.m. Weather causes problems. If you are flying from Salem, Oregon, to Miami, but your connection is in Chicago, you could get stranded in Chicago due to bad weather.
So it is always a good idea to arrive at your cruise port a day early and stay in a hotel. This is especially true when flying to Florida from the west coast, because you lose three hours just from the time zone conversion. What's more, flights are often late, and rush hour traffic in Miami can be awful.
The only exception is if you are flying overnight to Europe and will be arriving before 9:00 a.m. But I often book a hotel even in Europe if my flight arrives at noon or later and the ship is a fair distance away.
5. Pack Lighter
In the old days, it was not uncommon for people to bring three bags apiece. There were plenty of porters in airports to help you. But these days, airlines charge $25 to $50 per extra checked bag. You can only carry on one bag, and planes are far fuller than they used to be, so you may find yourself unable to stow your bag.
In addition, ships are not as formal as they used to be, so you just don't need the multiple suit jackets, slacks, neckties, high heels, girdles, etc. that people used to bring. Pack light and save time and money.
6. Ships Tours are More Convenient but Cost More
When it comes to seeing the sights in port, you can go on your own and save money if you know exactly what you want to see. If you hire a cab, always negotiate the price first for going and returning. There are also independent tour companies in each port.
But the safest bet is to book your tours through the cruise ship. The reason is simple peace of mind. You will know exactly where to meet your tour group, and you know you will return to the ship before it sails.
We used to tell people that if you book a tour through the cruise line, the ship will not set sail without you. But some people thought this was a license to hold up a tour as long as they wanted. Certain people took a tour to the Atlantis Hotel near Nassau and disappeared when it was time to return to the ship. They believed the ship would wait for them because they booked a ship tour.
That was not what we meant. That tour guide looked for the laggards for about 20 minutes before telling the bus driver to return the people he had to the ship. They got back onboard just as the gangway was going up. The missing people were left behind.
7. Travel Insurance
Finally, the best advice we can give you -- although many people still don't do it -- is to buy travel insurance. The costs range from 4 to 10 percent of your vacation cost per person, but the insurance will reimburse you if an emergency causes you to cancel the cruise, or if you miss the ship due to an airline problem. The insurance will pay to get you a hotel and to get you to the ship in the next port of call. It is most valuable when you have a medical emergency and need to be taken back to the U.S. under medical supervision. A medical evacuation like that can cost more than $100,000, but insurance will pay for it.
Those are our top 10 tips for making the best of your cruise. Maybe you already knew most of them, or maybe you learned something extremely valuable. In any case, we want everyone to have the best cruise possible, and sometimes that just means having the right attitude when things do not go perfectly. Happy cruising - anyway!