I learned so much while planning (and taking) our first cruise that I thought I’d share some of the knowledge I’ve gained over the past few months with you. Just so you know in advance, THIS IS A REALLY LONG POST, even for Suburban Scrawl. (Sorry!)
Our cruise was the best value-for-the-money vacation we’ve ever experienced, which was great news for me because I am pretty frugal, always looking for the better deal or a different way of doing something in order to save some money.
Some of these cruise tips, which range from saving money to just making things easier, came from the “First time cruiser” forum on my cruise line’s website, some came from friends, some came from research (because you KNOW I’m all over trip planning and research!) and some were learned as we experienced the cruise. Please keep in mind that all of these tips may not be a fit for everybody, especially the ones related to saving money. I know that not everybody is concerned with how much money they spend (lucky ducks!). Just disregard any tips that you can’t use!
Ready? Okay, let’s go:
1. Be flexible, if possible.
Jim and I originally planned to cruise the week of Christmas because our anniversary is December 29th. When I checked the prices on cruises, they seemed pretty high. It occurred to me that Christmas week is a very popular time to travel because kids are out of school and it’s usually easy for working adults to take vacation time. I checked the prices for cruises departing a few days after New Year’s and–voila!–the prices were about 60% cheaper than the cruises leaving during Christmas week. In fact, the prices were dirt cheap. The four-day cruise (not including airfare, of course!) for the two of us–which included all of the food on the ship (and all beverages except for soda and alcohol), entertainment, the gym, games, dancing, passage to some great destinations, and much more–cost approximately the same as two nights in an average, three-star hotel (with no food or anything else included). If your dates are slightly flexible, do multiple searches to see what the very same cruise costs when leaving on different dates.
2. Cruising out of Miami? Consider flying into Ft. Lauderdale as another option.
Airfare from Chicago-O’Hare to Miami was outrageous when I started checking into it a few months ago, probably because lots of people want to escape from Chicago to Miami in January. When I added the luggage fees, ugh. I love flying Southwest (<---not an ad, just a statement) out of Midway Airport because they almost always have internet specials AND they don't charge for the first two bags (per passenger!), as long as the bags weigh less than fifty pounds. Southwest, however, doesn't currently fly to Miami. They DO fly to Ft. Lauderdale, however, which is only about thirty miles (give or take) from Miami. The only catch is that you have to be careful about what you spend on your transfers. Keep reading. 3. Do your research on transportation.
The cruise lines provide transfers from the airports (and when you use them, you don’t see your luggage again until they deliver it to your room: a pretty good perk), but I found the price to be a little high and thought I could do better. (Our cruise line charged $30 per person when transferring EACH WAY between Ft. Lauderdale airport and the Port of Miami.) We were flying in the day before our cruise as a preemptive measure against any possible weather delays–wouldn’t want to miss the cruise because of an unexpected snowfall in Chicago!–and I ended up finding a hotel halfway between Ft. Lauderdale and Miami that provided FREE shuttles from the Ft. Lauderdale airport to the hotel and then from the hotel to the Port of Miami. (The cost of the transportation to the port was rolled into a “Snooze and Cruise” package, but it was still pretty cheap overall.) A couple of weeks before we headed down there I was researching how we would get from the port back to Ft. Lauderdale airport when the cruise was over. I checked out a few transfer companies that friends had recommended, and then I stumbled across a forum post by somebody who said they took a cab from the Port of Miami to the Hialeah Market/Miami Airport Tri-Rail train station (around $20 plus tip for the cab and $3.75 per person for the train), catching an hourly train which just happened to make a stop at the Ft. Lauderdale airport. That’s what we ended up doing, and it worked out great!
4. Put a change of clothes and your bathing suit in your carry-on.
When you get to the cruise terminal, you check your luggage just like you would at an airport. You may not see your luggage for a couple of hours until it is delivered to your stateroom. Rather than be held up if what you really want to do is swim, bring those items with you!
5. Bring a highlighter.
Every day on board, you’ll get a brochure that details all of the activities going on the following day, along with the time listing. A highlighter, which took up virtually no space in our suitcase, was pretty helpful in putting what we wanted to do in black and white. Err, yellow.
6. Don’t pig out.
The food options on board a cruise ship are exactly like you’ve heard: RIDICULOUS and available 24/7. Here’s something to remember: just because it’s there doesn’t mean you have to try and eat as much as possible. Jim and I walked the line between treating all that food as temptation and something to be enjoyed in moderation. We had a couple of strategies that worked for us:
A. When we ate at the buffets (only two or three times over the whole four days!), we made healthier choices. If we saw something not-so-healthy that we wanted, we only had a taste. (I loved the potato salad on board, but only ate about a tablespoon of it.) My jaw dropped time and time again as I watched other passengers load up the platter-style plates to heaping full with everything on the buffet.
B. We stuck to three meals per day and agreed that if we wanted a snack, we’d grab a piece of fruit. As it turned out, the food choices we made were the kind that kept us full between meals and we didn’t ever have snacks.
C. We tried to keep our ship meal times similar to when we eat at home. Though I had an intense craving for nachos when I heard that there would be an 11:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Mexican buffet the night we left Cozumel, I passed on the opportunity. Thinking about eating that and then going to bed uncomfortable was enough to give me the strength to skip it.
D. We ate in the restaurants. Restaurant food is included, just like the buffet food. (On some ships there are “specialty restaurants” that cost extra, but not on our ship.) There were two restaurants on our ship: one was for “flex-time dining”, meaning passengers could eat whenever they want and sit wherever they want. The other was for Assigned Dining, and had two dinner seatings: 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. With Assigned Dining, you sit at the same table each night for dinner, with–in our case–six other people. We really enjoyed talking to the same people at dinner each evening. We had the same servers each night, and the servers sang a song for the diners each night, right after dessert. Eating in the restaurant also meant that we were ordering off of a menu (still so many choices!) and the food was coming to us in reasonable portions (smaller than regular restaurants: remember that there’s no need for large portions + doggie bags!).
E. If we didn’t like it, we didn’t eat it. Pretty self-explanatory: if we tried something and didn’t enjoy it, we left it on the plate. That’s another case for only taking small amounts of food: less waste that way!
By using these strategies, Jim LOST a pound on the cruise (unheard of!). I only gained one, and it disappeared the day after we returned home so I’m chalking that pound up to the swelling that happens when one sits in an airport for ten hours and then on an airplane for three. Breaking even = GOOD.
7. Be careful: the cruise line makes much more money on the extras than the cruise ticket itself.
Seriously. From the moment you board and the crew is trying to sell you the Drink of the Day which comes in an adorable or fancy container, you will be flooded with temptations in the form of drinks, shopping, spa treatments, fitness classes, Bingo games with large payouts, and photographs. If you are watching your money, here are some ideas (if you aren’t, just skip this part):
A. Soft Drinks: If you’re a big-time soda drinker, you can purchase an unlimited soda card for the duration of your cruise that would save you money over buying individual sodas. If you are an occasional soda drinker, you can take advantage of the “Bring on board” policy and bring a case of cans with you.
B. Alcohol: On the ship, drinks range from around $5 for beer to nearly $10 for the umbrella-style variety. What we did was buy drinks while on shore in Key West and Cozumel, and only the occasional drink on the ship.
C. Shopping: Obviously the easy solution to saving money while shopping is not to shop. I’d guess, though, that most people enjoy wandering into the stores on the ship. (We did.) They actually have some pretty good deals on jewelry and accessories. They key is to avoid impulse purchasing: really think about it (as in, LEAVE THE STORE and come back another time) before buying. The stuff you want will almost always still be there if you decide to go back.
D. Spa treatments: If you’re on a budget, get your pedicure/manicure/massage/facial/teeth whitening (YES, they now offer that on ships!) before cruising.
E. Fitness classes: Use of the ship’s gym is free; some classes cost extra. We were very happy on the machines and worked out on two of the four days. Also, take the stairs as much as possible!
F. Buy-in games like Bingo: It’s a very attractive prospect to pay $25 for the chance to win $500-1000, but the odds depend on how many others buy in as well as the luck of the draw…Use caution!
G. Photographs: Your picture will be taken when you board the ship, when you exit the ship at each destination, at dinner, on formal night, on excursions, and other random times. It’s borderline ridiculous but the fact is that there is no sitting fee AND the ship’s photographers can get some really nice shots, which make good souvenirs. The photos are extremely expensive, however: they range between $10-20 EACH on the ship, more on excursions. You can imagine how your bill might jump if you’re not careful. We purchased one 5X7 for $12, and that’s it. I think the guideline here is to look at the pictures and refuse them if you aren’t crazy about them and hand your camera to, say, your dinner table mates or a passenger who is disembarking at a port with you and ask them to take a similar picture.
8. Check your balance often!
It’s really easy to lose track of what you’re spending if you just have to hand over your ship identification card/room key, which is also your on-ship charge card. The ship has a couple of kiosks at which you can check your account at any time. Keep an eye on that and remember, every time someone on the crew asks you for your card–with the exception of boarding and disembarking the ship–you are being charged for something.
9. Don’t wait to gamble until the final night. Also, gamble in the morning.
We hit the Blackjack table on only one day, the last morning as soon as the casino opened. As a frugal person, I’ve never wanted to gamble with real money but wanted to try it out on a small scale. Jim and I agreed that we would each play with fifty dollars and that would be it. I busted within twenty minutes, which was surprising to me because when we play with fake chips at D’s college during Parent Weekend, I always win HUGE. Luckily, Jim did much better than I and when he cashed in, we were only down by thirteen dollars as a couple. We stayed away from then on because the casino was a total nut house. I think everyone was making one last ditch effort to win enough money to make a dent in what they spent on board.
10. Take advantage of the shows.
Cruise ships offer all kinds of shows from stand-up comedy to elaborate musical productions with beautiful costumes to live bands to slightly hokey game shows. They’re included in the cost of the cruise: enjoy them!
11. Keep your watch on Ship’s Time.
When you leave the ship at a port, you’ll need to make sure to reboard at the designated time so you don’t get left behind. If the port is on a different time zone from where you started and you’re relying on a cell phone or local clocks, you might get confused and literally miss the boat. (This didn’t happen to us but we did leave a couple of passengers behind in Cozumel: no joke!) (Of course, I’m not sure if they got left behind due to a confusion about the time or an overabundance of margaritas in two-foot-tall cylinders, but the warning is the same.)
12. Attitude is everything.
Sure, it’s vacation…that doesn’t mean you won’t have to occasionally deal with crowds, waiting in line, difficulty finding a beach chair, or people who are too loud/drunk/whiny/rude for your tastes. Attitude is everything, especially in challenging times, and especially if you’re in paradise. You’ve worked hard for your vacation: ENJOY IT!