Your Top 5 Money-Saving Cruise Questions—Answered!
What you don't know can cost you. We asked industry experts for their best tips on cruise savings, from where to book to how much to tip—and more.
The cruising industry has changed rapidly in the past decade. And even if you're an experienced cruiser, you may be in for a few surprises on your next sail (for example, you can now ignore the gratuities line on checks guilt-free!). To find out what will (and won't) set you back on the high seas these days, we went to Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief of CruiseCritic.com, a popular website for cruise advice, and Marilyn Green, a cruise editor at industry publication TravelAge West. Their insiders' tips will have you sailing like an old salt in no time.
1. Can booking through a travel agent actually cut my costs?
It sure can. Agents have close relationships with cruise lines, which means that they can often score you upgrades and extras, such as two-for-one deals, that you wouldn't have access to on your own. Plus, the lines pay agents commissions, so their assistance doesn't cost you a cent. To find a knowledgeable agent near you, consult the websites for the Cruise Lines International Association and The Travel Institute; both have a roster of agents, along with contact information and details on their expertise and training—you'll want to find someone who has been in the business for at least five years. That last point is key, says Carolyn Spencer Brown, who explains that the biggest benefit of enlisting an agent, beyond monetary savings, is their knowledge and advice. A savvy agent should be able to help you sort through the dozens of major lines—and the countless itineraries each offers—to find one that's right for you.
Related: Confessions of a Cruise Agent
2. Is it worth it to join the loyalty programs offered by cruise lines? How much would I really save?
Joining can reap you considerable savings. Spencer Brown, for instance, specifically cites Royal Caribbean's loyalty program for excellence: "They really make it worth your while to stick with them by hosting special members-only events onboard and occasionally distributing coupons for $100 to $500 off select sailings." Joining programs can also prove worthwhile for the convenience they provide: Members of Norwegian's and Royal Caribbean's clubs, for example, get priority boarding—a big, big deal when a ship carries thousands of impatient passengers, all anxious to get their vacations started. Another (and, perhaps, the most convincing) reason to join is that cruise line membership clubs are entirely free. There's really no downside to becoming a member. In fact, "most cruise lines automatically enroll you at the end of your first cruise," explains Marilyn Green. That includes Norwegian, Carnival, and Holland America.For other lines, including Royal Caribbean and Celebrity, you have to take the initiative and sign up yourself, but it's easy to do online. If you're not sure if the company you're sailing with auto-enrolls guests in a loyalty program, just ask when you check in.
3. The cruise I'm looking at allows me to buy air from the company. Should I do it?
Booking your own flights is the way to go—you'll save a few bucks and have more flexibility on travel times (cruise lines typically just give you one or two options on flight times). To maximize savings, follow these tips on the best time to book airfare.
It used to be that if you let the cruise book your flight and ran into weather-related delays the line would hold the ship until you arrived. Sounds pretty good, but that rarely happens these days, according to Spencer Brown. (There were a few exceptions during the massive "snowpocalypse" that hit Europe and the U.S. East Coast around Christmastime, 2010—such as when Cunard Line held its Queen Victoria ship for delayed passengers on December 20th—but that was likely a one-off.) In addition to offering air to cruisers, some lines also offer a compromise deal called "air deviation," which allows you to book with the cruise but still choose your own carrier, route, and flight times. The benefit is that the line will be aware of your flight schedule (and any delays), but again, there is no guarantee that they'll hold the ship for you. Be aware that they also charge a one-time fee of between $25 and $50 per person for this "service."