Form a Cruise Group and Sail for Free

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By rounding up a bunch of your friends to cruise together, you can earn a free cabin for yourself.

Cruising for free is easier than you might think--just ask Carol Schaer of Gaithersburg, Maryland. After Schaer talked with her travel agent about her traveling preferences, she reserved a block of cabins on a Norwegian Cruise Line voyage and sent flyers with her group's information to family and friends. The goal was to entice enough friends and family to earn free passage under NCL's group policy.

The result? Not only did Schaer earn a free cruise but her husband did too, when 18 other people joined their group.

Some groups start as a single booking, like the cruise John Mansy, of Cruise Directors, Inc., planned for an engaged couple. The bride chatted about her upcoming honeymoon cruise to friends and neighbors, and within weeks, 34 other people signed on to set sail, including her sister, the neighbors, and the best man. Result: The newlyweds cruised for free.

Several years ago I worked on the inside (or "shoreside," as our shipboard compatriots referred to us) for a major cruise line. My job was to keep travel agencies up to date on our ships and policies. It was then that I learned about this nifty little way to earn a free cruise.

All you need is a few friends or family willing to travel together on the same sailing, and an excuse to do it--be it for a family reunion, birthday, graduation celebration, club outing, or just for fun. Sometimes a group starts as just two couples and before they know it, they've invited enough people to eliminate their own bill.

Defining a cruise group--the magic of numbers

Most of the major lines, including Princess, Carnival, Holland America, Celebrity, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, and Disney, generally define a "cruise group" as 16 people occupying eight cabins (third and fourth passengers in a cabin don't count toward the total). The sixteenth person, or the person who organizes the bookings (in "cruise-speak," the group leader or tour conductor), earns the free fare--although port charges, taxes, and airfare must be paid. With some companies, off-peak sailings or large groups earn free fare for every tenth or twelveth person. Agencies specializing in groups can help you find those sailings and negotiate the best possible deal.

If you and your group want to sail during peak sailing seasons, you'll need to book your trip one year in advance. However, cruise lines need little notice (one to two months prior to embarkation) for off-season sailings. Cruise lines are best able to accommodate groups in fall, when they are most flexible (and have the most cabins to fill).

Perks galore for group travelers

Not only are cruise-group rates sometimes lower (on certain lines, substantially lower) than individual rates, but often, the free cruise fare can be applied to the group leader or can be divided evenly among the group, saving everyone money.

Additionally, many of the major lines frequently offer amenities available only to group cruisers. Examples include cabin upgrades, complimentary wine and chocolates in each stateroom, a cocktail party, or a reduction in the number of cabins required to earn the free cruise fare. The quantity and type of amenities vary by cruise line and how full the sailing is.

Other advantages of a group cruise over a regular land-based vacation include:

  • The freedom to choose the cabin class (inside, outside, balcony) you can afford.
  • Indulging in hassle-free family meals (minus the dishwashing duty that comes with a house rental), avoiding waits for the big table at a restaurant, and eliminating those squabbles over the check.
  • Participating in group activities (or going off by yourself).
  • Enjoying the camaraderie and sense of security of traveling with loved ones.
  • Taking advantage of childrens' programs (many ships have them), which enable adults to have a worry-free evening together.
  • Potential pitfalls

    Because full payments are usually required 60 days before departure (90 days around holiday periods), group cruising is not always for spur-of-the-moment travelers. Plus, to secure the best price and best-located cabin, space must be reserved even further in advance.

    If the group falls below the required number of cabins, what happens next depends on your agent's negotiating power and the cruise line's policies. Many cruise agencies (see below) will try to book an unrelated individual on the same sailing to keep a group's number up; in other cases, a cruise line may cut back on part or all of the amenities package. Also, cruise lines have become more focused on customer satisfaction in recent years, and where they once refused to allow name substitions (Uncle Jack takes Uncle Larry's place), they now charge an average of $35 for reservation name changes.

    Finding that expert agent

    While Carnival Cruise Lines will accept group bookings directly (888/CARNIVAL, or to speak directly with the group bookings department call 800/327-5782), it's best to work with an agent who specializes in cruise groups. Many agencies prebuy discounted cabins and have increased negotiating power for amenities.

    Agencies that have specialized group departments and a national clientele include: The Cruise Authority (which also focuses on large theme cruises, 800/326-4971,,out of Georgia; Anchors Away Cruise Center (888/516-6306, based in California; Cruise Value Center, 800/231-7447,;Kelly Cruises (800/837-7447, in Illinois; Cruises Only (a division of mega-agency Boston-based NGL, 800/278-4737,; and Cruise Web (800/377-9383,, and the expertly run Galaxsea Cruises (800/662-5450,

    So, as the cruise ads say, get out there. Set sail with friends...and don't worry, there are plenty of hiding spots on those megaships if you need some time alone.

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