6 Easy Ways to Save on a Cruise
1. BOOK EARLY
By reserving six to 12 months ahead of your cruise, you can lock in an early-bird rate that's 25 to 50 percent lower than the published "brochure" rate most lines advertise. You'll also have a wider selection of itineraries, dates, and cabins, and possibly get better deals on airfare and hotels. If prices go down after you book, a good travel agent—or the cruise line itself—should help you get the new lower rate.
2. OR BOOK LATE
Yes, it runs completely counter to what we just said about booking early, but if you wait 60 to 90 days before you want to sail, cruise lines often drop prices significantly to fill any remaining spaces on their ships. If you're willing and able to white-knuckle it, this is when you can nab a weeklong Caribbean cruise for under $500. But of course, you won't have as much choice of itinerary or cabin, it may be tricky to find a low airfare to your port, and last-minute fares are typically nonrefundable.
3. REQUEST A DISCOUNT
Asking the right questions can work magic. If you're a return customer, mention it when booking and politely inquire whether you're eligible for a discount—it can shave 5 to 15 percent off your fare. Since cruise prices are based on double occupancy, a third or fourth person in your cabin should get a 30 to 60 percent discount. If you're 55 or older, don't be shy about asking for a 5 percent discount; likewise, active and retired servicemen and women should always ask if the line offers them savings.
4. USE A TRAVEL AGENT
Sites like Kayak and Expedia have put you in the driver's seat—sometimes literally—but don't underestimate the role a good agent can play in finding you the right deal. Many have reserved spaces they can sell you at a discount, and they can explain whether an advertised "free" upgrade or all-inclusive package is for real or just a ploy. They can also advocate for you if rates drop after you've booked your cruise.
5. GO BIG
Large groups—like family reunions at sea—can be complicated to pull together, but they can also knock big bucks off the price of cabins. A group of 16 people in eight cabins, for instance, can sometimes get a steep discount on the 16th fare, or in some cases a free berth. For large groups, booking a year in advance is advised to ensure you get the block of cabins you want.
6. TRY SHOULDER SEASON
You won't save a ton, but sailing when most folks stay home can nab you a modest bargain—maybe 10 percent off typical high-season rates. Here are the best times to find deals in four highly popular cruise regions:
Caribbean. September and October, the non-holiday weeks in December, and early January to Presidents' Day.
Europe. Mid-March and April, September to December
Alaska. May and September
Bermuda. April and October
Having completed its maiden voyage along the French and Italian Riviera last summer, EasyCruiseOne--the orange ship owned by EasyEntrepreneur Stelios Haji-Ioannou--is now sailing among the Caribbean islands of Barbados, St. Vincent, Martinique, Bequia, Grenada, and St. Lucia. Cabins start at $16 a night, and while a typical cruise lasts one week, passengers can book anywhere from 2 to 14 nights (easycruise.com). Don't miss the boat EasyCruise docks by day and sails by night. The ship is supposed to stay in port until midnight. But sometimes it leaves earlier, due to weather; a sign next to the security officer on the boarding deck has the day's return time. There's a half-hour window before the boat pushes off. Ask for deck five or six You choose the class of cabin when you book--there are four--but specific cabins aren't assigned until check-in (it's first come, first served). Decks five and six are tops, mostly because they're farthest from deck three--where people gather late at night at the reception desk in the lobby. Don't forget to bring . . . everything The only products you can count on are liquid soap, sheets, and towels. Here's what there isn't: an alarm clock; Internet access; magazines, books, or newspapers; a radio; or a single phone. Not all cell phones work at sea, either, so it's wise to consider a GSM model. Redecorate as necessary The $16 fare is for double occupancy in a standard cabin: a closet-size room with a shower, toilet, sink, and two single mattresses on the floor. "If you're cruising alone, stack one mattress on top of the other," suggests Sarah Freethy, a TV producer who spent last summer filming the ship's Mediterranean cruise and is now onboard shooting for the Travel Channel. "You'll double the floor space, plus the bottom mattress becomes a box spring." Get to the hot tub early Upon returning each evening, everyone makes a beeline for the Jacuzzi. Problem is, it only seats six. "Board the ship an hour before everyone is supposed to be back," says cruise director Neil Kelly. "You'll get a nice, long soak before the party gets started." Eat onshore Local island food is far better, and cheaper, than the ship's pub fare. A plate of conch fritters at Dawn's Creole, a beach bar in Bequia's Lower Bay, costs only $4 (784/458-3154). Smuggle in alcohol All passengers are told to declare liquor upon boarding. In theory, a security officer takes your booze and returns it when you leave. But they rarely check. So he may not find that 25-ounce bottle of Eclipse rum you bought for $6 at the Mount Gay factory in Barbados (246/425-8757). Create your own excursions All cruise lines, including EasyCruise, charge a lot for excursions anyone can book onshore for less. Consider the ship's Friday Party Night event in Anse La Raye, St. Lucia. The fishing village on the island's west coast hosts a street party, with reggae, lobster, and rum galore. EasyCruise charges $43 to bring passengers there; alternatively, you can take the 3C bus to town for only $2, and eat and drink well for under $10. Don't count on hand-holding Joyce Bentzmen, a marketer from Washington, D.C., read up on which public buses to take on each island instead of taxis. In Martinique, for example, she saved $38. "EasyCruise provides an empty framework," she says. "You have to fill it in yourself."
The Bigger the Boat, the Bigger the Splash
A new fleet of cruise ships hits the water this year, the likes of which have never been seen. When Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas launches in June, it will surpass the Queen Mary 2 as the world's largest passenger ship. A month later, the Costa Concordia will jump to the top of the list in terms of capacity, with 3,780 passengers. But it's not just the size that's impressive. The new boats are loaded to the gills with diversions: Freedom of the Seas has an ice rink, a wave pool, and a regulation-size boxing ring. COSTA CRUISES: COSTA CONCORDIA Launch date: July Passengers: 3,780 Itineraries: 7-, 9-, or 11-night cruises out of Rome with stops in Istanbul, Venice, Barcelona, Alexandria, and Santorini Cool Features: Samsara, a two-level, 20,000-square-foot spa--the largest at sea--with a thalassotherapy pool, in which seawater is used for body wraps. Less relaxing, but more fun: the Formula 1 racing simulator (price to be determined) Something Special: Retractable roofs over the pools on the top deck for when the weather turns chilly Splurge: As on most ships, the best restaurants aren't included in the cabin price. Options include Ristorante Samsara, for lighter fare near the spa (from $23), and fine Italian dining at Club Concordia ($29) ROYAL CARIBBEAN: FREEDOM OF THE SEAS Launch date: June Passengers: 3,634 Itineraries: Seven-night round trips from Miami, with stops in Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Jamaica, and a private beach in Haiti Cool Features: FlowRider, a 40-foot-long wave pool for surfing and body-boarding. The ship also has the largest rock-climbing wall afloat, a boxing ring, an ice rink, and the H2O Zone, a huge water park where passengers can douse each other with water cannons Something Special: Solarium, an adults-only area with whirlpools cantilevered off the top deck for sweeping views of the sea Splurge: Six- and eight-person family rooms come with bathtubs and curtained-off sleeping alcoves with bunk beds HOLLAND AMERICA LINE: NOORDAM Launch date: February Passengers: 1,918 Itineraries: 10- or 11-night round-trip cruises from New York City to Turks and Caicos, St. Thomas, and Barbados from fall through spring, as well as 10-night summer cruises out of Rome to Dubrovnik, Santorini, Monaco, and Barcelona Cool Features: Culinary Arts Center, a state-of-the-art kitchen that'll welcome celebrity chefs and sommeliers for sailings; also, flat-panel TVs and DVD players in all staterooms Something Special: The Loft, a teenagers-only lounge with karaoke, music videos on big-screen TVs, and Internet access Splurge: The Pinnacle Bar sells 60 different wines from around the world, priced from $4.25 to $9.50 a glass PRINCESS CRUISES: CROWN PRINCESS Launch date: June Passengers: 3,080 Itineraries: Seven-, eight-, and nine-night cruises departing from New York City for Bermuda, Jamaica, Antigua, Aruba, St. Kitts, and other warm-water ports Cool Features: International Café, a 24-hour restaurant where the menu changes its theme every few hours: French, Spanish, and so on Something Special: The cruise line's popular Movies Under the Stars program, showing first-run features every night on a 300-square-foot LED screen on the pool deck Splurge: Ultimate Balcony Dinner, a candlelit, five-course meal, including champagne and a choice of lobster, beef tenderloin, or surf and turf as entrées, served on your cabin balcony ($100 per couple) NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE: PRIDE OF HAWAI'I Launch date: April Passengers: 2,376 Itineraries: Weeklong Hawaiian cruises from Honolulu, stopping at Maui, the Big Island, and Kauai Cool Features: Freestyle Dining, with a choice of 10 restaurants, and a recently introduced system of plasma screens throughout the ship that list how long the wait is at each restaurant Something Special: The ship is unusual in that it's registered in the U.S. and therefore doesn't have to touch international waters between port stops. As a result, passengers spend less time out at sea and have more opportunities to explore the islands Splurge: A traditional Hawaiian lomi lomi massage, which was once reserved only for island royalty, at the Mandara Spa ($99 for 50 minutes)
Europe's Dreamiest River Cruises
There's a good reason why we chose European river cruising as the cover story for Budget Travel's March/April 2015 "Dream Trips" issue. A vacation odyssey on one of Europe's great rivers is like cruising in a floating B&B. You'll savor distinctive local cuisine and the fruits of the continent's vineyards, make daily stops for guided tours (or alone time!) in gorgeous, historic cities, and appreciate the warmth and expertise of a crew that loves introducing travelers to some of Europe's most desirable destinations. Ready to get started? SEE THE RIVER CRUISES! DANUBE There's a reason the world's most famous waltz is named for this dazzling river-music and history come alive as you pass through some of Europe's most beautiful towns. Why it's a dream trip: Say the word Danube. Do you hear music? Maybe that's because the river's namesake waltz, Johann Strauss's "On the Beautiful Blue Danube," is as famous as the river itself. Or maybe it's because a cruise on this historic waterway (which stretches more than 1,700 miles from Germany's Black Forest to the Black Sea) can take you to two European music capitals, Vienna and Salzburg, and send your spirits dancing like one of Vienna's stately Lipizzaner horses. You'll drink in Central and Eastern Europe's dramatic landscape and history on one of the many popular Danube cruises. Depending on which cruise you book, stops along the way may include Germany's storybook cities such as Passau and Nuremburg, Budapest, Hungary (with its iconic Castle Hill, Buda Castle, and Chain Bridge), and Austrian locales like Vienna (where you can see the Lipizzaner horses in action, as well as visit the Hapsburg Palace and sample one of the city's irresistible tortes), Melk's 1,000-year-old Benedictine monastery, and the music-mad city of Salzburg (home to Europe's biggest music festival, and where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born and The Sound of Music was filmed). Make it happen: You'll find the Danube on the itineraries of several major river cruise lines, and Viking (vikingrivercruises.com) and Avalon (avalonwaterways.com) make it possible to cruise a portion of the river for a week, making stops for guided tours and day trips, starting from under $2,000 per person. Insider tip: Longer, more ambitious Danube cruises (as well as cruises on other iconic European rivers) are available from Viking and Avalon, as well as from Scenic Cruises (sceniccruises.com) and Emerald Waterways (emeraldwaterways.com) for those who want to see as many of its 1,700-plus miles as they can! RHINE See the real-life forests and castles that inspired fairy tales (not to mention Disney movies) along a river that's been mythologized for centuries. Why it's a dream trip: You can sail from the Netherlands to Switzerland, passing through ancient cities, forests, and castles that transport you to another place in time. When your Rhine cruise starts in Amsterdam, as many do, you can immerse yourself in gorgeous colors (both natural and man-made) with flower-field panoramas and the exceptional art collections at the Rijksmuseum (known for its Rembrandts, Vermeers, and more) and the Van Gogh Museum, each of which has undergone a major renovation in recent years. The Anne Frank House is a touching reminder of Europe's troubled past, and the Oude Kerk is one of the classiest churches you'll see on the continent. Sail along the "middle Rhine," where you can ogle riverside vineyards, the forests that inspired tales such as Hansel and Gretel and Rumpelstiltskin, and mind-blowing castles that teeter on precipices over the water. Spend some time getting to know the castles and cathedrals of smaller German and French cities such as Cologne, Heidelberg, and Strasbourg before arriving in Basel, Switzerland, for a visit to the incredible Fondation Beyeler art collection and day trips to the Alps. Make it happen: The Rhine is a staple of the European river cruise business, and you can find cruises starting from under $2,000 that will take you from Amsterdam to Basel over the course of a week, including guided tours. Insider tip: If you're planning to visit in the spring, ask whether your trip will coincide with Amsterdam's eye-popping Tulip Time. SEINE From the City of Light through Claude Monet's favorite natural setting to the historic beaches of Normandy, a cruise on this river packs an emotional wallop. Why it's a dream trip: Frankly, a cruise on the Seine, typically beginning and ending in Paris, is one way Budget Travelers can stand in solidarity with the people of the city in the wake of this winter's terrorist attacks. Now more than ever, we echo Audrey Hepburn's famous line in Sabrina: "Paris is always a good idea." As seen from the water (whether you're on a multicity river cruise or one of the many local river tours available) the City of Light is perhaps more beautiful than ever, with its many bridges, the peerless façade of Notre Dame beckoning from shore, and of course must-see museums such as the Louvre, Musée d'Orsay, Musée de Cluny, and Musée Picasso, and that well-known tower (once derided as an eyesore!). But wait till you sail out of Paris on your way to Monet's garden at Giverny, where, surrounded by the flowers and botanicals depicted in Monet's paintings (water lilies, anyone?), you'll feel as if you've literally stepped into an Impressionist painting. Spend some time in charming towns such as Rouen (don't miss its half-timbered houses and distinctive astronomical clock!), Conflans, and Les Andelys, and then sail on to the beaches of Normandy on the English Channel, where the largest fleet in history made its historic landing on June 6, 1944, turning the tide of WWII. A stop at the American Cemetery is a moving reminder of the sacrifices made here just over 70 years ago. Make it happen: A Seine cruise, offered by all the major river cruise lines, will often make a round trip, taking you from Paris to Normandy and back (making different stops on the return leg), and a weeklong cruise with guided tours will start at under $2,000. Insider tip: When you're on your own in Paris, you can get closer to some riverside sights by hopping on a local boat tour. Ask your cruise director for recommendations. RHÔNE Visit the South of France's wine country, historic palaces and towns, and the countryside Vincent Van Gogh helped make famous. Why it's a dream trip: A stunning natural setting, inspiring art, and some of the world's finest wines! The walled city of Avignon has been protecting staggeringly beautiful works of art and architecture since the 14th century, when it was home to series of popes. Don't miss the Palais des Papes and the incredible interior of Chapelle St.-Jean. Your boat will then wind its way to Arles, perhaps best known as the site of some of Van Gogh's most famous landscape paintings, but also home to the ultra-contemporary architecture of the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh building and the ultra-ancient (and well-preserved) Roman theater and amphitheater. You'll stop in Lyons, where the meticulously restored old city ("Vieux Lyons") beckons with winding streets, antique shops, tempting charcuterie (cured meats) and selfie-worthy covered passageways known as traboules. Ready to wet your whistle? You'll cruise through wine country, which can include a Burgundy wine tour and tasting before heading back to Avignon. Make it happen: Round-trip cruises on the Rhône out of Avignon are a little pricier than other weeklong river cruises, but you can still pack in several days of guided tours starting from just under $2,000. Insider tip: Instead of loading up on French wine to bring home, have it delivered instead. You'll save yourself a hassle and save the wine from unpredictable temperature changes that can destroy its flavor. ELBE From Berlin's museums and awesome monuments to Prague's architectural wonders, this lesser-known cruise option is a true odyssey across centuries of European history. Why it's a dream trip: Stand in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate and pinch yourself: Once the epicenter of Cold War tensions, the majestic monument now stands as a proud symbol of the new Berlin. The city is welcoming visitors, including families, like never before, with bicycle-friendly streets, cutting-edge cuisine, and many museums, including the Gemaldgalerie am Kulturforum, reward visitors with boastworthy works of art your friends haven't seen yet. On your cruise, you may stop in Potsdam (where Frederick the Great's Sanssouci is said to have been built to rival Versailles) and Dresden (with its amazing Zwinger Palace, which includes a major museum featuring Old Master paintings). Then it's on to Prague, whose beauty and imaginative architecture often surprise the first-time visitor: In fact, many Budget Travelers report back that the city's historic Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, St. Vitus Cathedral, and Old Town Square were their very favorite sights in Europe! Make it happen: Elbe cruises tend to be a little longer and more expensive than those of the better-known European rivers, but a 10-day cruise with guided tours (and bragging rights when you get home!) can be found for around $2,600. Insider tip: You'll see more of Berlin on a bicycle! It's one of the world's most cycle-friendly cities, with wide bike paths that are off-limits to cars and pedestrians.
Hottest New Cruise Ideas
Word on the seas is that cruises are skyrocketing in popularity. The Cruise Lines International Association recently reported that 24 million passengers are expected to set sail in 2016, up from 23 million in 2015. That's the highest number ever recorded. If you've looked into booking a cruise lately, you know that we live in an age of mega ships that consider over-the-top contraptions like rooftop surfing simulators a standard amenity. That would make for an unforgettable memory, to be sure, but if you're seeking a more intimate experience, some cruise lines are banking on going small, with a tight focus on curated activities, excursions to lesser-known ports, and, in some cases, smaller ships. “We’re definitely seeing cruise lines across the board looking to offer more authentic experiences for their guests,” says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of CruiseCritic.com. “I think the big buzzwords in the industry today are ‘immersion’ and ‘experiential’—and that applies to everything from river ships to the larger mega-ships.” Smaller ports are hot right now. Classic cruise stops like Paris and Amsterdam never go out of style, but lesser-known ports—like Cuba—are trending. Starting in May, Carnival's new Fathom cruise line will offer Cultural Exchange cruises to Cuba (from $1,800 for seven days, fathom.org). On Viking Ocean Cruises, the relatively small Viking Star carries a slim 930 people, as opposed to thousands, which allows for access to less-trafficked ports like Dubrovnik, Croatia; Kotor, Montenegro; Kusadasi, Turkey; and Santorini, Greece (from $1,999 for eight days, vikingcruises.com). “What Viking does particularly well is that it offers a tremendous value-for-money experience,” Spencer Brown says. “There’s so much included in the cruise fare—thoughtful inclusions like free shore excursions in every port, free Wi-Fi, and complimentary wine and beer at lunch and dinner.” Experiences for niche interests are popping up on cruise lines. Royal Caribbean, for example, has revamped its shore excursion program, with specialized categories like Culinary Delights, which offers pizza-making classes in Naples, Italy, and Family Connections, a menu of activities including a family kayak trip in Alaska (from $164 for three days, royalcaribbean.com). Want a really unique jaunt? That can be arranged. Viking Cruises CFO Richard Marnell says Viking’s no-fee concierges have hooked passengers up with bespoke outings like helicopter rides through tulip fields in the Netherlands. Tailored excursions cost extra, but Viking itineraries often offer a Local Life experience, like a trip to a local market, gratis. Artisanal fare is flooding cruise ships. Farm-to-table isn’t limited to dry land, Spencer Brown says. “One great example is Princess Cruises’ new partnership with celebrity chef Curtis Stone, who’s known for creating comfort food out of the freshest ingredients, which will be exciting to see executed on Princess’s ships” (from $59 for one day, princess.com). In a month, Holland America’s Koningsdam will launch a farm-to-table dinner menu out of its show kitchen (from $449 for four days, hollandamerica.com), and in the near-4,000-passenger Carnival Vista’s RedFrog Pub will brew its own beer, complete with tastings and brewery tours (from $379 for five days, carnival.com). No matter the cruise company, take advantage of shoulder season. Cruising in November, December, January, and February is an excellent way to save, Marnell says. “Although the weather may not be as warm, you have far fewer crowds in many of the sites that you’re going to visit, so it can actually be a very, very pleasant experience.”