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Frugal tips for your next cruise

Cruise lines report discount prices and record bookings. Here's how to save even more.

By Karen Datko Feb 17, 2011 3:07PM

Cruises are mighty attractive right now as winter-weary people plan a vacation. Cruise lines are reporting record-breaking bookings, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that newest ships dwarf the RMS Titanic.

Carnival Cruise Lines booked 165,308 reservations the week of Feb. 7-13, setting a record, USA Today reports. Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. also enjoyed a record week.

 

Heavy advertising and free upgrades are part of what's driving this. Mix in optimism about the economy and a cabin fever pandemic, and vacationers are ready to set sail.

 

Plus, the room and board can be quite fancy. Eileen Ogintz described a meal at Remy aboard the new megaship Disney Dream:

Dinner stretches for more than three hours -- lobster with vanilla bisque, Australian Wagyu, a tomato tart, fish, the best gnocchi I've ever tasted ... cheeses we can't stop eating ... Did I mention that our table for six is the only one in this private wine room with 900 bottles or that the young French-trained sommelier has pre-selected our wines to complement the dishes?

That's for $75 extra a person -- not including the wine. Even better: No kids allowed.

 

How do you get the best deals at sea? Here are some tips we found, covering everything from the right time to book to how to smuggle booze on board, apparently a hot topic among the cruise ship crowd.Post continues after video.

When to buy

Cruise lines are offering great discounts right now, such as Norwegian Cruise Line's Freestyle Dash, which ends Friday, Feb. 18, and complements the Free Upgrades For All promotion. This story by The New York Times identifies several current deals and explains how to find others. (Or maybe you'll luck out and find a deep, deep discount akin to Delta's offer of $138 round-trip flights to Europe -- a short-lived price so low that many speculated it was a mistake.)

 

You also should be mindful of the time of year you plan to embark. Tom Parsons, CEO of Bestfares.com, says:

If you plan to cruise in late August, September or October, don't buy too early. Once the spring cruise season winds down, we usually see great deals for late-summer and fall cruises right after Memorial Day. We see extras added on, such as free upgrades and onboard credits, and prices often drop, too.

Website Cayole.com analyzes seven months of pricing history to predict if the cost of a cruise will go up in the "near to medium term," Sean O'Neill at Newsweek reports. Note: You have to click on a cruise to see the prediction. (Bing Travel makes similar predictions for airfares.)

 

O'Neill wrote:

It's also worth noting that specialized travel agents still have access to more inventory and discounts for cruises than any website. That said, more and more online tools are empowering consumers to make savvier decisions.

Other tips to get fare discounts:

  • Take a "repositioning" cruise. Prices drop when cruise lines are moving their ships at the end of the season, and discounts on cabin upgrades are remarkable, Parsons says.
  • Wait for special deals. Discounts are offered several times a year for those who have served in the military, Parsons says. There are also senior discounts and price breaks for those who live near home ports.
  • Book on an older ship, the NYT advises. However, if you want luxury, there are great deals to be had on the top-of-the-line vessels too.
  • Sail for free. Cruise lines offer free passage to experts who offer presentations on all sorts of topics -- from glaciers to bridge, says an article from Kiplinger's, which offers some links to get those "jobs." Or you could be a "gentleman host," dancing with the single ladies. (No romancing allowed.) Note: Beware of timeshare pitches masquerading as "free" cruises.   

After you've set sail

"2million" at 2million's Personal Finance Blog wrote several posts about how he cut costs on the Carnival ship Fantasy from Charleston, S.C., to the Bahamas. The Wisdom Journal's Ron Haynes detailed how he saved plenty on a Princess trip to Alaska in "30 ways to save money on a cruise" -- one of the best posts we've read on the topic.

 

Both bloggers give tips specific to the cruise they took as well as general suggestions. Among them:

  • Arrange shore excursions yourself, rather than taking the pricey tours booked through the ship. But come back to the ship for lunch, unless the port of call has a fabulous restaurant. 
  • Ask the cost before you sign up for anything, Ron says. "Would you like to sign up for the wine tasting? That will be $25 each."
  • Don't connect to the Internet. Both Ron and 2million say you'll pay a ridiculous price.
  • Go minimalist with your cabin choice. Please tell me you don't plan to spend much time in your room.

Alcohol on a cruise ship is usually an extra (some lines allow each person to bring wine and beer for in-cabin consumption) and sneaking your poison of choice on board is a major topic, says "T.I. Cruiser" of The Intelligent Cruiser blog.

 

And no wonder: T.I. says, "Order a couple of daily specials at the pool, a bottle of wine with dinner, and a cocktail in the evening and it's pretty easy for a couple to spend a hundred dollars per day (or more) on drinks alone."

 

In another post, he describes how he put three smuggling methods to the test:

  • Rum Runner Cruise Kit: He stashed the refillable plastic bags in his suitcase. Success.
  • Boxes -- the kind mixed drinks and wine are sold in: Again, stashed in a suitcase. Again, success.
  • Carry-on from the duty-free store: The results of this test were inconclusive.

What happens if you get caught with unauthorized alcohol? You don't have to walk the plank, but your stash will be confiscated. Some cruise lines do reserve the right to kick you off at the next port of call. (Alcohol policies of cruise lines vary widely, so if this is important to you, make sure you check first.) Your smuggled booze may be returned to you at the end of trip, but a frugal person would only attempt to smuggle beverages in the mid-price range.

 

Cruise ship veterans, do you have any other tips on how to cut costs?

 

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