Navigating a value-for-money cruise deal can be tricky. Here, we reveal top tips from the experts on how you can take to the waves without going overboard on costs.
While cruise brochures are full of price reductions, cabin upgrades and drinks packages, many itineraries contain exclusions and extras that first-time cruisers may not budget for. But if you know the tricks of the trade – from when to book to how to get a cheap cabin – you can save hundreds of pounds on the trip of a lifetime.
When to book
‘Wave season’ is the cruise industry’s sales period and runs from January to March each year. Alternatively, some cruise lines such as Celebrity, Holland America, Princess and Royal Caribbean also run ‘choose-your-own-bonus sales’ at regular intervals.
Niamh Walsh, senior editor at travel search company Holiday Pirates, says the best time to book a cruise is either really far ahead or as last minute as possible.
“Unlike air fares, cruises go on sale many years in advance. For example, you can currently book Norwegian Cruise Line cruises as far ahead as May 2022. For popular cruises, the best value is when they just launch and when there is most availability,” she says. “For less popular cruises, prices normally drop the closer to the sailing date it gets. An empty cabin makes no money for the cruise line.”
Hardly anyone pays the brochure price for a cruise. When you’ve found an itinerary you like, approach different travel agents for a price. Don’t be afraid to haggle or ask for extras such as a credit to your on-board account or a drinks package to be thrown in.
If you’re not too fussy about where you go, it is worth checking for discounts on websites such as Groupon and Wowcher.
Alexis Harrison, head of marketing at Wowcher, says: “We work closely with our travel partners to bring discounted cruises to our customer base, from Mumbai to the Caribbean. As we have seen the popularity of these types of holidays increase in the past couple of years, we’re always seeking out exclusive partnerships to bring new offers to our subscribers – and with an average of 20% to 30% off the direct price, this can save customers hundreds of pounds.”
Don’t be afraid to haggle and ask for extras to be included
Check what’s included
It is vital to understand what is included before you book a cruise. Some headline prices just cover the cost of accommodation on the ship, while other deals include airfares to ports, hotel nights, transfers and shore excursions.
Most cruises include food, but you might have to pay extra for ‘speciality’ restaurants or formal dinners. Some cruises include free alcohol and soft drinks, while others do not. Access to swimming pools and gyms will generally be included but babysitting, spa treatments, wi-fi, and laundry usually won’t be.
If you like a tipple, then one way to save money is to pre-book a drinks package. These packages can be bought on board too – but at a higher price.
A drinks package offers unlimited or a pre-set number of drinks each day for a daily rate. But watch the small print before you sign up. Typical terms includes a ban on sharing drinks packages and a requirement to buy the same package for both every day of your cruise (so not just for a couple of ‘big’ nights) and for everyone in your cabin.
Ian Crawford, cruise specialist at CruiseDeals.co.uk, says his biggest tip for saving money is to book a ‘repositioning’ cruise, when ships are moving from summer to winter destinations (or vice versa) as you’ll get to enjoy two destinations for a knock-down price.
“For example, Transatlantic Homecoming sees Marella Explorer return from the Caribbean to the UK with a 19-night cruise from Barbados to Southampton. The journey starts with six stops at Caribbean islands before more than a week at sea, which is only interrupted with two stops in the Azores. The ship then travels along the French coast to Belgium and crosses the sea to England’s south coast.
“This cruise departs on 28 April 2019 and costs £1,635 per person, saving a massive £722 per person – that’s less than £90 a night and includes flights, all meals, some drinks and tips,” he explains.
“Cruise firms are quite open to bartering”
Steve Bowles, 64, and his wife Sue, 64, from Essex, were interested in a specific Celebrity Cruises’ voyage around Europe for themselves and three other couples.
“We went to the Cruise Show (held in London and Birmingham) and talked to Celebrity Cruises about specific cabins and what our requirements were, and it worked out what its best deal was,” says Steve. “When we went for lunch, I phoned three online cruise companies we’ve used before – Cruise Club, Planet Cruise and Iglu Cruise – and asked for their best deals.
“Planet Cruise matched the price but gave us extra spending money of $100 to $150 (£80 to £120) per cabin and threw in 12 bottles of wine purely because we were booking four cabins at the same time. I played them off each other. They also added a basic drinks package, so the saving came to about £250 per cabin– that was off the Celebrity Cruises’ price at the show, which was already discounted. Cruise firms are quite open to bartering, especially if you are booking more than one cabin.”
The 10-day trip with Celebrity Cruises started in Rome and visited Portugal, Spain and several Greek Islands. It was Steve and Sue’s eighth cruise and on other occasions they have phoned three online cruise companies to ask for their best price.
“They will normally throw in some on-board spend. The nearer the time to the cruise, the better the deals if they have spare cabins,” adds Steve.
Bag a bargain cabin
The cheapest cabins on a cruise ship are ‘inside’ cabins. These generally don’t have windows and will be on the small side. ‘Ocean view’ cabins are the next cheapest and have windows looking out to sea. The most expensive options are ‘balcony’ cabins with a veranda, as well as suites.
“The absolute cheapest cabins are often guarantee fares. This means that you pay the lowest price available for an inside stateroom and are guaranteed a cabin somewhere on the ship,” says Asam Coulter, UK managing editor at comparison site Cruise Critic.
“You don’t get to pick which specific cabin number you prefer or which deck. It’s certainly a gamble – and you might get stuck with an unusual room that’s smaller than most rooms or with an awkward layout. On the other hand, you might get lucky and be upgraded to a room with a window.”
Solo cruisers have traditionally been charged extortionate single supplements, but times are changing and there are now more options for people travelling alone. Norwegian Cruise Lines, Saga and Cunard all have single cabins on some ships.
Tipping is typical
Tipping on cruise ships is a controversial issue and established systems may come as a surprise to tip-shy Brits.
On most cruise lines, tips are either paid upfront or a daily gratuity is automatically billed to your on-board account. So you’ll inadvertently be tipping the chef, whether or not you come down with food poisoning. Royal Caribbean International, for example, levies a service charge of between $14.50 and $17.50 (£11.50 and £14.50) per guest per day.
But tips aren’t compulsory: you can have them removed or reduced – just visit guest services during your voyage.
Check your travel insurance
Unfortunately, not all cruises are plain sailing. Just like on other types of holiday, things can go wrong. Travel insurance is vital – but cruises are not necessarily covered on standard single-trip or annual policies.
Matt Sanders, spokesperson for GoCompare travel insurance, says: “Look at getting a policy that’s tailored towards being on a ship and covers all the destinations on your itinerary, even if you’re only leaving the ship for a few hours. Cabin confinement cover, missed port cover, unused excursions and emergency airlift to hospital cover are all essential if you are embarking on a cruise.
“As always, make sure you read policy documents carefully to familiarise yourself with any exclusions and conditions. For example, if you’ve independently booked an onshore excursion and you’re late returning to the ship and it sails without you, your insurance may not cover you.”
“We got an upgrade – perks included a private bar”
Tom Collins, 34, his wife Sarah, 35, and their two children aged three and five, took a seven-day cruise on MSC Seaside in February 2018.
The ship set sail from Miami, visiting the Bahamas, Charlotte Amalie in the British Virgin Islands, St John’s in Antigua, then back to Miami.
Tom says: “We got a good deal by opting for a ‘grand suite’ rather than two rooms. It had a separate bedroom for us and the kids slept on a big pull-out sofa bed. It was at the front of the boat and had a big balcony. Effectively, we got an upgrade which entitled us to certain perks such as a private bar.”
The Collins family paid £3,400 for their cruise and spent a total of £5,000 once all extras were added. Flights to Miami weren’t included in the cruise fare, but Tom had Avios points which reduced the cost.
“There were kids’ club activities all day and childcare from 9am to 10pm, which was all included. We didn’t opt for drinks packages as it would have been about £600 and you’d have to drink a lot to get value from that. The excursions were all quite expensive so we just explored on our own,” says Tom, “One thing we didn’t know about was a service charge of about £40 a day billed to our room. However, I ended up getting that waived after my prescription sunglasses were damaged when they were dropped going through security when we were getting back on the boat after going onshore.”
Emma Lunn is a personal finance journalist who writes for the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Mirror and Thisismoney.co.uk