By Cameron Huddleston, Columnist
About 24 million people are expected to take a cruise in 2016, according to Cruise Lines International Association. One of the big draws of this type of travel is that it's considered to be a better value because meals, accommodations and entertainment on the ships is included in the price, according to CLIA.
However, that doesn't mean cruising is inexpensive. Cruisers surveyed by CLIA reported that they spent an average of $2,200 per person on their last cruise -- with a little more than $500 of that amount going toward airfare. Cruises can range dramatically in price, though.
Some cruises cost only a couple hundred dollars, whereas others can cost $20,000 or more. If you want to get the best deal on a cruise, it pays to know the dos and don'ts of cruising. Here are 30 important travel tips from cruise insiders to help ensure you save money when you set sail.
1. Book Far in Advance
One of the best ways to save money on a cruise is to book nine to 18 months before a sailing, said Colleen McDaniel, managing editor of CruiseCritic.com. "Booking in advance can allow you to not only secure a lower introductory fare, but it also can also offer some significant add-on savings, like onboard credit, beverage packages or included gratuity -- all of which could save hundreds of dollars," she said.
2. Book at the Last Minute
You also can find good deals on cruises by waiting until within three months of the departure date. "The majority of companies will slash pricing at the last minute in order to fill the boat," said Greg Geronemus, co-CEO of smarTours, a group vacation tour company.
Expect discounts of as much as 50 percent. Be aware, though, that you'll have a limited selection of cabins from which to choose because the preferred cabins will likely have been sold, McDaniel said.
3. Be Flexible With Dates
You can save a lot of money by being flexible with the dates you cruise. For the same cruise, there can be a several hundred dollar difference in price, even from one week to the next, said cruise expert Stewart Chiron of CruiseGuy.com.
"Look at the week before and after your desired travel dates," he said. "It can save significant money."
4. Use a Travel Agent
You should research cruise options online, but you're more likely to get the best deal by using a travel agency that specializes in cruises to book your trip. "Travel agents constantly have their fingers on the pulse of the cruise industry," said Rob Stuart, author of "Just Add Water: Your Guide to the Ultimate Cruise Vacation" and host of All Aboard TV.
Not only do they know the industry inside and out, they can buy in bulk to get better pricing, Geronemus said. Using an agent can save up to a couple hundred dollars for a couple, he said. And there's no extra charge to the consumer for using an agent.
5. Take Advantage of Wave Season
The period from January through March is known as wave season, and McDaniel said it is the cruise lines' equivalent of Black Friday -- the day after Thanksgiving known for big retail sales. Cruise lines and travel agents offer significant fare discounts for cruises booked during these months, she said. They also offer perks, such as free alcoholic drink packages, that can save cruisers money, Stuart said.
6. Get a Black Friday Deal
Several cruise lines have offered true Black Friday deals the day after Thanksgiving over the past few years, McDaniel said. "In some cases, cruises are deeply discounted, and, of course, bundled with enticing add-ons," she said.
7. Cruise in the Low Season
You can save 20 percent to 30 percent on the price of a cruise by sailing when demand is lower, in what's considered the shoulder season, Geronemus said. This is the season right before or after the peak travel season, when fewer people are traveling and the weather might be a little cooler.
Most shoulder seasons are in the spring or fall. For example, you can sail in Europe and Asia for less in April and October, Geronemus said. And shoulder season for Alaskan cruises is in May and September, McDaniel said.
8. Avoid Cruising on Holidays
Fares tend to be highest for cruises during the holidays when demand is highest. "If you can avoid the times when everyone is traveling, you're going to save a lot of money," Geronemus said. Not only are cruise fares higher during the major holidays and long weekends, but so are underlying parts of a trip, such as airfare, he said.
9. Cruise Between Thanksgiving and Christmas
If you can schedule a cruise to the Caribbean between two of the biggest holidays of the year, you might get a good deal, Stuart said. Make sure you don't book a cruise too close to Christmas, though, because the fares will be higher. For example, when Stuart checked fares for a seven-night Caribbean cruise on the Norwegian Getaway, he found the price was $899 per person for the week of Dec. 11, but $1,249 for the week of Dec. 18.
10. Gamble on a Guarantee Cabin
You can book a specific cabin on a cruise to ensure a certain spot on a cruise ship. Or you can save money by booking a category of cabin. The guarantee, as it is called, ensures you'll get a certain type of cabin -- such as a cabin with a balcony -- and the possibility of an upgrade, Chiron said.
It doesn't guarantee a location on a ship, so you could end up in a noisy part of the ship. But booking a guarantee cabin can save up to $1,000 per person, Chiron said.
11. Don't Assume the Single Cabin Costs Less
People who travel single often feel like they're taking a hit when they cruise because cabins are priced on double occupancy, Chiron said. So they might opt for a cruise line that offers cabins for singles.
However, these cabins tend to be smaller, and sometimes a regular cabin that's larger can cost less for a single traveler, Chiron said. So take the time to compare your options.
12. Take a Short Cruise
"For travelers looking for a budget-friendly getaway, weekend cruises are a great way to get away without spending too much money," McDaniel said. Often you can take a three- to four-day cruise to the Bahamas for a couple hundred dollars, which is cheaper than the cost of airfare and hotel, she said.
13. Avoid the Lure of New Cruise Ships
Cruise lines regularly introduce new ships, but you should avoid the lure of these vessels if you want to save money. New ships have a heftier price tags than older ships in each line's fleet, McDaniel said.
You won't have to sacrifice much for the lower price, though. "Older ships are often a bit smaller than newer megaships, and don't generally have all of the bells and whistles of ships just hitting the market, but still offer a fantastic vacation option at a lower price point," she said.
14. Keep an Eye Out for Refurbished Cruise Ships
If you want the bells and whistles of a new ship but not the high price, look for a cruise on a ship that's been renovated. "Cruise lines are frequently investing significant amounts of money to keep their older ships up-to-date on newer features and amenities, and you can benefit from those upgrades," McDaniel said. You can find a list of refurbished cruise ships at CruiseCritic.com.
15. Don't Assume the Cheapest Cruise Is the Best Deal
A lot of people choose a cruise based on the fare alone, Stuart said. But they don't bother to look at what's included in the fare and what amenities the ship offers.
Although meals typically are included in the base fare, other things such as alcoholic beverages, WiFi and shore excursions might not be. If you have to pay extra for many things that you'll want to take advantage of on a ship, you might come out ahead if you book a cruise with a higher fare that includes more amenities.
16. Consider a Luxury Line
The more upscale the cruise line, the more things that are included in the fare, Stuart said. Of course, you'll pay more for that luxury. But don't assume it's more expensive than taking advantage of a la carte options on other cruise lines.
If you want a luxury cruise experience on a ship that isn't top of the line, you'll pay extra to dine in the specialty restaurants, stay in a suite and visit the spa. Add up those costs, and you could end up paying the same for a cruise on an all-inclusive luxury line such as Regents Seven Seas that also includes airfare, shore excursions and transfers between the ship and airport. "A lot of times people don't know how much more they can get for their money," Stuart said.
17. Take a Repositioning Cruise
Because ships can't cruise year-round in certain places, such as Alaska, the cruise lines move their fleets at certain times. You can take advantage of this repositioning to get a 10- to 14-day cruise for the price of a seven-day cruise or less, Stuart said.
Theses cruises don't have many port stops, so it's only ideal for people who are most interested in the cruise itself, rather than visiting several spots in one trip. "If the idea of a cruise is relaxing days on the ocean, the repositioning cruise is the way to go," Stuart said.
18. Watch Out for Onboard Fees
You need to know what's not included with your fare and what you'll be charged extra for -- such as alcoholic beverages, shore excursions and even gratuities for ship staff. You need to consider these costs when shopping for a cruise to make an apples-to-apples comparison.
You also have to watch out once you're onboard because you might be charged for things that you think are free. Or you could quickly rack up charges because a cruise is a cashless society -- everything is automatically charged to a credit card you provide at the beginning of the trip, Stuart said. He said he knows people who have paid more to get off a ship than to get on.
19. Reserve Extras in Advance
To avoid going over budget onboard, McDaniel recommended reserving the added amenities you want in advance. "Book your alternative restaurants, shore excursions and anything else you know you want to experience prior to boarding," she said. "That way, you won't be caught off guard by added costs, and you can focus more on enjoying your trip, instead of keeping close tabs on your onboard spending account."
20. Don't Be Blinded by Add-Ons
You don't want to end up spending more than you expected on a cruise because you have to pay extra for a lot of amenities that aren't included in the base fare. But at the same time, you shouldn't let special add-ons, such as ship credits and free internet, make a high-priced cruise look like a good deal.
"A lot of times, cruise lines use those offers to deflect attention from higher prices," Chiron said. "Don't let those amenities distract you from the bottom line."
21. Cut the Costs of Excursions
Often you'll pay extra to take shore excursions organized by the cruise line. The cheapest way to enjoy the cities where the ship stops is to explore on your own by walking or taking public transportation, Stuart said.
You might be able to replicate the cruise excursion for a lower price, or with fewer people, through a tour group, such as ShoreTrips.com, Stuart said. Compare prices to see if you can get a better deal -- or better excursion -- with a tour group.
22. Skip the Bells and Whistles on a River Cruise
There are a lot of extremely high-priced river cruise packages out there, Geronemus said. Often, though, you can find companies providing similar cruises for a lower price because they sail slightly older ships with fewer amenities. The difference can be thousands of dollars, he said.
Plus, the point of a river cruise is to see the sights at the ports. It's not worth it to pay a premium for amenities on a ship you won't be spending a lot of time on, he said.
23. Save on Airfare With a Package Deal
If you're booking a cruise through a travel agency, you might be able to save money on airfare if you get a package deal. The cost of your flight could be less if the company gets preferential pricing with the airlines, Geronemus said. Take the time, though, to price airfare on your own to the port where your ship departs to make sure you're getting a deal, McDaniel said.
24. Be Skeptical of Free Airfare Offers
If a cruise line has a special promotion that includes free airfare with a cruise, you might not actually be getting a good deal if it's not an all-inclusive line that typically offers flights as part of the cruise package. "That would be a red flag for me," Geronemus said. Typically, these sort of offers are a sign that the company is overcharging on the cruise, he said.
25. Weigh the Extra Costs of a One-Way Cruise
Be aware that if you take a one-way cruise, such as a river cruise or repositioning cruise, your airfare could cost more because you can't book a round-trip flight. "Be sure to take those potential costs into account when budgeting and comparing options," McDaniel said.
26. Book a Cruise Onboard for Discounts
You can save money by booking a cruise while cruising because several cruise lines offer perks for onboard bookings, according to CruiseCritic.com. For example, you might be able to get reduced deposits, onboard credit to cover the cost of items that aren't part of the cruise fare or a discount on your fare.
27. Sign Up for Email Deal Alerts
To get notices of cruise fare sales or special offers, Stuart recommended signing up for email alerts from cruise lines and travel sites. You can sign up for free weekly email newsletters with deals from sites such as CruiseCritic.com and CruiseGuy.com.
28. Check Twitter for Deals
Cruise travel agencies such as Cruise.com and CruiseDeals.com, as well as the cruise lines themselves, tweet about cruise deals, according to CruiseCritic.com. You can use Twitter's list function to create a list to monitor deals.
29. Beware the Brochure Rate
If you get brochures from cruise lines, it might seem like they're offering you a special deal. But those brochure rates typically aren't accurate -- and they aren't deals, according to CruiseCritic.com.
Plus, if you see an offer for a discount of the brochure rate, be aware that the brochure rate is often inflated. "Brochure rates are printed way in advance, and the actual rates are usually lower," Stuart said. "It's easy to change a rate on a website, as opposed to printing all new brochures."
30. Pay Over Time Interest-Free
You'll have to pay a deposit when you book a cruise, then pay the rest by a certain date -- typically 60 to 75 days prior to sailing, Stuart said. If you book through a travel agent, you typically have the added benefit of making interest-free installment payments, he said.
This can be a good way to spread out the hit on your budget. It can also help you avoid the interest fees you would incur if you charged it on a credit card and paid it off over time instead.
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