There are two questions I get asked more than all others combined: “Where do you get your hair done?” and “How can you afford to cruise so often?”
That first question is 100% a lie (just seeing if anyone was actually reading this). I’ve never once been asked about my hair in a non-disparaging way, but I’ll answer it anyway, because it’s related to the second question.
I hack it off myself.
I’ve been cutting my own hair for years, long before it became cool (or necessary) during the Covid pandemic. I hack off my kid’s hair too. And my dog’s. And I’d hack off my husband’s if he didn’t feel it necessary to defend himself with a fireplace poker at the mere suggestion.
And that brings us to the second question: “How can you afford to cruise so often?”
Before retiring from my job as a college professor to become a full-time cruiser, I gained a bit of a reputation around campus as a scavenger. I’d show up at any event offering free food, load up a plate higher than someone hanging out under the bleachers with Willie Nelson and Snoop Dog, stick around after the event until everyone cleared out, then pack up enough leftovers to feed my family for the rest of the week. Occasionally I’d have to miss an event and my colleagues or students would leave a “to go” container outside my office door stuffed with cold pasta bake and sauce-soaked garlic bread.
It’s no surprise that my thrifty (cheap) ways carried over to my current career as a Professor of Cruising. And now, after many years of cruising on dozens and dozens of ships and itineraries on nearly every non-luxury line, I’ve mastered how to maximize my cruise experience for the least amount of money. While I also have lots of tips on how to save money onboard your cruise, this post is dedicated to finding cheap cruise fares.
The tips I offer are all ones I use myself, tips the cruise lines would prefer you didn’t know, because their number one goal, above all else, is to squeeze every possible penny from every passenger from as many different revenue streams as possible. Which brings me to my first tip, a tip that encompasses all the others:
Tip 1 for Finding a Cheap Cruise: Be a savvy consumer
I’d actually take this a step further and suggest you be a skeptical consumer. Use the same basic principles for cruise spending you would for any other significant purchase:
- Shop around
- Ask questions
- Be disciplined
- Don’t be susceptible to advertising, gimmicks, or high-pressure sales tactics
Let’s talk more about shopping around.
Tip 2 for Finding a Cheap Cruise: Price shop
I’ve learned that the easiest way to do this is by using a website run by the online travel agency:
I have no relationship with this company and have only booked a few cruises through them, but I love their website for price shopping. By way of an example, I’m currently looking at cruises from Seattle for the first two weeks in May 2024. I entered these search terms into the user friendly search boxes and got this:
Their clean, simple format makes it quick and easy to scan for the lowest price. The “fancy” layouts of most other cruise websites make this process very difficult. Once I find the price I like, I’ll book through one of my preferred travel agencies (more on that later). Note that you will have to enter an e-mail address to use Vacations To Go, but I opted out of marketing e-mails from them and have never received any spam.
Tip 3 for Finding a Cheap Cruise: Don’t remain loyal to one cruise line
You probably know people who proudly declare they are “Loyal to Royal” or another cruise line. You yourself might have a preference for one line or may feel locked into a particular line because of your status in their loyalty program. I get it – I have a very high loyalty status on several lines and definitely enjoy the perks. But if you’re going for value, it can pay off in a huge way to be more flexible with which line you sail. I would never pay a significantly higher cruise fare to take advantage of perks that really aren’t worth very much. Plus you might find out there are other lines you really love (I’ve sailed them all and love specific things about all of them). I wrote a whole article about this topic here:
Tip 4 for Finding a Cheap Cruise: Look for pricing under $100 per person per day
At anything above that, cruising loses its value for me. That doesn’t mean you should never cruise at a price above that, it just means that it may not be a “value” vacation. If you’re looking primarily for value, a land-based vacation may make more sense. This price may seem impossibly low, but I’ve sailed on all the major lines for under (often significantly under) $100 per person per day (not including port charges, fees, taxes, or gratuities – we’ll talk about that later): Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Princess, Carnival, Holland America, and Norwegian.
Tip 5 for Finding a Cheap Cruise: Cruise during the off-season
The absolute best way to save money on cruising is to sail during the off-season. I’ve found the best deals to warm weather destinations are in early December (before the Christmas break for students) and in January (after the new year) and early February (before spring breaks start). For Alaska, you’ll find the best prices early in the season (April and May) or late in the season (September and October).
You’ll also have the added bonus of fewer kids onboard if you prefer a more serene experience.
Tip 6 for Finding a Cheap Cruise: Don’t book directly with the cruise line
Cruise prices are the same (with very few exceptions) regardless of where you book. You’ll pay the same basic cruise fare whether you book directly though the cruise line or through an online or local travel agency. However, booking with an online or local travel agency will offer perks the cruise lines can’t match, usually onboard credit or other perks (bottles of wine, excursion credit, free cabin upgrade, etc). Occasionally travel agents will also have access to group rates for specific sailings that can also reduce your fare. Shop around for the best incentives!
Do note that if you book though a travel agency (online or local), all communication will need to go through them. Meaning if you want to ask about a price drop, you’ll need to call your travel agency and they will contact the cruise line on your behalf. This can be a bit inconvenient at times, but I’ve found it’s worth it.
In terms of where I book, I usually check these for sites and and my local travel agent and go with the one offering the best incentives:
Tip 7 for Finding a Cheap Cruise: Watch prices after you book
Even after you find a price you like and book your cruise, continue to watch the price for your specific sailing and cabin category (more on that later). If you notice the price has dropped, immediately get on the phone with the travel agency or cruise line you booked through.
Under certain conditions (for example Carnival’s Early Saver program – more on that later too) a line will honor price drops and either refund you the difference or issue onboard credit. If they don’t (especially after your final payment due date), they will often upgrade you to a better cabin or offer a smaller amount of onboard credit. This doesn’t always happen, but I’ve found that it can’t hurt to ask and 9 times out of 10 I’ve received some sort of concession.
Tip 8 for Finding a Cheap Cruise: Book the cheapest cabin category
In other words, book an inside cabin on a low floor all the way at the front or back of the ship. Or, even better, book a guarantee (meaning the cruise line selects the specific cabin for you) inside cabin (more on that in a second). Some people can’t imagine sailing in an inside cabin (meaning it has no window or balcony), but I love them. I never sleep better than in an inside cruise cabin (they get super dark and it’s like curling up in a cozy den as you get rocked to sleep at night – very womb-like) and there are so many lovely public outdoor deck areas to enjoy on every ship.
I’ve sailed in oceanview and balcony cabins plenty of times too, but normally I don’t find the “retail” price difference worth it (of course, many do. Your call on that one).
Tip 9 for Finding a Cheap Cruise: Bid for an upgrade
Note above that I said “retail” price of an oceanview or balcony cabin. Many cruise lines will offer passengers the option to “bid” on a cabin upgrade. I’ve had great success with this on a number of occasions (in fact most of the times I’ve sailed in non-inside cabins have been the result of successful lowball bids), but there are some things to keep in mind.
First, this will not be a viable option if your cruise sells out – there simply won’t be any cabins to bid on. Second, there is no magic formula when it comes to how much you should bid. The cruise lines will always take the highest bids to fill any empty cabins and you’ll have no way of knowing what the highest bids are. However, it can be helpful to do a mock booking for any categories that you want to bid on to see how those cabins are selling. If there are still a ton of cabins available as your sail date nears, your chances of winning a bid will be higher (although cruise lines drop prices significantly in those cases and most cruises these days do sell out as a result) Third, some people end up spending more through bidding on a cabin upgrade than they would by just watching prices as the sail date approaches and calling to upgrade at the going rate. Always watch prices!
Tip 10 for Finding a Cheap Cruise: Book a guarantee cabin
This means the cruise line selects the specific cabin for you (at any point prior to sailing – sometimes pretty far out, but sometimes even the day of sailing). Some may find this too risky, but I’ve always had a positive experience with it. I’ve never ended up with a cabin I’ve hated and several times I’ve ended up with awesome free upgrades (I’ve even booked a guarantee inside and ended up in a balcony). Of course, I offer no “guarantees” except that you will be assigned a cabin in the category you booked or higher.
I wrote a whole blog post on guarantee cabins here if you want to learn more.
Tip 11 for Finding a Cheap Cruise: Don’t book an unusual cabin category
While those aft facing balcony cabins (and other “rare” and in-demand cabin types) are awesome, they’re not a good idea from a value perspective. Because of supply and demand, they will be priced high to start with. And because they are rare and likely to be booked up fast, you won’t be eligible for price drops. The more cabins that exist in your specific cabin category, the more likely it is you will benefit from a price drop. If cruise lines have a bunch of a certain category type left as sailing nears, they will often drop the price significantly. And that’s when you call and ask for a price adjustment, cabin upgrade, or other concession (or just cancel and re-book if it’s within the window where you are able to do that without losing a deposit).
Tip 12 for Finding a Cheap Cruise: Book “Early Saver” on Carnival
I’m trying not to be too line-specific with these tips (because remember what I said about not being loyal to any particular line), but I’m going to make one exception. Carnival is one cruise line where it pays to book early if you book under the “Early Saver” promotion. If you’re committed to Carnival and are able to plan pretty far in advance, I’d strongly suggest you book the “Early Saver” fare. All the details can be found here, but the lowdown is that this fare offers price protection up to 2 days before sailing as long as you book out a certain number of days in advance of your sailing.
Tip 13 for Finding a Cheap Cruise: Look for repositioning cruises or those with odd itineraries
One of my proudest cruise deals was a 16-day full-transit Panama Canal cruise for $76 per person per day (that doesn’t include port charges, fees, taxes, or gratuities). It was a repositioning cruise, moving the ship from Florida where it sails from during the winter months to Seattle where it would spend the spring and summer sailing to Alaska.
You can often find great prices on these repositioning cruises or cruises with odd itineraries (for example, those with an unusually large number of sea days – usually transatlantic or transpacific cruises).
Very short 1-3 day cruises can sometimes also be a great value, especially if you want to experience a different cruise line or ship before booking a longer (more expensive) itinerary. I have a whole post on them here if you want to learn more.
Tip 14 for Finding a Cheap Cruise: Remember to factor in port charges, fees, taxes, and automatic gratuities
Throughout this post you’ll notice that I’ve talked about the base cruise fare and in parentheses I’ve clarified that the fare does not include port charges, fees, taxes, and gratuities. If you’re on a budget, be sure to factor in these extra charges. The best way to do that is to do a mock booking to see exactly how much they will be. On the Panama Canal cruise I mentioned above, the port charges, fees, taxes, and gratuities added up to an additional $1441.20 for two people. Port charges can be wildly different depending on itinerary, so always look them up in advance of committing yourself to a particular sailing.
Tip 15 for Finding a Cheap Cruise: Consider purchasing flights, hotels, and transfers through your cruise line
Normally I would advise against purchasing flights, hotels, and transfers through the cruise line. You’ll often pay more or get stuck with something less than ideal (a red-eye flight for example or many connections). However, sometimes from a cost saving perspective it actually does pay to book a “bundle” that includes airfare, hotels, transfers, etc. If you’re flying to the departure port, compare the cost of cruise line airfare with what you’d pay booking flights and transfers to and from the airport (and maybe a pre or post cruise hotel) on your own. Sometimes cruise lines will offer “free air” or “two-for-one” air that can save you significant money. I was able to save over $1000 on an upcoming cruise embarking in Buenos Aires by taking advantage of a two-for-one airfare promotion. Mind you, the flights are ROUGH, with multiple connections and many hours spent waiting in airports, but for me it was worth the significant savings.
On our last cruise to Hawaii, it actually ended up costing less for us to book a package through NCL that included a balcony cabin, airfare to and from Honolulu, transfers to and from the ship, and the gratuities on a “free” drink package than it would have to book an inside guarantee cabin (with no “free” beverage package included) plus airfare to and from Hawaii booked separately on our own.
ALWAYS price out several different options. Speaking of “packages”…
Tip 16 for Finding a Cheap Cruise: Avoid “all inclusive” fares
More and more cruise lines are moving toward an “all-inclusive” model (“Free at Sea” or “Have It All” or “Princess Plus/Premier”) where they charge much higher fares that include perks like a drink package, speciality dining, internet, and other items once considered “extras.” While these packages can sound tempting and can be an okay value (they are never a great value or the cruise lines wouldn’t offer them) for those who would buy those individual items anyway, they are NOT a good value for many cruisers. Always price out a basic, standard (sometimes called “sail away”) fare with only the extras you really need. Remember that cruise lines are NEVER going to “give” you something that doesn’t bring them increased revenue. These packages are lucrative for the cruise lines which is why most have embraced them. Remember, be a savvy consumer!
Tip 17 for Finding a Cheap Cruise: Ignore “sales”
There is ALWAYS a cruise “sale” or “special promotion” going on. Ignore them and use the other tips I’ve listed to find good prices.
Tip 18 for Finding a Cheap Cruise: Book your cruise at the last minute
While other sites may encourage you to book early for the best rates, I have not found that to be true in most cases. I have almost always scored cheaper rates by purchasing after final payment is due for those who booked earlier. If you live within driving distance to a cruise port or have some flexibility, you can find some great deals on last minute bookings (within a few months of the sail date). Learn my specific tips about last minute cruising and read about the time I booked a cruise at 3pm the day before it was scheduled to sail here.
Tip 19 for Finding a Cheap Cruise: If cruising solo, look for sailings with a waived or reduced solo supplement
If you’re cruising alone (referred to in the cruising community as “solo cruising”) look for sailings with a reduced or even waived solo supplement. You can find a current list of sailings with either a reduced or waived solo supplement here. And you can learn all about solo supplements and solo cruising here.
Tip 20 for Finding a Cheap Cruise: Shop around for travel insurance
Even budget cruises are a significant expenditure for most people. I always recommend cruisers buy travel insurance to cover any unexpected illnesses or injuries, job loses, or other emergencies. However, I don’t recommend you buy coverage through the cruise lines. It will almost always cost more and may not cover what you need. I always go through a site like TravelInsurance.com* to compare plan prices offered by different companies to get exactly the coverage I want for the best price. Be sure to read the plans very carefully and understand exactly what they do and do not cover.
Be flexible, adaptable, and approach your cruise with a positive attitude and sense of adventure. Use the above tips and believe that regardless of when you go, which cabin you get, which ship you sail, where you go, what the weather is like, you’re going to make the absolute most of it and have a fantastic cruise. And you will! And more often because of all the money you saved!
If cruising is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for you or if you’re Elon Musk, feel free to ignore every word of this post and GO BIG! Book a suite, during peak season, booked through the cruise line, and with no insurance. But if you’re looking to cruise more with fixed funds, I hope you’ve found some of these booking tips helpful. I encourage you to post in the comments anything you’ve tried that I missed. I always love learning new tricks from my cruise friends and I’m sure other readers would be appreciative too.
However you choose to cruise, thrifty or extravagantly, enjoy every moment at sea!
And with that…
Homework (10 points): Share to the comments the best deal you ever found on a cruise. Bragging encouraged!
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