Cruising for deals… literally

By Mir
June 9, 2010
Category Travel

Did y’all enjoy reading about how to pack for a cruise? Didn’t Patricia do a great job of making it sound totally easy and doable? Just as a reminder, Patricia is a Want Not regular, extremely pretty, and a travel agent who knows a lot about cruising.

So when I asked her what I needed to know, right after she told me what to pack, she—natch—moved on to ways to save money on board a cruise ship. I was all ears. Er, eyes. I bet you will be, too. Here’s what she had to say:

Purchasing a cruise is different than so many other kinds of vacations. There is the fact that it must be paid in full months before you go, it is a big single expense that seems to come with a fair amount of sticker shock, and ultimately, there comes a point when you realize that you aren’t done paying for it despite having laid out a huge sum for your passage on the ship.

This leads to the one thing that can harden hearts in the cruise world, dealing with your on board account. You see, ships are a fairly cashless system (I can’t say completely, as you may still use real money in the casino), so you use your handy dandy room key to buy anything you need onboard—and so you might not be super mindful of how much you are spendings until on the last night of the cruise there is the moment of reckoning—when you see the bill. Will you be happy or freaked out?

As an aside, when you are eating breakfast on the last morning of the cruise before leaving for your real life, you might hear announcements of people’s names to come to the pursers’ desk—they did not leave something in their cabin, they need to settle their bill. You will not be allowed to debark the ship without a zero balance and that leads to high emotions if you have spent too much. This is what my husband and I now term the true “walk of shame.” For what it is worth, the ATM fees on board the cruise ship are insane, and we’ve sadly seen more than one person having to pull out cash to pay off their bills.

Back to how to make the bill as small as possible and still have fun. There is no sense on focusing on little you can make that bill if you are going to be miserable. So, remember the key rule here—you are here to have fun, but not overspend!

First, realize the bill will never be zero. Zero is not the goal. Unless you have pre-paid your tips (something I don’t recommend), you will at the very least have the tips on your bill. Yes, you could tip everyone in cash, but you still have to tip. The people who work on the ships are paid little and work long hours; they rely on the tips to help support themselves and their families back home. So, please do actually tip. I don’t like to pre-pay my tips, because I prefer to adjust for good or bad service. Often I leave the standard (varies with cruise lines, but figure about $10/person/day) on my account and hand cash to my favorites. When I took my young son on his first cruise, he never went to the dining room, so I had the front desk take just his tips off my bill and handed cash to the nursery staff and our room steward from him. Do know that tips are not required, so you can adjust the amount—if you would rather give them $20/person/day or $5/person/day, you can visit the pursers’ desk and make adjustments. (Note some lines will only let you pull the tips and not change the amounts, work with the people at the desk to get what you want, they have had all the questions asked before and know a few ways to accomplish the goal.)

Next, the two highest things on most people’s bill are shore excursions and bar tabs. I prefer to book and pay for my shore excursions in advance. First, there are a few third party companies I like to do business with instead of the cruise line; but even if I use the cruise line, I don’t want to do the work of picking and booking while on my vacation. I like to think of shore excursions as part of the planning process.

The bar tab is tricky. One way to save is the various soda cards—these give you unlimited sodas (fountain drinks) on board at a per day charge. If reasonable (under $40/week), we get one card for my soda drinking husband. It works out that if he drinks about 15 sodas in the week, he saves money over paying for them by the soda. That said, I don’t drink as much soda as he does, so we buy one card. Shhh, he’s been known to go to the bar and pick up a drink for me with his card, once or twice. We don’t let the boy drink soda, so he doesn’t get a card.

If you are wine drinker, some lines offer flights of bottles of wines at a discount, but figure you are going to pay bar prices for drinks onboard. I am not trying to limit anyone’s fun, but if you limit your intake, you will have a lower bill and a better/safer time on board. Almost every incident about going overboard is related to people being too drunk. And frankly, if you think a hangover isn’t fun on land, imagine the joy of it with your bed and floor (and toilet) really moving.

The spa can be a huge draw and a huge money spend too. Keep in mind that the spa is less busy on port days than sea days and thus they will often offer some deals. However, spa prices tend to be higher than on land back home, so I tend to suggest that you save the pennies and get a massage a week after you get home and have washed all the clothing. The one thing that is the exception to this is I have always gotten my money’s worth out of day passes to the steam/sauna rooms. Some ships call them different things, but there is often a suite of rooms with heated benches, steam, or sauna (one line even had special foot baths) and possibly even a aqua therapy pool. These can come in per day prices or even packages for the week. It is far less expensive than treatments and feels just as relaxing.

The shopping onboard can be fun, but watch the ‘sales.’ There is a ton of captive down time that might bring to the shop the shops. There are deals in the areas of bottles of liquor and cigarettes (you can not drink the bottle of duty-free onboard to save on the bar bill—just in case you thought you saw a loophole); but really, I think the years of them being screaming deals are far over. There are also sales that aren’t sales, and I’ve seen so many get caught up in the frenzy. Think this through, if you buy a shirt on the first day and find out that the same shirt is marked down on the last day, what would stop you from returning the shirt and getting the discount? Well, most times the ‘sales’ are more like promoting items for sale. I once saw an absolute frenzy over $10 items—those were the same $10 items that were in a dedicated $10 store, without the frenzy. On occasions (mostly when a ship is moving from one region to another) there will be items for sale that are port specific at a reduced rate. I once saw Alaska cruise journals for 25 cents on a Caribbean cruise. I didn’t buy it.

I plan what I am going to buy. We have a tradition of buying Christmas ornaments that remind us of our travels. I buy one ship ornament per ship we have been on, they run about $10 and it is fun to pull them out at Christmas and remember. But we also tend to do our gift shopping in port—where it is more about the place and less about the ship. That said, I couldn’t resist one of Holland America’s “Dam Ships” shirts.

Speaking of ports—there will be a shopping guide onboard to tell you how to find the best deal on $3,000 watches and $10,000 diamonds. If you have nothing better to do, you can go to her lectures and perhaps even pick up the guide of the various give-aways at the port stores. Those ‘approved’ stores pay for that advertising, so buyer really beware. I’ve seen some people have a blast using the shop give-aways as a scavenger hunt of sorts, but I find it to be more work for more junk. We try not to bring back a ton of gifts for people, not because we don’t like people—but I think most people don’t care if you bring them back rum cakes or magnets filled with sand.

There are big ticket items to be aware of spending tons of money on. While yes, there is often free champagne at the art auction, I wouldn’t be spending big bucks on my art there. There have been many complaints through the years about the auctions and might be a place to generally avoid. Also, as with any casino, remember the advantage is still with the house. If you do like to gamble a little and want more bang for your buck, consider Bingo—the game lasts longer and the group tends to have a great time together. Have fun, if you gamble, but be responsible.

A few things that I think are worth the money are the alternative dinning places. I have had amazing meals in the ones I’ve gone to and never regretted forking over the $10 to $30 per person charge. While there is perfectly amazing food in the main dining room, you might want something special for an evening and that’s what you always get with the alternative places. My favorites are the Supper Club on Carnival; Todd English on Queen Mary 2; and Pinnacle Grill on Holland America. I have a soft spot for the SS United States on Celebrity Infinity, but that is because beyond great food, they have panels from the original ship—the fastest passenger ship (for nautical history buffs).

Speaking of food, don’t pay for something you can get for free elsewhere on the ship. I was on one ship that had a Ben & Jerry’s on board charging for cones. Had you walked in the lido (buffet) dining room, you could have had all you can eat ice cream for free. I see this with coffee all the time too. There may be a coffee bar, but unless you can only drink the half-caf/double hot mocha latte, you might get your caffeine fix in the lido with 24 hour coffee.

Enjoy your cruise and use the money you saved as the deposit on your next cruise.

Thanks, Patricia! This really helped with my trip preparation, and again, when I get back I’ll be chiming in to let y’all know what worked for us, too.


  1. Patricia rocks! Thanks for sharing her words of cruise wisdom, Mir.

    A question for Patricia: have you ever done a Disney cruise? I dream of dropping my kids off with someone (just for a little while!) and know that they will have a great time while my husband and I get to do adult things. Like gample or go to the adults only deck.

  2. Oooh! We can ask Patricia questions? If so, What line do you think is best when you have a small child? (Other than a Disney cruise, of course.) We want to do a cruise (on a regular cruise line) in 2011, when my daughter will be 6. Thanks!!

  3. Patricia, you’re awesome. Would love a whole post on shore excursions and port days in general!

  4. Yes, I do answer as many questions as I can.

    MamaChristy & Cheryl:
    I have been on a Disney Cruise (in fact, I honeymooned on Disney and it was the first cruise I was ever on). Disney is an awesome line, but not the end all and be all in family cruising. And i ought to note outright that Disney doesn’t have a casino. The other thing that smart and pretty Want Not readers will notice is that Disney can run twice the price of another line.

    That said — I like a few lines for good family cruising. First, I LOVE Carnival for families. The kids’ club on Carnival is the first one my son didn’t go through the major separation thing with — in fact, we credit that staff with teaching him how cool cruising is for kids. Today, he only wants to go to the kids’ playroom and wouldn’t leave the ship if we didn’t outright lie to him about their hours (I worry about the next cruise, since he reads now). I also like Cunard because they have British nannies and they take kids as young as 12 months old. Royal Caribbean is pretty good two (go for the larger ships as they have more space for the kids) and the other one not to ignore is Holland America (traditionally and older demographic) — they are a great line for Alaska and Club Hal is highly rated.

    One thing about kid’s program is that the staff are certified in early childhood education too!!

    I will work on thoughts about shore excursions. I ought to mention that my husband and I do a podcast — mostly news about the industry, but there are tons of tips in the 180+ shows we’ve done!

  5. MamaC and Cheyrl S: We took a cruise to Cozumel 2 weeks ago aboard the Carnival Imagination. We took our 4 yr old son and he had a blast at Camp Carnival. Generally, he went just before dinnertime and ate with the kids while my husband and I had alone time for our dinner. Examples of things the kids did: one night there was Arctic Night, and they pretended to be polar bears and penguins, then they ate snow cones, then they watched the movie Ice Age. One day was prince and princess day, and they built castles with big blocks and made crowns and froot loop necklaces. I felt pretty good about having him stay—when we dropped him off it was a quick “Bye Mom!” and he was off to play with his new buddies and the toys. Carnival also gives you a cell phone that works on the ship so you can call and check on your kiddo.

  6. Patricia,
    My husband and I are taking a cruise in July aboard Norwegian and I was wondering how we can change the tipping that they want us to pay us to pay? Its $12 a day per person and I dont mind paying more but if it could be less per day, I could give more to the people that go above and beyond. Thanks.

  7. Don’t forget that you can bring your own soda on board. We always pick up a 12-pack before boarding. Just don’t put it in your luggage that may be roughly handled, or you’ll be paying what you saved on laundry instead (ask me how I learned that one).

  8. Trisha:
    On the tips, NCL has special issues because of their freestyle program. Since you don’t get the same waiter everyday, they want to make sure that the staff all gets tipped equally. In looking up their specific program, they don’t call it tipping, they call it a service charge and it is in fact required. Should you have an issue onboard you are requested to take it to the front to get the issue handled and not reduce the service charge. The only suggestion I can offer is that you could pre-pay this charge and while you are still paying it, you won’t see it on your on board account.

    Very good point. Like I said I’m not a huge soda drinker, but my parents do that all the time. One thing to note is that sometimes in Europe getting real Diet Coke can be a problem and per my addicted father, Coke Light is NOT Diet Coke!! (He’s been known to bring Diet Coke across the ocean with him.)

  9. Great tips and information, Patricia. I think I know who I’ll be contacting the next time I want to book a cruise!

    My husband and I have taken probably 12 cruises together, and 3 of them were with our children. My kids are now 12 and 8, but when they were younger they LOVED Camp Carnival and the Princess kids programs. They would BEG to go eat dinner with their friends practically every night! I can highly recommend the kids programs on both Carnival and Princess cruise lines from personal experience.

    My husband I both drink a lot of soda, so the soda cards end up being a great value for us.

    One tip I wanted to offer that I don’t recall having seen here is to do a load or two of laundry on board. (No, I’m not kidding! You’d be surprised at how many people do laundry on board.) This was not much of an issue when it was just my husband and me, but with the kids we generate a LOT of laundry and we try to pack minimally. I bring a few Dropps (laundry detergent packs) in a small plastic container and I am good to go. I usually do the laundry mid-day after spending a lot of time in the sun and needing a break in the stateroom. I also have a laundry bag/organizer that hangs over the stateroom closet door and detaches for hauling to the laundry room.

    Smart things to bring for your room:

    Blue nightlight
    Gel plug in air freshener (not the liquid kind)
    Shower caddy that sticks to the shower wall with suction cups

  10. What is the best way to get the best prices on a Disney Cruise and how would you go about booking the cruise. (2 adults 2 kids) From what I’ve seen the are so expensive.


  11. Laurin: You are totally right about laundry — i’ve done it on so many ships. A few lines will even offer a fill a bag for $20 deals (which I use) or there are some with lauderettes on board (Cunard even provides laundry soap).

    A Mullins: Yes, Disney is pricey; but there are some savings to be had. The single best advice I can give you is to call me and let me work to find you a great deal on it.

  12. Patricia is right! I mean I know everyone is looking for a deal but travel agents,(ie people who actually work with the companies and know their reps) will ALWAYS be able to discount you further then you might be able to on the phone/paper/internet.

    (I worked in high school in my dad’s cruise only travel agency, granted this was well over 10 years ago, and he doesn’t own the agency anymore)

    I know when I worked there the cruise lines will send out alerts to agents that they discount specific dates because they have X amount left and want to try to sell the ship out. If you’re dates are flexible an agent can try to hook you up with the best deal, not to mention the perks of free upgrades and on board credits…you’ll never get those on your own! 🙂

  13. My husband and I took a Disney cruise years ago as part of the Salute to the Armed Forces. We got a fantastic rate for him being active duty. We loved it! There were plenty of adult only areas and had no idea until the last day how many kids had been on board all week.

  14. Patricia, you are really making me want to take a cruise! Need to wait a bit longer until my son is out of diapers, but you have given us so many wonderful tips it doesn’t sound nearly as daunting as it did before. Thank you!

  15. This is all really making me want to go on a cruise — and I’ve always thought of my self as firmly in the “anti-cruise” camp! So much for pre-conceived notions….

  16. JennyM: Cruising has come a long way from the days of the newlywed, overfed, and nearly dead. I think you’d be pleasantly surprised and I’m glad that you are thinking about it. 🙂

    Christina: Yes, out of diapers tends to help. Frankly, I was afraid of taking any cruise with my son until he could go to the kids’ programs — but we did Cunard who does take the 12 month olds and that was great. Three and potty trained is pretty universal, but two is ok on a few lines.

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