How to save money on a cruise

Cruise vacations remain some of the most budget-friendly family vacation options available. While I admit to being quite picky about cruises, experience has taught me that cruises make for excellent multi-generational trips, allowing diverse family groups to have a great time together without extensive effort, stress, time, and, if you do it right, money.

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How to save money on a cruise (and when it’s worth paying full price):

In travel, just like in anything else, you get what you pay for. However, whether you’re springing for a exotic small-ship adventure cruise or a mega-ship family cruise, within your budget category, it’s absolutely possible to save money. Here’s how:

Cruise in the off-season:

Is there still an off-season in cruising? Yes. Families willing to avoid the busy holiday and summer break periods will snag deals on cruise lines across the board, especially if they’re willing to cruise to the Caribbean or Bahamas during September through mid-November. While this time period sees primarily adult travelers without kids in tow, families able to break free from the traditional school schedule will be rewarded with deals and less crowded ships. While I realize this is not always possible, it’s a great strategy to have in parents’ back pocket.

Take a weekend getaway cruise:

Obviously, the longer your vacation, the more it is apt to cost. Consider a land-cruise combination holiday, or a shorter, weekend-long cruise of 2-3 nights. Cruise lines such as Royal Seas Cruises regularly offer 2-3 night cruises to the Bahamas, which can either whet the appetite for longer journeys or simply serve as a short trip that doesn’t have to break the bank. Naturally, weekend-length cruises are easiest to manage if you live near a cruise port in Florida, where most of these shorter trips depart.

Cruise from a port within driving distance:

You don’t have to live in Florida to take advantage of longer cruise itineraries that depart from cities as diverse as Galveston, New York City, Seattle, Vancouver, and Los Angeles. Additional ports on the eastern seaboard host shorter cruises into the waters of eastern Canada and Europe as well. Picking a cruise based on the port can save hundreds or even thousands of dollars in airfare, and had the added benefit of causing less stress pre-cruise: there’s no worry about missing your cruise due to airline delays or cancellations.

Find the most inclusive cruise in your budget category:

Unless you have incredible will power, it can be hard to resist the many, many upgrades sold on cruise ships. Start fighting this battle by picking the most inclusive cruise you can afford. For instance, many cruise lines charge extra per person for all types of drinks, including soda and tea, while only a handful include these beverages in their base rate (and even fewer include alcoholic drinks). If you must cruise on a less-than-inclusive cruise line, and you can resist these types of packages, bring your own travel water filter along and filter your own drinking water to use in a reusable water bottle (the water in buffets and restaurants onboard cruise ships is potable, but sometimes not very tasty).

Set a daily budget for extras onboard cruise ships, to be put to use at cruise ship arcades, casinos, dining upgrades, and bars. Decide before your trip what extras you won’t be paying for, and then stay away from those areas of the ship. If you enjoy spa treatments, consider booking on less desirable days, such as port days, when discounts are offered on most cruise lines, or the same day you embark on the ship.

Opt out of cruise line excursions:

Booking your excursions via your cruise line is convenient, but more costly than booking them on your own, and almost always a less satisfying travel experience, too. Unless you are very tight on time at your port (in which case only the cruise line’s excursions guarantee you’ll be back in time), book your own getaways off the ship. Read through the cruise line’s offerings, then do some research on your own, finding reputable companies offering similar excursions for less. TripAdvisor and your favorite travel blogs are a good place to start. Often, booking solo will result in a more personalized tour or experience for less money. If you don’t want to plan ahead, exit the port and simply find a local taxi, and ask for a rate for half a day. You may end up with a local tour guide for a personalized experience. If in doubt about reputable taxis or guides, as the tourism police who are almost always stationed at cruise ports.

Should you take a ‘budget’ cruise? 

I personally believe that we all get what we pay for, which is why I’d rather take a shorter cruise or watch my budget more closely on a quality cruise line than take a chance on a budget or bare bones cruise line. That said, I know travelers who have had good experiences on cheap cruises by managing their expectations, being flexible, and enjoying the ride.

Need more tips? Check out our mega guide to cruise vacations!

This story was sponsored by Royal Sea Cruises but the opinions are the author’s own.

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About the author

Pit Stops for Kids AUTHOR: Amy Whitley is the founding editor of Pit Stops for Kids and content editor of Trekaroo. She writes on staff monthly at a number of travel publications, and contributes to OutdoorsNW magazine as an outdoor adventure traveler. Find Amy at Google.

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