More than 20 million people went on cruises last year, spending an average of $1,770 per passenger per week, according to statistics from the American Association of Port Authorities. The advantages people find in this type of travel include the opportunity to explore multiple destinations without checking in and out of hotels, having amenities and entertainment all in one place, and the chance to make friends with fellow travelers. Because the price covers transportation, lodging and at least some of the food, it’s not cheap, but it can be reasonable.
But before you say anchors aweigh, it will pay to learn a little about cruising. Because while an all-inclusive bundle sounds great, you could encounter fishy pricing structures within the cruise world that you need to understand.
To find out how to best enjoy smooth sailing and good value, we checked in with Stewart Chiron. He’s taken more than 100 cruises in the past 25 years and maintains CruiseGuy.com. Here are his top 10 tips:
1. Research online, book through an agent
It’s always a good idea to do some comparison shopping and find interesting itineraries at decent rates — but Chiron says book through an agent, not a website. That way, you’re sure to get the most current deals, plus any insider discounts. “There may be resident discounts, military discounts, discounts based on the part of the country you live in, and last-minute deals,” Chiron says. “An experienced cruise agent can get you the right trip in the right cabin at the right price.”
The “experienced” part is important, Chiron says. You want someone with “real-world experience” and who’s been on the specific ship you’re considering, so you can ask about the quality of the food and entertainment, get an idea of what’s included in the ticket price, and learn about the atmosphere — some cruises are intimate and formal, some are more family friendly, and others are just big party boats.
2. Book ASAP
While many cruise destinations are available year-round, the best rooms aren’t. The top rooms on the top ships are usually booked up to two years in advance. Booking early has other perks, too. “If the price drops before you make the final payment, you’ll have the cabin at the lower price,” Chiron says. “When you have this mad rush of people looking to book that last-minute space, you end up with the better cabin and you save the money.”
3. Join loyalty programs
Before you book a cruise, make sure you’re signed up for the line’s rewards program. It’s usually free, and there’s no reason not to start racking up free benefits. It’s not like you have to be loyal to any one cruise line either. That’s just the fastest way to get perks like free gifts and food, priority reservations and service, and on-board discounts. CruiseCritic.com has a fairly complete rundown of the various cruise line loyalty programs.
4. Book ship and flight separately
This isn’t always cheaper — you should definitely compare — but it usually costs less to pay your own way to the port of departure. This is because cruise lines have to look at air rates much further out than you do. Sometimes, though, they offer “free air” — in other words, the airfare cost is bundled into the ticket price, and you’re paying for it whether you use it or not. So when you talk to an agent, ask for a comparison of the cruise only and cruise and air rates.
“Less than 30 percent of all airline tickets are booked direct [through the cruise],” Chiron says, and going around them could save you hundreds, “especially when you’re going for more exotic itineraries, like to Europe.”
Self-bookings also mean you have control over the times and number of connecting flights. But on the downside, flight delays may be your problem to deal with. When the flight comes with the cruise, they make sure you get on the boat.