Saving money on your pre-cruise purchases

If you’re lucky, in the months leading up to your cruise, the cruise line will run a sale on pre-cruise purchases such as beverage packages, specialty dining, and shore excursions. This post will talk specifically about Royal Caribbean, but the same principle applies to all lines: When the price of something you’ve already purchased drops, the only way to get the new price is to cancel the previous purchase and re-purchase at the lower price.

The first step is to find the place on the site where you can see your prior purchases. On Royal Caribbean, this is called your “Order History” and it’s located at the top right of the screen. Once you click here, you’ll see all the purchases you’ve already made and, if you click on “see order details,” you’ll see what you paid for them.

If the price on the current sale is lower, all you have to do is click “Cancel” and cancel your first purchase. Once you’ve gone through that process, you want to immediately go back to the Cruise Planner and make the purchase at the lower price.

That’s how easy it is! Cheers!

The dreaded “solo supplement”: myths and truths (Part 2)

Let’s face facts: It’s (usually) more expensive to cruise by yourself than it is to cruise with someone else (or multiple someone elses). And while I understand the reason for that, it doesn’t really seem fair at all, especially when you’re not particularly traveling solo by choice. Believe me, as someone who was single until I was almost 35 years old, I get it!

If you’re traveling by yourself, here are a few things you can do to travel solo and still keep your costs reasonable:

  1. If you can, be flexible in your travel dates. I’ve written before about how flexibility and the ability to travel last-minute are your best weapons in the fight to find lower cruise fares. Some cruise lines will reduce or even remove the cost of the second passenger on close-in cruises. Usually this is only for cruises only about one or two weeks out though, so it also helps to live close to a cruise port, so you don’t blow your last-minute savings on expensive airfare.
  2. Be vigilant on checking fares, and/or engage a travel agent to help you with this. I booked my first solo cruise, a 4-day Bahamas cruise on Majesty of the Seas, when I noticed that the price had dropped to a very reasonable $184.00 per person, which made my total cost as a solo cruiser around $400. This price is definitely an outlier: The cruise was on December 4th, which is a traditionally slow time for cruising; the price I saw when I booked didn’t last very long, likely because a number of people had the same idea that I did! But that leads me to my next suggestion…
  3. If you want to cruise solo, target times of the year that are traditionally slow so that you can find the lowest prices for your cruise fare. In the US, this tends to be the times between New Year’s and Spring Break (mid-January to early March), the dreaded second half of the hurricane season (mid-September to late October), and post-Thanksgiving through the holiday season (late November to mid-December).If cruise prices are low to start, you’ll find that paying a double fare isn’t quite so painful. For instance, the hubby and I took advantage of a sale and booked a 7-night cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas that came to a ridiculously low total price of $898. Even for one person, that would have been a deal – plus that one person would have gotten double Crown and Anchor loyalty points! Which leads to another point:
  4. Consider a studio cabin – these are cabins that are designed (and priced) specifically for single occupancy – but consider carefully. Norwegian Cruise Lines has made a point of including studio cabins on its new build ships, and these are good options for solo travelers. (I was in one for 12 nights myself and found it to be perfectly pleasant.)However, the number of solo cabins is limited, so the dynamics of supply and demand aren’t always in the solo traveler’s favor, especially on popular sailings. You might actually find it cheaper to pay the extra fare in a (double occupancy) inside cabin than to pay the studio rate. (This was the case on my Bliss sailing, but I stuck with the studio because I wanted to check out that kind of cabin.)

    Studio cabins can save you some money over paying the extra fare in a double-occupancy room, but if you’re loyal to a particular cruise line, they may not be the best bang for your buck. On my Majesty cruise, I received double Crown and Anchor points for traveling solo in a traditional double room, which allowed me to reach the Diamond level in Royal Caribbean’s loyalty program. If you calculate the number of points earned per dollar spent, you’ll find it’s much more efficient to pay double in a traditional room; however, on a longer or more expensive cruise, this might simply put the trip out of your price range. And we wouldn’t want to do that!

Just as a reminder, I’m not only a travel blogger, I’m also a travel agent! So if you’re interested in learning more about opportunities for solo travel, you can fill out this form and I’ll be happy to help you find your best options for a solo cruise. You can also follow me on Facebook, where I’ll be posting last-minute and solo travel deals.

Transatlantic on the cheap

I’ve just returned from my 12-day inaugural voyage on the Norwegian Bliss, and I have tons of pictures to process and blog posts to write about this fantastic ship. But first, I have a confession to make:

*whispers* I’m going on another transatlantic cruise…and I leave tomorrow.

I know, I know, it sounds crazy. But hear me out: I was able to make this cruise so cheap that I almost couldn’t afford to stay at home! Here’s how I did it.

First of all, timing was everything. I’ve written before about how to find cheap cruise fares, and about how transatlantic voyages — where a cruise line repositions its ships from the Caribbean to Europe for the season and vice versa — are often a great opportunity to play the supply-and-demand pricing game to your advantage. I booked this cruise, on Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Seas, at the beginning of February for a May 6 sail date.

Getting this deal did require a bit of vigilance on my part. I had identified the Jewel TA (often used as an abbreviation for transatlantic, which is a bit long) as one that I was interested in because I’ve been on the ship and loved it, and it featured a lot of new-to-me ports. I wound up watching the price pretty closely for two weeks at the end of January into the beginning of February before I caught the price drop and decided to seal the deal.

Transatlantic cruises can be tricky because they involve one-way airfare between Europe and the U.S., usually, and such things can be pricey. (Working with your travel agent or the cruise lines, however, you might be able to get a reasonable deal here.) In our case, we needed two one-way flights: From our home in North Carolina to San Juan, where Jewel has been homeported, and back to the US from Europe after the cruise was over.

I’ve found that one-way tickets are maybe your best use of frequent-flier miles and points, and that’s what we did: I used American Express Membership Rewards points to buy our tickets to San Juan, and Delta SkyMiles to buy our tickets back to the U.S. Using miles especially helps you avoid the penalty that often comes with buying one way travel (although this isn’t nearly so bad as it used to be).

At the risk of being one of “those people,” I’m excited to share that the up-front cost of our 14 night cruise on the Jewel (in a balcony cabin, no less!), including taxes, fees, and airfare, was under $2000 for the hubby and I! We’ll be stopping along the way in the Canary Islands, Gibraltar, and twice in Spain (Alicante and Valencia). I’m looking forward to mornings on the balcony writing lots of blogs to share with everyone about my (nearly a) month on the high seas!

Photo Apr 25, 1 36 49 PM

Researching your port stops

There are a lot of reasons I love cruising, but one of the main ones is that I LOVE doing research on what I should do in each of my port stops. After all, I’m a nerd! As I’m planning for my upcoming transatlantic cruise on the new Norwegian Bliss, I thought I’d do a blog post to tell you about how I research and make plans for my days in port.

You always have the option to book shore excursions through the cruise line, and sometimes – when I’m in a new port or a new part of the world – I’ll do this, for a few reasons. It’s easy – I don’t have to do a lot of work; I just log into the web site and pick my trips through the online pre-cruise planner. When you book through the cruise line, you know that the ship will always wait for you if your excursion is delayed returning.

But I’ve had good and bad experiences with shore excursions through the cruise line, and for that reason, I often try to make my own plans.

If I decide to do my own research, I start with a simple Google search. For my Bliss transatlantic, I only have two stops: Ponta Delgada, Azores and Halifax, Nova Scotia. I began my research on Ponta Delgada with a Google search for “Ponta Delgada cruise port.” I find that adding the words “cruise port” to my search helps to refine the results so that I get specific advice for stopping in a location on a cruise ship vs. taking a land-based vacation.

Often I’ll find that one of the top results is a port information page from the website Cruise Critic. Cruise Critic is an excellent resource for planning your port stops and you can also visit their cruise port specific message boards to read about other people’s experiences in those ports.

Occasionally, your Google search will turn up a real gem. In this case, I found this extremely helpful Ponta Delgada guide from a website called Tom’s Port Guides. Now, being an academic/nerd, I know that it’s always important to check out your sources to make sure they’re reliable, so I looked on this site (as I always do) for an About Us page to learn more about the site. Turns out these well-done guides are created by a guy who loves to travel and likes to create travel guides for his favorite cruise ports. Thanks, Tom!

Next, I’ll do a Google search for the name of the port with the word “blog” swapped in for “port.” This will help me find blog posts from people like myself who like to write about their travels. It’s important to check the dates on these posts to make sure that they’re current, and of course with any travel blog, it’s important to remember that the author’s experiences and decisions might be different from your own. I was fortunate to find this fantastic description of Ponta Delgada from TravelShopGirl and now feel like I have a great idea what to expect from my day in Ponta Delgada!

Last-minute deals, Part 2: How to do it

(You can read Part I about cruise pricing and last minute deals here.)

So, what does all of this mean for you, the aspiring last-minute-deal-getting cruiser? Well, I’ve spent the last few months actively pursuing these deals, and I’ve learned a few things that can help your chances.

  1. Be flexible. There’s a reason that so many people on cruises (especially out of the U.S.) are retired and/or live in Florida! Of course, this isn’t something that everyone can do: People have children or pets to make arrangements for, work schedules that they can’t move around, etc. If you live far from the cruise port, the savings you get for booking a last-minute deal might be gobbled up by the cost of buying airfare at the last minute (this is pretty much what happened with our last-minute Cuba cruise). But if you can be flexible with your travel times, you’ll have more chance of finding a good deal on a last-minute cruise.
  2. Lower your expectations. Understand that you might not get the type of cabin, or the location, that you like or are used to. When you book late, you don’t get a very good selection of available cabins. In order to get the best deals, you might even need to take a guarantee room option (where the cruise line picks your room for you) or take a different type of cabin than you’re used to, like an inside or oceanview room instead of a balcony.
  3. Be open to new possibilities. Let’s say you’re the type of person who always like to cruise in a certain region, or on a certain ship or class of cruise ships. Well, the more you narrow your options, the less likely you are to find that great deal. If you’re open to new options, you might find a better deal – and who knows, you might even find a new favorite cruise destination!
  4. Work with a travel agent. This one might seem a little self-serving, because, well, I am a travel agent. But if your travel agent knows this kind of cruises you’re interested in, and your relative level of flexibility, she can notify you when last-minute deals become available, such as Royal Caribbean’s Going Going Gone rates or Celebrity’s Exciting Deals. (Note: For some reason I don’t quite understand, these sites are quite frequently offline. Try checking back another day.) You can check these deals yourself, of course, or you can sign up for e-mail newsletter from a web site like Cruise Critic. But your travel agent can be your best ally in the search for cruise deals – especially if she’s a natural-born bargain hunter, like me! As travel agents, we can also see which ships have a lot of available cabins – a good piece of information to have as you try to win this supply-and-demand based game.

Happy (bargain) hunting! If you’re interested in working with me to help you find your next cruise, you can fill out this contact form.

Last-minute deals: What I’ve learned, and what I’d recommend (or not)

(If you’re not interested in reading my nerdy treatise on cruise pricing, you can skip ahead to the advice for getting last minute deals.)

Understanding how to get a last-minute deal on a cruise comes down to just three words: Supply and demand.

I was a good student in college, but introductory economics was possibly the hardest class I took during my four years. Some of the concepts just seemed completely foreign to me, and I couldn’t wrap my head around them. I despaired over studying for the tests, but eventually I figured out how to make it work – and I’ve never been so proud in my life to get an A-. (See, I told you I was a nerd.)

So imagine my surprise when I learned that the pricing structure of the cruise industry, for the most part, is driven largely by supply and demand. Good thing I paid attention in that Econ class!

To understand cruise pricing, it helps to think from the perspective of the cruise line: They’d like to have every cabin on the ship booked as far ahead of time as possible. That way they know they can count on the revenue from that sailing. This explains the bonuses you might see for booking ahead, or lower prices for sailings more than a year out. (Unfortunately, it also explains the recent introduction of nonrefundable deposit fares, which are lower but can’t be changed or refunded if you find you can’t take the cruise you originally booked.)

At some point, the cruise line will notice that for a certain sailing, the supply is far exceeding the demand. This can happen as far out as six months or so, but it’s most likely to happen 90 days out, which is when the final payment for the cruise is due. Once final payments have been made, the cruise line has a much clearer picture of which cabins are bought and paid for – and which ones aren’t.

Of course, the cruise line doesn’t want to let any cabin be empty on any sailing. An empty cabin means there aren’t passengers to buy drinks at the bar, purchase shore excursions, or gamble at the casino. So on a sailing where supply exceeds demand, the cruise line relies on one of the oldest tricks in the book and lowers the price. Often, this does the trick, and the cruise sails mostly full.

You can see this most clearly in the case of transatlantic cruises, where the cruise lines reposition their ships from Europe (where they sail in the summer) to the Caribbean (where they sail in the winter), and vice versa. These ships have the same number of available cabins as they always do, but the demand is much lower: Because these are longer cruises, and often include a lot of sea days, there aren’t as many cruisers who are interested and willing – or even able – to take these cruises which can often be 12-15 nights in length.

Continue to Part II: Advice on how to get a last-minute cruise deal

How to survive (and thrive!) for 17 days in an inside room

Plenty of cruisers are perfectly happy to stay in an inside cabin. My friend Emma over at Cruising Isn’t Just for Old People has written a great blog post about her experiences in inside rooms. Inside cabins are fantastic for sleeping, especially if you like it pitch dark! And Emma and I both agree that inside cabins are the best way to afford your cruising habit. 🙂

The hubby and I recently took advantage of some last minute deals on a couple of Celebrity cruises and booked an inside guarantee cabin for each one. Because one was a 10-night cruise and the other a 7-nighter, that means we spent a total of 17 nights in an inside room, although we fortunately did have a few nights on land (with a window) in between. After that time, I think I’ve learned a few things about how to make an inside cabin as painless as possible.

A place for everything, and everything in its place. The hubby will tell you that I’m not a particularly neat person at home – there’s a reason my nickname growing up was “Messy Jessie.” In an inside cabin, though, it’s important to find a place to put everything away and to try your best to keep things tidy. I also find it’s good to establish a place for things you’ll use often (such as your SeaPass card) and to always return the item to that place once you’re finished with it. (This is especially important if you’re an early riser, as I’ll discuss below.)

Bring a nightlight. We always travel with an LED nightlight, whether we’re cruising or at a hotel or some other kind of rental. On a cruise, a nightlight can be kind of tricky, because many cruise ships (especially the ones built more than 7-10 years ago) still don’t have a lot of plugs. But if you’re in an inside cabin, there’s absolutely zero light – so a nightlight is vital if someone needs to get up in the middle of the night. (To deal with the power plug shortage, we always travel with a 4-port USB hub and a portable brick charger so we can charge phones and such without using up one of the wall plugs.)

Establish a meeting point (outside). I usually want to wake up about an hour before the hubby does, so on every cruise we establish a meeting point where I’ll go to when I wake up and go for coffee in the mornings. If you purchase an internet package, this isn’t so much of a problem; but if you don’t have wifi, it can be remarkably difficult to find another person on a cruise ship. Picking a default rendezvous spot can be helpful when one person doesn’t want to be in the inside cabin anymore but wants to make sure the other(s) can find her. It also helps for me to set out the things I’ll need in the morning (clothes, shoes, book to read, SeaPass, etc) so that I can access them easily in the dark room.

Consider a sunrise clock. Emma has a great post on her use of a sunrise clock, which to be honest I haven’t tried myself yet, because as I mention the hubby likes to sleep later than I do. But I think this would be a great way to deal with the darkness of an inside room! I might buy one of these to try on my transatlantic cabin in a solo (inside) cabin on the new Norwegian Bliss.

One thing is for sure: You can definitely get some good deals on inside cabins, and especially if you’re willing to book a guarantee room. On longer cruises, or when the price difference isn’t too much, I’ll sometimes splurge on an oceanview or a balcony. But if you know how to do it, taking an inside cabin can be a great way to help you cruise for less – or even cruise more often!

Getting a deal on specialty dining on Royal Caribbean cruises

Like it or not, extra-fee restaurants on cruise ships (usually called “specialty dining”) aren’t going anywhere. Cruising old-timers often complain about the cruise lines’ efforts to nickel-and-dime guests with extra charges, but I see the specialty dining as an opportunity to try new meals in new settings – things that the cruise ships likely wouldn’t provide if they weren’t able to make a few extra bucks in doing so.

On our recent Harmony cruise, we dined at two specialty restaurants. Chops Grille is an old favorite – they serve a fantastic steak and a wonderful mushroom soup, among other things, and the atmosphere is always very upscale and makes for a nice evening. We also tried 150 Central Park for the first time, and we were absolutely blown away by both the level of service and the food, as well as the signature Central Park Martini.

There are a few ways to cut down the cost of trying out these specialty experiences (or revisiting the ones you already know and love!):

  1. Book a “first-night” special ahead of your cruise. Royal Caribbean changes the options on this promotion, and sometimes it’s different on different ships. But if you look in your Cruise Planner before your cruise, you can often find deeply discounted specialty dining for the first one or two nights of your cruise (usually about $20-25 per person per meal).
  2. Purchase a multi-day or unlimited dining package. You can buy a 3-, 4-, or 5-day specialty dining package for your cruise, either by going to the online Cruise Planner or by purchasing onboard your cruise ship. The price per person per meal will vary depending on the ship, but the price will usually go down as the number of days in your package goes up. Right now, Royal Caribbean is also offering an unlimited dining package, which includes specialty dining for dinner every night of the cruise as well as for lunch on sea days.
  3. Look onboard for special offers. You’ll usually see these on the first day, where employees will walk around the ship promoting discounted rates at the specialty restaurants. You can’t count on these, of course, but they might give you the push you’ve been needing to give these extra experiences a try. (I’ve also heard tell that you can sometimes just walk up to a specialty restaurant – especially one that looks, um, rather empty – and ask for a discount. Can’t hurt to try, right?)

If you’re on a tight budget for your cruise, a specialty restaurant might not be in the cards for you – and that’s okay! You’ll have great meals in the dining room, and you can save the specialty splurge for your next cruise. Personally, I like to go to specialty restaurants when I feel like I’ve gotten a good deal on my cruise fare – after all, I’ve saved that money, so why not use it to pay for an extra special meal? 🙂

If you want to learn more about specialty dining on Royal Caribbean, you can find some good info over on the Royal Caribbean Blog.

Flying in on the day of the cruise (aka knowing when to break your own rules)

Ever since I started cruising with my mom, over 20 years ago, I’ve always held fast to one rule: Always fly in to your port city the day before your cruise. Airlines and weather are unpredictable, and it’s always better to give yourself a cushion where something can go wrong and you’ll still make it to your cruise on time.

But when I booked our last-minute cruise to Cuba, I was faced with a dilemma: Flights on the day before our sail date were considerably more expensive, adding to an already expensive last-minute plane fare, and that fare increase would have added to the cost of a hotel room to make our last-minute deal not so much of a deal at all. So I took a deep breath and broke my cardinal rule of cruising: Always fly in the day before your cruise.

I booked us on flights that left first thing in the morning on the day our cruise was scheduled to sail. To make my sins even worse, I had no choice but to book us on a connecting flight through Delta’s hub of Atlanta, with a connection time of less than one hour. Yikes!

It wasn’t all bad. I had done some research to check that there were two connecting flights that would have (theoretically) gotten us to Tampa in time to make the cruise. Flying through an airline’s hub airport will usually give you this kind of option as a backup. I’d done some research and learned that Tampa’s port was relatively easy to get to from the airport, so I figured that a same-day fly-in would be less difficult here.

In the end, our flights went smoothly and we made it to Tampa with plenty of time to get to the port – we even had time to stop at a grocery store so I could pick up a couple of bottles of wine to take with us. I even felt brave enough to schedule our next cruise’s flights on the same day the cruise sailed (though I did opt for a nonstop flight, which significantly helped put my mind at ease in the lead-up to our cruise).

As I always say to my writing students, you have to know the rules before you can break them. In general, I think I’ll stick to my oldest rule of cruising: Always fly in the day before your cruise. But now, I feel like I have a little better of an idea now about when I can break that rule.

Cruising in rough seas

As we left San Francisco, the captain came over the loudspeaker to give his usual information about our route to the next port, which would be Victoria in two days’ time. He also noted, however, that we would be encountering somewhat rough seas over the next day. He definitely was not joking.

I’m a person who’s blessed to have never had problems with seasickness. I’ve had friends cruise with me who suffer from it considerably, though, so I know what it can do to a person. The hubby has sometimes gotten a little ill, so when we heard the captain’s announcement, we made sure to replace the scolpamine patch behind his ear just in case.

Sure enough, by the evening, the ship was rockin’ and rollin’. If you’re not affected by seasickness, the practical concerns caused by rough seas are pretty nominal and easy to overcome. Walking down hallways can be a little difficult, since the lurching of the ship is unpredictable. I recommend using handrails, or if they’re not available, lightly running a hand along the wall as you walk down the hall so you can catch yourself if necessary. As much as we all like to take the stairs every now and then on a cruise, and tell ourselves it justifies all the food we’ve eaten at the buffet, I usually skip the stairs for the elevator when the ship is rocking.

Oh, and maybe skip going to the fitness center and using the treadmill. It’s a little…trippy. I’ve never seen anyone fall, but I’ve seen people come close. I tend to walk fast on the treadmill and one time had the whole treadmill drop out from under me when the ship hit a wave. Talk about catching some air!

Back in your room, you can make some minor changes to minimize the impact of rough seas. If you’re not doing so, make sure to close and latch your bathroom door every time you use it; same with your closet doors. Inside the closet, bunch all of the clothes hangers together on the rod; this will help keep them from rattling as notably. Sometimes, there’s just nothing you can do: We had three days of rough seas in the Atlantic during our transatlantic cruise in 2015 and eventually we just got used to the noises our cabin would make.

Personally, I love it when the ship moves – depending on the motion of the ocean (heh) and the orientation of your bed, it almost has the effect of rocking you to sleep like a baby! Keep in mind, though, that it’s not unusual for the ship to make some creaking noises, especially in really rough seas. The good news is, it’s not falling apart! But you might want to bring ear plugs, just in case.