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!

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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

Going to Mardi Gras…on a cruise?

It’s true: You can go to New Orleans for the famous Mardi Gras celebration on a cruise, thanks to Celebrity Cruises. The hubby and I just returned from Celebrity’s 10-Night Mardi Gras and Caribbean cruise (we also stopped at Grand Cayman and Cozumel) and we agreed that it was a tremendously unique experience. For us, it was also surprisingly affordable – more on that later.

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Our cruise left Ft. Lauderdale on Friday afternoon and took about 48 hours to make it to the port in New Orleans, including a transit of the Mississippi River (unfortunately, it was pretty rainy) that took about 9-10 hours. The ship docks at the convenient Julia Street Cruise Terminal, from which you can walk or take a cab or streetcar to just about anywhere. Your ship is docked for two whole days, from Sunday night until Tuesday night, and as I’ve written about before, having an overnight cruise stop is an awesome experience – incredibly freeing!

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When we arrived in New Orleans at around 7 pm on Sunday night, the parades were in full swing. We were able to walk just a few blocks to see the Bacchus parade, and then we walked to the other side of the French Quarter to visit our favorite jazz clubs on Frenchman’s Street. We came back to our cruise ship a little after 1 am and walked right back on to the ship and back to our cabin – no problem!

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Over the next two days, we got to see four parades and visit many of our favorite places in the Crescent City (although it’s important to note that a lot of places were closed due to the Mardi Gras celebration). Having the cruise ship as a home base was an excellent way to experience my first Mardi Gras – we could come and go to the ship as we pleased, grab a quick bite in the buffet, or take a few minutes to relax before heading out to experience more of the fun.

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Now, about the price: I’ll be the first to admit that we were a bit lucky to get such a good deal on this cruise. We booked the cruise in mid-December 2018 (about two months before the sail date) and Celebrity had lowered the prices significantly to fill the rooms on the ship – you find this often happens when the date for final payment has passed and there are still a lot of unsold cabins. We paid a total of $1900 for two people in an inside room for our 10-night cruise; this is a good deal under most circumstances anyway, but when you think about what we might have paid for a hotel room for two nights during the busiest parts of Mardi Gras, the value is even better.

The 2019 cruise, which leaves on March 1, might not offer such a great bargain – March is traditionally a more popular month than February for cruises. The cruise is a great way to visit Mardi Gras at any price, however, and who knows – maybe early January will find some good deals! You can contact me if you’re interested in taking a cruise to Mardi Gras in 2019.

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 $15-$20 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.

Majesty of the Seas Live Blog: Day 3

Day 3 was our port stop in Nassau, which I’ve been to about four or five times in the last year. As a result, I wasn’t totally gung-ho to get off the ship right away, which made for a nice relaxing (and productive!) morning.

I woke up early and chugged a cup of coffee before heading to a 7 am class in the fitness center. (I told you I was one of those early-morning people!) The class was at the same time as our sail into Nassau, meaning that I would miss my opportunity to take some pictures, but that was ok. After the class ended around 8 am, I sat on the deck and drank a couple more cups of coffee before going back to my room to shower. It was a beautiful morning for Nassau, fairly cool and not nearly as humid as I was used to encountering at this stop, with some clouds keeping down the heat.

I spent the morning writing blog posts and enjoying the quiet of the ship. I’d heard from some frequent cruisers that many of them don’t even get off the ship in Nassau because they prefer to enjoy the day on board, and I can see why – the venues were uncrowded and the pool deck was fairly unoccupied. We were parked next to the Liberty of the Seas, an unusual sight to see in Nassau since this ship usually does Western Caribbean routes out of its home port of Galveston.

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Around noon, I wrapped up my writing and headed to the Windjammer for some lunch. I had thought about trying out the Johnny Rockets on board, but decided instead to be healthy and opted for a big salad from Windjammer along with soup and a sandwich from the Compass Deli. (I understand that the Compass Deli might not survive the next round of refurbishments on Majesty, which are scheduled for early 2018, which is a shame!)

After lunch, I grabbed an ice-cream cone and lounged for a bit on the blissfully quiet pool deck. Around 2, I decided it was time to head into town, so I went down to the cabin and collected what I’d need for the day. The port in Nassau is incredibly convenient to the downtown area, and to make things even better, we were parked in the very closest berth to the terminal building. Without a crowd of departing cruisers to slow me down, it only took me about 10 minutes to go from my cabin on the ship to the main street in Nassau.

My first stop was my favorite place to go when I’m in port here: the Pirate Republic Brewery. Friends, I’m a bit of a beer snob, and I’m here to tell you that their brews are not just surprisingly good for a brewery in Nassau, they’re flat-out good, period. I started with a flight so that I could sample some of their new seasonals, then switched to my old standby, the Island Pirate Ale (IPA, get it?). I found a nice couple who were on the Liberty, and talked with them for a while as we drank our beers. I made a stop in the brewery’s excellent gift shop to bring back a present for the hubby, who didn’t get to make this trip with me.

It was getting a little late, but I decided to walk a little more around Nassau before heading back to the ship. I found myself at an Irish-themed bar called Shenanigans, which was near the end of Bay Street, the main shopping street. I found in talking to the bartender that they had only opened a few months ago, and the bar certainly had two important elements: good wifi and cold air conditioning. I paid a lot for my Guinness ($11!), but if wifi and a cool place to sit down are what you’re looking for, this is a good place to stop. (Just don’t get the Guinness – I think the other beers are cheaper.)

As I finished up my beer, I realized that it was nearly 5 pm – and my dinner time was a 6! Overall, I’ve enjoyed having the early dinner seating on this cruise, but it can cause one to adjust the schedule somewhat, especially on port days. I headed back to the ship, but there was only one problem – after all that beer, I was getting sleepy! I made a beeline for the Windjammer and filled up two water glasses all the way to the top with ice, then filled them with coffee. Hey, it’s not the best iced coffee ever, but it works! I happened to catch a lovely sunset on deck while I drank my iced coffee and listened to the reggae sounds of the house band.

After recharging, I got changed for dinner, then headed to the dining room. I stopped at a bar on the way to dinner to use one of my Crown and Anchor deals to buy one, get one free on a glass of wine for dinner. Well, two glasses of wine, to be honest – which I then proceeded to combine into one very full glass. I got a few looks from my dinner companions!

After dinner, I planned to visit the casino for a few minutes, then head up to a vantage point to watch our departure from Nassau. Well, as it turns out, I should have just skipped the casino entirely, because I wound up losing back all my winnings from the first night (and then some) – but there’s always today, haha! And to add insult to injury, we sailed away earlier than scheduled (that happens sometimes when all passengers have gotten back on board, especially for a late evening departure), and I missed that too. By the time I got up on deck, the lights of Nassau were just a speck in the distance off the back of the ship.

Oh well! I decided it was as good a time to any to head back to my cabin for the night. (It was definitely better than heading back to the casino!) I watched a bit of a basketball game on TV before turning in around 10 pm. Another early night, and no one to tease me about it. I was thrilled!

My first time booking a guarantee room

Ah, the mythical “guarantee” rate – I’d heard about it often in my time as a cruiser, especially as I began to learn more about the behind-the-scenes of being a travel agent. Mostly, I’d heard about guarantee rates as a way to get a good price for your cruise, so naturally, I was intrigued.

Rather than being its own type of cruise cabin, guarantee refers to a booking that’s made in a certain class of cabin without an assignment to a specific room. In a typical cruise booking, you get the opportunity to pick the specific cabin you’ll sail in; with a guarantee, the cruise line picks for you. The name comes from the fact that your booking will “guarantee” you that you’ll get no worse of a cabin than the type you’ve chosen: For instance, if you choose an ocean view guarantee, you may get an ocean view cabin or possibly even a balcony, but you won’t get assigned to an inside room.

There are a lot of advantages to the guarantee rate. As I had heard, it’s often cheaper than the price you’ll pay to pick your own room, and on our 4-day cruise to Cuba, I figured that the location of our stateroom wouldn’t really be a deal-breaker, especially for a short cruise on a smaller ship. If you book a guarantee cabin, you’ll be assigned your stateroom at some point between your booking and your sail date, and a part of me has to admit that it was a little exciting to check my Cruise Planner to find out what room I’d been assigned.

Many cruisers are lured to book a guarantee room by the elusive potential for a blockbuster upgrade – because you’ll only be assigned up, and not down, in the category of your room, it’s certainly possible that your oceanview guarantee could turn into a lovely balcony room. But most experts advise that you shouldn’t count on this – and in fact, that you should be prepared to accept any cabin in your category of booking, even the worst of them (tiny rooms, obstructed views, etc).

We were assigned to an acceptable but odd oceanview room: We were located at the very front of the ship, with a window that looked out onto a publicly accessible deck as you see in the photo at the top of this blog post. (No, this is not at all normal! Most windows face out to the ocean.) We also had two (unused) pull-down bunks that, even when stowed, were a little bit of a nuisance. (You can watch a video tour of the room next door to ours – identical in terms of layout to ours – to see what I mean.)

Ultimately, I had a good experience with my guarantee room, and I booked another one shortly thereafter. It’s all about managing your expectations and being prepared for whatever you get!

Booking our last-minute cruise to Cuba

I’d wanted to go to Cuba for a while, but I wasn’t planning on doing it as soon as early October. After all, we’d just gotten back from our 7-day Pacific Coastal cruise!

However, fate intervened: In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, Royal Caribbean was having trouble filling its cruises to Cuba from Tampa (on board, we were told the previous two sailings had been only 60-70% full). I’d learned from the excellent CNBC documentary Cruise, Inc. that cruise lines made most of their money from drinks and shore excursions (along with other extra charges), not really from the cruise fare itself. So I wasn’t surprised to see Royal drop the prices on cruise fares to Cuba.

In this particular case, the price drop was irresistible: The total cost of our 4-day cruise to Key West and Havana was just over $800 total for two people, including taxes and fees. We kept the price as low as possible by booking a guarantee oceanview room. (We could have made it cheaper by booking an interior room, but to be honest, I was still a little scarred by my experience in an inside room on Majesty of the Seas!)

I did learn, however, that the price savings for booking a last-minute cruise are often offset by the cost of purchasing last-minute airfare. In this case, our tickets from North Carolina to Tampa for the cruise were pricing at just under $500 apiece, due to the fact that we were only one week away and we needed to fly at certain times. Fortunately, I still had the companion certificate I earned from my Delta American Express card, so I used that to keep the overall costs down.

Overall, if you have the flexibility and are relatively close to a cruise port, last-minute deals on cruises can be a good option for you. I’ll write more soon about some strategies for finding some last-minute cruise deals.