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.

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!

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.

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!

Disembarkation, easy style (or so we thought)

When our time on the Explorer of the Seas was over, we had plans to stay in the Pacific Northwest for a few more days before flying home. Our next stop after getting off the ship was the Seattle airport, where we’d pick up a car, so we didn’t need to be in a hurry.

We packed up the rest of our things in the morning and went to breakfast in the Main Dining Room, which is usually served early (and for a short amount of time) on disembarkation day. I was a little surprised to find that the MDR was only serving a limited menu – this was the first time I’d seen this happen on a last day, but I guess it made sense. I was mostly interested in the coffee, anyway, and fortunately they had plenty of that!

We picked up our bags and settled into a set of comfortable chairs to wait for the dreaded “last call” to get off the ship. We had plenty of time and watched a movie while we waited. One by one, we watched the other people sitting nearby pick up their bags and leave. Finally, I could tell it was getting to be about that time, so I decided to make one last bathroom stop before we left the ship to go through immigration, which can sometimes take a while.

Imagine my surprise to find that all of the bathrooms nearby were locked! I was able to, um, hold it until we got off the ship, and things were fine. But it was a good warning not to wait until the last minute for things like these.

Finally, we took our bags and faced the reality – our cruise was over. On to the next adventure!

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.

Getting a balcony room on a cool-weather cruise

I have to say – I am a huge fan of a balcony cabin on a cruise. I love sitting on the balcony, especially when the ship is moving, and watching the world go by. Balconies are also a great place to park yourself when you’re pulling into or out of port.

But balconies can also be expensive. So for our Pacific Coastal cruise, I initially planned to pinch a few pennies and get us an oceanview room instead. It would probably be too cold to sit on the balcony, I rationalized, even though our cruise left in the middle of September. If I was wrong, we could always make use of the public space outside.

When it came time to make our final payment, I decided that just for fun I would take a look at the going rates for the various categories of cabin. I was shocked to find a rate on a balcony room that was cheaper than the ocean view I’d booked a few months earlier! Cruise ship cabins are very much priced on supply and demand (as well as the amount of time left until the cruise departs), so it’s not uncommon to see this kind of price drop (although usually it happens after the final payment date).

So I switched us to the balcony room, which also was conveniently located near the elevators on the aft end of the ship. Was it worth it? Well, I was actually paying less than I’d planned to pay for the ocean view room, so in that way it was certainly a deal. I will say, though, that we didn’t spend a whole lot of time on the balcony – early mornings (when I like to sit out on the balcony and drink my coffee) were too chilly, even with a jacket, and we preferred to be up on deck for most of the sail aways, such as our trip under the Golden Gate bridge as we left San Francisco.

Buying a 10 drinks card

Although I’ve bought Royal Caribbean’s unlimited drinks package before, I tend these days not to, especially when it’s just me and the hubby cruising by ourselves. He only drinks one or two a day, and I tend to do the same when we travel together. So I bring my two bottles of wine, and maybe a few mini booze bottles in my carry-on, and then I just pay as I go. (Oh, and along the way I look for free drinks, like at the Crown & Anchor events!)

On the second full day of our Pacific Coastal cruise, which was a sea day, I stopped in to the pub on the promenade and ordered a drink. The bartender told me about something I’d long heard mentioned, but never seen in person – the 10-drinks card, which offers ten drinks (up to a certain level) for a flat fee. So I bought one – in the name of research, of course – to learn how the whole thing worked.

The cost on my cruise for the card was $75 flat. This means that the 10-drinks card was actually around $63.50, plus the standard 18% gratuity for bar staff. Now as it happens, one of my favorite cruise drinks is a Grey Goose cosmopolitan, which can run on the expensive side. So the opportunity to pay under $6.50 a drink seemed like a great deal for me. (Note: I did not drink 10 cosmopolitans. Maybe 6 or 7. And not all at once, of course. 🙂

The 10-drinks card is lovely in its flexibility, and I wish it was a permanent part of the RC experience. I could buy drinks for both myself and my husband; if we’d wanted to, we could have bought one 10-drinks card for each of us. This level of drinking is much more suited to us than a package where one feels the need to “get your money’s worth” by drinking a certain amount a day.

The real downside is the card itself – it’s an actual physical piece of paper, and you have to have it on you, in addition to your SeaPass; plus if you lose it, you’re out of luck. We also had on this cruise the Café Selects card, which allows you to similarly prepay for coffee at a discount, and a few other paper drinks coupons. This made for a bit of paper management, but all in all it wasn’t much of a problem. (Tip: Designate one place on the desk, in the cabinets, etc to always place these lose-able items, to lessen the chance that you might lose them.)

A Day in Havana, Part II: What we did

When we boarded the ship, we found out that the tour we had originally purchased, called “Hemingway’s Havana,” was cancelled and we would have to find an alternate tour. Although we were disappointed, the tour we chose as its replacement, “Old Havana City Sightseeing,” was a more than suitable replacement.

The buses we boarded for the roughly 3-hour tour were very nice – comfortable, cool, and with a more than serviceable bathroom. It even had toilet paper! (We were reminded frequently that this is not usually the case in Cuba.)

Our tour gave us a great introduction to Havana. We stopped at a cemetery, at a cigar store, at the Christ of Havana statue, and at a local crafts market. It was a nice combination of riding around (in the air-conditioned comfort of the bus) and walking around to take pictures and learn more about Havana and Cuba.

We finished the tour around 1:30 pm, which left us plenty of time, before our 7:30 all aboard call, in which we could explore the area around the port. We started by walking away from the port down a narrow street. We wound up stopping at a restaurant about two or three blocks away where I had Ropa Vieja, a traditional Cuban dish (being from North Carolina, I described it as “Cuban BBQ”), and the hubby had garlic shrimp. We tried one of the local beers, Bucanero. (In researching this blog I found some fascinating background on Cuba’s national beers here.)

Emboldened by our beers, we started walking further into Havana. It was then that I learned one of the best pieces of advice I can give to people visiting Havana – follow your ears. We heard some fantastic Cuban music coming out of a tiny bar and decided to go in and check it out. We had some rum drinks – a daiquiri for me, a mojito for him – and danced to the music as best we could in the available space (not much).

We walked on and found ourselves in the Plaza Vieja, a lively square where we stayed a bit to watch some street performers. I had decided that I wanted to take us to the “Museo del Ron” (Museum of Rum), and so we walked a route based on the map we’d been given. (Better PDF versions to come, but for now you can view the maps below.)

We had been told that you can change foreign currency for CUCs at hotels, and given that we were getting low on cash, I decided we should do this. We stopped at a hotel and asked about changing our pounds for Cuban currency. The desk clerk agreed to do this, but she said somewhat apologetically that she wouldn’t be able to give us as good an exchange rate. To me, that was fine – at that part of the day, it was pretty much a convenience fee. I exchanged 100 pounds for 110 CUCs.

It turned out that the so-called “rum museum” was really an attraction created by the local rum, Havana Club. It took up several buildings and featured a pretty little courtyard with a small bar where you could buy rum drinks. We tried a couple and even had a drink made with rum and freshly squeezed sugarcane juice! We were getting ready to leave when we heard a band playing in the complex’s bar, where they served all of the Havana Club products. We were convinced to stay for another drink and some more fun Cuban music. We stayed until the band finished its set and walked on.

Once we made it to the end of the day, I was longing for the A/C on that cool tour bus. Although most have plenty of ceiling fans, there’s little air conditioning in the bars and restaurants in Old Havana. My advice is to dress in cool clothing and just be prepared to be hot and sweaty – try not to let it bother you. I can guarantee you’re not the only one.

After we left the Havana Club/Museo del Ron, we thought we might head straight back to the ship. But we passed by a restaurant with an invitingly breezy patio and decided to have a seat. Turns out we were at a Harley Davidson motorcycle bar! I believe the place was called Café Ciclo but unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures, and to be honest I had had a LOT of rum at this point. Some fun decor made this an easily identifiable place on the same street as the Museo del Ron:

{{pictures to come}}

We had a snack and a big bottle of water, and I tried the other local beer (Cristal), while we cooled off and prepared to head back to the ship.

My day in Havana definitely left me wanting more. I can’t wait to come back on a cruise with an overnight stop or even fly in for a couple of days. Soon!

A Day in Havana, Part I: Disembarking and customs

Finally, the day that we’d been waiting for was here. I set my alarm for 6 am so I’d be awake for our early (8 am) arrival into Havana. However, it was October, and sunrise time for Havana wasn’t until nearly 7:30. I realized that almost all places looked the same in the dark – I probably could have slept an extra half hour.

We stayed in our room getting ready and kept an eye out our window to see when it started to get light. At around 7 am, we went up to the Windjammer to get some coffee and breakfast, and after that we headed up to the top deck outside to get some pictures as we sailed into Havana. The pre-sunrise pictures were the best – soft light and some great colors in the sky. There was a lot of excitement on deck as we approached Havana.

Our shore excursion in Havana had a listed meeting time of 8 am in the ship’s theater. We showed up and found about half the ship there as well! (Ok, I’m exaggerating a bit.) We learned that they use the theater as a staging area for the departure of tour groups. You have to go through immigration as soon as you get into the cruise terminal, and this process often gets backed up. Better to wait in the air-conditioned theater!

We did wait, for about 45 minutes, in the theater before our tour group was called. We disembarked and waited for a few minutes before we were allowed into the terminal, where we stood in lines about 7-8 people deep at one of about 15 stations, each of which were manned by a Cuban immigration officer.

When it’s your turn, you go up to the officer’s station by yourself, regardless of whether you’re traveling with someone else. (I suppose with children it might be different.) You hand the officer your passport, your Cuban visa (given to you when you check in for the cruise), and your cruise card. You’ll be asked to take off any hats and also glasses, even if they’re normal glasses you wear for correcting your vision. A hanging digital camera will take your picture, your passport will be stamped (twice, one for your entry and one for your exit), and you’ll be on your way.

After passing through immigration, your next stop is straight ahead of you. It’s the place where you change your money for CUCs (Cuban Convertible Peso), the money that’s used by visitors to Cuba. I’d read on a couple of blogs that you’re best to bring money that is not American dollars, if you can (e.g. Euros, British pounds, Canadian dollars); the Cuban government charges a tax on the change of American money. (Can’t say I blame them.)

Knowing this, I brought some Euros and British Pounds that I had left over from previous trips. At this first stop, I changed 220 Euros for 250 CUC. In hindsight, I wish I had changed more at the cruise terminal, but that’s largely because we wound up spending about 150 CUC on cigars. If you’re not planning to make that sizable of a purchase, this amount of cash should be sufficient for you. (You can read in Part II how we changed some money later in the day.)

With our passports stamps and our CUCs in hand (well, in my purse), we headed out to meet our bus for the day’s tour. (Read more)