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!