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.

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.

A funny thing happened at the Crown and Anchor loyalty event…

I’ve written before about my love for the Crown and Anchor loyalty events on Royal Caribbean cruises, where the company thanks the highest-level cruisers in its loyalty program. Usually, this entails a few complimentary drinks and an entertainment program of some sort, along with recognition of the cruisers onboard with the most cruise points.

So you can imagine my surprise (in fact, the surprise of nearly everyone in the Royal Theater on Harmony of the Seas) when our cruise director took to the stage and introduced the CEO of Royal Caribbean, Michael Bayley! As a self-confessed cruise nerd, I was more than a teeny bit excited as Mr. Bayley proceeded to announce that he’d be taking questions from the crowd.

In fact, he answered questions – some with great candor, and many with humor – for almost half an hour, during which I furiously took notes on my iPhone. (Note: Maybe all that practice typing for texting was good for something!) He took questions about a wide range of topics, and graciously accepted some suggestions that quite honestly my husband and I rolled our eyes at. A few highlights to me:

  • The company is planning to put a great deal of money (I think it was $800M? But it might have been $500M) into revitalizing older ships in a program he called Royal Amplify. These are going to be very extensive refurbishments, not your usual glossing over. Mariner of the Seas and Independence of the Seas are up first, with Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas to follow in 2019 and 2020.
  • Potential products like cruises from California and Brazil as well as around-the-world cruises were brought up as suggestions, but pretty quickly shot down. Apparently they’re just not profitable, and after all, we are talking about a corporation here, and they’re here to make money (not necessarily friends).
  • One guest asked about the ships getting bigger (ironic/appropriate since we’re on the biggest ship in the fleet, at least for right now) and Mr. Bayley pretty much admitted that size isn’t a limitation in the newer ships being designed. He talked about how the company’s Song of America debuted in 1982 and was said to be “too big” – at 1650 capacity! Bottom line, I don’t see Royal backing down from building megaships any time soon, especially as I’d imagine the financials are more favorable on these larger ships.

Now, of course the CEO of the company doesn’t show up at the loyalty event for every cruise – he told us that he’d boarded our ship the day before to study some of the features of Harmony in anticipation for planning the new Icon class of ships that’s scheduled to debut in the 2020s. It was a true stroke of luck, as our event had originally been scheduled for Day 2 of the cruise, and postponed due to rain. But hey, sometimes you happen to be in the right place at the right time!

More info on my Nerdy Travels in support of tourism recovery

In February 2018, I’ll be taking a two week trip to the Florida Keys and the Eastern Caribbean to promote tourism in the areas hit by Hurricanes Irma and Maria and to highlight to need for more tourists to visit these recovering areas.

Interested in getting involved with my efforts to help promote tourism in these storm-hit areas? Here are three things you can do:

  1. Come with me! In addition to its Eastern Caribbean itinerary, with stops in three of the most hard-hit ports, the February 25th sailing of Silhouette was an attractive option because it still has a lot of empty cabins, and it’s only about 6 weeks until the cruise’s departure. Celebrity would rather fill those cabins with people, so they’re offering some great deals, especially if someone in your party is 55 or older! You can email me at jessalynn@thenerdytraveler.com if you’d like pricing details. (For reference, we’re talking about a week-long Celebrity cruise from about $550-$900 per person, including the taxes. If you’ve cruised Celebrity, you know this is a pretty low price!)
  2. Tell me where to go! No, not like that, haha. Part of my planning will involve taking recommendations for locally-owned restaurants, bars, and (for the Keys) hotels to patronize. If you have a favorite beach bar in St. Maarten, seafood restaurant in the Keys, etc., send me a message at jessalynn@thenerdytraveler.com and I’ll do my best to go there, and write about it for the blog, as long as the place has been reopened.
  3. Buy me a beer! No pressure, of course, but if you’d like to subsidize my efforts, I’d happily accept your donations. You can click here to send me money via PayPal. You can combine with #2 and tell me where you’d like me to spend your vicarious tourist dollars. I’ll make sure to include pictures on the blog!

Stay tuned for updates on my travels in late February 2018, right here on the blog.

Announcing the Nerdy Traveler 2018 Tourism Recovery Tour!

As a frequent cruiser for many years, I was heartsick to see the damage done to the islands of the Caribbean by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. While I’ve made some donations to various organizations that have been helping with cleanup, I’ve been thinking for a while that I wanted to do something more to help these places as they recover.

Tourism is a major industry for the Caribbean, as it is for the Florida Keys, which were also devastated by Hurricane Irma. If I can be nerdy for a minute, I was shocked to read that economists have estimated that a 1% drop in tourism can lead to a decline of over $200 million in GDP for the Caribbean.

I’m not going to be able to make up for that drop by myself, of course, but I’d like to do my part to help the Keys and the Caribbean by doing what I do best: Traveling to these places, spending my tourist dollars, and of course – writing about them for the blog!

So, on February 19th, I’m going to head down to the Florida Keys for a few days of exploring — and contributing to the local economy. I’ve been to Key West several times on cruise ships, and while I’ll certainly spend some of my time (and money) there as well, I’m excited to finally explore the middle and upper parts of the Keys – and to help give back to some of the small business owners in the hardest-hit areas.

Then, I’ll head back up to Fort Lauderdale to board the February 25th sailing of Celebrity Silhouette, which makes stops in San Juan, St. Thomas, and St. Maarten – three of the islands that have been hardest hit by the hurricanes. I’m pleased to be sailing on Celebrity, whose parent company, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, played a huge role in helping these islands’ recovery, both in the immediate aftermath of the storms and by bring passengers back in the long term.

(My hubby has graciously agreed to escape the somewhat-chilly North Carolina winters to accompany me on this mission. Am I a lucky gal, or what? 🙂

You can read more here about how you can get involved in my trip. And of course, look for a bunch of blog posts coming at the end of February so you can follow along with my journey!

Majesty of the Seas Live Blog: (Bonus!) Day 6

All in all, my misadventures in travel on Day 5 turned out pretty well, considering that I never actually made it home (or even left the state of Florida, for that matter!). I had a nice room at a hotel I was familiar with, and I’d even managed to pay for it with my Hilton points, meaning I wasn’t out of pocket any additional money. I had a ticket on a direct flight home (well, almost home) on the next day, and it didn’t even leave until the reasonable hour of 11:30 am.

I was feeling pretty good…perhaps, too good? I woke up fairly early on the unexpected day 6 of my trip and packed up my things to head to the airport around 8:30. Sure, I’d be a little early, but Orlando can be a notoriously busy airport, and I figured it wouldn’t hurt to get there a little early. Indeed, the rash of cancellations on the previous day meant that Delta’s ticket counters were busy and the lines were a little long. I checked my bag again, feeling a strong sense of déjà vu, and went through the security line.

I had been resting comfortably in the Delta Sky Club, posting my Day 5 blog post, for about an hour when I saw the first delay on my flight. Here we go again, I thought, but fortunately for me, Day 6’s flight delays had a much happier ending than Day 5’s. While we were delayed about a half an hour in our departure, we only landed about five minutes after our scheduled arrival time.

I arrived home to a winter wonderland – the weather system that had cancelled my flights on Day 5 was still in full effect, and it snowed for most of our drive home from the airport. Even though it was cold, I was glad to be home. But that doesn’t mean I’m not counting the days until my next cruise!

Read the previous posts in this live blog series: IntroductionDay 1Day 2 (CocoCay)Day 3 (Nassau)Day 4 (Sea Day)Day 5

Majesty of the Seas Live Blog: Day 5

Day 5 was a study in the need for (extreme) patience when we put our fate in the hands of the airlines — and mother nature.

Remember that wintry weather I mentioned on my Day 4 blog? I called Delta as soon as I was back in cell range, but didn’t have any luck getting put on earlier flights. Nevertheless, I hustled to get my bags ready and get off the ship with the “self-assist” disembarkation group, which left at 7:45 am. This is the term for when you take your own bags off the ship rather than using the ship’s luggage assistance (when they collect your bag the night before you depart and deliver it to you in the terminal building). If you have an early flight or just want to get off the ship early, self-assist is the only way to do it.

Just as in my last experience at Port Canaveral, I was off the ship quickly and on a shuttle to the airport around 8 am. When I arrived at 9 am, I asked again about earlier flights, but nothing was available. I decided I had no choice but to hope for the best. I checked my bag, went through security, and settled in at the Delta Sky Club, a perk I get from my American Express Platinum card (while its annual fee is rather pricey, this card certainly has some advantages for frequent travelers like myself).

It started innocuously, with a 20-minute delay to my first flight (Orlando to Atlanta). But as time wore on, the situation worsened quickly. First, the flight was delayed for 90 minutes, as was my connecting flight from Atlanta home to Greensboro; then the delay went to over two hours. I had a small bit of hope that I might make it as far as Atlanta when they actually boarded our flight (about an hour after we were originally scheduled to depart), but that hope was short lived.

Through a long sequence of events (that would make this post infinitely long if I detailed them all), my flight from Orlando to Atlanta was cancelled. I jumped on my phone and hustled to find a hotel room in Orlando for the night; fortunately, I was able to get a room at the same DoubleTree we’d stayed at when we came for our Majesty cruise in August. With the knowledge that I wouldn’t have to sleep in the airport, I was able to rest much easier while I waited in line (for quite some time) to find out what flights I’d been reassigned to.

Here’s where the story has a funny ending, albeit a happy one. You see, I live right in between two airports – Raleigh-Durham (RDU) and Greensboro (GSO). It’s about equidistant to drive to both, but for this trip I’d chosen Greensboro. Well, when Delta reassigned my flights, they had me routed from Orlando to RDU to Detroit and then back to GSO! Fortunately, I was able to talk to an agent and they easily changed my schedule to the first flight only (Orlando-RDU), and I talked the hubby into coming to pick me up at RDU since my car was parked at GSO. (This was very nice of him, seeing as how I’d left him at home while I went on this cruise by myself!)

As a bonus, I looked at the boarding pass the agent handed me for my flight the next day – and I had been put into first class! What a treat!

So while I thought that Day 5 would be the last day of my vacation, it turned out that the travel gods had another plan for me. So here I am in a hotel room in Florida, while it snows back home – I’m a little disappointed to miss the snow, and not looking forward to clearing off my car (parked in a surface lot and not a garage, sigh) when I get home. But I do remember that ultimately, I will get home – even if it’s a day later than I’d intended. I just wish I’d remember to pack an extra pair of underwear….

Read (unexpected!) Day 6’s blog here.

Let’s try this: My first live blog

Maybe it’s because I’m a bit of a cruise addict, but I love reading live blogs on sites like Royal Caribbean Blog, Cruise Habit, and CruiseRadio, among others. In a live blog (sometimes called a trip report), the cruiser posts a rundown of each day spent on the cruise – what he/she did, ate, drank, etc. Some of these can be rather extensive, and they give you a really good idea about what life is like on the ship and in the ports being visited.

I had a mind to do a live blog for our Pacific Coastal cruise in September, but due to a number of factors, it didn’t happen. In part, I felt bad telling my husband to leave me alone once a day so I could write and post a blog entry! So upon embarking on my first solo cruise, a live blog seemed to be the thing to do.

I’ll be leaving on a 4-night sailing of Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas today, Monday December 4, and hope to post on the blog every day this week telling you what my days at sea (and in port) consisted of this week. It’s my first time giving this live blogging thing a try, so bear with me!

Our cruise leaves from Port Canaveral and visits CocoCay, Nassau, and has a day at sea before returning back to Florida. I’m excited to return to Majesty of the Seas after our short Bahamas cruise on her last August. I’m looking forward to hanging out (and writing blog posts!) in her lovely public areas — and mostly I’m looking forward to NOT having one of her tiny inside cabins!

Read Day 1’s blog here.

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.

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.