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A cruise offers lots of temptations in an attempt to separate you from your hard-earned cash. If you travel as a family, those costs can add up quickly. But I believe you can have a fabulous cruise experience without giving in to extra costs. How do you cruise on a budget? Follow my lead!
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Cruise on a Budget: Food Options
Your ticket price includes all your meals. Most ships offer a variety of options – buffet, dining room, late-night snacks, all-day ice cream and pizza, etc. Food is available all day and night.
Cruise ships entice you to pay extra for their fancy restaurants, Chef’s table, or room service. Don’t do it! Plenty of fabulous food is served in the dining room. Want two appetizers? Three entrees? Four desserts? On our recent cruise on Royal Caribbean, the dinner menu featured exotic appetizers like escargots (don’t tell me you make those for yourself every night!) and staples such as steak. You won’t fit in your clothes but you can have as much or as little as you want. Enjoy it!
Cruise on a Budget: Beverage Packages
Your ticket price includes the basics – coffee, tea (including iced tea), water, and some rotating juices (orange, apple, etc.). The variety isn’t huge but the drink machines at various spots throughout the ship are available 24/7. You won’t die of thirst.
Need a little variety? Consider purchasing one of the beverage packages, and if you pre-purchase a package, you can frequently find it for 20% off. The lowest cost package features unlimited sodas for $8 per day (I want to say it was $5.95 per day if pre-purchased). On Royal Caribbean, you receive a cup that you can use on the Coca-Cola Freestyle — you select your mix. Machines were conveniently placed throughout the ship. I tried using one of the juice cups and they do not work on the coke machines (I’m guessing it has to do with weight or height of the cup).
For the middle of the road guest, a refreshment package offers soda, Starbucks (in case you can’t function without your Starbucks fix!), bottled water, and fancy juice drinks for $26 per day.
Want alcohol? You’ll have to upgrade, but the highest level includes premium and mixed drinks. The cost of the premium drink package on our June 2017 cruise on Royal Caribbean was $44 per day, which included all the lesser packages. Our group affectionately called this the “drunk” package. Consider that beers cost about $7 each and mixed drinks sell for $12 each. You’ll need to do the math to determine if a package makes sense for one, some, or all in your group.
Keep in mind that individual drinks can be purchased using your cabin card (assuming you’ve authorized charges). Drink packages purchased at least 48 hours prior to departure feature a 20% discount. Packages are only available on the first day or so of your cruise, so double-check the deadline if you’re unsure.
Drink packages work on the cruise line’s private islands – so consider getting one if you’re itinerary includes such a stop.
Cruise on a Budget: Internet
Can you give up the internet for a few days? If not, you’ll be paying a high price for WiFi. For an extra $8 per day on the premium beverage package, you can link one appliance to Royal Caribbean’s Zoom (Wi-Fi). Purchasing WiFi on Royal Caribbean was approximately $19.95/day once onboard. But coverage was spotty at best since it depended on a satellite. Most land destinations will have free Wi-Fi, say at a restaurant, so just wait for a stop to catch up on Facebook or your emails.
Cruise on a Budget: Research the Excursions
Cruise ships make a lot of money from selling excursions — aren’t you tempted with all the fabulous opportunities? I suffer from FOMO (fear of missing out), so this temptation was great for me. The advantage of booking through the ship is that they guarantee that you will be back before the ship sails or they will arrange for your return. The drawback is that you cannot get a refund if you change your mind.
Another option is to book directly with a tour company — you’ll risk whether or not they can return you on time. If you research, you can find reputable companies that offer cheaper alternatives. Just make sure there is a guarantee about what happens if you don’t make it back to the cruise before it sails away (because they will leave without you!).
But the true secret is that you don’t have to pay for any excursions! Yes, I said it! For most stops, you can wander into town on your own feet, with some port shuttle, or even taxis or local buses. Search the travel boards whether your stop is a safe place – for example, stops in Jamaica do not recommend you wander on your own. But if you’re in Nassau, Bahamas, you’ll be near lots of shopping, restaurants and tourist attractions just off the dock. Check out what we did in Nassau while spending very little.
Cruise on a Budget: Consider the Extras
Don’t blame the cruise company for trying to make a buck, but you can avoid giving them one of yours!
Those cute little shops? Don’t even enter them! Do you really need a fancy watch or sapphire earrings? NO! Duty-free liquor or goodies? NO! Cheap little jewelry or gold chain by the inch? NO! The best way to avoid all of it is to not even enter those shops.
Stay away from the casino! You know the house has the advantage, right? Make sure you have something to occupy your time so that you aren’t tempted to entertain yourself by gambling. There are free daily activities throughout the ship – participate in those.
And those photographers you see set up everywhere? Don’t pose for them! Yes, they’re unavoidable at times since photographers are always around, but if you don’t go look at them at the photo gallery, you won’t buy a $29 photo. Of course, if you do want to succumb to some of that temptation, consider pre-purchasing the all-included package at a discount that allows one person in the cabin to get all the photos that have been taken during the trip of your group.
A cruise is a great way to budget your vacation. Reservations usually require a minimal deposit as long as the balance is paid in full 90 days before sailing, allowing you to pay monthly or with other expected funds without going into debt. Pre-purchasing services makes the most sense if you do find you want a drink package or photos. Keep in mind that there is a daily tip charge on most cruise ships that will be charged daily, so you will have to pay for that on your trip. It is usually a percentage of your cabin rate, but they are clearly advertised on the websites. Make sure you plan for this expense if you don’t want to put it on your credit card. We even planned a cruise for our high school reunion.
A cruise is a great way to see several places without having to move and pack up, spend time with your family or friends, and budget for your vacation. You can see the full details of the cost involved with our Southern Caribbean Cruise. Just be smart about what you can afford and plan accordingly so that you’re not still paying for your vacation long after you return!
Annick, The Common Traveler