How to Get the Most Out of Your Next Cruise

These expert tips and strategies will help you find the best values while maximizing fun, romance, relaxation, or anything else you’re looking for.

Cruise ship docked
Cruises can be very expensive, but they don’t have to be. The key is thinking like an expert.Shutterstock

Did you know that 28.5 million passengers took a cruise in 2018? According to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), that’s nearly a seven percent increase from 2017. While cruising used to be geared more for affluent travelers, they’re increasingly appealing to the masses (from budget-conscious and luxury seekers to families and singles), which might explain the rise in the number of cruisers.

To keep the base price affordable, most cruise line fares include room, board, and basic amenities, such as standard dining and entertainment. But if you’d like to eat at a specialty restaurant, access 24/7 Wi-Fi, or book a massage, be prepared to pay extra.

Unless you’re sailing on one of the more all-inclusive luxury cruise lines (like Paul Gaugin Cruises or Crystal Cruises), you might experience a little sticker shock when you see your final cruise statement. If you’re not a savvy cruiser, this can put a huge dent in your wallet—and quickly deflate that post-vacation buzz.

But if you adopt a few strategies from cruise experts, you can score more on your cruise, keeping in mind that a “good value” isn’t always about saving money.

Use smarter booking strategies

To get the best value, either book far in advance (to snag those early-bird prices) or take advantage of last-minute deals (when cruise lines must fill empty staterooms), according to John and Heather Widmer. The couple, true working nomads, have been travelling around the world together since December 2013, chronicling their adventures on their blog Roaming Around the World. To date, they’ve sailed on 16 cruises together across 10 different cruise lines. Not surprisingly, they know a few tips on squeezing the most value from every cruise.

Beside booking early (or last-minute), John advises looking for repositioning cruises, which are longer, one-way cruises based on seasonal changes in demand. This allows he and his wife to indulge in affordable luxury, as they travel in off-peak times and stop at a variety of ports.

Another option? Consider booking through a travel agent, who often has access to group specials. This essentially allows you to ride on the coattails of a group tour—even if you don’t know anyone in the group—to take advantage of lower rates, notes Laura Glenn, who co-owns Island Dreams World Travel with her husband David. Laura, who has sailed on roughly 50 cruises herself, likens it to buying a block of hotel rooms to lock in a good deal, then sharing that good rate with others.

Finally, think about splitting a cabin with friends or family. “The third and fourth passengers in a room generally pay less than the first or second person,” says Laura. “If you split the total cost of the stateroom four ways, this makes it more affordable for everyone.”

Say no (or yes) to a guaranteed stateroom

In terms of saving cold hard cash, letting the cruise line choose your stateroom is usually a money-saver. “If you don’t care where you’re going to be on a ship, book the least expensive category that you’ll be happy with,” advises Laura.

While you can typically save money by not booking a guaranteed stateroom, Laura advises taking other factors into consideration, too. Sometimes the value isn’t in the money you save, but in the convenience of your location.

For example, if you’re traveling with others and want to be next door to them, you have zero control if you don’t choose the staterooms yourselves. Or, if you’re a bit claustrophobic, you might hate an interior room and want an ocean-view room. Conversely, if you’re prone to seasickness, you might want an interior room on the lower deck, which is less likely to rock. “It depends on ship,” notes Laura. “Megaships have stabilizers, so you don’t even feel like you’re moving.”

And sometimes, you can even get a room upgrade simply by asking the cruise line. Don’t expect it, says Laura, but it can happen.

Take advantage of onboard freebies

Oasis of the Seas
Some cruise ships are packed with amenities and entertainment options, ensuring that guests are never bored. Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, for example, boasts a redesigned pool that offers live music, a signature bar, hammocks, whirlpools and more.Royal Caribbean

Before you get caught up purchasing all the “extras”, don’t lose sight of what’s already included with your cruise fare.

For instance, standard dining is complementary in the ship’s main dining rooms—and the food can be absolutely fabulous. From shrimp scampi and escargot to crème brulee and raspberry cheesecake, you can explore world-class cuisine at every meal. And you can usually order multiple entrees or appetizers at no upcharge, says John.

As for the amenities, events, and entertainment, you can spend the entire day hopping to different activities—for free—and never get bored. Depending on the cruise ship, you can explore pools, water-slides, hot tubs, rock-climbing walls, ice skating rinks, fitness centers, basketball courts, arcades, karaoke, concerts, stand-up comedy shows, audience-participation game shows, movies, plays, art shows, liquor tastings, poolside parties, salsa dancing, scavenger hunts, and more.

Consider which extras are worth it

If you crave premium coffee, guzzle soda, or envision tropical drinks in your hand all day, you might want a drink package. But do the math before you plunk down the cash. On Royal Caribbean, for example, the deluxe drink package is $82 per person per day for unlimited alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. At roughly $5 a pop for a Starbucks coffee or soda and $8-$12 per beer, wine, or cocktail, drinks can add up quickly without a beverage package. But if you don’t think you’ll get your money’s worth, skip the package and shift those vacation dollars to something splurge-worthy—like a scuba-diving excursion.

Download the cruise line app

Most cruise lines offer a mobile app, putting vacation planning in the palm of your hand to pre-book onboard activities, make dinner reservations, and snag shore excursions. While this can save you money, it also eliminates the headache of planning your trip while you’re actually on your trip. Plus, for limited-seating activities (like excursions and specialty dining), booking early ensures you don’t miss out on key activities.

Cruise line apps help “to ensure that guests can enjoy vacations that are simpler, more efficient, and dramatically more connected,” explains Christina Caballero, Senior Manager of Public Relations at Royal Caribbean International. She notes, for example, that the Royal Caribbean app can help speed up the check-in process. “Guests take a quick selfie, scan their passports, and within minutes have their Set Sail Pass on their phones up to two days prior to departure. Guests who qualify for expedited arrival skip the longer lines and get from car to bar in 10 minutes.”

Plus, you can keep track of onboard expenses for your entire party, including any children with charging privileges. “Having the expense account at your fingertips is a perfect way to track and monitor your budget,” notes Caballero.

Lisa Beach is a seasoned freelance writer. Her work has been published in The New York Times, USA Today Go Escape, Good Housekeeping, Eating Well, and dozens more. Check out her writer’s website at www.LisaBeachWrites.com.