Frugal Grandma is a cruise pro. Right now she’s somewhere between Barbados and Terceira Azores with Frugal Grandad, celebrating her 83rd birthday in style. If this sounds not-so-frugal, do note that as with everything she does, Frugal Grandma snagged a smart price. She zones in on her preferred cabin like a heat-seeking missile. She also manages to get affordable long-haul holiday insurance, which isn’t easy to find when you’re in your eighties.
Until my mum decided to book her first cruise last year, I had no idea about the skillset required to get a decent deal. Before booking, my mum received wise counsel from Frugal Grandma about the cruise company, the destination, the time of year to go and, very importantly, the best value cabin category and the cheap cabin category to avoid (close to the engine and noisy, if memory serves). My mum went along to A Very Well-Known Travel Agency with her list of must-dos and must-haves, and bagsied her cut-price cruise. Only to find, when the documentation arrived in the post a few days later, that she’d been given one of the cabins close to the engine instead of the one she’d been promised. Merry hell was raised, various offers of a partial refund were spurned with noisy disdain, and my mum eventually got the cabin she’d signed up for. But crikey, snagging that cruise deal seemed rather difficult and stressful.
Jeremy Head is a seasoned travel journalist, who has written for The Times, The Independent and the Guardian, among others, so this is one of his areas of expertise. Here is his post, written especially for Miss Thrifty readers, about the best and simplest (swoon!) ways to find a good cruise deal.
“Cruises.” Chances are your first association with the word will be “expensive”. Sure you can spend thousands on round-the -world marathons, but you can find cruises that cost less than £75 a day relatively easily if you do a little hunting around. But it’s a complex industry so you do need to do your homework. Here are a few top tips for would-be cruise-deal hunters.
1. Book early.
You might, just might, get an amazing last minute deal. But it’s unusual. Generally cruise companies want to get big chunks of their inventory sold and the money banked as long before the cruise as possible. So their biggest incentive is to offer competitive deals early to get people to part with their cash early. (If they get that part right, there won’t be any last minute cabin availability to have to sell off cheap.) So unless you are really not that bothered about which cruise company you go with, where you cruise to and when, don’t go for the last minute deal option. Book early – and by that I mean up to a year before your cruise.
2. Sign up for emails and keep an eye on social media
And how do you know when a cruise company releases its new cruise itineraries and the associated early bird deals that go with them? Easy. Get them to tell you. All the major cruise lines have email sign ups so once you know which company you want to cruise with, sign up. Or better sign up with several and compare the deals. Similarly most cruise lines have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts – so keep an eye on these too. The great thing about social media sites is you can ask the questions and generally expect fairly timely answers. Ask them to tell you about their latest cruise deals. Let the deals come to you.
3. Use cruise forums
There are several to choose from. For UK readers one of the best is Cruise critic, which has a whole page devoted to cruise deals – www.cruisecritic.co.uk/bargains/. You’ll often find cruise travel agents are quite active in these spaces. If you already know your preferred cruise destination then pose a question in the forums and see what comes back. Specialist cruise agents do genuinely seem to be able to find particularly good cruise deals – whether this is because they have access to deals that we don’t is harder to say. It could just be that they know the cruise lines and their ways of working far better than a first time cruise-purchaser. So see what they have to offer but see if the same deal is available direct with the cruise line too; companies like P&O Cruises, for example, often have dedicated pages for their last minute cruise deals.
4. Understand what costs
It’s all about supply and demand, of course. So for example, if it’s new, you’ll pay for the privilege. A lot of people want to say they sailed on the newest ship in the fleet with all its exciting innovations and attractions. If you’re happy booking a slightly older ship – one that maybe doesn’t have the 3D cinemas and waterfalls – you’ll find similar cruise itineraries can vary in price quite dramatically. And, airfares across the Atlantic are only going up at the moment. This means that fewer Americans are opting to cruise in Europe and Europeans face higher costs for cruises in places like the Caribbean where a flight is part of the package. So, although in the past it was categorically cheaper to cruise the Caribbean rather than Europe – that’s not always true for UK-based cruise passengers today.
5. Don’t just look at the lead-in price
Unfortunately there can be all sorts of add-ons and provisos when you’re buying a cruise. Smart cruise deal hunters look at the whole package – not just the lead-in price. Does that remarkably good “all-inclusive” deal also include alcoholic drinks on-board? What about shore excursions? If you’re driving to the port, what about parking costs? It’s really important to keep an eye on those extras. And then there’s tipping. Some cruise lines include an obligatory tipping supplement. Once you’ve got to know the lie of the land with the way pricing is worked with the particular cruise line, start looking for discounts. Cruise lines may hold firm on dropping their prices but will offer other inducements that are extremely valuable, like free upgrades and cash credits to spend on board.
6. Choose your cabin and your cruise
Getting a great deal isn’t just about securing the lowest price. It should also be about squeezing the maximum out of your budget. Inside cabins are usually significantly cheaper than those with windows or balconies. So ask yourself – are you likely to spend a lot of time in your cabin? If it’s going to be primarily just for sleeping, get more for your money by opting for a cheaper inside cabin on a more luxurious cruise. You get the same luxuries as the people who’ve paid twice as much as you for the sake of a window.
7. Choose your season
As with most sectors of the holiday market there are on and off-seasons for cruising. It makes sense to avoid school holidays if you don’t have kids, but there are also climatic reasons for off-seasons. Deal hunters should look for special deals March to April and late September to November in Europe, autumn months for the Caribbean and May and September for Alaska. But be aware that there’s a reason for these cruises being cheaper. Weather in particular is a factor: autumn cruises in the Caribbean are often cheaper but that’s in part because it’s hurricane season, which can mean shore excursions get cancelled or ports get bypassed.
8. Join the crew
It’s a bit left field, but if you’re really keen to see the world aboard a cruise ship, the cheapest way to do it could be to work for a cruise line. Spending weeks at sea at work certainly isn’t for everyone, but if crewing a ship isn’t your idea of fun, you could still work for a cruise line in an administrative role on dry land. Choose the right cruise line to do this for, and you get access to staff discounts that no customer would ever achieve and if you work in marketing or PR you may well get the opportunity to go on staff familiarisation cruise trips too.
If you are a cruise lover and you are reading this post: do you have any tips or ideas to add to Jeremy’s tally?
P.S. In case you are wondering, the picture below features a “greasy pole competition”. Apparently this is what people used to do for fun on cruise ships before the advent of 3D cinemas and surfing simulators.