Only a few months ago I was on a cruise ship on our family honeymoon – the Royal Caribbean’s cruise ship Ovation of the Seas – a new, luxury ship that is one of the largest in the world. Not he largest: although there were 4,100 passengers and 1,600 staff there are cruise ships that are even larger. And I’m not joking about it being a family honeymoon: new husband, my kids, parents in law, sister in law and husband, cousin in law and husband are all on board.
In recent years I have found that more and more people I know are cruising. The range of activities onboard is growing, and the photos I have seen is amazing. There is much, much more to do onboard than just lounging by the swimming pool, cocktail in hand. With Australia well and truly into the cruise season for the year, if you want to go cruising now is a good time.
So, is it frugal?
My Neil has been telling me for over a year that cruises are a frugal way to travel. They are certainly more expensive than staying at home playing scrabble or going camping (well, perhaps not glamping). But if you want to travel overseas to more than one destination, going on a cruise ship is much cheaper than flying to multiple destinations and renting accommodation. Plus our cruise included food (other than specialty dining experiences), basic tea/coffee/cordial plus some high-quality entertainment.
Overall, I would classify cruising as being good value for what it provides, which is different to it being frugal. For our family of four, the cost for us averaged $93 per person per day. We had the sense that some people on our cruise were frequent cruisers, sailing the seas going from one port to the next. If you were in retirement and downsized your home, cruising could actually work out cheaper than say moving into a retirement village and paying for a cleaner.
But the cost of cruising can creep up. Here are some of my tips to enjoy a frugal cruise.
- Inside rooms without a balcony are generally cheaper. It is nice to enjoy a sunset drink on your balcony, but in reality, you are probably going to spend most of your time out and about at restaurants, bars, by the pool or at shows. If you hit bad weather you are not likely to be sitting out on a windy, wet balcony in any case. You can save thousands by choosing an inside cabin. With ours, we were able to turn on a ‘virtual’ balcony that projected a view of what was happening outside. A bonus is our room was darker so we could sleep in longer.
- The early bird catches the specials – with the help of a travel agent. Our cruise was almost sold out. We booked a year in advance after my mother-in-law identified the ship and cruise she wanted and searched for deals. She found the best price was through a travel agent that specialised in cruising. Similar cabins were over $3,000 more expensive closer to the cruise date, so we reckon we did well. Plus the travel agent himself was on the ship, a sign that he knew it was a good cruise, too.
- Choose a cruise line that values customer loyalty. Royal Caribbean has a kind of frequent flyer program – guests move into various classes (gold, ruby, emerald, diamond etc) based on how often they travel. This gives them access to VIP rooms onboard that include free drinks and canapes, plus other benefits such as some free internet. If you book for your next cruise as soon as you board, you often get cheaper tickets plus on-ship credit.
- Check online for last minute specials. If time is not an issue for you and you don’t have any firm preference on destination or cruise line, then check online for last minute specials. Cruises in offseasons are often less full, and they discount tickets close to sailing to boost numbers. Try Cruise Guru, Oz Cruising, Travel Zoo, Qantas and Kogan Travel for their online discounts.
- Get organised for pre-cruise deals. Check the website of your cruise for details about add-on specials. It is generally much cheaper, for instance, to order WiFi or drinks packages ahead of a cruise – especially if the cruise line is running a predeparture special.
- Older and smaller cruise ships can be cheaper. They might not have as many fancy things on board, but they are still good value. If your idea of a cruise is sitting by the pool drinking a pina colada, you can do that whether the ship is big and fancy or older yet refurbished.
- Compare the price of onshore tours purchased through the cruise line with local ones carefully. The advantage of purchasing through the cruise line is if the ship is delayed, they will rearrange. This can happen – there were two medical emergencies on our cruise and it meant several day tours were cancelled or rearranged. Similarly, the cruise ship will wait for you if the bus breaks down on a ship-arranged tour. But this often comes at a cost – for example, for a family of four, a day tour to Hahndorf would have cost over $400; instead we hired a car for four or us to go to McLaren Vale for the day for around $100.
- Travel insurance is a must. Most cruise ships have a doctor, and even a hospital on board. (I recently met a GP who had spent time working on a cruise ship, and he said it was a surprisingly busy time for him.) But if you need urgent medical treatment for a serious condition it will come at a cost – even if you are in Australian waters. As we watched a helicopter winch a passenger in a critical condition off at Exmouth (off the coast of WA Australia), we couldn’t help but wonder – did they have travel insurance? The helicopter had to circle around eight times before the patient could even leave; it was quite a complex operation in moderately high winds at sea. Don’t bankrupt yourself by skipping travel insurance.
- Bring your medicines with you. The likelihood of getting seasick at least once onboard is high. And because there are so many people on board, it is easy to get gastro or the cold and flu. The best way to prevent getting an infectious disease is to wash your hands. And the next best remedy is to take vitamins and basic medicines. You can buy things on board but it is much cheaper to take anything you might need with you. It is imperative that you go and pay to see a doctor on board if you have a serious condition, but if you can self heal minor illnesses with your medicine you can save. (Note: obviously please do see a doctor if you have any health concerns – better to be safe than very sick.) For ladies, pack sanitary products as these are also more expensive onboard.
- Don’t go overboard on spending onboard. Do you really need that special glittery T-shirt? Or more handbags? Or souvenir T-shirts you may never wear again? The shopping mall onboard is the most popular place on the ship. When you are relaxed and on holidays, it is easy to want to spoil yourself with shopping. But the items on the ship are rarely cheap, even if they are duty-free. (Note: the duty-free alcohol store on our ship sold out of some choice brands within a day of leaving port – get in early if you are on a ship full of Aussies.)
- Drinks packages are rarely cheap. If you want to indulge in a booze and cruise and basically live in a semi-comatose state for the entire trip, then a drinks package might be worth it for you. But we calculated we would need to have around ten drinks EACH every day (even on shore days) for it to be worthwhile. Also, the rules prohibit just having one drinks package a cabin so for us we would have needed to pay double. Just think how much you would need to drink to make it worthwhile. I had four cocktails (two shared with my Neil) and we shared two bottles of wine at dinner for the entire 14-day trip. For me, that was a lot. Non-alcoholic drinks also cost money. For all four of us for 14 days on the softdrink/coffee package it worked out at USD$1,008. That’s over a thousand dollars US on sugary rubbish and caffeine (basic coffee is free). We rarely buy a soft drink anyway, and so just drinking lemon cordial and iced tea onboard saved us a packet. And we think the idea of drinking a lot on a swaying ship would make us feel even more queasy than being seasick. (Note: you can take a limited number of bottles of alcohol and soft drink with you. Check the details that your cruise ship provides you carefully to avoid your plonk being confiscated – they will check your luggage and what you carry on.)
- Specialty dining. Most cruises include good quality meals. Most evenings we ate with the in-laws, and enjoyed quality three-course meals with the waiters doting on my kids (who got a little too used to all the attention.) There was no extra charge for this (doting or the food). But as we were on our honeymoon, we wanted to enjoy a few special moments including at the Chef’s Table or themed restaurants.
- Currency conversion. Where possible choose a ship that uses Australian dollars (or the currency of the country you get paid in) so that you don’t lose on conversion rates. P&O, Carnival and Princess accept AUD. Our cruise ship was American and converted all costs from USD to AUD. We found the exchange rate on credit cards was generally better than what was provided by the ship; check and monitor so you know what works best.
- Arrive at your departure city with plenty of time to spare. Our cruise started in Singapore, so we arranged to be there three days beforehand. If we had flown in a few hours before the cruise departed, we could have missed the boat if the flight was delayed for any reason. Once that ship has sailed, all you can do is fly to the next destination and try to pick it up.
Have you been on a cruise before? Or are you planning one? What are YOUR frugal cruising tips?