Part 1- Booking the cruise and getting to the port.
I just got back from my first ocean cruise on the Carnival Magic ship and had a blast. Along with all the normal cruise activities, I spent a good portion of my week thinking up ways to save money. Now, that I am back, I have put together my complete guide to saving money on a Carnival cruise.
The cruise I went on was on the Carnival Magic ship to Cozumel, Belize, and Roatan Island in Honduras, so some of the information is specific to that cruise. But, a lot of these tips will work on any ship so if you are planning a cruise any time in the future most of these should still help you save.
Because of the long list of tips contained in this series of articles, the 21 tips for saving money on a Carnival Cruise to Roatan Island, Belize, and Cozumel has been broken into three parts. Part 1 is booking the cruise and traveling to the port. Part 2 is saving money on excursions and what to do in the different ports. Part 3 is food, drinks, shopping, and communication.
Booking the cruise
The most expensive part of a cruise is paying for the cruise itself. These tips will help you save big money on your trip.
Tip 1: When to book your cruise
The cruise tickets will take the biggest bite out of your vacation budget, so let’s start there. When researching when to buy tickets I saw two prominent theories. Theory #1 was that it was best to buy your tickets early, as soon as you possibly can. Theory #2 was to buy your tickets as late as possible because at the last minute cruise lines will have a discount on unused cabins to make sure they are full up.
I spent nine months tracking ticket prices, and kept watching ticket prices even after I had booked my trip just to see when the best time to book was. Do you know which theory turned out to be correct? Neither.
I found that the best time to buy tickets was neither early or late, but when the tickets are on sale. Traditionally there are two big sales on cruises per year, once in early October, and once in late January. My advice is to figure out when you are going well in advance, and try to buy during one of these sales events.
Tip 2: Where to book your cruise
Just as important as when you book your cruise is where you book. I have booked two cruises now and both times I found the best price at cruisecompete.com.
Cruisecompete works like a reverse auction. You say what cruise you want to go on and when you want to go and then a bunch of travel agents bid on your cruise trying to offer you the best deal. When you are reviewing bids, the lowest price is a good place to start but you should also read through the bids carefully to see if somebody might be offering you a cabin upgrade or onboard credits (onboard credits is money you can use on your cruise for things like drinks or excursions).
Tip 3: What type of cabin should you book
It will probably come as no surprise to regular ABC readers that I booked the cheapest room available. The cheapest room available are rooms on the inside of the ship with no windows. If you pay more (often $200-$300 more) you can get a room with a window, and if you pay even more you can get a cabin with a balcony.
For my money, the cheap cabins are the way to go. Sure it would be nice to have a view of the ocean from your room, but $200 is a lot of money. I spent a great deal of time during the cruise outside on the decks and after 7 days at sea I saw all the ocean I needed to see even without paying the extra money.
On the other hand, I spoke with my aunt and uncle about taking a cruise to Alaska. While they agreed that in general the inside cabins are the way to go, the views you will see if you are cruising to Alaska is probably worth the extra money.
Tip 4: The gift card trick
My final tip to saving money on the cabin is to pay with a discounted gift card as I wrote about in this article. In my case, I bought a $1,000 Carnival gift card at a 12% discount for $880, which saved me $120.
Although cruise line gift cards can be a little hard to come by on the discount giftcard sites, cruises are the ideal situation for using the gift card trick. When you book, you will have to put down a deposit, but the rest of the payment doesn’t have to be paid until a few months before the cruise.
That gives you plenty of time to put an alert out on giftcardgranny.com. When you get an email that a card is available you can buy it and pay for the rest of your cruise at any time. You might want to buy cards worth a little more than what you owe for the room to cover excursions on your cruise. From my experience the biggest discount I could find was 12%. Cards with a 1-2% discount pop up sometimes, but I wouldn’t waste my time with those.
Traveling to the port
Depending on where you live in the country, getting to the port might cost almost as much as the cruise itself. Here are my suggestions for getting to the boat on the cheap:
Tip 5: Pick the right port/ combine trips
Many times the cruise you want will be available leaving from multiple ports. When considering which cruise you want to go on, don’t just consider the cruise itself, also keep in mind how much it is going to cost to get there.
The biggest ports in the US are in several Florida, New Orleans, and Galveston, TX. Do you have a reason to be in any of those areas any time soon? If so, see if you can combine trips. Taking one long trip instead of a couple short ones could cut your travel costs in half. In my case I knew I would be attending a conference in New Orleans, so I took that opportunity to go on a cruise the day after the conference was over.
If you can’t combine trips, then be sure to check air fares and factor that cost into your decision. If you are trying to figure out whether it makes sense to fly or drive, then you should give my fly vs drive calculator a try.
Tip 6: Pack light
Packing light not only makes getting around easier, but it will also save you money on airline baggage fees. You can find this article I wrote on clarkhoward.com on general advice, but I have a couple of ideas specific to traveling on cruises.
During one or two nights of the cruise, Carnival will designate dinner as “cruise elegant” night. Meaning you have to dress up to go to dinner. Bringing along dress clothes will add a lot of unnecessary junk to your suitcase and might make it difficult to get everything into your carry on bag. In addition to clothes you will only wear for a few hours your entire trip, you will also need to bring dress shoes with you, which takes up a lot of space.
For reasons that are completely foreign to me, many people consider this to be fun instead of a huge hassle. I dress up for work every day, and I can assure you there is nothing fun about it. You should know that you can easily skip cruise elegant night. Dressing up is only necessary in the main dining room, but there are lots of other places to eat on the ship. Cruise elegant night is a good night to try out one of the many other places to eat. More on that in part 3 of that series.
Remember that you don’t need to pack a separate outfit for every day of the trip. Guest laundry is available on the ship, so you can clean your clothes half way through the trip. Guest laundry on the ship isn’t cheap, it costs $3 to wash and another $3 to dry, but that is a lot less than what airline baggage fees might cost you.
My final tip for packing light on a cruise is that you don’t need to bring beach towels. Carnival provided two beach towels in our cabin. If I had known that ahead of time, it would have saved a lot of space in my suitcase.
Tip 7: Pack everything you need
On the other hand, you definitely don’t want to under pack either. Anything you forget can be purchased on the ship or in ports, but it will be pretty expensive.
It’s a good idea to make a list and check it twice to make sure you don’t pay big for your mistakes. The two things I forgot on my cruise were bug spray and suntan lotion, and I ended up paying $16 per bottle on the ship. While I can maybe be forgiven for not knowing how bad the mosquitoes are in Central America, having to pay $16 for suntan lotion is what I like to call “stupid tax”. I really should have known that Central America had a sun.
21 Tips for saving money on a Carnival cruise part 2- Excursions and what to do in Roatan Island, Belize, and Cozumel- Coming soon
21 Tips for saving money on a Carnival cruise part – Food, drink, shipping, and communication- Coming soon
Disclosure: Links to cruisecompete.com are affiliate links. 10% of the advertising revenue generated from affiliate links goes to support the charity noted on the right hand side of this page. The recommendation to use cruisecompete.com was not influenced by this affiliate relationship as I have twice made purchases from cruisecompete.com before an affiliate relationship existed.