There are more than 200 cruise ships that you can choose from today. But the one thing that they all have in common is that a little advance planning and “insider” knowledge can help you save time and money on your next cruise. Here are the “top ten tips”:
1. Maximum flexibility = Maximum savings. Most travelers have some flexibility in their travel dates, especially if planning ahead of time. Let your cruise specialist know that you can consider alternate departure dates that may have lower rates available. Keep in mind cruise lines will offer better prices and perks on sailings that are not nearing capacity.
Tip: Shoulder or off peak sailings offer the deepest price cuts. For example, the departure right after the New Year cruise might be substantially lower.
2. Ask if guarantees are available. This requires that you have a little gambling spirit. Many cruise lines will offer a rate on a particular cabin category instead of an actual stateroom number and in effect guarantee that rate to you. Then the cruise line has the option of assigning you a stateroom in either that category or better.
Sometimes you win and end up in a cabin several grades higher and sometimes you end up in exactly the category you were guaranteed. Remember, there is both an upside and downside to this program.
Tip: Completely understand the process before booking a guarantee.
3.Upgrade programs. Often, your cruise specialist may offer a cruise line upgrade program. This means that you book and pay for category ‘B’ and will be moved to a higher category ‘A’. Again, there is an element of risk here. The fact that a stateroom may be in a higher category does not always mean it will be a more desirable cabin. For example, you might be in a nice mid ship balcony stateroom on Deck C and get an upgrade to a balcony stateroom on Deck A.
While your new assignment may be the same size and have identical amenities you might end up in a less desirable location such as near an elevator or at the extreme end of the ship. And there are outside cabins that have views partially blocked by lifeboats or other equipment. On the other hand there are many instances of guests being upgraded several categories to wonderful staterooms.
Tip: Advise your cruise specialist that you will consider upgrades offered but you want to have final say on any changes before they happen.
4.Special Fare Eligibility – One of the reasons that savvy cruisers find a knowledgeable cruise specialist and stick with them is the fact that there are many special fare programs that may or not be visible to cruisers doing casual research on the web. These include things like regional fares that are made available to residents of selected states.
Caution: If you are offered a regional fare and you don’t live in that area and can not prove residency, don’t do it. Cruise lines have the right to check your eligibility on sailing day and charge for the difference before you board. It does happen. Some of the other special fares being promoted today include active duty and retired military fares, union member fares, police and public safety discounts, airline or hospitality rates and more.
Tip: If your cruise partner is a member of any of the these groups, the discounts usually apply to everyone traveling in the same stateroom.
5. Past Passenger Specials – Virtually every major cruise line has a loyalty club for its members with different levels and benefits. Joining is free and entitles you to special perks and discounts when you book on that line. For many commonly owned cruise lines such as Carnival Corporation, the offers extend across all the brands such as Carnival, Princess, Holland America etc. Ditto for Royal Caribbean and Celebrity.
Tip: Many cruise lines started operation before computers become common and can not easily retrieve date for cruises you may have taken several years ago. However, if you send a letter to the cruise line listing the ships and cruises you have been on, most will take your word and credit you with those unrecorded sailings. This might have the effect of moving you from Gold to Platinum level and significantly improve the benefits.
6. Check for Group Rates: Many cruise agencies hold what is known as block space on ships. That means that they have reserved space at group rates, which can be up to 20% lower than individual rates. Many agencies that reserve space for groups hold aside several cabins for individual clients who might be able to depart on this date.
While you may be traveling as a group, your cruise experience will be as an individual traveler. The downside might be that your dining time or section is affected by the group program. The upside is that you might benefit from some group amenties such as an onboard credit, free shore excursion etc.
Tip: If your cruise specialist offers group rates, understand the features, benefits and limitations completely before you book. From the cruise line perspective you are a member of the group and fall under the policies and procedures for groups.
7. On board re-booking. Most cruise lines now allow you to book your next cruise with that line while on board. They may have what is known as an on board sales consultant or even a desk. This is usually a great opportunity to save. Generally, the cruise line will throw in some strong perks to retain your loyalty to their brand. Onboard credits on the future cruise can be quite substantial. Upgrades and other benefits are usually significant.
Tip: Many cruise lines realize that you may not be sure when and where you want to cruise while on your current voyage. Not to worry, because most have a program where you can book on board with the flexibility to change to other sailings and ships via your cruise specialist when you get home and keep all the benefits. This is a truly a win win for you!
8.Seek out Value Adds. Over the past few years, cruise lines have instituted something known in the trade as The Level Playing Field. This was instituted to attempt to control the rampant rebating and discounting that occurred in the post September 11 travel slump. Basically, now the cruise lines have been partially successful in putting the genie back in the bottle by requiring cruise agents to all use the same pricing feeds.
Because cruise agents do not purchase and re-sell the cruises but are paid a commission, the cruise lines themselves totally control published rates. One of the unintended side effects of Level Playing Field pricing is that the cruise lines had to find a way to promote challenged sailing dates. And they did this by creating Value Added features. They can include benefits ranging from dollars off certificates, on-board credits, pre-paid gratuities, free spa treatments, specialty dining experiences, casino credits to a free bathrobe or camera.
Tip: Ask your cruise specialist to seek out sailings that offer value adds. They can significantly impact your bottom line.
9.Arrange your own airline tickets. If you need to fly in to your embarkation port most cruise lines have flight programs known as Air/Sea arrangements. The good news is that includes the flights and often meet and greet and transfers. The bad news is that in order to publish these add-ons the cruise lines have negotiated the fares far in advance and try to set the rates on a cost average basis.
To you, it generally means that these add-ons may be up to 50% higher than the fares you can get by arranging the flights yourself. The one exception to this in many cases are Europe cruises where many lines maintain bulk contract fares. So it is always a good idea to comparison shop. Most lines allow you to purchase just the transfer package so you are able to create your own air/sea package at significant savings. And of course if you have several thousand airline miles collecting dust, this might be a good time to try to use them.
Tip: If you are arranging your own flights, make sure to allow plenty of time for flight delays etc. Savvy cruisers will often invest in a pre-cruise hotel the night before the cruise so that they can avoid the stress caused by late arriving flights. Remember, if the airline leaves you on the tarmac for 7 hours and you miss the ship, that voucher for a free flight will not seem very appealing. And unfortunately, the airline will not compensate you nor will the cruise line refund your money as you are counted as a no show.
10. Travel Insurance: What is the one thing you must bring on your cruise that you hope never to use? Trip Insurance! As you can see in #9 above things can and do go wrong. An affordable comprehensive trip insurance policy can cover many of these contingencies including, lost baggage, trip interruption, medical evacuation and more.
Your cruise specialist can explain the various programs available as there are several. Mark sure you understand fully the coverage and limitation before accepting coverage and keep in mind that you can not get coverage retroactively. It is a small, but absolutely vital part of your vacation expenditures. Keep in mind very few medical insurance polices cover you while out of the country and basic homeowner policies often do not compensate for lost luggage or other events. Just as in land based trips, the carriers responsibility to you is extremely limited by their contract and should a medical emergency arise on board or ashore you are responsible for all expenses incurred.
Tip: Cancellation coverage is very specific. Understand what is covered and not covered. You can not decide not to go at the last minute without incurring substantial cancellation charges. And if you have any pre-existing health issues, this may or may not be a covered event. That is why it is important to actually read the coverage.