Cruising is one of the fastest growing segments of the travel industry right now. Some people love to cruise and happily do the same routes and even the same ships over and over again. Others swear they will never set foot on a cruise ship. Some people say that it’s not authentic travel; stuck on a ship with all the conveniences, separated from the “real life” in the ports they visit. Others say that cruising opens the world to them, allowing them to visit places they would never be able to reach, especially with young kids.
Like many families, we have included cruising in our family travels. We have done five cruises since becoming parents and have two more booked, with a tentative hold on a third. We started when the kids were young because it was a safe and easy way to travel with babies and toddlers. We did a Celebrity cruise to Alaska when our oldest was nine months old and a Disney cruise to Mexico when our kids were 21 months and three years old and we enjoyed the convenience of seeing a few different places while relaxing by the pool, enjoying nice meals and only unpacking once.
Our more recent cruises have been more itinerary based. We cruised with MSC cruises from Venice in summer 2014 and while there were things about the ship that weren’t perfect, the itinerary was amazing, visiting Olympia, Dubrovnik, Ephesus and Istanbul in one week. We basically viewed the ship as a giant sparkly, floating bus and it served us very well. We’ve also cruised mainly for the experience. Our five day cruise from Miami last Christmas visited the Bahamas and Key West, which weren’t high on our list of favourites, but we got such an amazing deal on a Disney cruise (a computer glitch gave us a five day Christmas cruise for the price of a four day low season cruise and we snapped it up before they fixed it!) that we ignored the so-so itinerary and enjoyed everything Disney had to offer!
Many people wonder how to get a good deal on a cruise. There are so many variables like cabin type, cruise line, itinerary, dates and booking times. There are great deals in the paper sometimes, but they are limited to certain dates and cabins and once you add port fees and taxes, extra passengers, excursions, drinks, etc, the deals seem a lot less impressive. So how does a person find a truly great travel deal? The only way is to do your research! Here are a few tips to get you started.
Most cruises are more expensive at certain times and this can depend on the itinerary. The dates around Christmas are usually the most expensive with prices going up during spring break season (roughly March/April) and summer season for cruises that sail out of North American ports. That said, there are ways to find deals. Find out when spring and summer breaks happen. For example, our spring break is usually late March, but Texas has their break in early March. Therefore, cruises out of Galveston Texas are at low season prices when we’re off. Many schools on the East Coast begin their school year in August so if you can wait until late August you can find some deals. British schools are in session until mid July, so European cruises that cater to the British market may have deals in early July. And of course, if your dates are wide open and you’re not too risk averse, there are great deals to be found in the Caribbean in hurricane season!
2) Cruise Line vs Itinerary
We love Disney cruises, but you have to work really hard to find a good deal with them. We’ve been able to cruise three times with them by travelling twice when most schools are in session and finding our great computer glitch deal once. However, Disney has a very small fleet and a very limited set of itineraries and now that we’re wanting to explore a bit more, the boring ports don’t really seem worth the type of costs. A one week cruise can have anywhere from three to six stops. One stop may even be the cruise line’s private island, so it’s really more like seeing only two places in a week. If relaxation is your goal that may be fine, but if your goal is to use the cruise ship as a springboard for some exploring, it’s worth seeking out a more port heavy itinerary.
3) Old Ship vs New
The cruise industry has been adding new ships at a fantastic rate over the last few years, with each new ship looking bigger and flashier than the last. These mega ships look amazing, with so many features and activities that you may never want to get off. Unfortunately, many of these amazing new ships end up on the most boring routes, the ones with a lot of competition where all these new features will attract higher prices. And the older ships? Well, they tend to end up with two options; either doing the short three and four day “party” cruises, often out of smaller ports, or doing more specialized cruises to less popular (and more interesting) destinations. Newer ships have a lot going for them; more spacious rooms, more dining options, great recreation options. But many people love the “classic” feel of some of the older ships and appreciate the smaller size. If you look carefully, you can usually tell if a ship is new or heading towards it’s last days. One big hint is the number of balcony rooms. A ship with very few private verandahs is usually quite old since they were considered a luxury feature until recently. While there’s nothing wrong with many older ships, it’s a good idea to check reviews and watch for complaints about poor maintenance and run dated decor. Some of the lowest prices are on ships that are well past their prime so it pays to investigate.
4) Other Variables
A search engine like Expedia, or even the cruise lines own websites can give you dates and itineraries and a rough idea of prices, but the only way really compare prices is to start plugging in dates and choosing cabins. Often the full price of a cruise is only revealed well into the booking process, in the last few steps before paying for the cruise. Don’t be afraid to hit that “book now” button and look closer. For example, I was looking at a certain route recently and I initially didn’t check out Princess Cruises because their cost looked significantly higher than the other two lines doing that itinerary. However, when I investigated more closely, I found that the third and fourth person costs were much less on Princess. When I checked out the price for a family of four, the three lines were about even. Depending on the prices for third and fourth passengers, it can even be cheaper to book two interior staterooms with two people in each rather than one balcony cabin with four. Families of five or more will almost always be better off booking two smaller rooms rather than one big one.
Canadians have an extra challenge because some cruise lines quote prices in Canadian dollars and others give prices in American. You need to keep a currency calculator handy and be aware that the deals could get better or worse by the time you need to pay in full, depending on the exchange rates.
So that’s a primer on finding great cruise deals for families. Remember, it never hurts to research! Pick up brochures, scroll through websites, punch in some dates and numbers. It costs nothing to look. And when you see a deal, jump on it. You never know when you may find computer glitch!