How to take a family cruise without cleaning out your banking account
If there’s one thing you can count on a mom to do, it’s figure out how to cut corners and save a little cash. Whether you get your thrills by coupon-clipping, Groupon-hunting or pinning DIY hacks to your Pinterest board, you’re going to appreciate these cruise money-saving “secrets” when it comes time to book your next family vacay.
Colleen McDaniel, Managing Editor of CruiseCritic.com, wholeheartedly agrees that crowd-sourcing is where it’s at if you want to slash your cruise costs to rock-bottom prices. She says that, “With so many ships and cruise lines, it’s hard to know which will be best for your family. Reading reviews from other families can help narrow down the choices and highlight the ships that best meet your family’s needs.”
Once you’ve narrowed down the right ship, the next step is booking your dream cruise at an affordable price. We’ve asked cruise-loving parents, and they’ve answered — here’s how to snag a totally memorable family cruise on the cheap:
1. Book ridiculously early — and keep an open mind
You probably know by now that the early bird gets the worm on travel deals. But as Anie, a Texas mom of two, tells it, you can save even more money on a cruise by considering alternate booking outlets and by leaving no stone unturned. "I went on a Norwegian cruise line to the Bahamas! I saved a ton by getting my tickets six months in advance through Costco. I got crazy cheap flights to Miami through KAYAK where you can watch price trends and be alerted of deals and a Travelzoo super saver hotel in the hot spot of Miami that ended up being cheaper than driving to the coast and leaving my car there. It was such a good deal ($350/room for two) that 10 family members and a friend came along,” Anie says.
2. Consider splurging on a cruise line
There’s another old adage that says you have to spend money to make money, which may mean that the time is right to book a Disney Cruise. Sure, Disney Cruises cost more than other budget, family-friendly cruise lines — precisely because of all the bells and whistles that come with the total cost. Carey Reilly of Not So Skinny Mom now considers herself a Disney Cruise fanatic after taking advantage of the many "freebies" on board, "I love Disney because of its endless activities for kids, including the many kid's clubs. One of my favorite memories aboard the cruise ship was dropping the kids off at the kid's clubs while my husband and myself enjoyed a 5-star brunch at their awesome restaurant Palo. We were psyched to dine on filet mignon without one chicken nugget in sight! Disney also gives you walkie-talkies so that you can communicate with your kids when they are ready to leave the club and meet up with you wherever you may be on the boat."
Alex, a Massachusetts father of two, agrees that it helps to consider your return investment when booking a pricier cruise. He says of Disney Cruises, "First-rate food and entertainment. There was always something to do on the ship for every age. Small touches mattered, like how the cast members always arranged the stuffed animals after making the beds."
3. Pack like a pro
Packing for any outing with the kids can be a headache, but this is one time when you’re going to want to pay even more attention to detail. All the little extras that you don’t take with you on board may have to be purchased on the ship for a higher price. Kimberly Tate, mother, cruise lover and owner and writer at Stuffed Suitcase, came up with this handy cruise "extra" packing list to cut down on unnecessary, on-board purchases — think water bottles, water shoes, lanyards and more.
4. Don’t go crazy on the excursions
Booking up all your activities for when the cruise docks may be tempting, but just remember that the extra fun is going to cost you. Anie recommends scheduling only one excursion to save money and leave the rest of the days for free play. "I had three days to choose excursions and two days at sea on the five-day cruise. I chose just one excursion in advance at $50, and it was awesome to swim with and feed stingrays."
She continues, "To save additional money, I bought my own snorkel kit for $20 from Costco and went snorkeling, without a guide, another day when we stopped at an island exclusively owned by Norwegian Cruise Line. I'm a strong swimmer and borrowed a floating mat from the beach for my grandpa. I got to be with my 80-year-old grandpa snorkeling for the first time surrounded by family. The look on his face when fish swam around him after we threw out a little bread was priceless.”
5. Limit the booze
Take this one as a cautionary tale, coming from Melissa, a mother in California. Those delicious, delicious poolside drinks on the ship can quickly add up, tacking on several hundred dollars to the total cost of your trip. "When we went on a cruise, I did not save money — I spent it. A lot of it. I suppose the best way to save money on a cruise would be to drink less alcohol, but who wants to do that?" she jokes.
If you are looking for ways to get an adult beverage while 'gaming' the system, Anie says, "The casino also offered free drinks, so we played the cheapest games in there and enjoyed the atmosphere. I even won $300, which almost covered the trip." She adds, "It's better to watch the schedule and go to fun events on board where you can get free or cheaper drinks. One thing I did on a day at sea was a $20 pub crawl. A tour guide took us to eight bars on board and each one had a signature drink. It was fun, funny and educational. I would definitely go again."
6. Stick to a budget
As much as your family may moan and groan, this is one of the easiest ways to keep on-board spending to a minimum. Besides, as Denise, a mother of two from Texas, points out, expensive souvenirs aren’t really worth the price anyway. The best memories come from the fun that you make yourself, she says. "Rather than purchasing a lot of souvenirs, I chose to use photos as a way to hold on to our memories. I told everyone in our group to bring a white top and khaki bottoms. We got an awesome group photo that looked very professional. I also brought some captain hats and a periscope for some fun props to look like old-fashioned sailors. The third day, we walked through an island in the Bahamas with tons of shops and pirate-themed stuff with shipwrecked photo opportunities everywhere."
Originally published Dec. 2012. Updated June 2016.