Take a boatload of fun activities, add terrific kids' clubs, wonderful excursions, and nearly all-inclusive pricing, and it's no wonder that cruise vacations have become so popular with families. Whether your family is made up of first-time cruisers or veteran sea dogs, your next family cruise vacation will be even sweeter if you snag a great deal. Here's how to snag a wallet-friendly fare with a kid-friendly cruise line.
Golden Rules for Saving on a Cruise
Once upon a time, there was a clearly defined sale season for cruises. "Wave season" ran from early January through mid-February and was the heaviest cruise booking period of the year. It was also when cruise lines and agents traditionally floated some of the most attractive promos.
Over the years, wave season has largely given way to early-booking promos and Internet flash sales, and today you can find discounts popping up pretty much year round. Still, there are some general rules of thumb that can help you save on a cruise.
- Book early. Try to book at least six to eight months ahead, or even a year out or longer if you can. Booking early is particularly important for larger families, because the most spacious staterooms, family rooms, interconnecting rooms, and suites sell out first. In other words, the early bird gets the worm.
- Book during "wave season." During the three-month period between January and March, a.k.a. "wave season," cruise lines still float some of their very best deals for the coming year, including deep discounts and perks like upgrades and freebies.
- Look at the whole package. The best cruise deals are about getting extra value. Look for packages that include incentives such as free beverage packages, gratuities, spa treatments or onboard credits. Again, you'll find more of these perk-rich packages if you book very early.
- Cruise off-peak. Unsurprisingly, the most expensive, and the most crowded, time to go on a family cruise is during the summer and major school holidays such as spring break or the Christmas holidays. For cruises to the Caribbean, Mexico, and the Bahamas, you’ll pay a premium during the February and Easter school breaks. If you want Alaska, the peak of summer is the priciest time to go. If you’re willing to let your kids miss even a few days of class time, you can save a bundle on an autumn sailing in the Caribbean. Consider extending one of long school weekend breaks (Columbus Day, Veteran’s Day, and Thanksgiving) into a five- or seven-night cruise.
- Choose a cruise close to home. Long gone are the days when taking a cruise gave you two choices: sail out of Florida or California. Nowadays, cruise lines sail out of a wide array of homeports, from Boston to Baltimore and from New Orleans to Seattle. This has been a wonderful development for families that want to avoid the high cost of airfare. If you live in the East, West or near the Gulf of Mexico, you can save by finding a cruise that sails from a port near you.
- Sail on an older ship. Sure, the newest ships have the latest bells and whistles. They also have higher prices, thanks to a built-in base of cruise fans dying to try out the new kid on the block. Older ships, meanwhile, can be perfectly wonderful and yet command lower fares, making them a savvy choice for bargain lovers and families trying out for a first cruise.
- Know what's included. Cruises are not all-inclusive vacations, so don't assume that your fare includes every expense. Instead, look carefully at what each cruise line's fare includes. Sometimes cruise lines with higher base fares are more inclusive and thus save money in the long run.
- Set a shipboard budget. Once on the ship, it's possible to take your vacation without incurring extra expenses, but know that there will be ample ways to burn through money. Think through possible extras, including souvenirs, alcoholic beverages (and sometimes soft drinks), premium meals, shore excursions, and spa treatments. Give yourself an allowance and stick to it.
- Choose the right stateroom. The most expensive staterooms are typically oceanview suites on upper decks. The least pricey are inside staterooms in inconvenient or noisy locations on lower decks. Many families with school-age kids opt for two interconnecting staterooms, while families with teens can sometimes save money by booking one exterior stateroom plus an interior stateroom nearby for the kids.
- Choose a shorter cruise. While the classic seven-night cruise remains the industry standard, nearly every cruise line also offers shorter itineraries that range from two to six nights. Fewer nights translate to lower prices, which is why a short cruise can be the perfect solution if you’re strapped for time or money, or both.
- Time your spa visits widely. Spa treatments are so popular on cruises that all the available slots can sell out even before the ship sets sail. Also good to know: treatments usually cost significantly more on sea days because that’s when demand is greatest. Pre-booking a treatment for a less popular time, such as embarkation day a port day, can bring savings of up to 30 percent.
- Save for college at the same time. Members of the college-savings site Upromise earn 4 percent cash back into their children's 529 accounts when booking a cruise with Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, Disney Cruise Line, and others.
- Use a travel agent. Overwhelmed? Booking a cruise can be very confusing, which is why it's a good idea to use a travel agent who is a cruise specialist. It will not cost you more to use the services of an agent, and a cruise specialist will have a few tricks up his or her sleeve. For example, an agent will often have access to unpublished fares not visible to travelers searching online.