How to Save Money on a Cruise

Cruises used to be the ultimate all-inclusive vacations. You could board the boat and lock your wallet in the safe, because you wouldn’t need it until you left the ship.

Present-day cruising is much different. Thirsty? You’ll pay extra not only for cocktails, wine, and beer but also for water, coffee, and soft drinks. Tired of the buffet? There are lots of restaurants on board, but you’ll pay a premium to dine there. Want to take a yoga class or do a wine tasting? There’s a fee. And you no longer decide how much to tip the staff based on their service, because gratuities are mandatory.

There are still a few luxury cruise lines that offer an all-inclusive approach, but if you’re looking for affordable travel, then you’re likelier to pay for a slew of add-ons that could as much as double your bill.

To get the biggest bang for your buck on a cruise, know where to spend your money and where to save it. Here are some ways to keep the extras from adding up.

The infamous “cruise hair, don’t care” hat. It’s quite a fun game to count these while you’re on board. Bonus points for “boat hair,” “beach hair,” and “vacation hair” versions.

No Chair, Don’t Care
Cruise ships may seem overwhelmingly large when you’ve first come on board, but you’ll quickly realize that there’s a limited amount of public space for the thousands of passengers sharing the boat with you. You have to plan ahead to be able to take advantage of everything you’ve paid for.

  • Visit hot spots in the off hours. Our favorite time to get in the hot tub is after breakfast, when we have it all to ourselves. We avoid the fitness center in the mornings, since there’s always a line for the treadmills first thing in the day. Afternoons are a nice time to have a drink in the lounge before the happy hour rush, and the steam room and sauna are empty at dinnertime.
  • Interested in fitness classes? With room for only 10 or 12 people in most shipboard studios, they fill up fast. But if you tour the spa and fitness center on arrival day, you’ll have access to early registration opportunities and deals on multi-class passes.
  • Make restaurant reservations early. Aside from the buffet, most cruise ship restaurants require reservations, even the ones that are included in the standard dining plan. And tables go quickly. You have a couple of options for snagging a spot: get in line as soon as you arrive on board the first day, secure a seat through guest services, or download the cruise line’s smartphone app and reserve your table online. The latter is the easiest option, and you can often do it before you’re on the boat.
  • Arrive early to get a seat for free activities, such as movies, shows, and pub trivia. Look for “secret” options that aren’t advertised, too. On a recent cruise, we were half an hour early for a movie screening, only to find that all of the chairs were already taken, leaving us to watch the film awkwardly from a sofa beneath the screen. As we left the theater, we discovered that the movie was also playing on televisions in the bar outside the theater, where there were plenty of comfortable seats available and tables for snacks and drinks.

Excursion Fare, Don’t Care
The first day of a cruise, you’ll see people lined up to book shore excursions. Don’t waste your money doing this through the cruise line. It’s easier than you think to plan your own activities, and this is the best way to save big.

  • Do your research before you arrive in port to learn what’s worth seeing and doing. TripAdvisor and Nomad Mania are great resources for this, and you can use Google Maps to plan your own tours on foot or using public transportation.
  • Find what you like. Are you looking for shopping? History? Art and culture? Activities like snorkeling or horseback riding? Wine tasting or cooking classes? Check out Viator and Airbnb Experiences to book tours and activities led by locals.
  • Plan to get off the boat as soon as the port opens, and give yourself a cushion of an hour or two at the end of the day so you can make it back on board in plenty of time. Google Maps is helpful for this, too, since it shows you how long it takes to get from wherever you are back to the harbor on foot, by taxi, or via public transportation.

Buffet Body, Don’t Care (Even About Rhyming)
When it comes to food and drink on a cruise, you can be frugal or you can break the bank. It’s easy to slip into “vacation mode” and rack up the calories and the tabs. We like to go a bit crazy on the first day and enjoy everything, then make choices that will help keep our energy high and our costs low for the rest of the trip.

  • Carefully consider drink packages. Wine deals are often worth it, but do the math for all-you-can-drink cocktails based on your personal level of consumption. Cruise lines typically require every guest in a cabin to have his or her own plan, so you can’t just buy one and share.
  • Never pay for bottled water on the ship or in port. Taps are potable on cruise ships, so bring your own water bottle from home and refill it in your room. You can take it ashore with you each day and pour out any left over before you reboard, since you can’t bring beverages back on the ship with you.
  • Look for opportunities for freebies. Search the daily schedule for activities that include food or drink. There are often classes like “Red Wine and Chocolate” or “Scotch and Cigars” on the itinerary for a nominal fee. And a $5 ticket to the champagne art auction is worth it for a couple of glasses … as long as you don’t bid on any prints. Check out the drink of the day, too, which is typically four or five dollars less than other cocktails.
  • Don’t waste money eating in port. The harbor area where you’ll dock is usually surrounded by some of the most expensive restaurants you’ll find. If you’re wanting to sample a special regional dish or other local cuisine, do your research online and get away from the ship so you won’t be overcharged. Or save even more money by eating the food you’ve already paid for on the boat.
  • Look for drink specials in port. You can often find local beers for as little as $2 apiece and inexpensive wine by the glass or carafe. Cocktails featuring local spirits can also be much cheaper than they are at the ship’s bar.

Have other tips for saving money while you’re cruising? Share them in the comments!