Alllllll aboard! Your unofficial Cruise Director Jordan Page here!
After nearly a DOZEN cruise vacations, I know my way around a cruise ship and have more than a thing or two I can teach you about planning your own trip! You might want to grab your favorite fizzy drink and get comfortable because this has turned into quite the lengthy post….just want to make sure I’m giving you ALL my best tips, tricks and hacks for taking a cruise because I have so much to share!
In this Part 1, we will cover what to look for when considering a ship, my tips on booking, what to expect for pricing, and how to choose which ship is right for your family. Part 2 is now live on cruise food, rooms, activities, how we like to handle excursions on port days, what to pack, and so much more.
*Note: When you click the links in this post, we may receive a commission at no extra cost to you.
First you must know that I’m not affiliated with any of the cruise ship brands that I’ll be sharing my honest experience with. So take all of this as one frugal mama helping another frugal mama make the best decision for her family. I’ve cruised with my family, with my work team, and with my girlfriends (if you want to see some fun behind the scenes videos, go check out my Cruise story highlights on Instagram!). I’ve booked directly with the cruise line, and I’ve booked through third-party services. I’ve booked large ships and I’ve booked smaller ships. My point is I have some well-rounded experience to give you a real-life rundown of the do’s and don’ts to cruising!
HOW A CRUISE WORKS
Let’s talk about how a cruise works for those of you that are unfamiliar. You have a cruise fare, and that covers the cost of the cruise, use of their communal activities, food, taxes, and port fees. That’s your ticket to get on the boat. Once you’re on, excursions, drinks, premium dining options, spa services, and souvenirs would all be extra. Everything “extra” is paid for with your room key. You use your room key to “pay” for items you want to buy while on the cruise, which are added to your bill that is settled at checkout.
Each cruise ship departs from a port and has an itinerary of days spent at sea and specific days that it will dock at a different port, usually in another country or island. Passengers can leave the ship for the predetermined amount of time to explore the country and island and return to the ship (usually before dinner time) to continue on the route.
Cruise Lines are currently not requiring covid tests or masks on the ship. They do ask a basic health questionnaire before you get on the ship.
WHAT TO CONSIDER WHEN PICKING A SHIP & DESTINATION
There are three main factors to consider when you start planning your trip: the time of year you are able to travel, the weather in the region you are cruising to, and the cruise line ship’s itinerary.
Time of year – your biggest money saver will be traveling during the OFF SEASON if you can! This means avoiding spring break, summer, and the December holidays because you will be paying premium prices on tickets during those times. If you can go during the first week of January, you’ll be paying HALF of what you would between Christmas and New Years.
Weather – be aware that cruises out of California in the winter time are not going to be warm when traveling off season. The Pacific ocean weather isn’t as glorious year-round like the Caribbean waters. We’ve traveled to the Bahamas over Christmas and had fabulous weather, whereas cruises to Mexico even in March can still be quite chilly. Obviously you'll want to be aware of hurricane season and hurricane zones.
Ship Itinerary – This is a deal breaker for me. Make sure to look at the number of days at sea versus the number of days at ports. I ONLY book trips with less days at sea than port. So, if there are 2 days at sea then there needs to be 3+ port days. I also never book a cruise unless the ship has multiple pools, a water slide, and some other kid-friendly activity like miniature golf, ice skating, a rock climbing wall, etc. The amenities really make or break your trip if you have kids you’re traveling with because you do spend a lot of time on the boat.
Another factor I take into heavy consideration when choosing a ship for my family is the age of the ship. We prefer ships that are a decade old or newer, but will also travel on older ships so long as they have had some renovations and updates made within the past few years. It just makes such a difference to your family’s experience.
BOOKING & PRICING
When I book a cruise, I’m not necessarily price-hunting once I’ve narrowed down what ship I want. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that cruise ticket pricing is now legally regulated, and no matter if you book directly through the cruise line or through a third-party travel agency, your ticket price will remain the same. Back in the day, there were different companies that could offer their own discounted prices on cruises, but now it is like flights. No matter where you look, prices are more regulated. A third party can’t just magically sell a ticket for cheaper which makes the online booking process a little easier on you. The cruise line sets a price and the pricing remains the same across the board, per the law.
However, third party sellers can offer incentives or gifts rather than discounted pricing. So maybe there is a travel agency that could offer you $100 on-board credit. Or perhaps they will throw in a free wifi voucher. So you can shop around to find the best incentives. I love the website vacationstogo.com. (Again, this is not sponsored! This isn’t an affiliate link; it’s just my personal recommendation.) I tend to shop for my cruises through Vacations To Go, but you need to know that their website is a little clunky and old school and you will have to sign up for emails in order to shop on their site. What I LOVE is a spreadsheet feature that aggregates data from all cruise lines on to one spreadsheet. You can type in the month or destination you are looking for and it will visually compare all of the different cruise lines for you. In fact, we booked our Page Company team trip through Vacations To Go which was so helpful for a group when we’re dealing with multiple rooms and upgrades. It was like having a little travel agent and she was AWESOME!
Pricing-wise, I like to consider ships with less than $300 per person rates. The prices fluctuate seasonally, and can range from $200 per person to $1,000 per person.
Wifi is an additional cost that is quite expensive, $20-$30 PER DAY! However sometimes you can find a great combo deal by pairing wifi with a drinks package. We'll cover more of what's included in drink pacakges in Part 2!
Jordan's Pro Tip: If you are cruising with a group (we recently had 14 of us on our Christmas cruise!) I do not recommend booking yourself through the website. Logistically there are so many components to these reservations that you really should book via phone call and speak to an actual agent who can point out some specific issues to you.
A pricing hack – tickets tend to get cheaper the closer you get to their cruise dates. If you have the luxury of being able to wait until the last minute, you could get a fantastic deal on a cruise. The challenge though is flights because flights get more expensive last minute. I wouldn’t recommend waiting til the last minute if you need more than one room because availability gets more limited and you might not get all of the room style of locations you are wanting.
When we save up the money in our travel account (one of seven bank accounts), we budget in gratuities as well. We pay for the trip in full and pre-pay gratuity so that we ensure we aren't committing to more than what we had budgeted.
Flights are always extra. Pick your airline, get a credit card with that airline, and build up status and points for that airline. That allows you to get the most bang for your buck. Hunt for the best deal using flights.google.com. Enter in your airport and the destination airport, and you can turn on notifications by selecting the dates next to “Track Prices.” It will notify you if/when prices drop for that trip so that you are paying the best price.
A few more flight tips (although we have a whole other blog post on booking cheap flights too!):
- Don’t book flights tooooo far in advance; wait until closer to 4-5 months of trip.
- Always search for flights in incognito mode on your web browser which prevents it from tracking your search and marking up your prices.
- Consider a smaller airline with really affordable flights – Spirit, Allegiant, Frontier, and Breeze. We saved so much money booking through these airlines rather than a major airline like United or Delta. They do have downsides, like no screens, limited schedules, more expensive baggage fees. But at the end of the day, the basic airfare is cheaper.
WHICH SHIP IS RIGHT FOR ME?
This brings us to the top question I get asked: what cruise line do you recommend?
*Disclaimer: I have not traveled on EVERY cruise line. However I have done many many many hours of research and comparisons, and I always love to pick the brains of other frequent cruisers when we are on a trip. This is all based on my own experience!
For Bubba and I, we have decided that Royal Caribbean and Carnival are the main cruise lines we look at for family trips based on their price, size, amenities and itineraries. Carnival tends to be the cheapest, but also better suited for a younger party crowd. It is good for families, but best for young adults because it’s more boisterous, has more dance parties, and more drinking on board. If you are cruising with just a significant other or with a group of other adult friends, Carnival is a great option.
Royal Caribbean is our current favorite, and it’s great for families. We prefer the food on Royal, it’s usually a less boisterous environment, and it caters to families and older crowds. We find Royal has plenty of entertainment, activities and amenities for families.
Other cruise lines that we have considered but ultimately decided aren't great fits for our family are Princess, MSC, Norwegian, and Celebrity. However again, if you're looking for a kid-free cruise then these might work better for you! They tend to have better food, less loud music and kids at the pools, and a more elevated fancy dining experience. Qualities that are better for an adult or couples' trip.
Disney Cruises are the cream of the crop, the nicest cruise you’ll ever go on. The price point is very high and the itinerary is shorter trips with less days. They do have many of the same stops as all other cruise lines, with the exception of their private island. It is absolutely magical, but our family has made an intentional decision not to do Disney. The cruise itself is the highest per-person rate, and doesn’t make sense for our vacation budget. ($1000 per person just to get on the boat, not including flights and gratuities.) That’s $20,000 for our family! Ignorance is bliss, and we don’t know what we don’t know. We would rather go on a more affordable cruise more frequently than save up for one big trip. It’s also harder to go backwards once you’ve experienced the ultimate trip, when we later go back to a more affordable option like Royal and are suddenly more aware of any perks they might not have that we otherwise would never have even realized. It’s kind of like “once you go Disney, you don’t go back” and we just aren’t ready to commit to spending that much per cruise for our family!
CHECK OUT PART TWO HERE!
Part 2 of my Ultimate Cruise Tips blog post shares more insight and tips on cruise food, rooms, activities, excursions, and so much more!
In the meantime, if you are looking for more family travel content: