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Cruises, a Frugal Vacation?

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When I got married last year, I had this brilliant plan for a honeymoon - a cruise. It simply couldn't miss - seven days of all inclusive lodging and food for $542 a person. While we could have looked at more expensive cruises. However, the bargain cruise included everything we were looking for - transportation to the following islands: St. Maarten, St. Thomas, Barbados, Antigua, and St. Lucia.

Is it really that cheap? Yes!

I could eat $400 or more alone of food alone in 7 days at a restaurant. While the lodging was small and had no windows, it was adequate for the amount of time that we were going to spend there. I enjoyed many free activities that I never tried before, such as rock climbing and roller blading. We got to see comedians and musicals for free. Seeing Bowser from Sha Na Na was worth the price alone.

Is it really that cheap? No!

Like any good business, they do their best to upsell you. Upselling is when they make you buy more than you originally intend. While food and drink were included, soda is not. I've got an addiction to diet soda that I can't shake. I sprung for a $48 package for all-you-can drink soda. Of course, alcohol is not included and you are not allowed to bring it on board. If you want to drink, you have to pay restaurant/bar prices.

We didn't think about the biggest cost of all - what do you do when you get to the islands? The cruise company is happy to set up excursions on the island. Excursions ranged from $40 to $200 per person. When you go to five islands, you are looking at spending $200 to $1000 per person. We spent around $250 to $300 in excursions. We found that this is the one extra cost that was unavoidable - the quality of the vacation significantly declines when you don't get to visit the island.

There is a lot of tipping. It is usually done at the end of the trip, but you tip various people for each day of service. At the end, we spent over $100 in tips.

The Internet still costs money and you pay by the minute. It was very, very difficult for me to keep up with my Internet businesses without feeling my wallet getting lighter and lighter.

Lastly, there is the shopping. It's not surprising, but the cruise company employs a full-time Director of Shopping. His job was to be an expert on watches, jewelry, nearly anything that you could buy on the islands that you visit. When you turned on the television, they have a cruise channel and his sales pitch was constantly on. We stayed away from these "bargains", channeling our inner Cap.

When you add up the drinks, excursions, and shopping it certainly can get expensive.

How Can I Save Money on Cruises

We found a few tips that can you help reign in the cost of cruises:

  • Drinks - I certainly didn't drink $48 worth of soda on the trip. I didn't even come close. Much of the time, we were away on an excursion. As for alcohol, the cruise's policy is extremely strict - they are happy to drop you off at the next port if you violate it. However, we talked to guests who rebelled and snuck alcohol in. On one excursion, we purchased a small bottle of local rum. While we should have announced it and checked it before going back on the ship, we simply forgot. While they checked our baggage, must have missed it. An hour later we realized that we had accidentally thwarted the system.
  • Excursions - It's really difficult to save on these trips. We found that we could save money on many islands if we planned ahead. For instance, if we knew the bus system, we could avoid taxis. Sometimes we found our own excursions like going to the Mount Gay Rum factory tour.
  • Internet - On Royal Caribbean, you can buy a package of minutes. When I logged on, I would open up a pile of Firefox tabs and load pages rapidly. I would then log off until I had read all that I could, before logging on again and continuing. When we were in US Territories, like St. Thomas, I made use of my cell phone's Internet. The best way I found to save money was simply to realize that I was on my honeymoon - I shouldn't be on the Internet anyway.
  • Food - When you are on an excursion, you have to pay for your food. However there's all that food on the ship that is free with the price of your admission. We decided to location-shift that food. That's a fancy way of saying we made sandwiches to bring with us on the excursions. We ate a hearty breakfast to carry us mostly through the day.
  • ATMs - There is an ATM on the ship, but it's extremely pricey - up there with some casinos. We were able to avoid fees by using our USAA card. I highly recommend belonging to bank that reimburses these ATM fees.

To Cruise or Not To Cruise?

This was an extremely difficult question to answer. We came away with feeling that there was simply too much to do on the cruise. It sounds like a good thing, but it is exhausting. The excursions started early and took through most of the afternoon. There was a little time to shower and get ready for dinner. After dinner, we caught some entertainment before it got late and we had to consider going to sleep to do it all again the next day. You might not believe this, but I prefer Lazy vacations, sitting by the pool, maybe reading a magazine.

If you have never taken a cruise vacation it may be worth looking into. You never know if it's for you if you don't try.

Posted on March 31, 2008.

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18 Responses to “Cruises, a Frugal Vacation?”

  1. What a timely post! My wife and I, who have been married for nearly four years, have never really been on a vacation together (our honeymoon was a one-night thing a half hour away, as we had both just graduated college and were moving the next day).

    I have to admit that I’m stunned with how cheap cruises seem. Last night I tried comparing a cruise to staying a few nights in Aruba, and the difference is amazing. The nice resorts in Aruba run around $275/night. But from what I’ve read, you’d be lucky to find dinner for much less than $80-$100/person.

    Compare this to some cruises I’m looking at for $350 TOTAL, and it’s a huge difference. Which is too bad because in a way, I’m like you and would almost rather just lounge around.

  2. Na says:

    I have never been on a cruise, but if you wanted to lounge around (which is my preference too), you could take the cruise, but lounge on the decks. – You would get the view of the coastline and the benefits of lounging, but for the cruise price.

  3. Jeremy says:

    In my opinion, cruises are the perfect no-hassle way to experience the Caribbean. We took one a few years ago, and it was by far one of the best vacations. It doesn’t compare with backpacking across Europe, but that is a different type of vacation.

    In terms of relaxing, nice weather, and new sights, a cruise is great for all of the reasons you mentioned. They can be had for relatively cheap. When you’re spending less than $100/day on the cruise itself, that is probably less than a standard hotel room. Tack on all the food and entertainment you have included on the ship, and you just can’t compare.

    Of course the alcohol restrictions and some of the excursions can impact the overall cost a bit, but if you plan ahead, you can still find the total experience to be much cheaper than other alternatives.

    They are so cheap that we met an elderly couple who had been living on cruise ships for the past 3 years. They didn’t even own a home. They just stayed on various ships from week to week and said it was cheaper than what they were paying for their condo in Florida, not to mention all the other necessities like food. Plus, they enjoyed having a 5-star meal every night and room service.

    Now, I’m not sure I could do that, but when you think about it, that isn’t a bad way to live in retirement.

  4. Lazy Man says:

    Jon, in case you are still considering see these ways to save money in Aruba.

    Jeremy, I wonder what that couple with their possessions. Maybe it’s storage. Still, I know some pretty condos in Florida, so have a hard time believe that it’s much cheaper. I also wonder how they do their laundry. I think that service was available, but it was very expensive on the ship.

  5. jim says:

    I think there isn’t anyway around the excursions but your internet rapid fire firefox tabbing is pretty clever. :) I always snuck on alcohol at the originating port (worst case is they toss it) and brought on board any sodas I wanted to drink.

  6. I don’t want to rain on the cruise ship parade, but as a biology geek I just wanted to mention that cruises are not always the most environmentally-friendly productions. Oil discharges and wastewater dumps are not too uncommon.

    I can understand the appeal of cruises, but I have never really considered going on one. Personally, I rather camp or just be lazy.

  7. Jon says:

    Depending on the cruise line too, some of those things you outlined above are included. I took a Norwegian cruise and pop was definitely included. They also have the freestyle cruising thing, which means you can eat whenever you want rather than at a designated time. I went to Alaska for a week with my parents, wife and 2 kids (ages 1 and 3, imagine that) and it was the best vacation I’ve ever had. Liquor was definitely easy to bring aboard on our cruise (I’m sure that varies from cruise line to cruise line) and they did have happy hours at certain times on board, which helps. You can save on excursions if you #1 plan in advance prior to even getting on the cruise or #2 wait and see what kind of deals they have at port. We went whale watching for $150 (3 people)…had we booked on the ship it would have cost at least 2x that price. We just wandering into some shops and asked…also don’t be afraid to dicker…our 1 and 3 year old got to go free on a lot of the stuff we did simply because we asked and weren’t afraid to walk if we didn’t like what we heard.

  8. Jeremy says:

    Lazy,

    Well, these people didn’t have many possessions. They did actually still have residence in Florida, but it was a very small and completely paid off place. It wasn’t what they wanted to live in. But aside from keeping a few possessions at the home, they said they just didn’t need anything other than what they could carry on, or use on the ship.

    And while they said they “lived” on the various ships, they did occasionally take a few days or a week back home in between some voyages, but were literally on the ships virtually 90% of the time. I would assume they were able to take care of laundry and other basic chores during those brief visits.

    As far as cost, I would guess that they were comparing similar lifestyles. Sure, you can get a decent condo for pretty cheap, but if you compare the type of amenities that the cruise ship has and try to find a condo or community with similar features, I’m sure you could exceed the cruise price pretty easily. Not to mention the association fees, taxes, etc.

    So, comparing similar lifestyles, I can see the cost benefit, but you can still certainly live on much less than that if you choose.

  9. kitty says:

    I took a couple of Norwegian cruises with a friend and here are some money-saving things we did. We aren’t poor, but we don’t like to waste money if we can get something cheaper.

    excursions: there are a number of local companies that offer excursions to cruise customers. I don’t remember a specific one we used, but these excursions are often both cheaper and better (less people) than those from a cruise. It’s probably relatively easy to find and there are reviews from people who used one or the other of these companies. One only needs to make sure the company brings you sufficiently in advance of departure to allow for eventuality. Also, in some ports some companies use tenders to bring people to shore. When this happens it takes longer to get to shore. What you can do is to ensure you are on the first tender – the one reserved for people going on excursions with the ship. On our first such excursion, we simply explained the situation to the lady at the front desk, complained that the information about tenders wasn’t listed in arrival/departure times. She lead us directly to the first tender. The second time we simply went there directly and told that we were going on an excursion.

    food: when the ship announcement says that a particular port doesn’t allow you to bring food with you, they really only meen meat, fruits and vegetables. You can still take croissants, bread and cheese with you in liew of lunch. In most ports they don’t check; in Fort Lauderdale, they opened a bag of one of my friends and made him open his sandwitches to make sure there is no ham or butter. But as it was only cheese and bread, they told, it’s fine. So, as long as you don’t mind bread/chease sandwitches for lunch, you don’t need to buy food.

    wine: on Norwegian cruise lines if you order a bottle of wine for dinner and don’t finish it, they’ll put it into a refrigerator for you, then you can ask for it at any restaurant on subsequent days. There is also free champaign on art auctions. Don’t need to buy anything; can even win a limited edition framed print in a lottery – I did (still didn’t get around to sell it on e-bay).
    I avoided ATMs since you can buy pretty much everything on a ship with a credit card. I also didn’t care about internet – surely one can do without it for a week.

  10. kitty says:

    Just to add about cash expenses. Norwegian pre-charges $10 a day per person for tips, so you only need a little for exceptional service/drinks. A couple hundred per person is more than enough for all other cash expenses. Personally, I only took a $20 bill with me on each stop for taxis/other things. My friend took about the same amount: if you are going on any excursion that involves water and leaving your stuff on the beach, you probably don’t even want to take anything else. Most of the time we didn’t even use half of it. Of course if you want to actually buy something you’d need more.

  11. lulugal11 says:

    I just wanted to get in here and say hi because you mentioned St. Lucia and that is where I am from.

  12. Rob says:

    I have been thinking about the Mexican Cabo cruises from LA or San Diego, based on value, but now you have given me enough info to perhaps stay away from cruises for a few more years…. at least until the kids are older.

  13. Mark says:

    I think you have convinced me that I don’t want to take a Cruise. There is so much to see here in the U.S.A. that I think you could spend a life time traveling and never see it all.

  14. Nancy says:

    Lazy Man,
    Cruises can indeed be frugal. I know from an insider’s perspective and think that maybe I should do a post on this as summer vacations will be coming up soon. Thank you for the prompt and be sure to get in touch with me before your next cruise.
    sunnyislandbreezes.com

  15. Singdoggy says:

    As someone who also did a cruise for their honeymoon (Alaska and British Columbia), I can attest to how tired you get cruising. I do like the lazy vacations, but cruises give you that occasional “once in a lifetime” experience. You got to see 5 or 6 places for the cost of going to one. Depending where you go, you can do without the excursions. When we were in Vancouver, BC (a huge city), we did without the excursion and just walked around the city and visiting one of the nicest aquariums in the world. I think cruises are specifically designed to maximize eating and walking. Not alot of time for sleep or true leisure.

    That being said, I cannot wait to take another cruise. In time, the wife and I are definitely going back to Alaska. I highly recommend it if you haven’t done it.

  16. I always have an impression that cruises is quite expensive. Thanks for the points mentioned, now will reconsider again.

  17. Barb Ryan says:

    My hubby likes cruises, but I just can not stand them. It is not the water or where they go or even how much they cost. When I want to go out for an evening or a weekend vacation, the last place that I would want to spend it is at a hotel in a mall.

    Cruise lovers probably think otherwise, but if you combine a hotel and a mall into a boat, you get a cruise. And maybe some disease for everyone to share. Frankly, I would rather spend a full week or two (or longer, I wish), staying at a small hotel in the most appealing port of call.

    This has nothing to do with the relative costs of cruises or land-locked vacations. Just get me as far away malls on vacation, as possible!

  18. What a good timing for me to see your post. We planned our 2nd cruise vacation this May. Our first cruise we went with Disney. It’s not the most frugal vacation and we didn’t plan any excursion. But we like it so much that we want to do it again and this time we booked it with Carnival for various reasons but the main one is being cheaper than most comparable cruise.

    Since we don’t drink alcohol so we will be saving a lot on that end and I have planned one activities for each excursion this time so the cost is more manageable. Thanks for the tips on the food (lunch). That will help us on lowering the cost on this cruise.

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