I thought to share more of a ‘how to fish’ post here, perhaps it will spark some ideas, and hopefully you can help me refine my process.
I just received a complimentary cruise offer from NCL Casinos at Sea, I’ve written about this offer several times in the past, which you can catch up on here:
- Casino Gambling, playing the Comp Game
- Another Free Cruise – how much did it really cost me?
- Stacking Casinos at Sea and Latitudes Rewards
- Free cruise pricing for an infant on a comped cruise
I have to confess I really enjoy these offers, we’ve now cruised on the NCL Epic, Breakaway, and Jade. We have one cruise booked in December on the new NCL Escape, and with today’s offer will pick a new option, the post today is to help show how I would decide whether to jump on the offer, and how to get some value from it.
30,000 ft view of ‘free cruises’
They come from Casinos at Sea, requiring you to play in the casino with a loyalty card. As such, getting into the system involves a bit of a ‘buy in’. Once in, I have found that each year I get at least two types of offer. One is based on my play (very small these days) and one is based on my name on the mailing list. Each now tends to offer a free 3-11 day cruise anywhere, barring Hawaii, and two European itineraries (other EU routes are fair game though). Per the above links, the cruises are never totally free, there is a token per diem amount per stateroom, taxes and fees, and optional upgrade charges.
Is it a deal?
When it comes to analysis there is a mix of soft and hard skills that come into play. These combine to create a decision on whether we have a ‘deal.. or no deal..’.
Step 1 Am I OK with being dictated to?
When you get a deal, it is typically coming with some sort of parameter, and to take advantage of it I’d have to accept the opportunity costs of doing so. If you have limited time off, then this is a very real choice. Taken to an extreme, if you get only a week of vacation, do you want to spend it on someone elses terms, or your own? The deal has to be pretty damn good in times like this. The inverse is when you have all the time in the world, you somewhat appreciate having ideas and opportunities presented to you.
Step 2 Are they inflating your rates in order to create a bigger bargain?
Opportunity costs again.. If I decide that I could handle your deal offer, is it a deal because you are inflating the heck out of it? A good way to check that is to run a comparison search. For hotels, you can look at TripAdvisor, and often you will find a higher rated hotel at a lower cost than the ‘deal’ being offered.
Step 3 – what are the additional costs/difficulty to execute?
Does a hotel (or a cruise) require a flight to get to? How do the costs to get to a place to enjoy the deal factor into the total price, is it still a bargain?
The 3 steps above blend a mix of soft and hard skills in terms of decision making. If they pass this test, I’ll dive in deeper to explore the ‘ultimate value’ which also blends both skills. Interestingly, this means that sometimes the final result is not purely as dollar value efficient as it could be, but that it checks more of our boxes when considered holistically.
Working the free cruise offer
Luckily I have asked enough questions to understand their general rule system. As I outline in the above linked ‘free cruise pricing for infants’ there is a way to search online for a mix of suitable solutions when traveling as a 3, and then you can cherry pick itineraries online, prior to calling in to book.
Per the terms and conditions, they cite which cruises are not eligible, this is very helpful, as it leaves us with some great cruises that are eligible:
What’s not eligible, and other terms
PS – note that the above is targeted, you need to be a member of Casinos at Sea to use this offer, you can’t just call up.
For our best value, we are starting out with a 10-11 option, we figured that if 7 days is good, 10-11 is better. We then drilled down via the 3rd guest free search and came up with a few good hits. The general search at this point has taken us to look at leaving from Barcelona on a 10 day going either to the right (Sicily, Sardinia and Italy) or to the leftish (Morocco and the Canary Islands). Alternatively, there were a couple of Alaska options, from Seattle or Vancouver.
We narrowed the field to two cruise options,
Both looked good, but we leaned towards Barcelona, since we’ve already been to all the places in Alaska, vs everything (barring Rome) was new and exciting to us.
Next up – detailed pricing
From experience, I already know how to ballpark pricing for this, which helps matters. It basically starts at your base cabin offer (until recently has been an Inside Cabin) which costs about $25 per day, then add fees, then add upgrade charges. Fees are variable based on the ports visited, so it is good to get a firm ‘all in’ price to work from. I called in to price out both cruises, and then went back to the drawing board with firmer price ranges. This helps avoid any surprises (there was one on the 3rd person charge) and gives us a final cross check number.
Our pricing was as follows:
- Barcelona cruise, including taxes and fees for 3 people: $678 for 10 nights in a Balcony Stateroom
- Alaskan cruise, including taxes and fees for 3 people: $1292 for 10 nights in a Balcony Stateroom
I then compared the prices with NCL.com and also looked at some third party sites (per Step 2 inflated rates). With online pricing at $1099 (plus taxes) per person for Barcelona, and $1559 per person for Alaska, it seemed like a bargain. A key point here being that while you can cruise on both of these itineraries for cheap, that is for the inside rates, once you get a private balcony, the prices leap up. Here’s another occurrence where soft pricing outweighs hard pricing.. while we could cruise for ‘cheap’ in other ways, the experience would be different, and it would be up to us to provide a valuation of this difference.
By this point, we were really leaning towards Barcelona, the only other factor to consider would be getting there, but I feel that I have enough miles to get us to either departure port with enough ease that this equation was marginal. At other times (EG deciding to stay at the Conrad Maldives) getting there includes not just miles, but a cash only sea plane, so that should be priced in.
Our final decision
We decided to also upgrade the cabin on the Epic to a Mini Suite, it grants us another 30sqft of room, which is going to be much needed when we put a pack ‘n play in there for our 3rd guest… the cost for that was proportionally high, but the total for all of us in that mini suite was still only a little over $1150.
Paying for it
There’s a very interest concept here of how to pay for a cruise using points.. typically speaking, opportunity costs can be said to nullify cruise value. This means ‘yeah, you could pay with points, but that means you can’t use those points elsewhere’. However, the way I look at it is a bit differently from this. My approach is ‘if you can cover every expense possible via points, and still find a use for points, you’re doing well’. The way I will pay for this cruise is as follows:
$1150 starting price
- $800 deposit paid today on Arrival. I have 45K pts there, so I’ll create another 35K pts to wipe out the $800 charge. I plan to use magic for this, and it should come at a very low cost.
- In December we are on another cruise with NCL, I’ll pick up a voucher there that I can apply to this cruise, and when I get back, pay it off. The voucher costs $250 to buy, but gives me $125 in shipboard credit in December, and $75 more again on the Epic, so I’d get $200 for ‘free’ by paying in this manner.
- The remaining $100 I will put on the Arrival again, from pts created between today and the time of the next payment due.
- I’m undecided about flights, I may pay 3x 20K AA nonstops to BCN each way, or I might look into booking something on UA… with the latter I’d be keen on seeing if I might be able to book economy outbound, and perhaps Business/Stopover on the return so I get double legs in Business, stopping in NY for a few months before heading to the West Coast or Caribbean… its been a while since I tried, so not even sure how tricky that might be.
What do you think?
Would you have focused on the better value per dollar of the Alaskan option, or would you not even accept an offer like this because your time is too valuable to do anything other than exactly what you elect?