For first time cruisers, one of the hardest decisions to make is choosing the cruise line brand that you will be travelling with. This post deals with the next step, and is pertinent to experienced cruisers too, in that it seeks to find the very best way to book the best value cruise , taking into account all the various bonuses, discounts and benefits that are out there. Done correctly there are a plethora of benefits to shopping around correctly, and best of all these will stack.
I think its something like playing the game of Clue – you need to find the murder weapon, the murderer, the victim and the location – getting all the steps correctly can be quite the guessing game, but if you nail them all you are in for quite the bargain!
The core factor to consider in such a purchase will be the final sales price of the cruise, including taxes, this will be one of the most powerful factors in determining your value, if there are vast disparities between prices of the same cruise then things like cash back and points back aren’t going to make much of a dent in things, however when prices appear similar, lots of value can be found in these strategies to both save money and gain additional perks and comps.
Consider all these Factors to Book the best value Cruise
Booking your Cruise Directly, or through a Consolidator?
These days there are a number of sites that sell deeply discounted cruises, these might well offer better value than booking directly from the Cruise line, and often offer then same perks for Frequent Cruisers using their loyalty programs, so you don’t lose out there either. However, the advantage to booking directly might come from Online Shopping Portal Bonuses that are always changing, and may be more favorable at the time you book. Personally I check through Evreward.com for all my purchases.
Complimentary Stateroom Category Upgrades
If you are able to guarantee an upgrade by booking through a certain portal or agency then you could buy something under your desired level and use the upgrade to get into the room that you wanted. If you plan to do this it is essential to qualify if the upgrade is Confirmed or Subject to Availability. If you have a Subject to Availability Upgrade then you have to be happy with not getting the upgrade and being stuck in a Cabin Category below where you initially planned. I have found that this is very much an emotional decision, and once your heart is set on the Balcony Suite if you are stuck with a Small Inside Cabin your vacation will be tainted and that’s not worth the savings.
Welcome Aboard Gifts
Along with the upgrade, you can sometimes get little welcome gifts that are sent to the room, such as a bottle of Champagne (often with
liberal libelous use of the name!) some lines will have luxury snacks in the room such as Hors’ d’oeuvre or Chocolate Covered Strawberries. These little things are very nice touches, but shouldn’t be a deal breaker when seeking to book the best value cruise
On Board Credit
Many things on-board a ship are free, such as most meals (excluding the specialty restaurants) and entertainment, however, even the most frugal of us is going to spend something on a cruise in terms of drinks or shore excursions or something – in fact even if you don’t spend a dime on anything Cruise Ships expect you to pay a fixed ‘Tip’ that is divided up between the service staff, it typically is $11-$12 per passenger per day. These items are all charged to your onboard account, which is tied to your credit card. An On Board Credit can be applied to all of these charges and will reduce the cost of your cruise before you check out and disembark the vessel.
Complimentary Dining Experience
Most cruise ships now offer a more exclusive dining experience that comes with a surcharge between $10-$30 per person, and from personal experience of the Steak Houses on Holland America and Norwegian Cruise Lines the supplement is well worth the extra money. Some reservations, such as those made by holders of the American Express Platinum Card come with a free meal for two and such restaurants.
Some of the lines will offer perks such as Priority Embarkation or Private Galley Tours and Wine Tastings if you use the american express platinum
Cash Back or Points Back from booking online
There are a couple of routes to explore here for the best value:
- Look for consolidator websites that are linked to Cash Back or Points Back online shopping portals
- Book through a points related website that targets Cruise Companies – most of the major airlines, such as United, American and Delta the Airlines offer a mix of incentives, such as a flat mileage bonus for booking, plus additional multiplied miles for certain cabin categories.
- For example the Discover IT Card offers 5% Cashback from its shopping portal ShopDiscover and a further 1% Cashback for regular spend and the American Express Platinum offers a further 1x Membership Reward for booking through Amex Travel.
American Express Platinum Cruise Privileges Program
The American Express Platinum Cruise Privileges Program offers many of the perks listed above, however after talking with several agents for some time it seems that not only are the perks different per cruise line, but also different based upon the cabin type, and the desperation of the line to fill the ship. Benefits include:
- Up to a $300 Per Stateroom Credit for Onboard Account Spending
- Up to 2 Categories Upgraded (within class -which means you cannot book the most expensive Balcony and get upgraded to a Suite – what you would do is book the most expensive Balcony, stay in the most expensive Balcony but pay a price two tiers below that).
- Welcome Amenities
Basically what they do generally is offer the 2 Category upgrade for cheaper cabins, in the Balcony level and below, but once you start booking Suite level they instead kick in $300 for the Stateroom Credit, I think this is because Suite Cabins can jump in price quite aggressively between different classes. Below is my quick summary, but you’ll have to call in for specifics to your cruise dates:
Paying For the Cruise – Picking the best card for Earnings
Many of these Cruise companies offer a branded card where you earn 1X point per dollar, operations like NCL, Princess, Royal Caribbean all offer these cards, and have 2X points on purchases spent onboard – generally speaking I don’t like these levels of earnings, as they tend to redeem at 10000 pts for $100 Credit. I would rather use other methods of earning, such as cards with accelerated Travel Perks like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Just a 2% Cashback card. Lets take a look at how they stack up.
Comparing Prices for the same cabin, same ship, same date
In closing, I want to revisit what seems to be the most obvious metric in the decision of where to buy the cruise – the final price. I found some very interesting things in doing this, and in researching not only checked online, but called the agents directly. Doing this is key, as it highlighted some very unusual discrepancies. For example when checking the Airline Portals of AA, Delta and United they all listed the exact same price for my cruise, not really surprising since the back end of all three is managed by the same firm… what was surprising was when I called up and spoke to different agents I got VASTLY different pricing for exactly the same cruise.
Test Case – booking a MD Category Mini-suite on the Coral Princess for Alaska on July 3rd 2013
Beat that guys!
After checking most of the obvious options for booking this cruise, My final step in the process was to submit a bid on Cruisecompete.com I had heard good things about this company in the market, but never used them myself… I didn’t actually set the price I had already, because on the one hand it allows them to beat it, but on the other it allows them to ‘just beat it’ so I just punched in the cruise details and waited to see what they would offer me. I quickly received 4 bids from Travel Agents offering even better pricing than anything else I received.
And the Winner of ‘Cruise Clue’is…!
CruiseCompete.com, Paid for with a Chase Sapphire Preferred for 2x Ultimate Rewards on Travel. As much as I liked the option to earn cash back and points Cruise Competes final price was so much lower than the others that they became the obvious winner. I would recommend checking 2-3 sites such as United Cruises, VacationsToGo and the Cruiseline specific site to get an Average Price point, then send a request out to Cruise Compete to see what these guys can do. I must say I was pleasantly surprised.
I called around dozens of agents and checked many more online, one thing I learned from the process is that everything is seasonal, and a cruise can change its bonus offerings and pricing week to week. Therefore you should consider all of the options above if you want the absolutely best value from your Cruise booking!
I’d pick the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card to pay, as that provides 2x Ulitmate Rewards on Travel. Alternatively I would go with the 2% Cashback offered by Fidelity or 2.2% Cashback with the Barclaycard Arrival (2% regular, and 2.2% if you spend it on travel)