Onboard Norwegian Gem on a sea day, as we cruised back to New York from the Bahamas, we were watching the Czech Republic get routed by Russia in the 2012 Euro Cup when my husband reminded me it was time for the final bingo session of the sailing — the one at which they give away a free Caribbean cruise, he emphasized.
I didn’t want to go. Sure, somebody always wins, but it’s never us. He still insisted, and besides, we already had raffle tickets. (They came with the instant wins and bingo tickets on which we’d already spent some $100.) Wouldn’t it be stupid not to be there — just in case?
The room was packed; it felt like half the ship was there, hoping to win either the $2,000 bingo jackpot or the free cruise. Even people who wouldn’t normally play bingo came, just to get raffle tickets.
We played two rounds of bingo; we didn’t even come close to winning. Then it was time for the raffle. A young boy was selected to pick the ticket. The cruise director made the audience promise whoever won the cruise would pay the boy $5 for picking their ticket number. The cruise director and one of his assistants picked him up by his heels, held him over the bathtub-shaped bucket and let him root around for a while. Finally they pulled him out, a small ticket clutched in his fist.
“It’s a red ticket,” the cruise director joked, and the audience laughed. We all had red tickets.
Then he began to read the numbers. Have you ever had that feeling that something big was about to happen? Where the world has slowed down and your breathing slows, but your heart races?
We won. I barely suppressed a scream and pushed him toward the cruise director. They shook hands; my husband gave the boy a $20 bill.
Shortly thereafter, one of the cruise director’s staff gave us our free cruise certificate. But here’s where my elation soured:
I had known the free cruise was only valid for an inside stateroom, but what I hadn’t realized was that the certificate was equivalent to a maximum value of $1,000. (My friend and her sister, who had both accompanied us on the cruise, were staying in an inside cabin, and it cost them more than $1,000.)
Taxes, fees and gratuities were also additional. Although I hadn’t realized it — but should have — I wasn’t too bothered by the fact. You have to pay taxes on lottery winnings, after all.
It was the $1,000 limit that bothered me. The “free” cruise we’d won, which the ship’s crew had been aggressively pushing all cruise long, wasn’t actually free.
As fellow passengers approached us with congratulations, I wanted to show them the fine print. I smiled and said thank you instead. I wondered how many people scrimp and save for trips like this. Would they be able to take advantage of winning this “free” cruise? The sailing has to be taken within a year of winning it — but that doesn’t give the winner much time to save up for it.
Back at work Monday, I scrolled through forum posts on Cruise Critic by others who had won free cruises on several cruise lines. The posts were divided. Some said it was super easy to redeem and actually ended up being a great deal. Others said the prices they were quoted (for taxes and “fees”) seemed jacked up. I didn’t hold much hope for us.
But I couldn’t have been more wrong!
Redeeming our cruise was indeed super easy, and it really was a bargain. Reading deeper into the fine print, I learned that the $1,000 maximum only applies to itineraries other than those found on Caribbean sailings. In other words, the certificate provides a free inside cabin, no matter what the retail cost, only on a seven-day Caribbean sailing. On any other sailing, the certificate is worth $1,000 off the retail price of any cabin.
The only additional cost for booking an inside cabin in the Caribbean (on a seven-day sailing) is the taxes. But the taxes I was quoted were LESS than what I’d seen online. For the two of us, taxes came to $284.60. Taking airfare out of the equation, that’s pretty affordable for just about anyone.
And the fee for upgrading us to a balcony cabin was ridiculously low — just $260 each.
We ended up booking a New Year’s Eve cruise for two in a balcony, on Norwegian Jewel out of New York, for just a tiny bit more than $800. Since we don’t have to fly, our only other necessary expenses will be gratuities and parking.
In the end, while our “free” cruise wasn’t exactly free in the way I’d been expecting, it was still an amazing win.
So, yeah, somebody always wins; as it turns out, it could be you.
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