We all have a dream cruise we can name on the spot. (Take a moment to think about yours right now -- sigh.) Not everyone knows how to make that fantasy a reality. Perhaps you've been flummoxed by how to save for vacation when just paying the bills is hard enough. Or maybe you don't know where to begin to look for good deals on an expensive vacation. Sure, life would be easier if you had a money tree sprouting in your backyard. But if you can learn a few money-saving tricks, you may find your dream cruise is possible after all.
Whether your goal is a first cruise in the Mediterranean, a suite on a luxury liner or a bucket-list itinerary, we have 11 tips that will help get you there. Who needs money trees anyway?
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Start a "free money" fund with your loose change.
Okay, so nothing is ever truly free. But these coins would have ended up on the ground, in between your car seats or lost in the black hole that is your washing machine. Instead of letting them go to waste, keep a jar or container somewhere that's easily accessible, and add to it whenever possible. You'd be surprised how much money is lying around your house in nickel form -- maybe enough for a specialty restaurant dinner or cheap shore excursion.
Get rewarded for cleaning out your own house.
Don't underestimate the value of that old suit from your high school reunion or designer handbag you outwore last season. As cliche as it sounds, one man's trash is another man's treasure. Organize a yard sale, post your unwanted items to Craigslist, or start a bidding war on eBay. Not only will you be putting money toward your cruise, but your garage and hall closet will be far less cluttered.
Give up daily splurges.
To really stretch your dollars, find unnecessary spending in your life and put that money toward a vacation instead. Refrain from daily Starbuck's visits and smart phone apps -- and whenever you're tempted, put those few bucks into your cruise fund jar instead. You might be stuck with Candy Crush Saga a little longer, but it's a small price to pay.
Pay for your next cruise with the last one.
If you aren't already enrolled in a frequent flyer program, cruise line credit card or other rewards card, now might be a good time to jump on the bandwagon. What you spend on this year's travel (and other purchases) can earn you points toward free or discounted vacations in the future.
Airline loyalty programs allow you to earn miles and/or points that can be redeemed for future flights. General rewards cards earn you points that you can redeem for travel (such as flights and cruises), while cash-back credit cards will give you money back every year that you can put toward your next trip. Cruise line credit cards -- although not affiliated with cruise line loyalty programs -- accrue points that can be applied toward your cruise fare or exchanged for onboard credit or upgrades.
Befriend a travel agent.
The Internet can only help so much; sometimes you need a real human on your side. Travel agents can give you the inside scoop and find you the best deals so your next cruise won't be so expensive. Sometimes, they'll throw in free bottles of wine or prepaid gratuities to cut your costs. Whether you walk into a local storefront, call up a representative from an online cruise seller or tell Betsy, the travel agent from your book club, that you're ready to take her up on her offer of vacation-planning advice, it's a smart move to get buddy-buddy with an agent.
Time your booking just right.
We're big fans of booking early for once-in-a-lifetime cruises. Not only will you beat the crowds to the best cabin locations and dinner seatings, but you can often save money with early-booking discounts and bonus perks. Look for promotions offered during Wave Season or when schedules are first announced.
On the other hand, if you're flexible and/or live within driving distance of a port, you can end up snagging some pretty good deals last minute. Just keep in mind: You may need to shop around quite a bit before landing your dream itinerary or compromise on ship, cabin type or cabin location.
Consider a shoulder-season cruise.
Shoulder season is the small window nestled between the overcrowded high season and dreary low season when ships sail away to warmer climes. You can save big -- and beat the crowds -- if you're willing to settle for slightly cooler or less desirable weather and (occasionally) limited activities in port. If you're still on the fence about shoulder-season cruises, let us weigh the pros and cons for you.
Indulge only on what's most important.
Your fantasy cruise has you hosting Gatsby-style cabin parties, snorkeling in the Seychelles and sipping Dom Perignon with your toes in the sand. But, chances are, that cruise will only ever exist in your imagination. To make a dream cruise a reality, decide what's most important to you, splurge on those things, and skip the rest if it's too expensive. For example, if you spend most of your time on the ship, consider booking a standard cabin on a luxury ship or an upgraded cabin on a mainstream liner, and opt out of the pricy shore tours. If you're an adrenaline junkie, put more money into over-the-top excursions and stick with a basic inside or oceanview cabin.
Plan your excursions wisely.
Whether you're saving up for that pricy shark-cage diving tour or simply want to do a few fun off-the-ship activities, you can find ways to cut back on shore tour costs. One option is to book fun but reasonably priced excursions independently, rather than through the cruise line. You'll save money and likely enjoy a much more intimate experience. But if your heart is set on that one bucket-list excursion (or something extra-special like a helicopter ride), balance your spending with a few tour-free days exploring ports on foot.
To split the costs or take advantage of discounted group rates, you may even want to seek out other cruisers on our roll calls to share a tour guide or go in on a group tour. If you're uneasy about booking independently, find out which option is right for you with our feature on excursion planning.
Arrange your own transfers.
It's so easy to give in to cruise lines when they offer transfers between your hotel or the airport and the cruise port. Play your cards right, and you can actually save a lot of money traveling by public transportation, shuttle, shared taxi or private car. Just remember: It's always better to make arrangements in advance, especially if you're traveling during rush hour or during a busy travel season. You don't want to hear the words "sold out" mere hours before boarding time.
Set -- and abide by -- your onboard budget.
Sigh of relief … you're finally onboard with a dream-like agenda, drink in hand (without the overpriced souvenir cup) and a wad of cash you didn't have before. But to prevent a post-cruise nightmare, be careful about how you spend your money during your trip. Set a budget for onboard spending (with room for both planned and impromptu treats), and stick to it by checking your account balance several times during the cruise. Don't get suckered into buying excessive numbers of souvenir photos and T-shirts, cap your casino play, and remember that you'll still have a fabulous cruise if you don't sign up for every tour, eat at every specialty restaurant and participate in every extra-fee activity.