When you're cruising as a family group, every expense is multiplied. A cruise can be a cost-effective way to travel, but when you're cruising with three, four or more, the budget begins to swell.
We can help you save with a list of the most affordable cruise lines, the best times for deals and savvy ways to find cheap family cruise deals for your next vacation.
Affordable Cruise Lines for Families
While many cruise lines cater to families, some are bit more budget-friendly from the start. It's no surprise that time after time, Carnival Cruise Line wins Cruise Critic awards for best value. Entry-level fares can begin as low as $50 per person, per night (and sometimes lower!), while many dining options and kid-focused activities like a Seuss at Sea story time or a themed water park, are included in that fare.
MSC Cruises is another line with cheap pricing to the Caribbean aboard ships featuring water slides, great kids' clubs and a partnerships with Chicco and LEGO. Plus -- and this is a major plus for families -- kids age 11 and under sail free on most sailings when they are the third or fourth passenger sharing a cabin with two adults; children 17 and under travel free on select sailings. MSC is just one of many lines that occasionally offer free cruises for kids.
Another great way to sail your favorite cruise line at a fraction of the cost is to consider the older ships in the fleet. The newest and most innovative Norwegian or Royal Caribbean ships will be priced to match their high-demand attractions. Settle for a ship that has been around for a few years and you can still enjoy all the benefits of solid kids' club programming and grown-up entertainment, without paying top dollar for the latest and greatest.
Best Itineraries for Families on a Budget
While it's nice for the whole gang to be together, going away for a week or more is not only a matter of who gets sick of whom first, but more time on vacation means more dollars spent. By considering "short breaks" or cruises that only last three to five nights, you can reap the rewards of time away with your brood, and still manage some savings by the end of your trip.
If you're looking for an affordable weeklong cruise, the Caribbean is a great choice for families with ships departing out of convenient U.S. homeports (so you can skip the flight and drive to the ship) and plenty of beach-centered activities, so you don't have to shell out for pricy excursions. (West Coast families can look for Mexico cruises out of Southern California for a similar option.)
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Best Time to Take a Cheap Family Cruise
The answer might seem obvious, but the best time to save money on a family cruise is to sail outside of summertime and holiday breaks, when all the other families are looking to travel, too. This isn't always an easy ask, as some schools can be rather strict about pulling your child out of class, but taking a few days during shoulder seasons -- mainly fall or spring -- can result in a significant reduction to your bottom line.
Top Tips for Getting a Great Family Cruise Deal
Take advantage of early-booking bonuses. For families, booking ahead is a smart move. Special arrangements like staterooms in family-designated areas, connecting cabins and rooms that sleep three or four are in limited supply and sell out early. If you wait for a last-minute bargain, you might end up with family all the way down the hall, or worse, on another deck. Instead, look for early-booking bonuses to get the best value -- in terms of perks and cabin picks -- on your cruise.
Consider connecting cabins rather than a suite. On the topic of cabins, consider all your options and configurations before choosing a room. A suite might be a luxe way to have every family member in one place, but for the same price or less, you can have the added benefit of multiple rooms -- and bathrooms -- with connecting cabins. This configuration allows families to share a space without shelling out for a sprawling penthouse -- and if those cabins have a balcony, you can even connect and share that as well. In addition to connecting staterooms, some cruise lines offer areas of the ship just for families, with designated lounges and other perks that might add to the value of your cruise fare.
If you're a family of three or four and looking to save even more, consider squeezing into one cabin. It might be a tight fit depending on square footage, but bunks and trundle beds can turn even the smallest cabin into a living space for an entire family. If you all get along well enough, close quarters might be the best way to go easy on your budget.
Double-check what your cruise line includes. Any inclusion helps, and something like a free drink package for your children can shave quite a bit off the budget if you've got thirsty kiddos. (Many times these packages also include nonalcoholic frozen beverages and even specialty ice cream.) Carnival's Family Harbor staterooms include an hour of free babysitting per child (age 11 and under). Also check to see if room service is included on your cruise line -- some charge a fee per order or item, which can add up quickly if the little ones are too fidgety to sit through a proper meal in the dining room, or teens are constantly ordering burgers at midnight.
Consult a travel agent. Cruise promotions, inclusions and even onboard programming can change on a dime. Working with a travel professional will help meet the needs of your family -- and your budget -- with up-to-date information on your sailing. Your agent can even help you get your price adjusted if it drops, and many times a bonus of onboard credit or some sparkling wine upon arrival for the parents sweetens the deal. They can also alert you to limited-time promotions offering free kids' or third- and fourth-passenger fares.
Consider unusual booking methods. There are plenty of ways to book a cruise, but some you might have never thought about. If you have a membership to the wholesale retailer Costco, you might be able to find a deal on that family cruise for the summer. That's right: Costco sells cruises, but deals vary and you will want to triple check the fine print to make sure the sailing suits you and your loved ones.