Cruises are one of the best ways to immerse yourself in varied, far-off destinations over the course of a single trip. Cruise lines provide easy access to diverse cultures, allowing passengers to sample the food, gawk at the art and architecture, and connect with the people of different countries (and even continents), while riding in gorgeous, amenity-filled floating hotels. When you consider the total cost of a cruise vacation, cruises can also be one of the more economical travel choices, generally including most meals, entertainment, and certain shore excursions. And for Federal employees and retirees who know what to look for, sailing the world can be even cheaper. Here are some tips for how you can take your next cruise on a shoestring budget.
Book at the right time
‘Wave Season’ is the period between January and March when cruise lines offer their most enticing discounts. Rate cuts, in the form of cheaper rooms, 2-for-1 deals, freed food and drink, onboard credit, or gift cards, make cruising much more affordable. For Feds and retirees looking to splurge a bit, this is an opportunity to get more bang for your buck, as the upscale rooms, including balcony cabins, are the most heavily discounted. Of course, good deals will pop up throughout the year (hello Black Friday/Cyber Monday/Labor Day), so be sure to keep an eye out from April to December as well.
MSC’s Fed-specific discount
While liners like Royal Caribbean and Carnival offer special pricing for military, police/fire department, or airline employees, most do not provide a Fed-specific discount offered directly through the company. The exception is MSC Cruises, which offers a discount of up to 10% on certain itineraries for all government employees. MSC’s routes bring passengers to destinations around the world, including South America, Northern Europe, and South Africa. Feds and retirees who take advantage of these deals will get a 5% discount on Interior and Ocean-View staterooms, and a 10% discount on Balcony rooms, Suites, and MSC Yacht Club Deluxe Suites.
If you’re lucky enough to find a discount, be sure you’re also taking advantage of any promotional pricing already offered directly through the cruise line, in addition to deals offered through credit cards or travel agents (as outlined below). MSC, for example, allows you to pair your Fed discount with an already reduced rate, which maximizes the amount of money that stays in your pocket. Stacking discounts is one of the best ways to tack even more savings and amenities onto your trip.
Utilize Credit Card Benefits and Points
Certain credit cards offer significant benefits when used to book a cruise. Rewards can include shore excursion credits, onboard ship credits, and other amenities that will make your trip cheaper and more enjoyable. The Cruise Privileges Program from American Express provides hundreds of dollars in credits — on a number of different cruise lines — to Platinum cardholders, while certain AAdvantage cardholders can use their cards to unlock open bar access and other onboard savings on Norwegian cruises. Alternatively, Feds and retirees can use accrued credit card points to pay for their next cruise vacation. Chase Ultimate Rewards, Barclaycard Arrival Plus Rewards, and Amex Membership Rewards are just a few of the programs allowing you to cover the cost of a cruise using rewards points. The largest cruise lines also offer co-branded credit cards that allow you to rack up rewards program points on everyday purchases.
Most cruise lines have a cancellation period — usually 45-90 days before the ship embarks — during which ticketed passengers can back out without penalty. This means that around 45-90 days prior to departure, when cancellations open up rooms, and cruise lines scramble to fill cabins, Feds and retirees can find fantastic deals. These deals become scarcer the more in demand the specific cruise is, though. So, if you’re looking to sail the Caribbean over Christmas, you may want to go ahead and book your trip sooner rather than later.
Sign up for cruise deal newsletters
Checking in with the myriad of cruise deal blogs and websites is one way of finding the best discounts that are currently available. An even easier solution, though, is to let the deals come to you. Feds looking for a bargain can start by signing up for free e-mail newsletters that aggregate the best cruise deals, then send them directly to your inbox. Sites like FedCruise and Last Minute Cruises are one of the best resources when you’re ready to sail at a discount, but your time is at a premium.
Join a loyalty program
Most cruise lines have built-in rewards programs, providing added amenities and benefits to passengers who cruise often (and spend a lot of money). While they’re ideal for those who cruise regularly, the programs can be useful even if you’re not planning on sailing every season. Feds and retirees who enroll in liners’ rewards programs can potentially earn early boarding, spa treatments, complimentary shore excursions, along with a host of other benefits. Additionally, you can receive early access to deals and special pricing, available only to rewards members. When booking, be sure you’ve signed up for the cruise line’s loyalty program, and included your assigned rewards number, so that you’ll begin accruing points immediately. Enrollment is usually free, so there’s no reason to leave all that money on the table.
Cruise during the shoulder seasons
Feds and retirees with some flexibility in their vacation schedule can find great deals on cruises during non-peak seasons. Caribbean cruises in the winter or Mediterranean itineraries in the summer are always going to be the most expensive options. But liners will offer deep discounts on certain shoulder season cruises (think northern Europe in October, or the Bahamas in August). So, if you’re willing to deal with slightly finicky weather, you can save a lot of money — and possibly dodge huge crowds.
Find a repositioning cruise
Most cruise itineraries are seasonal, meaning the ships used for those routes will need to be transported to a different location, so that they’re not just floating uselessly during non-peak seasons. And cruise lines will usually sell fares on these ‘repositioning’ cruises at a discount. In addition to saving you money, these trips are an opportunity to see unique itineraries that are not always available on traditional cruises — Feds and retirees who’ve always wanted to cross the Panama Canal, or see Vancouver, Canada and Honolulu, Hawaii in one fell swoop, can do so on repositioning cruises. One drawback to these trips is the originating and terminating ports-of-call are different, so getting flights will be trickier than with a traditional route.
Know how to book
Oftentimes, the best discounts are difficult to find, and even when you track them down, cruise lines require you to book through either a travel agent, or directly through a customer service line. Before you book, do some research on which agencies work with the liner you’re looking to cruise with. Often these travel services can nab deals that aren’t available to the public. Note also that you’ll usually need to be prepared to present identification proving your Fed employment or retiree status prior to receiving the discount. It’s a little extra work compared to booking online, but well worth it to snag an inexpensive trip.
If you really prefer to book your own cruise online, as many do, be sure to use an online rebate service such as Ebates (now called Rakuten). It’s completely free to use, and you can receive up to 10% back – no small amount when buying something as expensive as a cruise!