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MEI Travel

How to plan a cruise on a budget

MSC aerial

One of the reasons I love cruising so much is because it’s incredibly affordable! Cruising is so convenient because everything is in one spot, including all of your food, entertainment, accommodations and transportation. You can kick back and truly relax when you decide to cruise for your vacation. 

With your cruise fare including so much, you’ll feel like you’re at an all-inclusive resort without blowing your vacation budget. 

For as little as $50 a day, cruising can be a great option for families, couples and solo travelers alike. You’ll get to see multiple places without ever having to unpack your suitcase - giving you more time to soak up every minute of your vacation. 

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Planning a cruise on a budget requires some planning and preparation. A little research can go a long way to ensure your cruise vacation fits within your budget. No one wants to feel like they're skimping on their cruise!

Here are our best tips to successfully planning a cruise on a budget, so you can have your best cruise yet.

Establish your budget

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budget

Before planning your cruise, you’ll first want to establish how much you’re comfortable spending on your cruise vacation. 

While your cruise fare will be the bulk of your expense, you’ll also want to consider other factors. If you need to fly to the cruise port, be sure you take into account airline tickets. You will also need a hotel before the cruise departs, along with any transportation needed to and from the port. 

Consider how much you want to splurge on things that are important to you on vacation. Are you hoping to do shore excursions at every port? Will you want to purchase any specialty dining or beverage packages? Decide what’s most important and make sure your budget takes that into consideration. 

Cruise budgeting requires prioritization - unless you have an unlimited budget, you need to decide what you value most on vacation

Research cruise lines

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Once you’ve determined your budget, it’s time to decide on the best cruise line for your vacation!

Not all cruise lines are budget friendly, so researching which cruise line works best for your budget will be very important for vacation planning. Some cruise lines will offer great deals and prices, while others focus more on offering an upscale, luxurious cruise vacation. 

The most affordable cruise lines include Royal Caribbean, Carnival Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line. This doesn’t mean you can’t find great prices on other cruise lines like Princess Cruise Line, Holland America and Celebrity Cruises, but you will likely find budget-friendly sailings on more affordable cruise lines.

Book an inside cabin

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MSC inside cabin

I swear by this tip! Inside cabins are the absolute best way to plan a cruise on a budget. These staterooms are often the cheapest staterooms you’ll find onboard, although you can still have a wonderful cruise vacation.

Although they usually don’t have any windows, an inside stateroom has everything you need. Even though they’re usually the smallest staterooms available, I’ve found that inside cabins have plenty of storage.

I almost always book an inside cabin because it’s the most affordable cabin selection. Sailing on cheaper cruises means that I can cruise more often! It also means that I can spend more money on things that matter to me - like specialty dining and in-port exploration. 

Besides, no one spends that much time in their cabin anyway! At the end of the day, all you need is a comfortable place to sleep, change and shower - all of which an inside cabin provides. 

Not to mention, you can take a killer nap at any time of the day because it’s pitch black inside!

Book Early

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Another tip when you are looking to plan a cruise on a budget is to book your reservation as early as possible. When you book early, you’ll be able to book a stateroom that aligns best with your budget. 

When itineraries first become available, the cheapest cabins will get booked first. If you wait until it’s too close to sailing, you’ll probably be stuck paying a pretty penny for a higher tiered stateroom. 

Long-time cruisers will tell you, booking early also ensures you have plenty of time to save up for your vacation. You can also take advantage of any promotions or better pricing in the future (see our next tip below!). 

Reprice often

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When you book your cruise early, you can still score awesome deals or promotions even before your cruise departs. Cruise lines will often reprice your cruise if the current rate is better than when you booked. 

For example, Royal Caribbean offers its Best Price Guarantee Program, which allows cruisers to take advantage of a better price up to 48 hours before sailing. You need to contact the cruise line yourself or have your travel agent contact the cruise line to apply the new price. 

Be sure to reprice your cruise often to ensure you get the best deal on your sailing. Most of the time, you can get a refund to the original form of payment or have onboard credit applied to your sailing.

I can’t tell you how much money I’ve saved by repricing our cruises often. Just recently, I saved my family $3,500 on an upcoming Holy Land cruise because the price had dropped dramatically. On an upcoming cruise to Alaska, I have repriced our sailing 3 times to save more than $300 on an already cheap cruise. 

Last-minute sailings

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You might be thinking this is contrary to everything we’ve been telling you - and you’re right! 

Waiting until the last minute can be risky and doesn’t necessarily guarantee you’ll snag a great price. But, you can get lucky on a great price if you book a last minute cruise deal. 

Last minute sailings can be a great option for budget cruising. When sailings don’t sell out or have low demand, cruise lines are forced to drop their prices as the sailing gets closer. You’ll definitely need to be flexible to take advantage of a last minute sailing deal, though.

Also, make sure you check airfare prices if you need to fly to the cruise port. Just because your cruise is super cheap doesn’t necessarily mean airfare will also be cheap. 

Skip shore excursions

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Family on Celebrity Cruises shore excursion

One of the easiest ways to plan a cruise when you’re on a budget is opting to skip shore excursions. These are very pricey and add up quickly, especially for those sailing with families.

Shore excursions offered through the cruise line are going to be top-dollar because of the added convenience, security and flexibility. But, don’t feel like you absolutely need to book shore excursions to get the most of your cruise.

Consider booking an independent excursion through a third-party. If you can find other cruisers that want to do the same excursion, you can save even more money depending on the group size and tour option. 

You will also have plenty of tour options when you get off the ship at the port. You will usually have vendors right at the port that offer day of tours at a fraction of the cost for the same tours through the ship.  

Watch for pre-cruise sales

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Wifi on MSC

It’s not uncommon for a cruise line to offer pre-cruise planning sales before your sailing. This can include sales on dining packages, shore excursions, speciality dining, onboard internet, and more. 

Your purchases are always flexible leading up to your sailing, meaning you can always cancel something after you’ve purchased within a certain timeframe. Normally, you can cancel any pre-cruise purchases up until 2-3 days before your cruise departs. Therefore, if something you've previously purchased is now offered at a lower price, simply cancel your old purchase and rebook for the new price.

Snagging a pre-cruise sale can make some of those luxury purchases feel more affordable when you’re getting up to 30% off! 

Packages can save you money

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MSC Cruises Easy Plus drink package

Cruise lines offer plenty of onboard packages, like specialty dining and premium beverages, that can save you some serious cash. 

Before booking one of these packages, make sure you will eat or drink enough to make the purchase worthwhile. On average, you’ll need to consume 5-6 alcoholic drinks a day to make the unlimited packages worth it. Take a look at the specialty dining options onboard your cruise to decide if that's something you want to splurge on.

If you think that you’ll have frivolous spending onboard your cruise and have trouble sticking to your budget, then booking an onboard package might be the best choice for you. This is also more convenient for some, as the price is fixed and creates a truly all-inclusive cruise. 

Off-Season Cruising

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Carnival Freedom in Alaska rear aerial

Another great tip to save money when cruising is choosing a sailing during the off-season. For example, mid-to-late January is a great month to cruise because kids are back at school and the holiday sailings have concluded. October to November is also a good timeframe to consider cruising because this is considered off-season as well.

As a rule of thumb, when kids are in school, you'll be able to find better deals for cruising. Additionally, cruising during hurricane season can also help you secure a great price on your cruise vacation.

Older and smaller ships

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NCL Jewel

While the newest ships offer the latest and greatest from the cruise line, you'll always be spending more to sail onboard these vessels when they're first released. There's usually a very strong demand for sailings on a cruise line's newest ship, so you might want to consider booking your cruise on an older and/or smaller ship.

While some of the older and smaller ships don't have all the bells and whistles, you can still have a great cruise experience! You'll experience a more intimate cruising experience on a smaller ship and still receive excellent service, food and entertainment.

Additionally, some of the smaller ships are able to dock in less popular ports, so you might be able to see more unique cities when choosing to sail on a smaller ship.

Pay when you can

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Pay online

While you normally have to make a final cruise payment within a certain timeframe of your sailing, you can make payments whenever you want on your cruise leading up to departure.

Maybe you got a great bonus at work or you’ve been saving diligently for your cruise vacation. Making payments when it fits your timeline and budget can ease planning stress. 

You can also determine a monthly amount to pay towards your future cruise if that aligns better with your financial habits. Some cruise lines even offer interest-free install payments, which can be a great option for budget cruisers. 

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