Travel Hacking is a science, an art form, a sport and social alchemy, all working together to elevate your travel experience without emptying your bank account. After a few decades of travel hacking with the airlines and hotels, I have a decent system worked out. I may not always get the absolute best deal in the universe, but I get some very good ones. I’ve scored free suite upgrades, first class air travel on the ME3 for 15% of the list price, free hotel nights and a bunch of other great experiences.
Some people I know get so obsessed, that they treat any failure to get the absolute best deal as a personal tragedy of epic proportions. I don’t lose sleep at night worrying about a $25 fare difference or an expired companion ticket coupon either. So with a good bag of airline and hotel tricks in my pocket I started thinking about what kind of travel hacks to research next. Private Jet Hacking? No. Car Rental Hacking? No. How about Cruise Hacking? Yes!
Somehow I’ve gotten this far in life without every having taken a cruise. What’s up with that? I love the water. I love boats. Why haven’t I ever taken a cruise? Just never got around to it. So there you have it. I’m a complete newbie at cruising – a blank canvas. Hot dog. A new challenge!
A Timely Email Offer
I’d read Naomi’s great article on Repositioning Cruises and came away thinking if I could arrange to be in the right place at the right time I could save a ton of money. I also checked out some of the leading cruise groups on Facebook. There’s so much information out there that it’s hard to digest it all. Plus it is deeply colored by the opinion of each cruise lover. There’s so many more options on cruises than there are on airlines that your brain starts to overload fairly quickly.
While I was considering my options, I noticed an email from VacationsToGo.com sitting in my inbox and a couple of offers jumped out at me. Cruise lines operate under a business model that’s very different from most of the major airlines. The closer it gets to the departure date airlines start jacking up the price of their tickets. Cruise ships do just the opposite. They start slashing the prices dramatically. There’s a very good reason for this. While an airline has most of the money they are going to get from you once you buy a ticket, the cruise lines treat your reservation as the starting point for a series of goods and services they can sell you once you get on board. They have more in common with RyanAir and Spirit than they do with Delta, KLM and Emirates. Well, OK then. The Cruise Hacking game is on.
A Wealth Of Options
When I clicked on the link in the email, I was presented with at least 60 different Caribbean cruises all offering discounts in the 80% range. I don’t actually believe too many people pay retail on any of these cruises, but the prices were still pretty cheap. Seven days on a cruise ship including food for $299 comes out to around $43/day and that’s low. The game within the game is how I can minimize the upsells, add-ons, taxes and other junk fees. Time to pick a cruise and see what happens.
I started this project the day after Labor Day. My choices were a bit different than those picture above, but still in the same ballpark. Norwegian is a good cruise line and both ships that sail out of Miami are rated 4.5 – 5 stars on the various cruise sites and forums. I picked Florida (MIA, FLL, TPA) as a point of departure because I live near Atlanta and flights to those ports are reasonably priced with multiple choices every day. If I could keep my total cruise price this low, my flight might end up costing more than the cruise itself. (Yeah, dream on newbie.)
Cruise Line Advertised Prices – Very Different Than Airline Advertised Prices
When you buy an airline ticket from a full service airline, you usually know the full price of your ticket at the time of selection and purchase. For example, I picked an Atlanta to Miami flight and was presented with several choices and class of service. The $251.20 price shown below is inclusive of all taxes and fees. I know the airlines pricing structure like the back of my hand and I know that with my Delta Elite status, I won’t have to pay to check any bags and I can get from Atlanta to Miami without spending one dime more unless I don’t get an upgrade and decide to buy an adult beverage on the flight. Even then I will get a 20% discount if I use my Delta Amex card.
Cruise lines don’t operate like this, at all. When I clicked on the link for the 7 day Western Caribbean cruise on the Norwegian Getaway, I was presented with these enticing offers.
The Inside and Oceanview were the cheapest deals, but I wasn’t that interested in those. I know that everyone says your cabin is not that important. You’re going to be out of it except when you sleep and take a shower… blah, blah, blah. Personally, I know I’m going to spend a fair amount of time in my cabin. I like my privacy and when I write sometimes I need to be in isolation and other times I love doing it in a crowded coffee shop, bar or public space. So, the Balcony or Suite cabin had the most appeal for me. So, I picked a Balcony Cabin and clicked on the link.
The next thing I saw was a lengthy form that required all of my personal information before I got ANY more detail on my potential cruise. That is a personal red light for me, so I noped out of there and went to the Norwegian Cruise Lines site, to see what I could find. Good news. The deals on the NCL site were as good as the VacationsToGo site. VacationsToGo just got to me first. So I decided to try and book my cruise on the NCL site.
Take a good look at the image above. The “Starting From” price is $279 “Avg Per Person” and it shows something called “Free At Sea”. We’re Cruise Hacking so these are the kinds of words that tweak my antenna.
What’s Free At Sea?
Free At Sea. Any Cruise Hacking effort has to investigate what that means. It says “Free”. One click reveals all of the details. Free Unlimited Open Bar, Specialty Dining, Pre-Paid Services Charges (This is a real can of worms.), Free Wifi and Free Extra Stateroom Guests. Whoa, that’s pretty great right there. But, a very close reading of the details has me focusing on the words “Choose Between”. Choose Between? How many do I Get? It’s clear I’ve got a lot to learn about how to hack cruises.
Coming Up in Part 2 – Navigating The Choppy Cruise Hacking Sea
I’ll work my way through the maze of prices, options, fees, drinks, service charges, tips, specialty dining, wifi options, single supplements and a host of other things. You’ll learn while I learn and we’ll both discover how to get the best value for your cruise dollar.