We all have that friend who just loves to tell about how they love traveling. He’s the same friend that doesn’t realize that not everyone has a seven-figure trust fund and can afford to celebrate destination half-birthdays. Some people, like you and I, work for our money. Here’s a few tips on how to show up that cackling brat and get a sunburn without the burning through your bank account.
Disclaimer: No, I don’t have a limitless bank account and I don’t get any special discounts for writing on the internet, no matter how much I reiterate the phrase “I’m sort of a big deal” to travel agents. I have, however, taken four cruises of various lengths (and costs) in the past year and have managed to both clothe and feed myself afterwards with zero credit card debt. This advice is for a good, long, relaxing cruise that you deserve.
Taking a vacation is about having an experience. It’s escapism in the same way that a movie is, except you’re not watching a bunch of people who aren’t you interact with other people that aren’t you, while getting fat on ridiculously overpriced food. A vacation means experiencing things firsthand, while getting fat from slightly less overpriced food. A huge downer would be to get home from this novel exercise and realize that not only do you have no money because gambling is a decent way to get your sea legs, but also because you charged it to your 20-percent-interest Fingerhut card.
A great way to eliminate this hassle is to just pay for everything up front with cash. While this phrase does sound like the overweight oil baron asking legless beggars why they just can’t buy more money, it’s a very simple and possible premise. This is a change of mindset and it goes a hell of a long way to affording awesome things when you have a modicum of delayed gratification and discipline.
First, set an account set aside for vacation whether it’s in a bank, investment fund, or bloody burlap sack hidden in your backyard underneath the squeaky fence post. Then, start tithing to the Church of You. Pay yourself five to ten percent of your salary in this account that is reserved only for the most awesome trips. If you can’t afford that much, pay what you can afford. If you can’t afford anything, stop going to Starbucks every day and ask for a raise. You’re working 60 hours a week, for God’s sakes.
“But wait, why don’t I just put this on my credit card and pay it off every month while vacationing NOW?” The reason is simply this: knowing that you don’t owe anyone anything afterwards will add to the experience positively and necessarily and unless you’re a weirdo, you’ll be paying nothing in the form of interests or late fees. As a general rule, a good budget goal to have is around $3000-4000 for two people, all fees included for a cruise lasting between eight and 12 days.
Most cruise companies have layaway plans in which you sock away money, but doing it their way just means that should an emergency occur, you can’t touch your money and you won’t be able to take advantage of the sweet deals that travel agencies often have for people paying upfront. Third party sites like Cruise.com and Travelzoo often have killer deals about a month or two before the sail date because that’s when cruise companies start to quietly panic when they have free rooms available, forcing them to almost literally give them away by throwing incentives like free gratuities, discounted or free airfare, on-board credit, and discounted tours at prospective customers with flexible sail dates. Be one of those people - you’ll have a leg up on everyone else on the ship.
Let’s say you finally get the nine-and-three-quarter days off that you’ve been saving from your desk job for the past year and you sock away enough money that you can now save 50 Cent from bankruptcy, what room should you get for your dream cruise getaway? It seems like you only have one choice - the port side balcony, and here’s why.
You’re not going on a cruise to save money, you’re going on a cruise to make memories. If it’s a little more expensive but you remember the feeling you got for years to come, you will not miss the extra money it took to get there. However, if you get a cheaper room, not only will the “should’ve worked harder” mentality eat away at you during your cruise, but you’ll lose all the practical benefits that comes with getting a more expensive room, and no, I’m not talking about “mandatory cartwheel training space.”
Inside rooms with no windows can seem immensely claustrophobic and with the pitch and roll of the ship in somewhat rougher waters, you’re more susceptible to nausea if you don’t have the chance to crack a window and see what’s going on in the world. Ocean-view rooms are a tiny bit better in terms of value, but they don’t hold a candle to the bang-for-the-buck that you’d get with a room that has a retractable glass door and a private, unobstructed and secluded view of the world.
A balcony room is about priced at about 20-30 percent more than a traditional ocean-view room and 40-50 percent less than a suite. For the extra third, you get the wonderful experience of waking up and walking out to the sparkly ocean or any particular port of call. You can watch as the ship sails into port and check out how ridiculously long the lines are for the tour you’re going to miss because you forgot to set your alarm clock to island time. You’re also on a higher deck, which translates to better views.
Being able to view the stars at night at your leisure without having to walk to an open-air observation deck is a price worth paying, as is the very practical function of drying your wet beach clothes in the sun on your lounge chair, instead of having it dank up the bathroom or giving it to the laundry service to have them add another zero onto the back end your bill. It also helps when you’re on the side that docks with the port, so you can watch people wave to you as if you’re royalty.
Cruises are all about eating and drinking until you can’t tell if your stomach is reacting to its 13th rack of lamb or you have a full-fledged case of norovirus. You will ingest many, many food and drink items because every place you go inside the ship is a goddamn buffet. However, soft carbonated drinks aren’t included and neither is alcohol - if you want those, you’ll have to pay a la carte, or buy a drinks package - the latter of which is a tremendously horrid idea.
Buying a drinks package on a cruise is a lot like buying a cable channel package - you have access to a wide variety of content, up until the point when you realize you only watch Comedy Central and HBO and the rest of the 900 selections are just watered down garbage you wouldn’t watch if you were in prison.
A prime example of this in action is illustrated on Royal Caribbean’s site. They outline the various drinks packages, with the top dog being the $55 per person, per day drink-til-you-fall-in-the-ocean “Ultimate” package. To put that into context, my last cruise was 12 days long. For those that chose this package, they’d have to have downed $660 worth of booze (not including wine), soda, and juice to have this option even make the least lick of sense. I don’t know if there’s a liver in the land that wouldn’t commit pre-emptive seppuku at the mere thought of that.
I’m not much of a drinker at all, but I bought two bottles of wine during the cruise, at around $20 each and shared with my wife. If we wanted to get wasted, we’d just buy a cheap bottle of something and bring it on to the boat with us before we left - you’re allowed two bottles of your choosing anyway.
One thing you’ll notice about a cruise is that money can and will be made absolutely everywhere - a main contributor to the bottom line of your vacation budget is your choice of tours. The tours that are available through the cruise line are often the ones that are “vetted” by the event coordinator and give you the security of knowing that there’s no risk of the ship leaving you behind in the event of your tour running late. Here’s what they don’t want you to know - that’s all bullshit.
The tours that side with the ship are ones that pay a significant amount to the cruise line and therefore can set up shop and collect passengers at the dock. They’re almost twice as expensive as those who aren’t affiliated with the line and the reviews are often worse because they work on long-standing cruise line contracts, not necessarily repeat business and word of mouth. Over the dozens of tours I’ve taken, four have been with the cruise line’s “recommended picks,” and I’ve been underwhelmed every time relative to what I’ve experienced with tours that relied on the free market for their revenue.
Your best bet would be, just like any restaurant or movie screening that you’re planning on attending, to get your ass on Yelp and see what other people are saying. Often times you’ll get a more authentic and off-the-beaten-path experience with the more local tours and you’ll have smaller groups which contributes to a more fruitful one-on-one experience, versus the cattle herding fare that you’d get with an often overcrowded tour vetted by the cruise line.
Also, if you’re running late, the ship will most likely wait for you, no matter if you’re on a vetted tour or you’re just walking around the beach with $55 of cocktails making their way into your bloodstream one decimal point at a time. Cruise lines hate liability, and the last thing they want is a lawsuit from some litigious yuppie that got stuck in Barbados because her rented Chinese scooter got a flat.
It may seem like a bit of backwards thinking to suggest that you spend more money to save money, but the reality is that value is the only thing that matters. If you save up money for a year or so, you should expect your vacation to be something truly deserving of those hard-earned dollars. Try to stay away from no-name fledgling cruise lines like the one in Speed 2. Remember that movie? Yeah, me neither. Also avoid low-price, high-volume companies like Carnival. The last thing you’d want is for a few of the ship’s main engines to blow and turn your vacation literally shitty because the penny-pinching company thought they could eek out a few more miles before the next oil change.
A good cruise is like a good bed - don’t get the cheapest one or you’ll hate yourself for the entire time you’re on it. Get the most expensive one you can afford and if that’s out of reach, delay the trip until you can afford it. If you’re away from a port, the price of round trip airfare across the country for a regular economy seat is around the same as two days at sea, so you if you’re planning on taking a longer trip, the options of where to sail can be expanded quite a bit if you account for this rule of thumb.
Cruising has become somewhat of a passion of mine as of late, and no matter how many times I get on board, I feel like I could’ve stayed longer. It’s a five-star, all-inclusive resort the size of two city blocks that stops at a different country every day. It’s the best all-around vacation value that you can get - bar none - and all it takes to afford it is a little discipline, some cash, and a good plan.
Tavarish is the founder of APiDA Online and writes about buying and selling cool cars on the internet. He owns the world’s cheapest Mercedes S-Class and a graffiti-bombed Lexus, and he’s the apparently the only car enthusiast that has never driven a Miata. He also has a real name that he didn’t feel was journalist-y enough, so he used a pen name, and this was the best he could do. You can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook. He won’t mind.
(Photo Credit: Tavarish)
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