How To Plan a Cruise With the Most Value

Seven ways to “seas” the moment.

Cruise ship sailing by Santorini island, Greece iStock

If you’re looking for a vacation that offers panoramic ocean views, great dining options, shopping and activities all under one roof and for one price, then plan a cruise.

Many travelers consider cruising a convenient and stress-free way to vacation, especially because fares typically include lodging and meals. But incidentals and little expenses can add up, and before you realize it, your all-inclusive vacation could cost more than you intended to spend.

Here are seven tips to help you get the most value from your cruise without feeling like you’re skimping.

1. Plan, prioritize and set your budget.
Start your cruise planning by establishing how much you want to spend. Take into consideration that you may need to fly to the cruise port, which would require airline tickets and possibly a hotel and transportation. If traveling with children, factor in any additional child care costs, special activities or souvenirs.

Do you want to book shore excursions or upgrade your dining and beverage packages? Get the most value by assessing the experiences you’re willing to splurge on—and which ones you can pass up.

And don’t forget to budget for tips for the crew, the staff members who handle your luggage at ports and the drivers taking you to the terminal. Research gratuity guidelines for your cruise line, as they may differ.

2. Use your AAA Member benefits.
AAA negotiates special offers and savings for its members with most major cruise lines to help ensure that members get the best value. Connect with a travel advisor about deals, which often include discounted fares, onboard spending credits, stateroom upgrades and more. Your advisor can also customize your AAA vacation.

View from cruise ship balcony at sunset iStock

3. Book early and reprice often.
The ideal time to book a cruise is as soon as the itineraries are announced, usually 18 to 24 months prior to the departure date. It’s best to book your reservation as early as possible. This enables you to book the stateroom that best fits your budget. (Tip: An inside stateroom is smaller but cheaper, leaving you more money to spend elsewhere).

The less-expensive cabins are often among the first to get booked, so if you wait too long, you could be limited to more-expensive options. However, if you have your heart set on a balcony suite, booking early guarantees you get exactly what you want. Booking your cruise early could also come with great value incentives such as free or discounted airfare, onboard credits and prepaid gratuities. 

As the sailing day approaches, check to see if you can reprice your cruise. More awesome deals or promotions could emerge prior to departure. Cruise lines may let you reprice your cruise if the current rate is better than the rate at the time you booked your trip. Connect with your AAA Travel Advisor to help you navigate getting a new rate.

4. Be flexible with dates.
If your schedule is flexible and you’re open to traveling anytime, sometimes it pays to book at the last minute. If there’s low demand or the ship still has space available, cruise lines may drop prices close to departure. 

If you decide you might want to go this route, don’t forget to check airfare prices if you need to fly to the cruise port. A cheaper cruise may not be worth more expensive airfare.

Woman on a cruise ship looking at the Portage glacier in Alaska iStock

5. Consider off-season cruising.
Another way to get the most value from a cruise is to consider traveling off-season. Of course, most travelers want to visit a destination when the weather is nice and the kids are out of school. But high season can also draw larger crowds and come with higher costs.

Booking off-season can mean fewer people and cooler temperatures. For example, an Alaska cruise in May or September puts you at the beginning or end of that state’s cruising season.
Mid-to-late January and October to November are also great times to consider cruising because these months usually align with school breaks.

6. Get the packages, if it makes sense to do so
If you prefer food and beverage upgrades or other upscale options, an onboard package could be more convenient and provide the most value. And if you prepurchase a food or beverage package, it may also come with a discount.

Before buying, calculate how much you think you would realistically consume to ensure it would be worth the cost.

Family snorkeling underwater with tropical fish iStock

7. Think about the pros and cons of booking excursions.
Booking a shore excursion through the cruise line may cost more than doing it through a third party, but it guarantees that you’ll be back on the ship in time for departure. If there’s a delay during the excursion, the ship will wait if it’s an excursion booked through the cruise line.

However, if you book a less-expensive excursion through a local company or third-party vendor, it could save you money. And if there are other cruisers interested in the same excursion, you could save even more, depending on the group size and tour. Just be sure to allow enough time to get back on board by departure.

Lastly, there could be benefits to staying on the ship during shore days—namely, smaller crowds in the dining and pool areas. There may even be spa discounts on those days.

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