Vacationing aboard a cruise ship offers a way to relax and sample a variety of exotic locations while keeping within a fixed budget–or so it would seem. After all, you pay up front for your lodging, transportation and meals, so you don’t have to worry that you’ll have blown your food budget by day four and be forced to starve for the rest of your trip.Kate Dolan writes about saving money on cruises However, extra expenses on a cruise can accumulate like barnacles on the hull and provide a nasty shock that overshadows the great memories. There are ways to reduce some of these expenses and save money on a cruise, so if you’d like to keep your trip on budget, try some of these tips.

First, after you’ve shopped for your ideal line, itinerary and ship and have booked your vacation, keep checking the cruise ship’s website. Sometimes the price for the type of cabin you’ve booked will decrease and you may be able to negotiate a price reduction, or even cancel the reservation and re-book at the lower rate. This is happened on two of my last three cruises, and in both cases, my travel agent was able to arrange a substantial reduction. Note, however, that these vacations were booked over six months in advance and the price reductions were arranged before I had made my final payment. I’m not sure the agent could have negotiated anything after that time period.


Second, shop around for a good deal on travel insurance. Yes, this involves spending money rather than cost-cutting, but it could prove really beneficial in the end. Airlines and cruise ship companies don’t care if your father has a heart attack and you need to postpone your trip– without insurance, you lose virtually everything you’ve paid if you need to cancel. Insurance can provide a variety of coverage, including reimbursement for lost or delayed luggage and medical expenses abroad or even the decision to cancel a vacation on a whim. Read the policy carefully to decide what type of coverage best suits your needs. For instance, if I were to ever book a river cruise, I would splurge and buy the more expense plan that allows cancellation for any reason. That’s because some friends of ours had their river cruise turned into a bus trip by the cruise line due to a low water level in the river. Instead of relaxing aboard a luxury liner enjoying the scenery, they were packing and unpacking their bags every day and bouncing around on the back of a bus. If they had insurance that allowed them to cancel for any reason, they could have rebooked the trip when the water level was higher, so that they could enjoy the trip they’d envisioned. Sailing out of Baltimore Harbor on the RC Grandeur of the Seas (photo by Kate Dolan)


My third tip also deals with the unpleasant and unexpected. Pack lots of over-the -counter cold medicines and toiletries. The only thing worse than feeling rotten on your dream vacation is feeling rotten and spending all your time in port shopping for cold medicine. Decongestants like pseudoephedrine can be almost impossible to find at times. And when you do find what you need, the price may be outrageous. On our last trip, my husband decided he would rather spend the night coughing in the lobby rather than pay $20 for a tiny bottle of Nyquil. I had packed what I thought was plenty of decongestant tablets, but when my son caught my husband’s cold, the supply dwindled quickly and we soon found ourselves trying to decipher dosage instructions written in Italian. Next time in addition to aspirin and antihistamines, I will pack enough cough suppressant and decongestant to last the entire trip. The same holds true for toiletries, especially items like contact lens solution.


Tip number four concerns beverages. Cruise lines typically provide free lemonade, iced tea, coffee and tea. If you can live with that repertoire, you’ll save a lot of money. If you want more, it’s wise to figure out how much more and shop around. For instance, sodas generally cannot be carried onto the ship and they typically cost at least $2 apiece. If you drink more than three a day, you may want to purchase a beverage plan that provides “unlimited” soda. But figure out whether you would drink enough to make it worthwhile – especially since those unlimited plans don’t provide beverages in every location on the ship. Ships also offer “unlimited” plans for upscale coffees and alcoholic beverages. Read the fine print and decide whether you will drink enough to make the plan worthwhile, and also check beverage prices. Regular lemonade may be free, but the strawberry lemonades my daughter was enjoying cost $6 apiece.

Cruise ship docked in Curacao (photo by Kate Dolan)5

If you drink wine, you are in luck. At least as of right now, most cruise lines allow you to bring a couple of bottles with you when you embark. You cannot bring liquor or beer, but probably to honor an old custom involving toasting a bon voyage, you are generally allowed to bring some wine in your luggage to enjoy onboard. Check with your cruise line to find out the details of how it should be packed and be aware that if you pack something alcoholic other than the permitted quantity of wine, it will probably be confiscated. And any wine you purchase after initial boarding will be held by ship security until you’re ready to disembark, so this BYOB policy is a one-time opportunity.


Finally, skip the up-charge restaurants and cafes. Many ships have cute little coffee shops with pastries and high-priced coffee drinks. Stop in for a latte if you must, but skip the pastry and head up to the casual dining buffet to pick up the same pastry for free. Ships usually have a steakhouse-type restaurant as well as ethnic restaurants and they push these very heavily. But they charge an extra fee, often a quite substantial fee, and that fee does not include beverages. Remember, you’ve already paid for a four or five course meal in the ship’s main dining room. If you want to try a different menu, take your money and sample the local cuisine in port.RCI Cruise ship Rhapsody of the Seas anchored outside Cannes, France (photo by Kate Dolan)

I hope this helps you save money on a cruise vacation. One final suggestion – if you pay for as much as possible before your trip such as shore excursions and gratuities, you won’t save any money but the amount on your final bill will be less horrific. This may make you feel less likely to engage in a desperate attempt to win it all back at the casino on your last night.

It won’t work –trust me!


If you like adventures on the high seas, you might enjoy my books Avery’s Treasure and Langley’s Choice. Thanks for reading!

(Photos and text copyright Kate Dolan 2017 and 2019 )