You don't have to spend big to make a cruise memorable
Last week my husband and I were on an international voyage, eating unlimited lobster, steak and sushi, enjoying hot tubs, saltwater pools and white-sand beaches, and being entertained by fantastic bar pianists and world-class ice skaters -- all for around $100 a day each.
How? We took a cruise out of Galveston.
Turns out we're not alone in finding cruising an affordable way to experience a luxury vacation. In 2009, more than 1 million Texans took a cruise. That made Texas the third-largest state for cruises behind Florida and California, according to the Cruise Lines International Association in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Cruises from Galveston are on the rise after slowdowns in 2007 and 2008. In 2009, nearly 400,000 people boarded the 142 sailings, according to the Port of Galveston.
"Galveston and New Orleans are hot ports," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of CruiseCritic.com, a consumer cruise site owned by Expedia that features reviews and ship information. "Galveston got a huge shot in the arm when Disney announced it was coming [in September 2012], and Carnival is sending its brand-new Magic ship to the port" in November.
While you're not going to get the rock-bottom prices of a couple of years ago, when cruising was as cheap as $50 a day, passengers today can still find fares between $75 and $100 a day, Brown said.
Key to shopping for cruise deals is being flexible with your timing.
Our cruise on Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas last week cost around $640 per person, including port fees and taxes. But during spring break, Easter week and summer, the fare for the same cruise doubles.
"Know your seasons," Brown said. "Galveston is a big family-friendly port, so avoid classic family times like school holidays and summer for more choices and price leverage."
It's also a way to avoid children, an aim of parents trying to rediscover their adulthood.
Our boat last week had around 250 kids, but during spring break a few weeks ago, the ship had 1,200 kids -- 1 in 3 on board.
The cruise director joked that every time he got on the elevator, all the buttons were pushed -- but I bet he wasn't laughing at the time.
Without having to add in the price of two airfares -- we spent about $80 in gas to and from the port and $50 for parking for the week -- and by sticking for the most part to the free amenities on the ship and doing our own excursions ($10 taxis to the beach and other low-cost offerings), our trip came in at around $1,500.
That included ports in three countries: Mexico, Grand Cayman and Jamaica, which brings me to our first bit of savings. Although you have to dig for it on cruise line websites, close-loop cruises -- those that begin and end in the U.S. -- do not require passports, a savings of around $125. While they recommend you have one, it is not required. We used our driver's licenses, birth certificates and, in my case, my marriage certificate, since my name on the other two documents did not match.
Here are some of the other ways we saved money:
Buy tickets from a travel agent or online travel site.
We shopped around, and while the fares were comparable to the cruise line's own prices, Travelocity, Expedia, Cruises.com and CruiseCritic.com offered other deals like discounts on shore excursions and onboard credit.
Since soft drinks and alcohol were extra and there is generally a standard tipping charge for your cabin attendant and waiters in the dining room, we bought tickets through Travelocity that included $75 in onboard credit.
Some cruisers will tell you that this is what makes their cruise, but most excursions purchased through the ship are pricey. Instead, we took cheap taxis to free beaches I found on the Internet, or in the case of Jamaica, a trolley tour around the historic parts of Falmouth. CruiseCritic.com has a free service called "roll call" that helps you meet other passengers on your ship to make your own excursions.
Be careful of the money pit of onboard offers. Most cruise ships include casinos, spas and specialty restaurants that aren't included in your fare. The Johnny Rockets on our ship was often full, as was the Ben & Jerry's, but you could get food pretty similar or better at no extra cost from the buffet restaurant. And dining hall fare is usually in high style, offering duck, steak, seafood and the ever-popular lobster night -- as much as you want. (The record for lobster tails on our boat was 19.)
So going to an extra-cost Italian restaurant on board seemed a little over the top.
While we're on the subject of food, we often ate big breakfasts and very late lunches, thus avoiding buying food while at port. This works best if you also sign up for the late seating (8 p.m.) for dinner onboard.
And before you start pumping tokens into the slot machines, consider this: Our free onboard entertainment included ice and in-line skating; a climbing wall, a nine-hole mini-golf game, volleyball, basketball, shuffleboard, table tennis, ballroom dancing lessons, three hot tubs, two pools, comedy shows, live music, a movie theater, stage shows and a disco. So look at what's free to do first.
One of the best aspects of a cruise is truly getting away from it all, especially email, cellphones and the Internet. While online access is available on most ships, it's costly -- around $6 to $8 a minute -- and its speed is almost akin to the old dial-up days, so before you sign up, you might want to consider the advantages of being unplugged while you're gone.
Finally, don't forget to bring your camera and exchange shots with other travelers to save on professional photographer fees. Bring a lot of small-denomination bills for tipping and souvenir bartering.
And remember, you can have fun on a ship without having to spend a lot more than your fare.
Teresa McUsic's column appears Fridays.