Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Money Saving Tips For Cruising

I recently got back from a week-long Alaskan cruise with my wife and daughter through the inside passage. We had a great time! Alaska is some amazingly beautiful country! This was our third cruise and I think we've got the hang of how to make things go smoothly now. I've also discovered some tips that can save you some money!

All these tips apply to Holland America cruise lines, which is the line we cruise with, but they may apply to other lines as well.

Look For Deals Giving Shipboard Credit

One of the reasons I like cruising is that all your meals are included - buying three meals a day for your whole family while on vacation can be a significant expense. (In fact, there's so much food available on cruises, you'll likely gain weight if you re not careful.) While that sounds good, what new cruisers may not realize is that the only drinks that are usually included with your cruise fare are water, coffee, hot and iced tea, and lemonade. Soft drinks are $1.95 per can plus a 15% gratuity that is automatically added. Wine is also sold by the glass and bottle. Mixed drinks range from $5.95 to $9.95 each and those have a 15% gratuity added as well. If you are a person that is addicted to soda (or alcohol), this can add up really fast. It's also difficult to keep track of your spending because your room card doubles as a charge card. Each time you order a drink, you present the server with your card. You'll get a receipt, but who looks at those? At the end of the cruise, you'll get a big bill with all your charges on it and when you see what all your drink charges add up to, you can be in for quite a shock.

Booking Deals

Many cruise lines offer booking specials that include shipboard credit. This credit will help offset any charges you make while on the cruise. When we purchased our tickets, we got a $125 shipboard credit with our package. The cruise lines run specials featuring shipboard credit all the time. For example, when we were on the ship, they were running a special where if you put a deposit down for your next cruise while on the ship, you would get a $600 shipboard credit on that future cruise.

It makes sense, then, to try to maximum your shipboard credits. Cruises are typically booked a year in advance, but once you book yours, keep watching the specials the cruise line offers. When we first booked our cruise, we got a promotion that included $100 a day per person for use on wine and cocktails. My wife and I aren't big wine drinkers, so we probably wouldn't have used all of that credit each day, but that was what was offered, so we took it. Several months later, I noticed a new promotion where you could get $125 shipboard credit plus a reduced fare for a third passenger (which was our daughter). So we called our travel agent and we were able to switch to that package. I continued to watch the prices and found the per-person cruise price kept dropping. Each time it dropped, my travel agent was able to get us the lower price and still keep the shipboard credit promo. All in all, the price of our cruise ended up dropping over $1,000 between the time we made the reservation and when we actually had to pay in full (about 2 months before departure).

Stockholder Deals

That's one way to get shipboard credit. I discovered another method that isn't often promoted. For certain companies, if you own at least 100 shares of the company stock, you are eligible for some credit. In my case, if you own 100 shares of Carnival Cruise Lines, which owns the Carnival, Princess, Holland America, Costa, Windstar, Seabourne, and Cunard cruise lines, you are eligible to receive either $100 or $250 in shipboard credit, depending on the length of your cruise. You just need to show proof of stock ownership to the cruise line. (Royal Carribean offers a similar program.)

Now, I don't really want to own stock in a cruise company. That's not a sector I wish invest to in. Furthermore, when I first found out about this program, it was about 1 week before Carnival Cruise lines was going to release their quarterly earnings, a period which typically features volatile short term stock price fluctuations. So I came up with a method to get my $100 credit for owning stock with minimum risk on my part. I bought 100 shares and the next day, took a screenshot of my account showing I owned the stock. My trading commission is $7, so to buy and sell the stock, it would cost me $14 total. Right after I took my screen shot, I put in a limit order to sell the stock when it went up $0.14 over the price I bought it for. That would cover my commissions and I would break-even on the trades. At the time, the stock was trading in a range of about 50 to 75 cents, so my sell order had no problem getting executed. I sent the screen shot to Holland America and they gave me my $100 shipboard credit. So I basically got $100 for free! (Actually, I forgot to account for the SEC fees charged when you sell a stock, so I really paid about $0.07 for $100 in shipboard credit - still a good deal!)

Look For Unused Drink Cards

There is one more trick I have heard about, but did not actually work for me. On the ship, you can also purchase drink cards. These allow you to buy drinks, including soft drinks, at a reduced price. The catch is that you have to go to a bar to use them  - you can't give them to a waiter. Sometimes people do not use all the credit on their cards and, because they are non-refundable, at the end of the cruise, they are not useful to the purchaser any more. What some people do is stick the card in the bible that is the drawer in their stateroom. This way, the next person getting that room can use it. The bible in my room didn't have one, but it's worth taking a look when you board.

Getting Improved Service

Most cruise lines now include a daily "hotel fee" on their cruises. This fee, which amounted to $15 per day on my cruise, is another forced gratuity and is split between the people that service your room, the wait staff in the restaurants and bars, and any other people you would normally tip for service. This means even if you don't spend a dime on the ship, you're still going to be hit with a bill at the end of the cruise. So again, it pays to try to maximize your shipboard credit.

The Two Dollar Bill Trick

I will say that the service, at least on the cruises I have been on, has been very good, and I have no problem paying the hotel fee. But you can always tip more and one of the best tricks I have seen is this: tip using two dollar bills. I did that this trip and the effect was amazing!

First off, $2 bills are rare. This means whenever you hand one out, you are likely to make an impression. The point of tipping is to get better service, so you want to be remembered. Also, it's not a huge amount of money, so you can be fairly generous in handing them out. Within hours of boarding the ship, I had given one to the attendant who serviced my room. (They bring your bags to your room and introduce themselves when you board.) The service I received from that guy for the rest of the trip was amazing - even better than the already good service I've received from the room attendants on my previous two cruises. At the end of the cruise, I gave him several more for his work.

I should note that the use of two dollar bills seems to be a somewhat controversial practice. If you read some cruising message boards, a few people claim the workers have a hard time spending or exchanging the bills in foreign countries because some people think they are fake. I've also seen reports that people think two dollar bills are unlucky - but I've also seen people claim they were lucky, so who knows. Personally, I feel there are enough American people working on the ship that getting rid of them shouldn't be an issue. I believe the front desk on the ship even offers a currency exchange service and the folks running that should definitely know they aren't fake. And the last two cruises I went on originated from or stopped in American ports, so spending them off ship shouldn't be an issue.

There you have it. I know cruising isn't for every one, but if it's for you, use these tips to save yourself money!

Now it's time for some gratuitous vacation photos.

We started our trip in Vancouver, Canada and saw this Tesla charging at a public charging station at Stanley Park.

Here's our ship.

Lots of mountains and glaciers!


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