14 Insider Tips for Smooth Sailing on Your Family Cruise

by Wendy Helfenbaum

14 Insider Tips for Smooth Sailing on Your Family Cruise

To avoid cruising for a financial bruising, you'll need to decide where to splurge and where to save on your next family cruise.

I love family cruise vacations, and I've enjoyed many, but I've noticed a lot of add-on charges creeping in the last few years—specialty restaurants with fees of up to $30 per person, pay-as-you-go yoga or Pilates classes, and up charges for lattes. That's in addition to long-established costs for alcohol, soda, bottled water, casino activities, arcade games, shore excursions, and gratuities.

Since most lines are cashless environments, passengers armed with room key cards that double as debit cards may find themselves forking over big bucks when they checkout. I stood in line at Guest Services recently behind a red-faced dad who was stunned to discover his kids had racked up nearly $1,000 worth of charges at the arcade and soda bar.

To avoid cruising for a financial bruising, you'll need to decide where to splurge and where to save on your next family cruise. Here are some tips my family has picked up over the years:

1. Join groups where cruisers share money-saving tips.

Online forums, like Cruise Critic, feature experienced cruisers offering up invaluable advice. Post a question or do a search to discover everything from which sailings are on sale to which ships have the cheapest bingo card packages.

2. Enroll in your cruise line's loyalty program.

You'll get access to special offers and discounts. Plus, once you've sailed, you'll earn points toward perks on future trips.

3. Keep dates flexible.

If you're willing to travel during non-peak times, there are mega-deals to be had. We took our child out of school the week before Christmas break and saved about $1,000. Also, keep watching the fares because cruise lines frequently post different family-friendly promotions, including reduced deposits, 2-for-1 deals, onboard credits, kids sail free, cabin-category upgrades, prepaid gratuities, complimentary beverage packages, free specialty restaurant reservations, and shore excursion credits.

4. Set your onboard budget.

Discuss your priorities as a family: Do you love island adventures? Spa treatments? Gaming? Most cruise lines allow you to pre-book extras about three months in advance, so go online and make your choices. Planning your port days beforehand also saves you time spent waiting in line on the ship at the shore excursion desk.

5. Let your travel agent know you're interested in "upsells."

Often, a week or so before your sailing date, unsold cabins in more expensive categories will be lowered to a reasonable price. We had booked an inside cabin, which is the most affordable way to cruise, but we snagged a balcony mini-suite aboard the Norwegian Gem a few days before we sailed for a very modest fee, and it was worth every penny!

6. Pack wisely to save money and stress.

Before you head to the docks, fill your luggage wisely:

  • Bring a carry-on bag with swimsuits, sunscreen, and flip-flops, so you can begin enjoying the ship as soon as you board. Your luggage may not arrive in your stateroom until dinnertime.
  • Throw in plastic clothespins for hanging up wet swimsuits or keeping towels from flying off pool loungers.
  • Pack, don't buy, lanyards for each family member, and ask Guest Services to punch a hole in your key cards so you won't lose them.
  • Bring your own princess and pirate costumes, pillowcases, and autograph books if you're sailing on a Disney ship. The onboard boutiques offer few bargains!
  • Slip in seasickness aids, like Sea-Bands, which are lifesavers for rocking and rolling ships!
  • Top off your case with an over-the-door shoe organizer to corral toiletries and other small items to keep your usually tiny stateroom clutter-free.

7. Drive in a day early to save.

Instead of parking at the ship's departure port, where you'll shell out at least $40 per day in parking fees, consider Stay, Park & Cruise packages that are offered by area hotels. We saved hundreds of dollars recently by leaving our car at a hotel in New Jersey that lets us park for free while we sailed; they even drove us to the pier and picked us up afterwards!

8. Establish buying power.

After you check in at the pier, decide whose key cards have purchasing power. For example, you can set limits on your children's cards for gaming or other activities.

9. Forego the all-you-can-drink soda package.

Several cruise lines allow you to bring a case of water or juice aboard as carry-on baggage. Slap on a luggage tag, and it will be delivered to your stateroom with your bags. Also, lemonade, iced tea, juice, water, tea, and coffee are available for free at the ship's buffet restaurant.

10. Walk past the ice cream parlor.

Don't overpay for your scoops at the onboard ice cream parlor, instead, visit the buffet or pool deck's free soft-serve ice cream machine, which is open from mid-morning until late at night on many ships.

11. Say cheese! But use your own camera.

Ship photographers are everywhere and eager to snap photos of your family 24/7. But with prices of $25 per 5×7, your memories can be captured much more cheaply if you hand off your own camera to a fellow passenger instead.

12. Peruse the sand and surf on your terms.

Instead of paying $40-$80 per person for beach excursions offered by the cruise line, which usually include transportation and a light lunch, grab a cab at the port, or share costs with another family and pile into a minivan for about $8 per person. Entry to many Caribbean beaches is less than $5, with chairs and umbrellas available for a modest fee. Bring your own snorkels and masks from home if you have room in your luggage to save on rental fees. We often made sandwiches at the breakfast buffet and brought them ashore. But don't pack fruit! Some islands are very strict about that.

Added tip: Be mindful to leave enough time to return to your ship. When you don't book an excursion through the cruise line, they may sail away without you if you're late!

13. Pay for peace of mind.

If you don't feel brave enough to venture out on your own, there are, of course, advantages to booking port excursions through your cruise line. With decades of experience and feedback from thousands of guests, their excursions are generally high quality and booked with reputable, insured tour operators. Ship staff will be able to help you choose the right excursion for your family, and if weather conditions make a tour impossible, you'll be refunded. You do pay a premium for this service, but you're also purchasing peace of mind.

14. Save splurging for special experiences.

If you're docking in Nassau, you can't go wrong with spending a day at Atlantis, with its massive water slides, dolphin encounters, and spectacular aquarium. It's a pricey excursion—about $150 per adult and $95 per child for a day at the water park—but if you don't plan on ever spending a week at this mega-resort, it's a terrific experience. A more affordable option is to purchase a resort for a day package, such as Stay and Play for the Day at Comfort Suite Paradise Island, where you get a hotel room and access to the resort for about $400 for a family of four, depending on the time of year.

Happy sailing!