Cruises for the Rest of Us

Santa Cruz de Tenerife.

Hello! I don’t know what happened. Sorry. I think I fell asleep for half a year. OK, I really need to put up the rest of my photos from my US trip. But before that…

I’m in Barcelona! And instead of flying, I took a ship.

I was originally thinking of crossing the Atlantic on a freighter, but an article by a globetrotting programmer pointed me to a somewhat more comfortable option: cruise ships. Wait, wait — before you think “how posh”, hear me out! As it turns out, during certain times of year, the big cruise lines ferry some of their ships across the Atlantic to prepare for their summer Mediterranean cruises. Since these sailings only go one way and happen during typically non-vacation times of the year, they are often very cheap. What’s more, the article pointed to these cruises as a fantastic way to get programming work done. Sure, internet is a no-go, but if you can get past that, you basically have an idyllic floating office (food service and hot tub included!) for a work week or two. Given my needs, it was a no-brainer.

The author of the article had a website called CruiseSheet to help find these sorts of cruises. This is where I started my research.

Cruise Tips

Transatlantic cruises can be ridiculously cheap at certain times of year.

In March, April, and May of this year, I’ve seen a good number of 2 week cruises going for $300 per person for a 2 person inside cabin. Windowed cabins are usually only $50-$100 more per person. Remember what I said about freight ships? Turns out, they are usually about 3x as expensive, for reasons completely alien to me. However…

The list price of a cruise isn’t really its final price.

…you also have to factor in port taxes and government fees (usually $100-$200). There’s also gratuities, which usually default around $12-$13 per day. These are deducted automatically, but you’re free to change them by talking to Guest Services. (Don’t cheap out on this.) Fortunately, you can pay them off with onboard credit. Don’t worry: food is included in the price!

For getting a good deal, travel agents don’t really bring much to the table.

For the most part, travel agents offer the same exact price as the cruise websites, with a few rare exceptions. If you’d like to explore your options, CruiseCompete allows you to submit a request for quotes from travel agents. They end up mostly being the same; I think I only saw one that offered me a lower price than retail, and I had to buy their travel insurance to get it. One thing travel agents can offer you is a bit of onboard credit, but it’s usually not much for cheap cruises like the ones I’m describing. I’ve only seen $50 at most in my price range.

But if you flex your capitalist muscles, you can save a few hundred bucks!

Most cruise lines have something called a “shareholder benefit”, where if you own a small amount of their stock (usually 100 units, or about $6000 total), you can get $200-$250 onboard credit for these long cruises. Yes, it’s a lot of cash to toy with — but if you have the means to do it, all you have to do is buy the stock, e-mail them a statement, and sell it off when it gets a bit higher. You’ll end up with free onboard credit and quite possibly a bit more money in the bank to boot.

I just had to go and try this! As soon as I bought the stock on my Vanguard account (4 days processing), I sent Royal my statement. They got back to me in a week telling me that the credit would show up in my onboard account by the second day (which it did). The credit went on to cover the entirety of my gratuity ($12 per day by default), $50 of internet (about 10 minutes per day — more on that in another article), and part of a haircut. On the downside… I got unlucky and managed to buy the stock at its peak. A week after I bought it, I was down $400. Currently, I’m only down about $140, which means that I’m actually ahead by $110 if you factor in the onboard credit. Still, I think I’ll wait until the stock surpasses the price I bought it at, which it probably will, given that the trendline has been pretty much linear for the past year. As with any transaction involving the stock market, YES, it’s a gamble, and YES, there are potentially massive risks involved — no question about it. But for $250 for free… maybe worth it.

(Do note that the shareholder benefit might not be compatible with other discounts and onboard credit offers, though some people have suggested that travel agent credit doesn’t count. I don’t know!)

Single supplement sucks.

If you’re travelling by yourself, you’ll in all likelihood have to pay 2x the price. Pro: you have the entire room to yourself. Con: a burning hole in your pocket. Note that Norwegian Cruise Lines has rooms on some of their ships designed specifically for singles, allowing you to waive the single supplement. The one I saw cost $650 and was a swanky-looking inside suite.

Cruise prices can change drastically on an almost daily basis.

This was a bit surprising to me. When I saw the price of an oceanview room on a cruise I was considering drop nearly $300, to below the price of an inside cabin, and then back in a single day, I figured it was some sort of fluke. But no: if you look at the price graphs for the cheaper rooms on a price tracking site like CruiseFish, you’ll probably see weird spikes a few times every month, sometimes to absurd lows. It sometimes pays to be patient, unless…

The perfect time to buy?

…you wake up one day to find everything sold out! I spent just a little too long deciding on my cruise, and I refreshed one morning to suddenly find that the prices for the cruise I was favoring spiked by almost $500 overnight. A quick call revealed that the cheap oceanview cabins had all sold out. I asked about a different cruise, and it turned out that there was only a single room available at the good price. I quickly nabbed it. Turns out that even for these lesser-sailed routes, you’ll start seeing the cheap rooms sell out about a month in advance, and probably a bit earlier than that. (Note that if prices drop within 48 hours, most cruise lines have a price guarantee that you can redeem for onboard credit. Be vigilant after you buy!)

Some Data

I was interested in the long-term behavior of these prices, so I picked 5 cruises out of the ones I was considering and tracked their cheapest inside and outside cabin prices over the course of about a month. Here are the results, adjusted for the single supplement. ($0 means sold out.)

As you can see, pricing behavior varied wildly between the three companies. Norwegian barely changed their prices. Celebrity changed their prices occasionally. Royal’s indoor cabin prices remained mostly stable, but their outdoor cabins fluctated wildly and unpredictably, almost to the very last day. (And even with their indoor cabins, you could save a hundred bucks just by waiting a day.) As we got closer to the sailing date, prices rose all around. Cabins were selling out on a whim, then coming back a few days later.

Based on my findings, for the category of cheap transatlantic cruises out of the US, I think 2 months ahead of time is a good time to buy, with 1 month being the point at which things start selling out rapidly.

In Conclusion

After a month of nail biting and frantic refreshing, I decided on a 16-day Royal Caribbean cruise from New Orleans to Barcelona. My original intent was to land in London, but the 16-day was cheap enough that if I really wanted to get to England straight away, I could simply take the train for close to the price difference. The pre-gratuity price for the voyage was $1100 for a windowed room. (Non-windowed was $200 cheaper, but basically my entire family forced me to take the windowed room by helping pay the difference.) Going with a friend would have cost $550 per person, but sadly, no friends were available. At the time I booked the ship, a flight would have cost me about $600. Transport pricing is unfortunately pretty obtuse, and there are a lot of factors to consider. I’ve heard, for example, that round-trip plane tickets tend to be cheaper than one-way, and that there’s the occasional rare deal where you can fly into a European country for only $200-$300. But all in all, even without factoring in the benefit of transportation, I think the cruise was a fantastic deal. Depending on how you look at it, I got to spend $50-$80 per day total for a great office, fantastic food, and the rare experiencing of crossing the ocean (the ocean!!) by sea.


May 29, 2014