We have decided to really make family vacations a priority. Rather than spend a ton on Christmas and birthdays and things in general, we really want to give our kids amazing experiences. As part of that, we want them to experience other cultures. Right now we are able to budget $200/month to vacation and travel. (We used to allocate $110/month, and we only went on one vacation per year. Check out last year’s trip to Oregon here!)
$200/month for 2 big vacations is still pretty tight. That honestly wouldn’t even get us one good trip to Disneyland, so we opt to think outside the box on vacations. You may be surprised to hear that cruising can be a very affordable way to travel with kids!
This is our sixth cruise together as a couple and our second time taking our kids (Some of those cruises Justin earned from work for being amazing!). We have been to some amazing locations such as Cozumel, Bahamas, and Baja Mexico, and it is a great way to travel.
So, after all this, we have discovered many ways to save some serious money cruising; so here we go!
Booking Your Cruise
Which cruise line should you choose?
We love to cruise with Carnival! Many people think of Carnival as a party cruise, but what you may not know is Carnival has been voted the most family friendly cruise many years (even over Disney). Carnival has an amazing kids’ care on-board, and any child age 2 or over can participate for free. They also have times where you can bring your children younger than 2 for an additional fee. We used this on our first cruise when our youngest was a baby and applied some of our on-board credit to pay for it. Score!
*Carnival is in no way paying me for my opinion here, though I would make an excellent spokesperson!
Carnival has so many amazing activities planned for children, and it really offers the best of both worlds vacation wise; we are able to have an incredible time as a family, but Justin and I are also able to spend time alone whenever we’d like. Our kids begged to go to the kids’ care, so we had no trouble dropping them off.
Carnival is also really affordable. We sailed with Royal Caribbean once with just Justin and I, and it was wonderful, but with kids we will choose Carnival every time.
How should I book?
- Cruise discount sites such as vacationstogo.com are not allowed to offer a lower rate than the cruise lines by law. They usually list a ridiculously low price, but it does not reflect port fees, taxes, or gratuities. They can sometimes offer ways to sweeten the deal such as on-board credit (money given to you to spend on board), but you can often get these and more if you work with the cruise line directly.
- We always work directly through the cruise line because you can sometimes get a lower rate, and you can ask for free upgrades or on-board credit to help bring the overall cost of a cruise down.
- Once you have a “personal vacation assistant,” you work with them for all your future booking needs, and they will even call you with amazing deals if you tell them what you’ve got your eye on.
There are a few ways to go about booking. Last time we took our girls on a cruise, we got a call from our personal vacation assistant at Carnival, Josh, telling us of a good deal on a cruise. It was a little out of our vacation budget (at $1600), so we told him no.
You should always set a budget first and work a vacation into that budget; not the other way around. If you don’t have the money, continue saving for the destination you want, or find a less expensive vacation–simple as that!
Tip: Don’t forget to include travel into your overall budget. We chose to sail out of California because we are able to drive there in 6 hours which only added $110 to our budget in gas. If you need to fly, this will add a considerable amount, but there are ways to keep that cost down as well, and I will cover this in part 2 of this series.
Waiting on that cruise worked to our advantage because Josh informed us the price had dropped $300 which was still out of our range of $1200, so again we told him no. 2 weeks later he called again and let us know the price was even lower at $965 for all 5 of us (not including gratuities), so we pulled the trigger. I also asked him if there was an option for a free upgrade (a free upgrade gives you a better room or a better floor), and there was. We were upgraded to the main deck (which is our favorite floor). I also asked for on-board credit, and he was able to give both Justin and I $50, so this basically gave us an extra $100. We paid for the cruise in full up front, but we didn’t include the gratuities because we planned to use our on-board credit towards that.
If you can be flexible on the date of your travel, this strategy of waiting really works. We have negotiated on other cruises that we didn’t end up going on, so keep this in mind. If you have to sale at a specific time, book far in advance as cruise lines often offer early bird specials.
Tip: The main deck of the ship keeps you close to the main areas of the ship, and it also allows for extremely easy debarkation. Instead of standing in line for a few hours to get off the ship, this last cruise we were able to get off the ship, through customs, and to our car in 20 minutes.
Tip: On-board credit can be applied to drinks (which we never get), shore excursions (which we don’t book through the cruise line), on-board babysitting for children under 2 (win!), and even gratuities; which is where we opt to use ours.
This last time we went on our cruise, we booked the first time I talked to Josh because the ship was almost full, and we already had the money to put toward it. This time it cost us a little bit more at $1,140 for all 5 of us (without gratuities), but cruising has been a bit more popular lately, so we felt good about this price. We also were able to get upgraded to the main deck, and we also got upgraded to have a window just by asking. We also were given $50 of on-board credit.
Choose a ship that will accommodate your needs.
Both times we have taken our kids to Baja, Mexico we have opted to cruise on Carnival Imagination. Our kids are in love with the water park on the ship! We always cruise in the off season because we home school, so the park isn’t crowded. The newer Carnival ships sail out of Florida, so if you want one with lots of bells and whistles, that is the way to go, but just remember to factor in flying costs if you aren’t close to Florida, Texas, or Louisiana.
I am a huge fan of the water park as well! It gives me some much needed time to soak up the sun whilst I keep an eye on the kids. Yes, I really am that pale…
What else should I book in advance?
You may be wondering about all those amazing shore excursions, and the cruise line will give you a sense of urgency to book; trying to make you believe they will all fill up quickly. But they won’t. We have never had a problem walking off the ship booking any excursion directly through the company for much much less money. So hold off on booking excursions. I will go more into detail on this in part 2.
If you are a soda drinker, and you can’t live without it for a few days, you will want to purchase an unlimited soda card in advance. On our 5 day cruise, you could purchase one for $25, and since soda costs $4-5 per drink, it will pay for itself quickly. We opt to stick with the free water, milk, and juice provided.
Indicate your dining time. The cruise ship serves dinner in the main dining room at 2 different times–one early, and one late. Be sure to grab the time you prefer. We prefer early dining, and this last time it was full, so we opted for any time dining because I just can’t eat at 8:15pm. This worked well, but we were given different servers every evening, and I prefer to stay with the same ones.
Your ship location. You can choose your position on the ship at the time of booking. If you worry about sea sickness, opt for the center of the boat. We like to be on the main deck toward the middle back away from the stairways and elevators. We are less likely to get foot traffic and party people wandering by in the middle of the night, and it puts us under the open dining room and pool areas–definitely convenient with kids.
And that’s it! You are booked for your cruise! Stay tuned for part 2 where I will cover getting to the cruise ship (including a free comprehensive packing list), life on board with kiddos, and shore excursions for way less!