Ten cruise tips for better vacation value that everyone can use

Travelers booking cruise vacations go about it a number of ways. Some click-to-book with a third-party website, others book directly with the cruise line. Some seek the help of a general travel agent while others use a Cruise Travel Expert. At one time or another, all of them get booked. Almost immediately after booking, without fail, most look back and wonder if they got the best value. Here are some good tips to insure you have the best value.

1. Concentrate on value, not price. Too many people focus on simply the lowest price without regard to what comes along with it. One of the most common mistakes made is to pick a ship, sailing date and category of cabin then go shopping online. There are way more variables in the equation that need to be considered to get the best value.

2. Use a Cruise Travel Expert You can start with a standard travel agent, one who books any sort of travel. But as soon as possible, that person needs to be identified as an expert on cruise vacations. There are a lot of them out there and with the major changes happening right now in what makes a cruise vacation, you need someone singly focused on cruise vacations.

3. Book a value-oriented fare. The exact same cruise you click-to-book online probably has a number of different fare codes, much like an airline ticket. The problem with booking online is that consumers can’t see these codes, only travel agents can. If travel agents know what to do with them or not depends much on if they have reached the Cruise Travel Expert level or fall short in their everyday working knowledge.

Carnival Cruise Line’s Early Saver Fare, guaranteed to be the lowest published fare by the cruise line, is probably the best example of guaranteed value down the line. Much like a restricted-fare airline ticket, the Early Saver fare booking can not be modified, changed, canceled or re booked without paying a penalty. What scares too many people off of this fare is the “non-refundable” deposit which is not nearly as restrictive as it appears. True, if you cancel, even before final payment is due, you’re not going to get that deposit back. But Carnival allows you to use it toward a future cruise booked within two years, minus an administration fee.

4. Ask for the choice: Upgrade or price reduction Travel professionals booking your cruise vacation are often in a quandary when lower prices come along on a sailing they have booked for a client. Most often, the client does not even know the price went down.

Regular travel agents, paid by commission from the cruise line, are sometimes hesitant to lower prices which lowers their commission. They are not required to do so.

Cruise Travel Experts are also paid commission by the cruise line. One of the qualities that defines an agent as an expert is that they know the name of the game is value and what that might mean to you is important. Often, cruise lines will grant a complementary upgrade instead of a price reduction. The choice should be yours, not the agents.

5. Keep monitoring pricing and special promotions. When the booking is made is actually the beginning, not the end, of the pricing game. Watching for special promotions, discounts or offers that come along after booking and can be applied to your sailing is a good first step to insuring maximum value. Click-to-book website reservations will not consider added value offers down the line. Your Cruise Travel Expert will and so should you.

6. Get on the ship early That may seem a no-brainer but arriving at the port early for embarkation, being one of the first on the ship, can add great value to your overall cruise experience. The cruise is a limited-time vacation and getting on board as soon as possible allows you to learn your way around the ship before it fills with other passengers. Later, while others are bumping into walls, trying to figure out where everything is, you will have toured the ship, had lunch and settled in to have a fabulous vacation.

7. Research, Research, Research A lot of effort is done deciding on a ship and sailing date but often, cruise travelers fail to keep that research momentum going. As soon as the booking is made, attention should be focused on ports of call, memorizing the ship’s deck plans and learning as much as possible about how the cruise line operates. This mistake is most often made by people who have cruised before. Those new to cruise vacations most often do their homework but not in an organized manner. On most itineraries, you will be in any given port for one day and one day only. Some itineraries have overnight stays, but most are a matter of mere hours. Make the most of them by studying up on where you will be going and what you might be doing. AOLTravel guides are a no-brainer on this hunt.

8. Grease some palms You paid at least hundreds if not thousands or tens of thousands of dollars for this vacation. A $20 right up front slipped to your cabin steward will almost guarantee that they perform at peak efficiency. The same for the dining room’s Maitre ‘d or others who you will see frequently throughout the voyage. An understated green hand shake with the simple words “Take good care of us and we’ll take good care of you” sets the tone right up front. You seriously do not have time to go through the mediocre service/complaint/resolution process like you might on land. Cheap fares often bring cheap people to the ships and tips that make up the bulk of the crews pay suffer. They will appreciate your effort.

9. Say hello to the Captain A kind word to the master of the vessel never hurts anything. If you happen to see the Captain walking about the ship, walk right up to him and introduce yourself. Tell him “Thank you for this wonderful ship, the great crew and for all you do to keep us safe at sea” If that sounds corny, it is. But it has a world of impact on the number one person on the ship. Most people see the Captain walk by and think he is too busy to talk. He’s not. If he were too busy he would not be walking around the ship. He would be on the bridge, preparing to launch the Photon torpedos.

10. Go early to everything Like getting on the ship early gives you an advantage over those who come later, you will have many other opportunities to either stand in a line and wait or be one of the first to experience whatever it is you’re doing. While it’s not necessary or maybe even possible to do everything offered on a cruise vacation, the activities, shows or events you choose to attend should be looked at individual experiences and made the most of. Going early gives you the best seating for shows, best pick from buffets or sales and allows you to interact with crew members at their peak time of performance.

Top 5 easy cruise tips: from you

Submitted in the last month or so by readers who have “been there, done that” on a cruise vacation, these tips ring loud and clear as good advice. Regardless of where your ship is sailing to, from Alaska to Barbados, these tips are good ones to follow

“Get there early”
Arrive early in case you are able to get on board and begin becoming familiar with the ship. One of the keys to enjoying cruises is making the most of every moment. Be that spending most of your time doing nothing or attempting to do everything there is to do (you can’t) on the ship, getting on board early is a good idea.

“Luggage is important”
Keep in mind that you may have a long haul from parking to ship, so be sure large luggage is on wheels and keep carry-on’s as light as possible. Unlike a land hotel, your luggage will be delivered outsidee your stateroom in the hallway by your cabin. Be sure your luggage is locked and keep valuables in your carry-on bag.

“Get the right size cabin
The cabins are small. Don’t try to cram too many people in one cabin. It is true that the third and fourth guest in a cabin are discounted and there is a reason for that; sharing a cabin with three others is hard to do. Also, if you are a big or tall person, the twin, sofa or pullman bed might not work for you, let alone the bunk beds.

“Use the safe
Before determining if you want to take valuables along, check to see if the ship has safes in each stateroom. Usually, safes are equipped to hold jewelry, wallets and other small valuables. Best bet? Leave the diamond tiara at home unless you’re just too excited about the Royal Wedding and have to play it out in real life.

“Carefully consider dining
Most ships offer more than just two dinner seatings each night, one early and one late. The relatively new “open seating” option is a good choice for those who don’t want to be locked in to a specific time. With Early seating being around 6PM and late around 8PM, one of those might not work for you. Open Seating allows guests to dine when they want and with whom they want.

Do you have tips to pass along? Things you do on a cruise that are set in stone must-do’s for you?

Flickr photo by Dennis from Atlanta

5 tips for people who really don’t want to go on a cruise

Maybe hiking, biking, backpacking or pretty much any other minimizing endeavor is more what you have in mind for traveling but someone is dragging you along on a cruise. There’s just no way you’re getting out of it. Is there hope for you? Yes. A little. Not much. But some.

Pace yourself- Food will always be available 24 hours a day on board. You might not be used to that with your triathlon training and all so do some stomach stretching exercises prior to boarding. You will need the extra room. Stop pouting that there are no granola bars or energy drinks. There are. On cruises they are called “shots” and you find them at the bars. You’ll enjoy the walk to get them and recent studies suggest those extra steps will help prevent diabetes.

No barfing- You are concerned about the possibility of becoming sea sick because the little path on your normal mountain hike doesn’t really move around much. Think of it like that and yeah, you probably will be. Prepare for shooting the rapids in Colorado with somebody who doesn’t know what they’re doing and you’ll be fine. It could be worse. You could have been invited along for a taping of Paris Hilton’s new reality show.

Know where you are going- Take time before the cruise to check out a travel guide on the places you will visit. Duh. Just because you don’t have any say in where the ship goes doesn’t mean you can’t meet fun and find interesting people. You probably won’t find any of them on the ship but maybe when you go ashore.

Careful with spending- The food is included in the price of your cruise but that’s about it. Beverages, both alcoholic and sodas are not included. Want a sip of water? You’ll pay $23.54 for that. This is why people smuggle booze on the ship. They do have beds so leave your sleeping bag at home with your tent. Bring your flashlight though, cruise passenger are fascinated by shiny things.

Relax. That may seem like a silly tip but you would be surprised how many people try to pack so much into every day that they need a vacation after they get back from their cruise to recuperate. Know this as a fact: There are way too many things to do and you can not possibly do them all. To be more accurate, there are too many things to do that you will think are stupid so bring a telescope and memorize the sky. Maybe you can find a 14th sign of the zodiac.

Flickr photo by Robbie Howell

Tricky cell phone plan might save money at sea

Some day, cruise passengers will be able to use their cell phones at sea just like they might at home. That day is probably a long way off, but recent technology partnered with a new calling plan is a step in the right direction.

Called “Cruise Ship Passport“, a new plan for AT&T customers discounts rates at sea and offers 15 minutes of voice and 15 messages (text, picture or video) along with a reduced overage rate. For $35 a month, the package provides service while on the cruise ship’s “CellularatSEA” network.

Resulting from a partnership between AT&T and Wireless Maritime Services (WMS) the new plan is a first and it’s really catching on.

Now here’s the tricky part.

To use the new plan, AT&T customers need to sign up before getting on the ship and charges continue at the $35 monthly rate until canceled. Still, sign up today, go on the cruise tomorrow, and cancel when you get back. You will indeed save money over roaming charges that can easily triple that price for the same service with no plan.

Watch the clock too, reduced overage charges still run $2.49 per minute, $.50 per text message sent and $1.30 per picture or video message.

You could just turn your phone off and have a lovely vacation too. That’s about the most effective way to control at-sea cell phone charges. New cell phone plans come out all the time but none we know of is just for cruise passengers. If a quick call back home to jealous friends is in order, this plan is the best we’ve seen.

Flickr photo by Samantha celera

5 frank cruise tips the cruise line won’t tell you

Here are some important cruise vacation tips you might not find on any other list. The cruise lines won’t tell you these. A good travel agent might but it would not be negligent of them to keep these tips to themselves. Only the most trusted of friends will let you in on these tips, if they know about them.

  1. Bring your own toilet paper– might as well just get this out of the way right up front. The cruise lines do a great job of feeding you, pampering you, and taking you to multiple destinations while you only have to unpack once. Providing plush, soft toilet paper is not one of their selling points.
  2. Be careful flossing- or just skip it unless you’re on a really long cruise. Either that or bring along some Superglue if you have anything other than original teeth in your head. Crowns, bridgework, fillings, all love to jump out of your mouth at sea. Yes, the ship’s medical center can help but that brings us to number 3
  3. It is going to cost more than you thought– this is nothing to be scared of but to say a cruise is totally “all-inclusive” is stretching it a bit. OK, a lot. While we have done cruises and not spent any money on-board (OK, one cruise and it was tough) We have also spent more than the total price of the cruise,on board, for extras not included in the price. Passing up on-board spending can mean losing out on some rich experiences through shore excursions, spa treatments and other things that cost extra. And buy travel insurance; it should cover that trip to the medical center.
  4. Travel Insurance has you covered- eventually– Travel Insurance at sea is not like medical insurance at home where you make a co-pay at the doctors office and you’re done. The cruise line medical center is a fully-equipped hospital and they want their money at the time service is rendered. Later, you’ll file a claim with the travel insurance company and get reimbursed for covered charges. Bonus tip: get documentation on everything you spend money on that might be turned in later to the travel insurance company for reimbursement. You’ll jump through fewer hoops to get reimbursed down the road.
  5. Be good, they can kick you off– Cruise lines, more specifically, the Captain (aka “master of the vessel”) has the right to put you off the ship at the next port without a refund or way back home if you misbehave. That could mean being rowdy in a bar, arguing with a casino dealer or smuggling drugs back on the ship from some lovely island in the Caribbean.

Flickrphoto by derekGavey