Cruising for an Affordable Family Vacation

by | Aug 20, 2012 | Life Aspiration Planning, Travel and Dining, Weekly Column | 1 comment

My family and I recently took our 20th cruise-ship vacation. Obviously, we’ve found that cruising offers something for each of us.

I was reluctant to go on my first cruise, both because I’m prone to motion sickness and because I couldn’t see why anyone would want to spend a vacation cooped up on a boat. I quickly learned two things that changed my mind. First, a number of drugs, patches, and shots are available to prevent or cure seasickness. Second, if you get bored on a cruise ship, it’s only because you choose to.

A major asset of cruising is the 18 hours a day of tailor-made, supervised activities available for kids of various ages, even when the ship is in port. This allows parents plenty of time to tour ports of call unencumbered by cranky kids who couldn’t care less about museums or ancient ruins. Our kids are now old enough that they enjoy most of the shore excursions, but this still leaves them the option to opt out of any port that doesn’t call to them.

Most people assume cruising with a family must be prohibitively expensive. We’ve found it to be a highly affordable way to vacation if you follow a few rules.

You can get some incredible cruising bargains, but it does take a little legwork. You will want to get on the email lists of the major cruise lines; my top picks are Cunard, Celebrity, Holland America, and Princess. They send out sales and last-minute offers continuously.

One of the best places to shop and compare deals is Cruise.com. However, when I’ve run into issues like an incorrect booking or a issue with the cruise company, Cruise.com wasn’t much help. I was left pretty much on my own to resolve the problems. I’ve found it’s better to shop the deals online with sites like Cruise.com or Cruisecritic.com, but to place the order with my local travel agent or directly with the cruise company.

It will come as no surprise to clients and longtime readers of my columns that one of the main features I look for in a ship is really good food. Many of the newer ships offer alternative dining rooms, where for an additional $25 to $40 per person, you can dine in true gourmet fashion. Some of the best specialty dining is found on Cunard and Celebrity.

To balance the cost of my specialty dining habit, I select the least expensive stateroom, typically an inside cabin. It’s the same size as 80% of the cabins on the ship; it just doesn’t have a window. You can enjoy the same view—water and sky—from a lounge on deck while you relax with a cool drink. And the cheaper cabin leaves several hundred extra dollars to spend on food and shore excursions. For our latest 12-day cruise, our inside cabin cost $800 per person.

You typically get the best rates by booking the cruise as far in advance as possible. A small deposit is due upon booking but is totally refundable until about 60 days prior to the cruise date. Often, the prices rise the closer you get to that 60-day deadline, when the cruise must be paid in full and your deposit becomes non-refundable. If you are flexible, another great time to shop for cruises is about 30 to 60 days prior to sailing.

A cruise isn’t what we typically think of as a middle-class family vacation. Yet when you figure in lodging, food, and admission fees for visiting major US vacation destinations, cruising can be just as affordable and just as much fun.

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