Peak week cruising: when to splurge, when to skip

If you’re planning to cruise during winter break or President’s Week, here are two questions you might be asking: What’s worth the extra cost? And what’s not?

Nearly 24 million passengers are expected to sail in 2016, and 8 out of 10 travel agents are expecting an increase in sales over last year, according to the Cruise Lines International, a trade group.

Like most vacation experiences, prices rise with demand, particularly during busy cruising weeks including such spring break. With this in mind, you need to carefully consider the extras that are not included in your cruise fare that are offered for a cost on board. You don’t want to blow your vacation budget.

Here are some suggestions on what may or may not be worth the added expense:

Fly to your departure city the day before

Manage unexpected air delays by flying to your departure city a day early. In addition, this flexibility may yield better airfares because you do not need to take a 7 a.m. flight. The expense of a hotel will offset the possibility of a flight delay, which may impede your ability board the ship in time to sail. I’m personally aware of cases in which flights were canceled by bad weather. When passengers tried to rebook, they found that there were no seats available because it was a peak week. Trust this advice: fly to your departure city a day before a cruise.

Purchasing a beverage package

With so many bar venues on board, a tab can grow quickly. There are soda packages and premium beverage packages. There also are perk offers out there for the discerning researcher. For example, Norwegian Cruise Line offered the Ultimate Beverage Package as a booking perk even during the Christmas and New Year’s cruise. However, gratuities for the package needed to be paid up front. On my recent holiday cruise on Norwegian Escape, the line’s newest ship, hundreds had the beverage package. The bars were never too busy to take advantage of the benefit and bar service was excellent.

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Try specialty dining experiences

Generally, cruise fare includes accommodations and meals in the main dining room and select restaurants on board. Cruise lines are introducing gourmet experiences to cruisers, but at a cost. There are a la carte restaurants and per diem charge restaurants. Perhaps splurging on two or three restaurants on a seven-day voyage will break up the routine of the main dining room predictability. One suggestion to bear in mind: make reservations in advance online. High-demand reservation times and restaurants will book up quickly.

Consider purchasing excursions through the cruise line

For as many reputable companies that operate reliable independent excursions in ports of call, there are as many that are not reputable. To best guarantee safety and security, my suggestion is to book shore excursions through the cruise line. I have heard cautionary tales of unreliable transportation, bait-and-switch locations and unsafe boating vessels. There are bargains out there on the Internet, but choose to save in other ways.

Pay extra for private sun decks

Splurge for adult-only spaces if peace and quiet and a deck chair are on your vacation want list. The pool decks are crowded and chairs become “reserved” as soon as the sun rises. Late sleepers will pace around decks and not find a chair in sight. For example, The Vibe Beach Club on the Norwegian Escape is an adults-only private deck with padded sun chairs, private bar and mist stations. Only a limited number of passes are sold. For around $100 for the week, it’s well worth the peace of mind knowing that you have a chair.

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Choose staterooms wisely

Not everyone in your cruise party needs a verandah cabin. My two children were safely tucked away in an inside cabin across the hall. My husband and I enjoyed the serenity of our balcony, but it would have cost substantially more to have adjoining verandah cabins.

Pass on the “fast-pass”

Some cruise lines offer fast-access passes to board the ship earlier than the masses. In my opinion, these are not worth the premium charged. The buffet will be open even if your group boards one hour later. The cruise lines have greatly improved the flow of boarding passengers.

Consider homeport cruising

If you live near a port, look into sailings from there. Without airfare, the vacation will cost a lot less. It should be noted that weather may be a consideration, but today’s cruise ships have so much going on, the trade-off of a day or two in subtropical weather may offset the price difference.

If cruising during a peak week is part of your travel plans in 2016, understand discounted fares will be hard to find. With that in mind, keep a handle on on-board spending by picking and choosing your on-board experiences carefully.

Erica Lamberg

Erica Lamberg is a writer based in suburban Philadelphia. She’s married and has a son and a daughter. She writes for Gannett, Fodor’s Travel,, USA Today’s 10 Best. She also wrote a road trip column for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

  • Don’t fly anywhere during spring break. It makes everything about flying even more miserable. Because adults tend to forget when spring break takes place, it catches people by surprise.

  • Alan

    Wow! Thanks Erica. Its great to see a well thought out reasonable article on cruising. That’s rare here.

  • LFH0

    This article is one person’s perspective on what’s valuable and what’s not, but it really comes down to a personal decision about what is valuable. To me, a cruise line provides transportation to a destination, and while it is nice to be comfortable while on the vessel, I would rather spend my money at the destination point(s) than spend it while aboard a relatively homogeneous vessel. Typically, the end-of-cruise invoice I receive has per diem gratuities and nothing else. My last invoice had one additional item: a motorcoach tour to a particular location within Costa Rica that I could not otherwise arrange independently. But I see no reason to spend additional money on a “specialty” restaurant when board in a reasonable restaurant is included in passage, and especially given that I reside in New York City where we already have the best restaurants in the world (and I don’t need to spend more money for the illusion that an on-board “specialty” restaurant is anything special).

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Nice article. Only thing that strikes me as odd is the timing. It specifically references people planning on cruising over winter break but that is now over for everyone. Seems like this article was written in the anticipation of being published probably a month ago. Or was it already published elsewhere prior to here?


    Avoiding spring break can cut out a lot of March and maybe into April. Not everyone has the same spring break dates. My neighbor has kids in two different schools–one in a private school and the other in a public school. Break schedules are different, so both are not off in the spring at the same time.

  • 42NYC

    I’ve done the math and really dont think the drink packages are worth it unless you’re planning on drinking heavily the whole time (not judging). The break even point is usually 7-8 beverages in a day. Thats more than reasonable if you have 3 drinks on the pool during the day, 2 drinks with dinner and 2-3 after dinner. But again, thats every day. The day you’re in port on excursions, you’re being charged. The day you’re tired from being out too much the night before, you’re being charged. Plus, everyone in your room has to have the same package. So if you’re a big drinker but your cabinmate sticks to 1 glass of wine at dinner, its still a loss.

    That, and you can certainly book cheaper excursions outside the cruise line.

  • Leslie

    Only disagree with one point made-buying excursions off the ship is cheaper and there are many other choices not available on board. Cruise Critic website has lots of info on what people have done with taxi’s and excursions at various ports and list those that are good and the actual drivers to request.

  • Mel LeCompte Jr.

    I think that’s a media phenomenon, kinda like when your local newscast has a segment on ‘Cooking the perfect Thanksgiving turkey’ on the nighttime newscast the night before the holiday.

  • Grant Ritchie

    It’s a new one. I was part of the team that butchered… I mean, “edited” it. And as always, we knew our job was done when we could hear the intermittent sobs and shrieks of the writer from behind the closed door of Chris’ office. :-)

  • Harry

    Regarding shore excursions, I’d strongly suggest going to, and signing up for the ship you’ll be on…roll call, I believe is what they call it. There you’ll find other passengers looking to share an excursion that’s totally legit, more personal, and cheaper than the Cruise Line offers. And yes, they know you’ll need to be back by a certain time, and will make sure you get there…otherwise, they’d be out of business….

  • longtimetvlr

    We cruise 3 – 4 times a year and have debated these issues for years. This is a good article and the recommendations are reasonable. In our situation my preference is to negotiate the largest On Board Credit I can and use this for our gratuities, on-board drinks and excursions. I personally prefer the ships excursions mostly because they are so convenient and usually well run.

    As an example we just returned from a 7 day cruise in mid December on Celebrity Reflection. We had $700 OBC which covered the excursions and some drinks, gratuities and the basic drink package were covered by a booking bonus. We actually got a $400 rebate at the end of the cruise.

    In general, unless your group is full of heavy drinkers the drink packages are not a good deal. We normally have an average of 3 glasses of wine a day, including one at dinner. Our average drink bill is $30 per day per person, so if I can’t get the drink package for less than that I will pass.

    But as has already been pointed out, these choices are mostly personal preferences.

    We do love to cruise. Such a convenient way to see those parts of the world that are near large bodies of water.

    Glad to see a balanced article on this site, after some of the exaggerated fear mongering I have seen here recently concerning cruising.

  • cscasi

    All I can say is, personal preferences should prevail and they are available for those who choose to partake of some of them.

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