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.

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.

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.

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About the Author
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, Bankrate.com, USA Today’s 10 Best. She also wrote a road trip column for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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