(BudgetTravel.com) -- The cruising industry has changed rapidly in the past decade. And even if you're an experienced cruiser, you may be in for a few surprises on your next sail (for example, you can now ignore the gratuities line on checks guilt-free!).
To find out what will (and won't) set you back on the high seas these days, we went to Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of CruiseCritic.com, a popular website for cruise advice, and Marilyn Green, a cruise editor at industry publication TravelAge West. Their insiders' tips will have you sailing like an old salt in no time.
1. Can booking through a travel agent actually cut my costs?
It sure can. Agents have close relationships with cruise lines, which means that they can often score you upgrades and extras, such as two-for-one deals, that you wouldn't have access to on your own. Plus, the lines pay agents commissions, so their assistance doesn't cost you a cent.
To find a knowledgeable agent near you, consult the websites for the Cruise Lines International Association and The Travel Institute. Both have a roster of agents, along with contact information and details on their expertise and training -- you'll want to find someone who has been in the business for at least five years.
That last point is key, says Carolyn Spencer Brown, who explains that the biggest benefit of enlisting an agent, beyond monetary savings, is their knowledge and advice. A savvy agent should be able to help you sort through the dozens of major lines -- and the countless itineraries each offers -- to find one that's right for you.
2. Is it worth it to join the loyalty programs offered by cruise lines?
How much would I really save? Joining can reap you considerable savings. Spencer Brown, for instance, specifically cites Royal Caribbean's loyalty program for excellence: "They really make it worth your while to stick with them by hosting special members-only events onboard and occasionally distributing coupons for $100 to $500 off select sailings."
Joining programs can also prove worthwhile for the convenience they provide: Members of Norwegian's and Royal Caribbean's clubs, for example, get priority boarding -- a big, big deal when a ship carries thousands of impatient passengers, all anxious to get their vacations started.
Another (and, perhaps, the most convincing) reason to join is that cruise line membership clubs are entirely free. There's really no downside to becoming a member. In fact, "most cruise lines automatically enroll you at the end of your first cruise," explains Marilyn Green. That includes Norwegian, Carnival and Holland America. For other lines, including Royal Caribbean and Celebrity, you have to take the initiative and sign up yourself, but it's easy to do online. If you're not sure if the company you're sailing with auto-enrolls guests in a loyalty program, just ask when you check in.
3. The cruise I'm looking at allows me to buy air from the company. Should I do it?
Booking your own flights is the way to go -- you'll save a few bucks and have more flexibility on travel times (cruise lines typically just give you one or two options on flight times). To maximize savings, follow these tips on the best time to book airfare.
It used to be that if you let the cruise book your flight and ran into weather-related delays the line would hold the ship until you arrived. Sounds pretty good, but that rarely happens these days, according to Spencer Brown. (There were a few exceptions during the massive "snowpocalypse" that hit Europe and the U.S. East Coast around Christmastime, 2010 -- such as when Cunard Line held its Queen Victoria ship for delayed passengers on December 20th -- but that was likely a one-off.)
In addition to offering air to cruisers, some lines also offer a compromise deal called "air deviation," which allows you to book with the cruise but still choose your own carrier, route and flight times. The benefit is that the line will be aware of your flight schedule (and any delays), but again, there is no guarantee that they'll hold the ship for you. Be aware that they also charge a one-time fee of between $25 and $50 per person for this "service."
"Our advice is to book the flights yourself and get in early," says Spencer Brown. "Even from New York to South Florida, I always depart a day or so ahead of time and then stay in a hotel or with friends for a night to make 100 percent sure I'm in the port town on the morning of departure." You'll end up spending a little bit extra on the hotel, but the money you spend there is better than the money you'd lose if you miss the boat.
4. Do I have to tip everyone who does anything for me during a cruise?
Thankfully, most cruise lines have streamlined their tipping procedures. Ships now charge your account a set amount each day $6 to $15 per person per day is typical that covers all restaurant personnel and your cabin steward. (If you're not sure if your line incorporates gratuity, it's a good idea to ask when you check in.)
If your steward has gone way above and beyond, you may want to tip him or her an additional $20 in cash. Many cruise lines will include an envelope in your room, typically marked "Gratuity" in case you wish to leave extra money, but it's not expected.
On the flip side, if you feel dissatisfied with your service and don't believe it merits the set rate, you can speak to the ship's purser before the cruise is over and change the amount. Finally, remember that when you buy drinks, from soda to morning OJ to cocktails, you will be charged an auto-gratuity on almost all ships; 15 to 18 percent is the norm.
Note that in spite of this, checks still come with a line for gratuity feel free to ignore with a clear conscience.
5. Speaking of drinks, is there any way to get around all the extra charges associated with booze?
Long story short: It's going to cost you to imbibe on board. Drink prices on everything from bottles of beer to top-shelf margaritas have risen steadily in recent years, and you can't really BYOB. If you buy alcohol in port or in the duty-free shop, the ship's personnel will hold it until the cruise ends.
Several lines, including Carnival and Norwegian, will allow you to bring one bottle of champagne or wine onboard, but they charge a corkage fee of around $10 to $15 if you drink it in a restaurant or public area.
All of this may sound discouraging, but look at it this way: If you know ahead of time that drinks will be pricey, then at least you can factor that into your budget.
A bottle of Corona onboard, for instance, will typically set you back $5, while a top-shelf margarita will run around $9. Be realistic about how much you'll want to drink and then allot yourself a daily budget for doing so.
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