THE BT HANDBOOK
Family Cruises, Easy as 1-2-3
It's increasingly popular--and surprisingly affordable--to set sail with the kids in tow. Find out ways to save when planning, booking, and cruising.
There are many options these days when it comes to cruising. If a bargain price is your top priority (rather than a specific destination or time of year), consider sailing during the off-season. Many cruises offer their best rates from September through mid-November in the Caribbean, partly because that period is hurricane season. While older kids are already in school then, for families with infants or toddlers, it can be a very affordable, if less predictable, time to cruise.
Another way to save is to target cruise lines that offer kids-cruise-free promotions. Children 17 and under cruise for free on many of Costa Cruises, Caribbean sailings from November through April. This year, youngsters can also sail for free on Costa's two late-April cruises to Bermuda. Similarly, MSC Cruises is expanding its promotion and allowing those 17 and under to sail free not only on Caribbean voyages but those to Europe in the summer as well. Children 6 and older sail free on Windjammer Barefoot Cruises' two family-oriented ships, the Polynesia and the Legacy, each summer.
Since 9/11, cruise lines have greatly expanded the number of domestic home ports (ports from which a ship departs) so that passengers who don't want to fly have more flexibility. When traveling with a family, you will save a bundle by selecting a ship and itinerary that departs from a port you can drive to, so you don't have to pay multiple airfares. Some of the latest developments include two ports in Seattle, operating from late April through November; B Street Pier in downtown San Diego, which begins a year-round cruise schedule this May; a new 80,000-square-foot cruise terminal in Norfolk, Va.; and year-round sailings from the Cape Liberty Cruise Port in Bayonne, N.J.
Booking Your Cruise
Now that major websites such as Expedia and Kayak have entered the cruise market, there tends to be less of a difference in the prices quoted by cruise agencies, consolidators, and cruise lines. Be sure to do your research and compare prices--and read the fine print. Paul Motter, editor of CruiseMates.com, suggests booking through an online cruise-only agency (such as cruises-n-more.com) and calling the agency beforehand, for two reasons. By calling first, you can ascertain the quality of customer service in case you have a problem down the road. Also, you may also be offered a lower rate on the phone than what's listed online. The reason is that large travel and cruise agencies were traditionally able to provide the best discounted cruise fares due to their large volume, but there has been an effort to level the playing field. Most cruise lines now prohibit agencies to advertise--online or in print--discount fares below the lines' approved rate. The exception is that savings, often in the form of rebated commissions or free travel insurance, can be offered verbally over the phone or via e-mail if a potential client makes the initial contact.
E-mail newsletters are another exception. Since they are not considered advertisements, large volume agencies and cruise websites (such as CruiseStar.com) can promote discounts in their newsletters. Travel and cruise informational websites that do not sell cruises, such as CruiseMates.com, have free newsletters, that are e-mailed weekly with the best deals, along with daily promotional updates online.
You may also want to check out CruiseCompete.com. This online service allows you to specify which cruise ship you want to sail on and when. Cruise-only agencies then get back to you with the best deals they have for that particular cruise.
When making a reservation, it's worth considering a "family cabin," which is an alternative to a costly large suite. The rooms vary in design but are generally more accommodating to family needs. Some have either distinct alcoves or separate bedrooms, while others have two bathrooms. Family cabins often come with other perks, such as kid-friendly interior decorating and free room-service delivery. They are available on some ships run by Disney, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, MSC Cruises, and Royal Caribbean. Ask your cruise representative to find out which ships are offering these cabins. Prices are roughly the same for family cabins as for purchasing two separate interior rooms with a connecting interior door. To see an example from Disney Cruise Lines, click here.