A few weeks ago I went on my first cruise, from Sydney to Melbourne on the Dawn Princess. VacationsToGo.com (a discount cruise/resort web site) has a review of the Dawn Princess , they give it 4 stars out of a possible 6. The 6 star ships seem to have discount rates in excess of $500 per day per person, much more than I would pay.
The per-person rate is based on two people sharing a cabin, it seems that most cabins can be configured as a double bed or twin singles. If there is only one person in a cabin then they pay almost double the normal rate. It seems that most cruise ships have some support for cabins with more than two people (at a discount rate), but the cabins which support that apparently sell out early and don’t seem to be available when booking a cheap last-minute deal over the Internet. So if you want a cheap cruise then you need to have an even number of people in your party.
The cruise I took was two nights and cost $238 per person, it was advertised at something like $220 but then there are extra fees when you book (which seems to be the standard practice).
The Value of Cruises
To book a hotel room that is reasonably comfortable (4 star) in Melbourne or Sydney you need to spend more than $100 per night for a two person room if using Wotif.com. The list price of a 4 star hotel room for two people in a central city area can be well over $300 per night. So the cost for a cruise is in the range of city hotel prices.
The Main Dining Room (MDR) has a quality of food and service that compares well with city restaurants. The food and service in the Dawn Princess MDR wasn’t quite as good as Walter’s Wine Bar (one of my favorite restaurants). But Walter’s costs about $90 for a four course meal. The Dawn Princess MDR has a standard 5 course meal (with a small number of options for each course) and for no extra charge you can order extra serves. When you make it a 7 course meal the value increases. I really doubt that I could find any restaurant in Melbourne or Sydney that would serve a comparable meal for $119.
You could consider a cruise to be either paying for accommodation and getting everything else for free or to be paying for fine dining in the evening and getting everything else for free. Getting both for the price of one (along with entertainment etc) is a great deal!
I can recommend a cruise as a good holiday which is rather cheap if you do it right. That is if you want to spend lots of time swimming and eating quality food.
How Cruise Companies Make Money
There are economies of scale in running a restaurant, so having the MDR packed every night makes it a much more economic operation than a typical restaurant which has quiet nights. But the expenses in providing the services (which involves a crew that is usually almost half the number of passengers) are considerable. Paying $119 per night might cover half the wages of an average crew member but not much more.
The casino is one way that the cruise companies make money. I can understand that someone taking a luxury vacation might feel inclined to play blackjack or something else that seems sophisticated. But playing poker machines on a cruise ship is rather sad – not that I’m complaining, I’m happy for other people to subsidise my holidays!
Alcohol is rather expensive on board. Some cruise companies allow each passenger to take one bottle of wine and some passengers try to smuggle liquor on board. On the forums some passengers report that they budget to spend $1000 per week on alcohol! If I wanted a holiday that involved drinking that much I’d book a hotel at the beach, mix up a thermos full of a good cocktail in my hotel room, and then take my own deck-chair to the beach.
It seems that the cruise companies specialise in extracting extra money from passengers (I don’t think that my experience with the Dawn Princess is unusual in any way). Possibly the people who pay $1000 per night or more for a cruise don’t get the nickel-and-dime treatment, but for affordable cruises I think it’s standard. You have to be in the habit of asking the price whenever something is offered and be aware of social pressure to spend money.
When I boarded the Dawn Princess there was a queue, which I joined as everyone did. It turned out that the queue was to get a lanyard for holding the key-card (which opens the cabin door and is used for payment). After giving me the lanyard they then told me that it cost $7.95 – so I gave it back. Next time I’ll take a lanyard from some computer conference and use it to hold the key-card, it’s handy to have a lanyard but I don’t want to pay $7.95.
Finally some things are free at some times but not at others, fruit juice is free at the breakfast buffet but expensive at the lunch buffet. Coffee at the MDR is expensive but it was being served for free at a cafe on deck.
How to have a Cheap Cruise
VacationsToGo.com is the best discount cruise site I’ve found so far . Unfortunately they don’t support searching on price, average daily price, or on a customised number of days (I can search for 7 days but not 7 or less). For one of the cheaper vessels it seems that anything less than $120 per night is a good deal and there are occasional deals as low as $70 per night.
Princess cruises allows each passenger to bring one bottle of wine on board. If you drink that in your cabin (to avoid corkage fees) then that can save some money on drinks. RumRunnerFlasks.com sells plastic vessels for smuggling liquor on board cruise ships . I wouldn’t use one myself but many travelers recommend them highly.
Chocolate and other snack foods are quite expensive on board and there are no restrictions on bringing your own, so the cheap options are to bring your own snack food or to snack from the buffet (which is usually open 24*7). Non-alcoholic drinks can be expensive but you can bring your own and use the fridge in your cabin to store it, but you have to bring cans or pressurised bottles so it doesn’t look like you are smuggling liquor on board.
Generally try not to pay for anything on board, there’s enough free stuff if you make good choices.
Princess offers free on-board credit (money for buying various stuff on-board) for any cruise that you book while on a cruise. The OBC starts at $25 per person and goes as high as $150 per person depending on how expensive the cruise is. Generally booking cruises while on-board is a bad idea as you can’t do Internet searches. But as Princess apparently doesn’t allow people outside the US to book through a travel agent and as they only require a refundable deposit that is not specific to any particular cruise there seems no down-side. In retrospect I should have given them a $200 on the off chance that I’ll book another cruise with them some time in the next four years.
Princess provide a book of discount vouchers in every cabin, mostly this is a guide to what is most profitable for them – and thus what you should avoid if you want a cheap holiday. But there are some things that could be useful such as a free thermos cup with any cup of coffee – if you buy coffee then you might as well get the free cup. Also they have some free contests that might be worth entering.
It’s standard practice to have theatrical shows on board, some sort of musical is standard and common options include a magic show and comedy (it really depends on which cruise you take). On the Dawn Princess the second seating for dinner started at 8PM (the time apparently varies depending on the cruise schedule) which was the same time as the first show of the evening. I get the impression that this sort of schedule is common so if you want to see two shows in one night then you need to have the early seating for dinner. The cruise that I took lasted two nights and had two shows (a singing/dancing show and a magic show), so it was possible to have the late seating for dinner and still see all the main entertainment – unless you wanted to see one show twice.
From reading the CruiseCritic.com forum  I get the impression that the first seating for dinner is the most popular. On some cruises it’s easy to switch from first to second seating but not always possible to switch from second to first. Therefore the best strategy seems to be to book the first seating.
Things to do Before Booking a Cruise
Read the CruiseCritic.com forum for information about almost everything.
Compare prices for a wide variety of cruises to get a feel for what the best deals are. While $100 per night is a great deal for the type of cruise that interests me and is in my region it may not be a good match for the cruises that interest you.
Read overview summaries of cruise lines that operate in your area. Some cruise lines cater for particular age groups and interests and are thus unappealing to some people – EG anyone who doesn’t have children probably won’t be interested in Disney cruises.
Read reviews of the ships, there is usually a great variation between different ships run by one line. One factor is when the ships have been upgraded with recently developed luxury features.
Determine what things need to be booked in advance. Some entertainment options on board support a limited number of people and get booked out early. For example if you want to use the VR golf simulator on the Dawn Princess you should probably check in early and make a reservation as soon as you are on board. The forums are good for determining what needs to be booked early.