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Tuesday, February 4, 2020

The Frugal Cruiser: A discount here, some promotions there. Eventually it adds up to big money!

It's no secret that we love cruises!  In our opinion, there's no better resort vacation. We love sailing the open seas and stopping on islands, cities or towns all over the world.  As we have showed before, cruising can be HEALTHY! But how is it MEANINGFUL? To LTD, one of the most meaningful sides of cruising is the amazing people you meet!  

It is hard to get bored while on a cruise holiday with so many places to see and people to meet!  We were delighted when our friend who we met while cruising on a Princess transAtlantic cruise wrote a fabulous article for our site!  Please enjoy hearing from the Frugal Cruiser and how she "shows us the money..."

By Melinda McMullen

My husband and I have been traveling extensively for a decade now, and have settled on cruising as our preferred way to see the world. We love the fact that we unpack once, can visit many places during a relatively short period of time and can fund at least 80% of our expenses up front.

Along the way, we’ve discovered that smart cruisers “never pay retail.” This was a discovery we made early on during conversations with other cruisers. They urged us to identify one travel agent we could work with regularly who would meet our needs which, in our case, included a discount on our cruises.  

We’re DIY travelers in that we select our own cruises, pick our own cabins and watch the prices like a hawk before making final payment, so we were in a position to select a travel agent who would offer us the best incentive.  We found one who reduces our total invoice by about 8%, meaning that we pay less up front. (Yes, we give up the “free” onboard credit and maybe a specialty meal or two provided by other TA’s, but we’re like Cuba Gooding, Jr. in Jerry McGuire: “Show me the money!”)

In addition to saving money by selecting the right travel agent, though, we’ve found ourselves relying on two specific credit cards when paying for our cruises. Like many Costco members, we often use the Costco Anywhere Visa Card by Citi, which you can ask for cash at Costco member services if you aren't aware of this!) provides a whopping 3% back (payable in a check in February of the following year) on qualifying restaurant and travel purchases.  That means a cruise that might cost you $2,500 per person would “pay back” $75 per person or $150 total at the end of the year. That may seem like small potatoes, but it adds up if use your Costco Anywhere Visa Card to pay for restaurants, airfare, hotels, car rentals, cruise lines and payments to travel agencies, including Costco Travel, of course. We use that card a lot, especially while eating out at restaurants while cruising or traveling abroad because this card doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. Another benefit of the Costco Anywhere Visa Card by Citi is that it has contactless payments available, useful in places such as London where contactless payments for taxis and trains are convenient!

We’re pretty frugal travelers, so it surprises some folks to learn that we never leave home without our American Express Platinum Card.  The $200 Uber benefit ($15/mo plus $20 in December) has come in useful, especially when traveling abroad, and we love various lounge benefits that make flying just a little bit easier.

But the biggest benefit to us, and the one that has more than paid for the whopping $550 annual fee, is the Platinum Card’s Cruise Benefits Program, that provides up to $300 in Onboard Credit on select cruise brands, including Celebrity, Cunard, Holland America , Norwegian, Princess, Royal Caribbean and many of the more expensive lines like Seabourn and Regent.  As with all benefit programs, it’s important to know the rules, but this has been a game changer for us.  

Here are the basics:

1. Your booking must be made through an American Express-affiliated travel agent.  Our agent is with Cruise Planners, the American Express franchise network, so we qualify for the benefit by booking with her.

2. All your payments (excluding any future cruise deposits) must be made on your Platinum Card.

How do we decide whether to use our Platinum Card or our Costco Card?  The math makes it pretty simple. Here’s how we analyzed the financials for two of our upcoming cruises, each having a different outcome.

We used our Platinum Card for a Transatlantic crossing on the QM2 to attend my husband’s daughter’s wedding this summer.

 The initial cost was $3,546 for two for a Britannia Classbalcony. 
 After our travel agent’s credit, the cost dropped to $3,270 (for a savings of $276).
 If we’d paid for the cruise on our Costco card, the 3% discount would have brought us an additional savings of $98.10.  By using the American Express Platinum Card, however, we scored an OBC of $300, making it the clear winner.
 We also used our Carnival Shareholder Bonus to get $100 in onboard credit (for a seven-day cruise) and booked our cruise during a “free gratuities” promotional period, saving $161 (calculated at Cunard’s rate of $11.50 per person per day).

The Bottom Line:  Between our TA’s fare reduction, our American Express Platinum Card Cruise Benefit, our Carnival Shareholder bonus and our free gratuities, we calculate that we saved a total of $837 – or nearly 24% on the total retail cruise price.  Of course, it should be noted that our $400 in OBC is non-refundable and can’t be used in the casino or for gratuities, but that’s OK – we’ll certainly find other ways to use it!

We used our Costco Card to book a 15-day cruise through Asia on Diamond Princess for this fall.  This was pricier than many cruises we take, but we’ve wanted to see Asia so this cruise was perfect for us.

 Our initial cost when billed by Princess was $10,119 for a Deluxe Balcony, including taxes and port fees.
 After our travel agent’s discount, the cost dropped to $9,238, for a savings of $881.
 If we had used our American Express Platinum Card we would have received $200 in OBC for a balcony cabin, but by paying for the cruise with our Costco card, we scored the 3% cash back reward which, in this case was $277, making it a better deal for us.
 We again used our Carnival Shareholder Benefit, which was worth $250 in OBC because this cruise was longer than 13 days.  Also, we booked during a promotional period that gave us $350 each in OBC, as well as free gratuities, valued at $435 when calculated at $14.50 per person per day. Also, because we used our Future Cruise Credits to book, we received an additional OBC of $200.

The Bottom Line:  Between our TA’s fare reduction, our Costco Cash Back Bonus, our Carnival Shareholder Benefit and our promotional OBC, our future cruise deposit OBC and free gratuities, we calculate that we saved a total of $2,743 – or approximately 27% on the total retail cruise price. Again, it’s important to note that about 40% of our “savings” are in nonrefundable cruise credits, but given that we’re touring Asia, we’re planning on taking a fair number of tours, so we plan to book the ship’s shore excursions to spend most of our $1,150 in cruise credits on board!

The Double Bottom Line:   These are some of the techniques we use when we think about booking our travel. If you’re frugal travelers like us and have fun squeezing dollars from a cruise, then we encourage you to develop your own tricks and tools based on your travel needs. If you’re like us, you’ll discover that there are new offerings constantly emerging to help cut the cost of cruising. It can be a full-time job trying to stay up with them, but we love saving money, so we certainly have fun trying!

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