If you are anything like us: Love journeys with lots of things to do and see and you are also on a tighter family budget, then a last-minute cruise can be an amazing experience for your family.
We’ve just returned from a Middle East 8 day/ 7 night cruise which cost less than $26/ £21 / € 24 per person per night* on the MSC Bellissima, a ship in its first season in the fleet one of the most family-friendly cruise companies. Not bad!
* this does not include the gratuities, which are added to your on-board bill, but are optional ..but I’ll get to that later. Nor flights.
To snag a family cruise deal, firstly you have to have some flexibility. The more flexible you are on timings, cruise line, itinerary the better deals you can get. Choosing a family-friendly cruise liner’s – Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Disney, Carnival and MSC- newer and bigger ships will give you the best family-options. Finding an itinerary with easy to get to embarkation and disembarkation will also help reduce the cost.
Note that you may have to call for booking with kids, depending on your family size, especially if you don’t conform to the 2 adults + 2 kids family” standard. Something I’ve come across again and again when I tried to find deals for us as a family of 2 + 3.
How exactly did we book our steal of a deal last minute family cruise?
It all started with setting out my general criteria: It was Wednesday evening and we were sitting with a glass of wine we my husband, kids in bed. We had school holidays starting the Monday and had loose plans of going skiing.
We talked about wishing for better weather- either colder with lots of snow and frozen over lakes or warm sunny climate to escape to.
1) Decide to go on a cruise
Knowing that the more flexibility we had the better deals we could likely get: I googled last minute cruises and came up with some great options from Expedia.
2) What is your flexibility?
Are you flexible on…
- Timings– when you want to leave and return?
- Length of cruise?
There are cruises from a weekend to 28 day grand voyages. 7 or 14 night cruises, however, are the ones likely to be circular and bring you back to your departure point.
- Destination– embarkation and disembarkation points?
Where can you get to easily to catch your ship?
- Climate and experiences during the cruise?
Do you want to experience culture (then head to Europe or the Middle East) or nature (Alaska, Norway and Antarctica will be your best bet)?
- Cruise company– if you’ve cruised before and are collecting loyalty benefits or have bad expereinces?
- Booking engine– you may have loyalty benefits with some?
3) Filter based on your criteria
For most families, perhaps the most pressing question is: Can the children miss some school days? I knew I had some flexibility with regards to taking the kids out of school a couple of days on either end of the holidays: so I set a cruise timing between 5 to 7 nights and the dates as leaving between the Friday and the Monday.
I filtered the search queries for the family-friendly cruise based on my research. (Cruise critic provides a really good overview of what to look for and what ships to look for in this article)
My family-friendly cruise line choices were:
- Royal Caribbean Cruise Line
- Norwegian Cruise Line
- Disney Cruise Line
- Carnival Cruise Line
- MSC Cruises
- Costa Cruises
4) Narrow down your selection
I found a couple of very good options with up to 75% off the original price. Two-three of the options we’re leaving on Saturday which I thought we could reasonably make.
Once I identified once I found the cruise itineraries that we thought were good and had interesting stops that we would enjoy I checked the passport validity and the visa requirements for each of the destinations on the itinerary.
5) How are you getting to the port- fly, drive, take a train?
All the cruise opitons we found needed flights. You may be lucky and be able to the ship by driving or train distance away.
I hopped onto Skyscanner to find flights.
TIP: Skyscanner has different local versions: the generic skyscanner.net sites will give you good options but sometimes you load your regional or destination’s Skyscanner site will give you some very cool routing options- with great stopovers in cities you may want to explore. (You will want a VPN to make use of this option.)
With the flights, again, we had some flexibility and willing to compromise: instead of leaving the Friday evening, I was quite confident that we could get ourselves sorted for Friday morning. Just 36 hours away!
I found a couple of flights, most of them with stopovers, which add to the risk of delay. Non-stop flights were more expensive, but worth the premium, in my view, for less worry.
I also checked directly on the airlines’ websites. (In this case, they didn’t come up with anything better than Skyscanner)
The cost and timings of the flights discounted all but one cruise- a cruise in the Middle East with on MSC Bellissima.
At this point I started the booking process of the cruise and got to the point of payment. I stopped there to ensure that we would have flights that corresponded to the cruise before booking it. (In fact, it was past midnight and we weren’t felt too tired and I was mistyping too many things. We decided to sleep on it and carry on with the booking process the following morning, the Thursday morning.)
6) Double-check your paperwork- passports, visas
First thing in the morning I double-checked visa requirements for our destination and the validity of our passports.
Things to keep in mind: Very often countries require a passport to be valid for 3-6 months after entry to the country.
Visa requirements may vary if you are on a cruise ship, as cruise ships often have a maritime arrangement of shore passes.
Emma on Cruising isn’t just for Old People has an excellent article on whether you need a passport for your cruise, which I highly recommend
“It is SO important that you do your research and find out ahead of your cruise if any visas are required. For the majority of cruises applying for Visa’s isn’t necessary but if visiting Asian countries, the US or Russia there are Visas you need to apply for ahead of time. The cruise line should let you know if you need any visas but it’s important not to reply on the cruise line as your only source of information.
On some cruises where multiple countries are visited the cruise line may keep your passport and provide the forms that you need to fill out to visit each post. These types of visas are usually just ‘day passes’ which allow guests to go on excursions.”Emma, from YouTube Channel Emma Cruises, which has lots of great reviews and hints and tips about cruising
7) Which do you book first- the cruise or the flights?
Book your flights and then booked the cruise.
Because you are booking everything so last minute and availability might disappear in a matter of minutes you want to ensure that the destination you fly to is the first that you book: the flight leaves from where you are, but the cruise ship leaves from its port, far away. There’s no way of you getting on the cruise ship, if you don’t have the means to get to it.
If, while booking your flight, the cruise deal is snapped up you still have options of enjoying a holiday at the flight destination- usually a cool city in itself.
Also some flight booking engines will allow you the grace of an hour or two to get in touch with them and cancel the booking.
TIP: We ran the bookings parallel and filled in all the details on each site at the same time. We got to the payment page and pressed pay on the flight first and then switched to the cruise booking to press pay there, once I got the confirmation email from the flight purchase.
We ended up booking 2 days extra in Dubai, because the flights were cheaper and it allowed us more time to explore both the ship and the city after the cruise. When you do book extra nights, don’t forget to budget for the additional the hotel and transfer costs, when comparing flight prices.
8) Cabin and dining choices
Even with a last minute deal you could have cabin choices and you will most likely have a choice of dining times and additional packages.
Choosing a family cabin
Getting a great cabin can make your cruise even better:
- A cabin with a balcony is absolutely worth the premium!
You get to enjoy sleeping with the balcony door open and listening to lapping waves and get to see the ship arrive or leave port in your bathrobe.
- Cabins below the 10th story and towards the middle of the ship are going to be the most stable, if you do encounter rough seas.
- Port-side cabins, as the name suggests, are on the side that the ship docks. This is often the more busy, bustling and noisy side of the ship when you are at dock. (If you want quiet then go for a starboard cabin.) Port-side is also where you will be able to nab free WiFi easier when you are at port. 😉
Best dining options for families
Cruise ships, now-a-days, have near unlimited food options. If you want to indulge in some fine dining, which I highly recommend even with kids, then you will likely have the option of an early and a late sitting. These tend to be scheduled around the showtimes for the evening the shows.
If you are travelling east with the kids, choose late seating, which will give you more flexibility. If you are travelling west with the kids it’s better to choose the early sitting to account for jet lag.
If you have a choice of flexi dining that is absolutely worth taking for a little bit of premium. Flexi dining it will save you so much stress about getting to the dining room on time!
… That is if you want to take advantage of the formal dining, as most cruise ships have a buffet dining set up with a lot more flexibility.
9) Extras, like a drinks package
The most obvious choice you will, likely, be offered is a drinks package. While near unlimited food is available, drinks are a different thing. A drinks package will take away budgetary concerns and give you access to unlimited alcoholic or non-alcoholic drinks.
Just note that not all drinks packages are created equal: some only give you certain alcoholic drinks.
For us, when we were booking, each drinks package was priced at the cost of the trip itself! So definitely not worth it!
Think through just how much the unlimited drinks package is really worth it for you, before you jump into this purchase. But also keep in mind that drinks packages will often include things like the soft ice cream and coffees in a speciality coffee shop on board- check with the ship and the cruise line for more specifics.
Another thing to keep in mind is that bottled water will often also be charged for, especially in the dining room.
Our basic cruise package, this time, came with unlimited water in the dining room, which we found was enough and we would buy the odd cocktail or other drinks that we wanted.
Drinks packages are also often available on board on your first day of embarkation. So don’t feel pressured into making the decision, especially if you are on a budget.
The cheapest drinks package for a child on our MSC cruise, offering unlimited soft drinks was €14.99 a day. For that we could get three soft drinks and a two scoop ice cream in a chocolate cone each day per person, which we actually didn’t, because we were on the shore most days.
Are gratuities / service charges included?
Service charges are one of those hidden charges of cruising.
Hidden only in that they are not obvious to the new cruisers, like us, but actually, usually, well-stated during the booking process.
However, whether they are included or not in the initial price, makes comparison of the deals more complicated.
For example on MSC, if you book through the US site, which we ended up doing, the service charge is not included. However, booking through the UK site gratuities are included. Cruising isn’t just for old people provides more detailed information on nuances of service charges on MSC.
All booked … now what?
Then we started to “panic”: we had to pack, get everything in order to leave (apartment, school, jobs) and had to find a dogsitter. (Originally, we were heading off for a shorter time and the dog was travelling with us.)
Cruising is all about making the most of the ship’s facilities and ports the ship calls at. When you book last minute you have very little time to look these up. This is what worked for us:
– Researching the ship
Firstly, I went to the cruise line’s website looked at the deck plans and features of the ship. I also dipped into some cruise sites and blogs which have user reviews.
Next, I downloaded the cruising app for the cruise liner, which was the MSC for Me app. This was incredibly useful and frustrating at the same time. It did, however, give me a good overview of the deck plan and facilities.
– Planning shore excursions on a budget
When you have very little time in to plan your shore activities you are often left with the option of booking the cruise line’s own shore trips. These come at a premium, because of the hassle-free convenience they offer. This may be worth it!
For a family, however, the premium costs quickly add up.
My first job, after booking the cruise, was to hop onto Amazon and purchase the Lonely Planet book for the region for our kindle phone apps.
We used be Lonely Planet travellers, pre-internet, when we took our guidebook and went without much prep on our holiday adventures. This trip was a wonderful reminder of those times, as I chilled in our cabin or on our balcony the night before the next stop to plan the following day’s highlights and must-sees.
Second, I popped into my favourite Facebook Group: Our Tribe Travels and asked advice about the ports we were calling at. This lovely community gave me plenty of things to consider. (This is a closed group, but for adventurous travelling families, I can highly recommending asking to be members.)
Next job: Packing for a week long cruise for a family of five with less than 24 hours left!
Highlights of why, I think, we could find such good deals last minutes during school holidays
- We were searching in February which is not a general peak season
- We had flexibility of embarkation and disembarkation points- we considered Europe, Middle East and the Caribbean
- As EU citizens we have relative flexibility in terms of travel and visa requirements
- We had flexibility in times of departure dates and cruise length
- We were flexible and open-minded about the cruise line, but did filter on family-friendly cruise lines
- We were able to make last-minute arrangement and adjustments with regards to school, dog care, vacation time
- The kids are very good at adapting to new situations quickly so they weren’t thrown by getting a text message to say we are leaving tomorrow
- Over the years we’ve become very good at packing minimum the minimal amount of clothes shoes and other things that we need for a trip. this makes I can even for a cruise a lot easier.