Wow, I had NO CLUE that so many people would want to hear about this! When I recently posted on a couponing facebook group I follow that we were able to take such a wonderful family vacation for so little, I couldn't believe how many people commented that they wanted details on how we made it happen. So here's what I learned, hopefully someone out there is able to use the info to plan their family's next dream vacation too!
First of all, one of the biggest things I can recommend is PLAN AHEAD, like way, way, way ahead! We started planning about a year and a half out, officially booked and started paying on our trip about a year out. The farther in advance you plan, the more time you have to search for great deals and save!
There are several huge benefits to cruising, in my opinion. Especially with a family. Here are a few of the reasons our family will continue to cruise for future vacations:
1. Everything (necessary) is included in your cost. Yes, your included drinks are limited (coffee, tea, lemonade, juices, and milks are free) and you have to pay extra for offshore excursions but TECHNICALLY speaking, if you are on a very tight budget, once you get on board, it is possible to not spend a single cent and still have a GREAT vacation!
2. It's a great option for a family! With all the kids activities available on board, Chris and I could have felt like it was a couples vacation if we had wanted (we didn't want to, we spent lots of time as a family doing so many great activities). You're kids will never say "I'm bored" on a cruise. And back to that "all included" point, you aren't stuck spending $20-$200 on every little outing your kids want to take while you are on vacation. From water slides to shows to mini golf, there is plenty to do! I have yet to find another vacation our family could take for 5 days that would include our place to stay, all our meals, and all our entertainment for a price even CLOSE to that of a cruise.
3. You get to see more than one place. Unlike a trip to just one all inclusive resort or hotel, you are traveling while you are vacationing. We did some excursions that helped teach our kids local history and culture while we were at our ports, and we got to see so many things we never had before.
4. You can't fly to many of these islands for what it costs to cruise there. When you consider that a cruise can cost a little as $200-$300 for up to 5 days, you'll quickly discover it's hard to fly to the Bahamas for that cost, and then you still have to come up with the hotel, meals, activities. When you are on a budget, I just don't see how you can beat taking a cruise!
Do I have you convinced to book your next cruise yet? Yes? Okay, well here's what we did to get the BEST deal for our family.
1. We cruised Carnival. I have heard AMAZING things about many different lines, and I'm sure they are all great. We cruised Carnival because; 1. we were on a tight budget and they were cheapest and 2. I had cruised them before and had a fantastic time. If you have the extra money, then of course, go Disney or Royal Caribbean or whatever floats your boat. If you need a lot for a little, with Carnival you won't be disappointed.
2. We booked 2 rooms. We could have possibly saved a few hundred dollars all cramming into one ocean view room but, lets be honest, some things just aren't worth the sacrifice. We chose to book two adjoining rooms and kept the door in between open the entire trip. Additionally, we parked our youngest child's pack and play in front of the kid's room door, so there was no way for anyone to go in or out. This route saved us quite a bit over booking a suite but still gave us two bathrooms, and a little more privacy. It also gave us a way to have our younger two nap without ALL of us having to nap (although...I did nap ;) ). I've discovered it's hard to get the two adjoining rooms online, my one complaint about Carnival is their website, but once you know what you want by searching online you can call and their excellent customer service will help you get set up with adjoining rooms.
3. Be flexible with your where and when you want to go. Our anniversary and my 30th birthday fall in the middle of hurricane season (which we didn't realize until after we booked at an amazing price...oops!). What I learned is that as long as you aren't stuck on where you end up, cruising in the fall is great! If a hurricane is a possibility, the cruise ships will reroute to different stops to keep you out of harms way. For example, we were scheduled to stop in Freeport and Nassau, Bahamas. We didn't run into any trouble but if there was a chance of bad weather, they may have taken us to Key West or Cayman Islands, or any of the other Carnival ports that were within sailing distance of Jacksonville, FL (where we cruised out of). Winter and Spring also tend to have really good rates. Also, since we didn't care where we went, we just wanted to go somewhere we had never been before, we were able to search and compare where the cheapest cruises were out of, and then search and compare where the cheapest flights were to, and combine that info to get the best overall rate.
4. Make payments. Carnival often runs "Half Price Deposits," which is what we used when we booked. We "reserved" our rooms for $50 per person, and then paid a little bit every paycheck. As a bonus, we would make payments with Carnival gift cards, which we would buy at Dillons during 4x Fuel Points weekends to rack up free gas! Even during regular weeks we earned 2x Fuel Points on the gift cards so we made sure to ALWAYS make our payments this way. Little $50 and $100 payments every two weeks added up quickly to help us finish paying off our cruise without ever having to use a credit card and rack up more debt.
5. Airfare will cost almost as much as your cruise. Be prepared for this. We have already decided the next time we cruise we are going to plan for a bigger trip but drive to port instead of fly. When it comes to buying 5 airplane tickets and then having to stress about weather and cancelled or delayed flights, sometimes it just might be the easier route. However, with this trip we did fly. We flew Delta, watched for deals for several months leading up, and booked all our tickets when we got our tax return so that, again, nothing had to go on the credit card. My biggest suggestion if you do choose to fly is to fly out at least a day early. If your flight gets cancelled or so delayed you'll miss the boat, you can hop in a car and book it so you don't miss your ship! If you miss your ship all that work and planning and saving will before nothing. That being said, our flight got cancelled and Delta took excellent care of us! It wasn't an ideal situation but we made it in the nick of time (thanks to having that extra day built in) and that's all that matters.
If you've read all that and want to see how our trip broke down to about $3000, here are the details:
Carnival Cruise: We paid right around $260 per person for our 5 day cruise out of Jacksonville to the Bahamas in October 2015. This was for 2 ocean view rooms. I just did a quick search and there some very similar prices available if this was a route you would want to go. Again, you'll have to be flexible with your dates. Our total cruise cost, including taxes and fees (but not including gratuities, which we did prepay a few weeks ahead of the trip) was around $1,680. Again, this includes all the meals and plenty of on board activities. We did spend some extra on excursions and a fun "Cat in the Hat" breakfast, but that was optional.
Flights: We were able to book with Delta for $313 per person including taxes. We only had to buy four tickets since our youngest was still under 2 so our total for that came to $1,252.
Overnight hotel in Jacksonville: This was originally in our budget so I'm including it here, but Delta actually covered our hotel in Atlanta as part of the whole cancelled flight fiasco. We booked at an airport hotel with an airport shuttle for about $130 per night. I can't comment on the hotel because we never actually stayed there but it looked very nice.
Taxi to the ship: Here's a big piece of advice- if more than two are travelling in your party, DO NOT BOOK AIRPORT TRANSFERS THROUGH CARNIVAL! They charge something like $20- $40 per person EACH WAY! We booked through a local company for less than half the cost of the Carnival transfers and had someone waiting for us the minute we stepped of the plane and again as soon as we stepped off the boat. (I think we paid $45 total each way for our transfers).
I hope that gets you all started on booking your next big trip. If you have any questions, I'll do my best to answer!