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Cruise Planning 101: It's Not As Difficult As You Think

I'm in dire need of a vacation. I'm currently at a place in my employment where my PTO is accruing faster than I can spend it (thank you, HyVee, for my feeling-guilty-when-calling-in-sick work ethic), and I just like to dream about tropical locations and fruity cocktails brought to me by a waiter, who I'm unsure of how to tip, because I'm never sure of tipping protocol in other countries.

I'm also becoming the unofficial Cruise Gal at my job. I've had no less than five people ask me how I can go on a cruise every year, especially the super expensive DISNEY cruises. 

The answer to that is knowing where to go, when to buy, and how to save.

I went on my first cruise when I was 23. I'd just graduated college, as had my sister, and our mother had just kicked cancer's booty. We had a lot of celebrating to do, and since my mom had been laid off from one company, only to be re-hired by the company that bought her previous company, she had a hefty severance package that she wanted to use on something fun. Pretty cushy situation, if you ask me. 

It was the Carnival Fascination to Key West and Nassau for five days, with two days at sea. It was absolutely amazing. Throughout this first cruise, we kept saying how much fun we were having, how great the food, service, etc, was, and to this day, it's one of my favorite vacation memories, just because it was all new and exciting. 

In 2011, my parents arranged a family reunion-type cruise with my mom's siblings, and it was on the new Disney Dream. We went back to Nassau, and Castaway Cay, Disney's private island. Everything on the Dream was so opulent and beautiful, we felt like we were on a modern-yet old fashioned cruise liner. It has probably been my favorite cruise to date.

About a year went by, and my mom noticed that my sister, dad, and I were all moping around. She said we needed something exciting to look forward to, so she booked us a cruise on the Disney Wonder, out of Miami to Cozumel and Grand Cayman. After that day, we couldn't stop smiling for anything.

That was kind of the kicker to our cruising. Almost as soon as we got off the boat, I started planning my next cruise, and this time, I set my sights on the Disney Magic, which had just been remodeled. I'll be going in October with my sister, and our friend, Lisa. My sister and I are totally geeking out over it all. It's a Halloween Cruise, so that's gonna be exciting. 

Whew! That was a lot. Now, onto actually affording going on a cruise.
  1. SAVE SAVE SAVE! Set up a separate savings account, and have direct deposits go into that account, every paycheck. If you find yourself with extra money, put it in your savings (Shop around for higher interest rates, too). 
  2. Book through a third party cruise company. We go through, and have been very happy with them. It's not to say that regular cruise websites don't have better deals. Sometimes, the deals are the same, or better. Which leads me to my next point:
  3. Watch the websites for specials. We try to get in on No Deposit sales (you still have to pay something to hold your spot, but it's not as much). Plus, they're always having deals where you can get an board credit, depending on the length of your cruise. 
  4. One of the best things about calling in to set up your cruise is that they set you up on a payment plan. So long as it's paid off by 4 months before you leave (that's what I've been told, anyway), you should be good. 
  5. Stick with the same cruiseline for savings. This, take with a grain of salt. This will be our third Disney, but I don't think we're actually saving money. We do get to book excursions earlier, and there's a special line to skip ahead while boarding, which is great, but unless you go A LOT, you don't see the specials like some do. 
  6. Plan ahead. You can get reasonably great prices if you keep an eye on things, and book early. Sometimes you can get great rates when they're trying to fill the rest of the rooms on the ship, but I never want to take that chance. I say about a year in advance you should start looking. I've already got my next cruise on my radar (I won't be able to afford the down payment until after Disney, though).
As you can see, it's not difficult. It takes a little planning, but it's doable. If someone like me can do it (and I'm terrible with money), then anyone can. :-)

Even after your cruise is paid off, I recommend opening another savings account for spending money. Keep yourself to a cruise budget so you won't get any surprises. Your room key acts as your money while you're on the boat, and frequently charging things to your key could get you into trouble.

One thing I always like to do is to take your savings, and put into onto a Cruise Line Specific Gift Card. Take your gift cards to the Guest Services desk to place on your account. They'll use this money before charging your debit or credit card. For mother's and father's day, and my parents' anniversary, my sister and I got them Carnival Gift Cards for a little extra mad money for their trip. For our last Disney Cruise, and our current one, I'm using Disney Gift Cards. It was very helpful, and a bit off my mind. I'm paranoid I'm going to walk away from my trip thousands of dollars in the hole. When things are paid for in advance, you don't have that fear.

My final tip is this: DO NOT GO INTO DEBT FOR A VACATION. 

Sorry. That was my inner Dave Ramsey speaking. But seriously. Saving money for your trip as opposed to putting it all on credit cards, will make your trip that much more enjoyable because you won't have to face the bill later. Be mindful of your on-board spending. And don't forget to bring cash to tip for Room Service (usually, the food in room service is included, except for alcohol and cans of soda. Just check before you say yes). 


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